America Online (AOL) will offer its lowest pricing plan ever to educators through its new “AOL At School” program. Beginning some time this summer, a company spokeswoman told eSchool News, educators can have access seven days a week for a flat $9.95 a month.

That’s less than half of America Online’s $21.95 flat rate unlimited access fee for the full-featured account: As with the standard membership, educators get five user names (or “sub-accounts), space on AOL’s server for web page hosting, eMail and internet access, and use of parental controls.

The catch? You can use the service only during “school hours”Ð6 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Any K-12 teacher or school administrator is eligible for the special pricing, which is designed to work with the federal eRate funding program to get schools connected to the internet. AOL says it has been pre-approved as a qualified vendor by the Schools and Libraries Corporation (SLC), the body that administers the eRate program.

“It’s a bit of an experiment for us,” said Katherine Borsecnik, AOL’s vice president of network programming. “It’ll be interesting to see how many schools will take advantage of this.” The company isn’t yet saying how much they expect to make from the offer. But with 11 million members, Borsecnik said, the company doesn’t anticipate a change in its core customer base.

‘I can do this’

Bonnie Bracey, classroom teacher and director of education networks for The McGuffey Project, thinks the new price point will attract teachers. She first used AOL when the National Education Association helped give individual educators deals on using the service. She says of AOL: “Love it.”

“The ease of installation, the lack of intricate set-up, and the user friendly interface make even the most technophobic teacher feel, ‘I can do this,'” Bracey said. “And they do.”

In fact, ease of use is a primary reason the service is popular with teachers, she said. “I have other accounts, [but] AOL is specially designed for educators. Getting connected to the Super Information highway should not be a chore.”

“People forget that most teachers spend a lot of money for technology out of pocket if they are in a situation where the school has not been able to provide for them,” Bracey said. “Who would turn down such a great price? Not smart educators I know.”

Kate Delhagen, senior analyst for Forrester Research, agreed that AOL will be an attractive service for teachers. The service gives users access to such educational content as reference materials, newspapers, and kid-oriented features such as the buddy list.

Schools also will benefit from the company’s history of making the internet a safe experience for children, said Delhagen “It’s relatively safe, as compared to unfettered internet access,” she added, pointing to the service’s “easy-to-use” parental control features.

“AOL At School” will be tailored to the needs of teachers, Borsecnik said. The welcome screen for new school members will show a navigational window that points to areas AOL thinks will be of interest to the school marketplace, including “Research & Learn” and “Safety Tips Online.”

Users will receive AOL’s 24-hour customer support serviceÐa particular boon for schools, said Borsecnik. She said AOL is putting new emphasis on support, training 5,000 customer service representatives to deal with a wide variety of experience levels.

Support is important, because content providers such as AOL attract users who are new to technology. Customer service reps must be able to help them install software, upgrade to new versions, even use a mouseÐskills most internet surfers take for granted.

In schools, Borsecnik said, troubleshooting can be especially difficult. Systems and hardware are shared and levels of experience run the full gamut. The teacher setting up the online account, for example, might not even have the printed materials that accompany the software. Borsecnik said that AOL’s representatives are sensitive to the range of knowledge and experience its users might (or might not) have.

Bracey points out that teachers receive the least technology support of any computer-using professional. Oftentimes teachers don’t even have phones in their rooms. AOL, Bracey said, reduces a teacher’s need for training and support.

Although AOL is popular with teachers, most commercial content providers are impractical for schools trying to serve hundreds or thousands of students. It doesn’t, for example, license accounts to multiple users. An account allows for five user names, but only one of those users can be online at any one time. This doesn’t work for a classroom of students who are all working online.

“It’s hard to anticipate how schools might use it,” said Borsecnik. Schools will probably buy accounts for students to share in a lab, library, or classroom, Borsecnik said, with additional, private accounts for administrators, library staff, and technology coordinators.

Competition in the marketplace

The price cut might seem like a strange move for a company that just bucked industry standards by raising its flat access rate two dollars, to $21.95. But Delhagen said the strategy makes good business sense for AOL.

“[AOL has] a lot of unused capacity during the daytime,” Delhagen said. “It’s sort of ‘found’ money.” The strategy also will introduce teachers and studentsÐfuture consumersÐto the service and, AOL hopes, hook them in. “It’s a great lead-in to sell a consumer account for $21.95 at night,” Delhagen said.

More competitors will follow suit as eRate and other funds build up the necessary infrastructure to make marketing to a school audience worthwhile to internet service providers, said Delhagen. “It’s the classic ‘chicken-and-the-egg’ phenomenon.” With more and more classrooms being wired for the internet, said Delhagen, “AOL has said, ‘Hm, it’s time,’ and I suspect others will follow.”

At press time, however, none of the other commercial providers contacted was offering special pricing for K-12.

Many internet service providersÐincluding MCI, IBM, and AT&T WorldnetÐoffer special discounts to college students and universities but not to K-12 schools, according to representatives of those companies. MCI’s Diane Strahan, executive director of the MCI foundation and community relations, said the company focuses its K-12 efforts on non-commercial initiatives.

America Online
http://aol.com

Forrester Research
http://www.forrester.com/index.htm

MCI
http://www.mci.com

IBM Internet Services
http://www.ibm.net

Sprint Internet Services
http://www.sprint.net

AT&T Worldnet
http://www.att.net