In yet another nod to the growing importance of education, America Online (AOL) has invested $14 million in FamilyEducation Co., the owner of the FamilyEducation Network, which hosts free web sites for schools. As the newest “anchor tenant” in AOL’s education channel, the FamilyEducation Network (FEN)–and the school sites it hosts–will be regularly offered up to the eyeballs of 12 million AOL members.

That’s the largest online community in the world. AOL members make up nearly half of all the people online, and its membership grows by about a million every three or four months, said Jon Carson, the president and co-founder of FEN.

With a spate of recent efforts in the K-12 market, AOL seems to be getting into the K-12 game–unfamiliar territory for the consumer industry giant. AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case, in announcing the FEN partnership, said, “It’s time to shift the education focus in this country from wiring schools by connecting computers to engaging parents by building home-to-school communities.”

FEN provides free web sites to any public or private K-12 school in the United States. Pre-designed templates allow schools who want it access to FEN’s online services and tools. Customized web pages give parents and other community members information such as the school calendar, classroom assignments, and lunch menus. It also gives schools a way to share FEN’s extensive content with parents.

FEN’s content will still be available to the public via the world wide web.

But it will also be available to AOL users through the provider’s education channel. A “channel” is a series of clickable buttons that AOL uses to organize its content.

Carson said access to AOL’s parent population will be a boon for school superintendents and technology staff. “The thing they struggle with is getting an audience to the web site,” he said. “In every community, between 40 and 50 percent of parents are on AOL.”

Emmett Lippe, superintendent of the 5,400-student Novi (Mich.) Community School District near Detroit, agreed that the AOL channel will drive more traffic to his schools’ web sites on FEN. Novi found FEN last year when the schools went looking for ways to improve communications with parents over the internet, Lippe said.

Parents might not know about Novi’s web sites or might forget to check the web site as often as they should, Lippe said. He expects FEN’s presence on the AOL education channel will help remind them. “It’ll be a big help,” he said.

More traffic to school web sites

FEN will be the only anchor tenant in the extended school community space on AOL. Anchor tenants are web sites that through agreements with AOL lend their content to an AOL channel. Click on the “Families” channel, for instance, and a new window will open that shows the front page from the Parent Soup web site. You can click through the various articles and links that Parent Soup has to offer, but you’re not really visiting their web site on the internet.

But the anchor tenancy piece of the deal, said Trisha Primrose, a spokeswoman for AOL, is only one part of the strategic partnership.

Parents and others will be able to find information about schools that are already a part of FEN with a simple keyword search on AOL. In addition, AOL’s “Instant Messenger” service–where logged-on users can send each other short eMail messages–will allow parents and teachers to have private “real time” communication. In return, FEN will provide its educational resources to AOL members through the service.

Primrose said the partnership will help improve the way teachers and parents communicate. “Time is the biggest hurdle both teachers and parents face each and every day. What the AOL/FEN partnership will do is help parents and teachers in a much more convenient and time-saving way do everything from staying in touch on a student’s progress to finding out the latest information about a field trip–all online.”

The investment gives AOL a 20 percent stake in the privately held company, also a publisher of magazines and newsletters for parents. According to Carson, companies chosen as AOL anchor tenants see their stock value skyrocket. Other anchor tenants include such powerhouse sites as CBS Sportsline, E! Online, and the New York Times.

Building Communities

The Novi district maintains a presence on FEN in addition to its own web site, Lippe said, because parents and board members like the resources the network can provide. Being associated with FEN and AOL will give community parents the kinds of information and up-to-date content his staff could never provide on the Novi web site, Lippe said.

“There wasn’t any comprehensive plan to have a web page with a lot of additional info,” Lippe said. “We don’t have the capability of putting that kind of information on our web page.”

Carson calls this “school web site problem.”

School web sites are only as useful as their content, Carson said. “To do a really good web site is mega expensive. You can’t just upload some brochures and then you’re done.”

But many schools don’t have the resources to create and maintain effective web sites. To that end, Carson said, the development of school web sites lends itself to a network model.

“Our idea is build one web site and let many people collaborate on it,” Carson said. FEN’s goal has been to build a community of online parents to share scarce resources, Carson said, and in the business of building communities, “AOL is the eight-hundred pound gorilla.”

Although FEN’s services are free, not all schools are rushing to get signed up. The updating required for a small school district like Novi, with seven schools, might not add much burden for the staff. But for a larger school district trying to maintain its own web sites in addition to the FEN sites, said Pete Schafer, internet specialist with Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools, it’s not always worth the effort.

“It’s difficult to manage,” Schafer said. “It’s another 200 web sites to manage.” Schafer’s goals for the school web site are also much different. “For me the perfect model is for students to develop web sites and teachers to help with that,” Schafer said. At FEN, “I feel the major focus is parents.”

AOL overtures to K-12

The acquisition of FEN for its education channel is another overture AOL seems to be making toward K-12 schools.

Commercial services such as AOL, which provides only five screen names for more than $20 a month, aren’t really appropriate for large districts with many hundreds or thousands of potential users. But AOL has always been popular with teachers, who seem to favor the user-friendly visual interface and interactivity features.

AOL is focusing many of its resources on the K-12 market. In addition to building up its educational content area, the company also recently began offering educators daytime access for $9.95 a month. AOL makes contributions to schools through the AOL Foundation, and promotes its partnerships with America’s Promise, Read to Succeed, and other child-focused organizations

Said Primrose: “AOL believes that the interactive online medium can be a catalyst for positive social change. We are focused on pioneering the development of strategies and programs that leverage the power of this emerging global medium to improve the lives of families and children, and empowering the disadvantaged.”

FamilyEducation Network

America Online

Novi Community School District