Education has come a long way since the one-classroom schoolhouse. Nowadays, the term “education” refers to the learning activities that go on in every aspect of our lives—in the home, the school, and the workplace. Much has been achieved in the past few decades to bring information technology (IT) to bear on improving the effectiveness and reach of educational programs.

Nothing, however, equates to the powerful surge in capability brought to bear by the internet.

Internet technology enables access to information on every subject, from all over the world. It allows us to access that information at any time from just about anywhere, using almost any kind of computer or computing device—new or old.

The fact that the internet infrastructure is already in place makes possible the adoption of a simple but powerful concept: paying for the use of computer applications on a rental basis. In the same way that we pay for electricity each month—based on what we use—institutions can pay for access and to use budgeting packages or student enrollment systems, among other applications.

Just as we do not need to have a private power-station to generate electricity, neither do we need to install a large, complicated computer to enable our administrative staff, teachers, and students to have access to even the largest and most sophisticated applications.

Only 3 percent of the primary and secondary school districts in the United States are large operations with more than a million students and adequate IT infrastructures in-house. More than 80 percent of school districts in this country have fewer than 5,000 students and minimal financial resources, personnel, time, and expertise to create and maintain a cohesive IT infrastructure.

Until now, there has not been a cost-effective solution to serve the IT needs of small and mid-sized educational institutions and school systems. But, a new computing model is rapidly emerging: the education portal. It optimizes the use of the internet to cost-effectively and securely deliver curriculum, administrative content, digital libraries, and communications tools to K-12 institutions worldwide.

A portal is an aggregator of content and applications needed by a user. MyYahoo! and Netcenter are examples of consumer portals. With one, an individual can access personalized information, such as sports scores or business news. The portal grabs information from the internet that is pertinent for that person and brings it to his or her desktop. It also can bring eMail and calendars, among other applications, to the desktop.

The education portal works in a similar way. Students, parents, faculty, administrators, staff, suppliers, alumni, and others would have immediate access to a range of integrated functions, including student administration, human resources, finance, facilities, distance learning, library services, and curriculum management. In addition, the portal would provide the communication infrastructure for eMail, calendar maintenance, and other personal organizing tools, based on user preferences.

Different access levels would be available for each of the portal’s users. For example, a parent can log onto the portal to help a child do research for an assignment by accessing an online encyclopedia. Parents might also check the week’s homework assignments, read a teacher’s evaluation of their child, or check the event calendar for the date of the next parent/teacher meeting. However, they would not have access to any other functions beyond those that directly affect or are related to their child.

The education portal allows institutions to outsource or subscribe to a variety of applications that can be accessed through a simple web browser located on a desktop or thin-client system. Thin-client systems allow network delivery of services and applications to institutions worldwide without requiring extensive internal information technology (IT) resources.

The greatest advantage of the network computing model and the education portal concept is its applicability to the small and mid-level institutions and districts. These are the institutions and districts that have difficulty keeping up with rapid IT changes, because their funding and resources are limited.

The educational portal lets users access selected and customized services and applications without worrying about constant upgrades and maintenance. This computing model resembles the structure of today’s utilities, such as telephone service, where service is available through a handset, but the infrastructure is housed and maintained at a central location.

Education portals leverage the power and flexibility of the internet to cost-effectively and securely deliver enterprise applications to K-12 institutions. The use of education portals is the direction that educational computing is headed as the new millennium dawns.