In the pantheon of education foundations, Schools Online might not have the most glorified pedigree nor the largest endowment—but in just a few years, the organization has done more than its share to narrow the digital divide.

Since its inception in 1996, Schools Online has helped more than 5,400 schools in the United States either connect to the internet for the first time or upgrade their ability to bring the internet directly to classrooms. By focusing its resources on the most underserved schools, Schools Online has, in the words of its program director, Keith Yocam, “planted the seed where it’s most needed.”

The seeding approach has been hugely successful: Schools Online has found that within a few months of receiving equipment, more than a quarter of its grant recipients announced plans to invest further in technology.

Now that almost every U.S. school is at least minimally wired, Schools Online is shifting its mission to foster collaborative work between schools, teacher professional development, and first-time access for schools in the developing world.

Schools Online solicits funds from wealthy individuals and directs that money to schools most in need of support. Schools Online acts as the gatekeeper for wealthy donors’ funds—assessing which schools are most in need and determining which equipment will do the most good. For $1,500, a donor can “Adopt a School,” which supplies basic internet equipment to one school. For $5,000, a donor is “Linking Learners,” thus providing classroom tools for online collaboration with other schools. High-rollers can “Empower Educators” by paying for training with grants of $10,000, or “Connect Communities” for $25,000.

A basic internet kit is a Pentium-class computer, a 27-inch TV, and an Inkjet printer. The school is responsible for the internet hookup, although Schools Online provides a professional development workshop for teachers at the school.

Schools Online has been very successful in its fundraising, obtaining $7 million in the last year alone. “We’ve been lucky, and a lot of credit goes to our founder, Kamran Elahian, who’s truly a serial entrepreneur,” said Rolando Zeledon, business development manager for Schools Online. “We’re in San Jose, which is the heart of Silicon Valley. There are many wealthy entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who’ve decided to give back to the education community.”

State and regional education associations help Schools Online pinpoint recipients, and the organization considers those agencies as its critical partners. School administrators interested in participating in the organization’s programs should contact their state associations, said Yocam.

State agencies also will be among the first to find out how Schools Online will change its programs for the 2000-2001 school year to reflect the fact that its initial U.S. mission is nearly complete. “This year, we made equipment grants to 277 schools in the United States, but, frankly, we had a tough time finding schools that met our criteria of very low or no connectivity,” said Zeledon. “We probably won’t be making equipment grants in the U.S. for the next school year.”

Instead, the organization now is striving to help educators maximize the educational value of the connectivity they enjoy. “We understand that just having one or two access points in a school is not the same thing as widespread access or effective use of computers,” said Yocam. “It doesn’t do much good if teachers are not trained in using the web, or if their students just use computers to play games.”

A pilot program with the Stevens Institute of Technology shows the direction Schools Online may take in the future. This program attacks one of the primary reasons that many teacher technology training fails: Educators taking professional development courses do not have equipment in their schools that is the same or equivalent to the equipment in the training. Thus, they can’t easily implement what they’ve learned.

Schools Online is making sure that 100 teachers in the Stevens Institute program get the same equipment at their own schools that they use in the training. “The institute has designed a study to track how these teachers take advantage of their access to the equipment,” said Yocam.

Another way that Schools Online is shifting its focus to professional development is by creating some elementary instructional materials for educators who are encountering the web for the first time—whether through a Schools Online grant or through some other source. “We have a quick-start guide that can be attached to a computer screen that gives a newcomer some simple information, like what a search engine is,” said Yocam. “It keeps people from getting the feeling that they’re lost on the web.”

The organization also has created a questionnaire to help educators determine what types of technology professional development they need. “Our goal with the questionnaire and training is to assist them in becoming collaborative online,” said Yocam.

Schools Online is supporting collaborative activities this year by giving all of its computer grant recipients a digital camera and scanner after they have demonstrated initial use of the computer and internet. “This second tier of grant comes after a teacher describes how he or she will use the equipment for a collaborative project online,” said Yocam. “We feel scanners and cameras are very important to this effort, especially internationally, where a language barrier often exists.”

International programs is perhaps the most exciting new frontier for Schools Online. Now in place in eight countries in the developing world, as well as Japan and Israel, the organization is taking its “plant a seed” approach around the world, said Zeledon.

In developing countries, Schools Online has joined with World Links for Development (WorLD) and the World Bank’s International Education and Resource Network (I*EARN) to offer a three-step support program to the web-connected world. Together, the partners have dubbed their projects the “Alliance for Global Learning.”

“We are responsible for the first part of the puzzle—access,” Zeledon said. “WorLD supports teachers with professional development to use the resources, and the I*EARN program helps keep the countries going with its network of more than 50,000 teachers in about 80 countries who are connected through the program.”

Schools Online also is considering how it can encourage its previous U.S. grant recipients to collaborate with its developing world grantees. “We may give U.S. teachers in underserved school districts membership to I*EARN so that they can engage in collaborative projects with teachers in the developing world,” said Yocam. A small number of Phoenix-area grantees are engaged in this type of program with their counterparts in Mexico under a program called “Hands Across the Border.”

“We want to encourage U.S. schools to collaborate with our schools around the world,” said Yocam, adding that he is interested in hearing from educators and administrators about their collaborative projects. n