America Online Inc.—the world’s leading internet services company, with more than 22 million members worldwide—has introduced a free service for schools.

Company officials say the service, called AOL@School, is designed solely to make it easier for students and teachers to use the internet in the classroom. But skeptics say the move is intended to help build brand loyalty and create a generation of future AOL customers.

AOL@School, launched May 17, features separate portals for teachers and administrators, as well as for elementary, middle, and high school students, to help users reach the best educational, age-appropriate web sites and tools.

Students will see no ads other than the AOL logo, company officials said. They will not be able to purchase goods online, and they will be blocked from accessing pornography or other offensive material. With the approval of school officials, students will be able to send eMail and instant messages to encourage group online activities or to establish pen pals in faraway schools.

“We don’t think of this as a business opportunity,” chief executive Steve Case said. The only revenue from AOL@School, which will not cover the cost of providing the service, will be from ads and eCommerce opportunities targeted at teachers and administrators in separate areas inaccessible to students, Case said.

Skeptics said AOL’s initiative sounds good, but it also raises concerns.

“We’re a little suspicious, especially because when something sounds too good with business-school partnerships, it usually is,” said Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, based in Oakland, Calif.

The service might restrict advertising and eCommerce now, but AOL is free to add those features later, Hagelshaw cautioned.

“I would tell school boards: Before you sign up for this, make sure to approve a commercialism policy that lays out what activities are acceptable,” he said.

Alex Molnar, head of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said AOL@School sounds like an improvement over ventures such as Channel One, which provides free television service to schools by featuring ads targeted at youths, and ZapMe!, which does the same with computers and internet service.

“The fact they have made a decision to keep it clear of ads is good,” he said. “But we’ll have to keep our eyes on this.”

Case declined to give the cost of building and providing the service without charge and stressed that it is a contribution to the nation’s schools. He also said no marketing information would be gathered on students, because they use only their first names and passwords to access the service.

But Hagelshaw is skeptical. Although the company will not collect names and ages, AOL still could compile and sell accurate data about what kids of various ages look for online, since the service is divided into different search engines for different age ranges.

“My first reaction was that this might be done for marketing purposes,” Hagelshaw said.

Though 95 percent of schools are connected to the internet, most educators say they are looking for better ways to use the internet to its full potential in the classroom, Case said, explaining the need for a service like AOL@School.

AOL, based in Dulles, Va., worked with several education groups representing school boards, administrators, and teachers to identify the web sites it would offer students.

Among the sites featured are the Library of Congress; Ask Dr. Universe, a site run by Washington State University that supplies answers to students’ scientific questions; and webmath.com, which gives step-by-step solutions to math problems, from decimals to word problems.

In addition, the service includes partnerships with such content providers as HighWired.com, Homework help.com, Scholastic Inc., Pearson PLC, and Harcourt General. The student portals also include a suite of online encyclopedias, dictionaries, a calculator, and other research and collaborative tools.

Teacher-related features include tools for creating classroom web pages from FamilyEducation Network, secure access to grades online provided by ThinkWave.com, and virtual learning environments from Blackboard Inc.

Schools will need to supply their own internet connections to take advantage of the free service, AOL said.

Several education organizations helped develop the content of AOL@School, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and National School Boards Association.

Gerald Tirozzi, NASSP’s executive director, said he supports AOL’s initiative, because it gives teachers a valuable resource for using the internet in their classrooms.

“Across the country, schools have struggled with the question of how to make the most of their internet connections,” Tirozzi said. “By providing reliable, safe educational content in an easy-to-use format, AOL@School provides tremendous help in answering that question.”

The company is operating this project through its corporation rather than its nonprofit foundation, meaning it will be responsible to its shareholders for the service.

“AOL is very smart. They are thinking long-range with this project,” Hagelshaw said. “Even if they don’t have the whole idea formulated, they realize it’s important to grab their share of the [school] marketplace now.”

The program was launched to give schools time to install the software and have it operating for fall classes. Educators can preview and order the free software on the AOL@School web site.

AOL@School

http://www.school.aol.com

Center for Commercial-Free Public Education

http://www.commercialfree.org

National Association of Secondary School Principals

http://www.nassp.org