The nation’s largest school district is expected to OK plans this week to create a money-making internet portal—complete with educational content and eCommerce capabilities—so it can raise funds to buy more technology for its schools.

“If we sit around and try to get government money, it’s not going to happen fast enough,” said Ninfa Segarra, chair of the New York City Board of Education’s technology committee.

The board wants to provide students with the top technological tools of the new economy—and it wants every student in the city to have equal access to them.

“Kids need to be exposed to technology,” Segarra said. “We have one million kids in New York City, and that’s part of the problem.”

According to a feasibility study of the plan conducted by Andersen Consulting, “the creation of such a portal by the board is indeed doable and would generate cumulative revenue ranging from $120 million to $11.5 billion.”

The study also said the board’s portal would rank among the top 100 portals in terms of users—and it has the potential to become one of the top 10 portals in the world.

Since the city’s schools were lacking an equitable technology plan, the board formed the Teaching and Learning Cyberspace Task Force to come up with one. The task force developed a number of recommendations, one of which was for the board to partner with a company to create a revenue-generating portal complete with internet service.

Andersen Consulting, a member of the task force, agreed to do a feasibility study of the idea at no cost to the district.

Funding and content

“Great ideas aren’t practical to do if you can’t afford to finance them,” Segarra said. “The idea is that the costs [of the portal] are absorbed by the instrument itself.”

Already, the board has sent out a request for proposals to see if anyone in the private sector would be interested in funding the creation of the portal at an estimated $900 million.

Interested parties must be willing to put down the money up front and profit from the site down the road, Segarra said. It’s a good financial opportunity for a company to develop a portal system that works and then expand it to other school districts across the country, she said.

“We’re not talking about investing our dollars to up-front this,” Segarra said. “Andersen Consulting thinks there are companies out there that are willing to do this.”

The portal would offer academic content, communication services (such as eMail), and many eCommerce opportunities. It will have a search engine, mailing lists, a bulletin board, and other information services.

It’ll be a one-stop-shop for accessing the board’s web pages, Segarra said. Educators will be able to buy educational materials through the site.

Different web pages will be tailored to various groups of people, such as students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Some areas will have restricted access, so users will need a login and password.

Overall, the portal would target students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members.

“It provides us [with] a tool or place where all this educational content exists for everyone,” Segarra said. More importantly, it will involve parents. “What’s an easier way for them at three o’clock in the morning to be able to check their [child’s] homework,” she said.

The Anderson Consulting study recommends that the board split the portal into two zones—an educational zone and a partner zone.

The education zone would focus on content and applications that facilitate learning. It would be a parent-controlled, commercial-free area for students and educators.

“In order for a child to enter that zone, they’ll have to have parental permission,” Segarra said. The company that partners with the board “will know up front the educational zone is purely advertisement-free.”

The partner zone would provide adults and family members with ad-sponsored internet access and services targeted to their needs.

The next step

The Andersen Consulting study cautions that the decisions the board makes about how the portal is governed, what technology it installs and maintains, and what revenue streams it chooses will impact the portal’s viability and financial value significantly.

Once the board gives the go-ahead, “we have a lot of homework to do,” Segarra said.

The board’s technology committee will have to develop a business plan and secure support from a company. It also needs to figure out how the portal will work in accordance with the board’s policy and the state’s laws.

“We can’t do anything until the chancellor and the members of the board are comfortable with the principles of this proposal,” Segarra said.

The portal will require advertising and, although advertising is not a new idea in New York City since the sides of school buses now display advertisements, it’s still controversial, Segarra said.

The site will have to make money, but at the same time district officials are responsible for protecting students’ confidentiality, Segarra said. They also must consider what types of companies they’re willing to partner with, since they already know they won’t be accepting support from cigarette makers.

In addition, they have to determine how they’ll regulate the naming of the portal, especially if a corporation or individual contributes money. Also, the committee will have to decide if the school district should operate the portal or if it should contract the operation to an outside entity, like the district does with its custodial work.

“We’re in the business of educating youngsters,” Segarra said, and that’s what the board has to remember above all else. “Whatever risks may lie [ahead], the benefits outweigh the risks.”

From the proceeds of the portal, every staff member would get eMail and internet access, which is a huge task considering the city has 78,000 teachers. Every teacher and student in grades four and up would get a portable, wireless networked laptop. These would either be free or significantly discounted.

“While we are doing this very extensive review, we are not stopping movement [forward],” Segarra said. The board is buying internet appliances now, since the Andersen Consulting report recommended them as a feasible and economical way of dispersing computers throughout all schools, especially for younger grades.

Will the board OK this proposal? So far, Segarra said, “no one has raised serious objections.”

Links:

New York City Board of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu

Andersen Consulting
http://www.ac.com