With technology solutions that might be broadly described as “eLearning for schools,” technology companies large and small are marshaling to address core educational issues—from professional development to the formation of strategic partnerships to the electronic management of classroom resources.

What became clear at the National School Boards Association (NSBA) Technology + Learning Conference, Oct. 25-28, is how similar are most of the proposed solutions, especially those in development at the largest corporations.

The likely result: bitter corporate competition leading to conflicting claims and confusion followed by the emergence of a handful of surviving systems that will transform and vastly improve the delivery of instruction. Look for the first formal announcements right after the New Year.

That was what key technology companies were telling eSchool News at the NSBA conference. It’s not likely that was the message received by most of the school board members and others attending the meeting.

In an effort to make investments in school technology more successful, school board members from across the country gathered in Denver Colo. to learn and share ideas about how to use technology to increase student achievement. They heard from such dignitaries as Cisco Chairman and CEO John P. Morgridge.

To accomplish success in technology you need leadership, he said: “You need someone at the top who embraces this, and says it’s important, and we’re going to do this.”

Because so many schools have made tremendous progress getting computers into schools and connecting them to the internet, human development and training are the major challenges facing school boards, according to Anne Bryant, executive director of NSBA. In an online survey conducted by NSBA, she said, 76 percent of respondents felt their district’s teachers were not adequately prepared to use technology in the classroom and 93 percent of educators felt minimum technology-skill standards should be implemented for all teachers.

Reluctance, unavailable training, and lack of money were the major reasons cited to explain why teachers are not prepared. More than 300 teachers, school technology staff, and school board members responded to the NSBA survey, Bryant said.

Many cash-strapped school districts see corporate sponsorship and advertising as an economical way of providing top notch educational technology tools for their students. But is advertising or a strong corporate presence in schools permissible?

Half of the educators who responded to the online survey said it is acceptable for school districts to use technology products that contain advertisements in the classroom. However, 67 percent said school districts should not use their web sites to sell products to the community.

“In the best of all worlds, school districts and public schools shouldn’t have to go to outside sources,” Bryant said. “They should be adequately funded, but we don’t have that.”

Most importantly, she said, school districts should ask if the advertising interrupts the school’s teaching and learning climate. When the answer is Yes, the board shouldn’t agree to accept it.

In an effort to increase parent and community involvement in school board decisions, the National School Boards Foundation (NSBF) and the AOL Foundation are building local virtual communities for five school districts in a new pilot program called “Xchange: Strengthening Schools Through Board Discussions.”

Each of the five Xchange web sites—for districts in Kansas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa—will feature eMail, electronic newsletters, polls, and online discussion forums so local citizens can communicate conveniently with their school boards.

“Every shred of evidence tells us that the number one predictor of improved student learning is increased parental involvement,” said AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case. “This new two-year partnership will help all of us learn how to use the internet to help parents, teachers, and school boards better communicate.”

“When a community gets involved in a school district, that school system gets better,” said Jude Theriot of Calcasien, La. “It is incumbent upon us to take advantage of that.”

Theriot said the Xchange web site will give her school board an opportunity to find out what the community really wants and to let stakeholders know what the board is doing about it.

“The board is really looking at this as a way to augment our community dialogue,” said Maggie Schmidt of Pittsburgh. “One of the things we hope to do is put the budget on the web page and give community members a way to make comments.”

Communication of another kind—compatibility among software systems—was the focus of a special exhibit on the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF). SIF is an industry initiative to develop a way for different instructional and administrative software to work together, so schools can maintain the most up-to-date records and avoid duplicating data-entry.

Throughout the exhibit hall, the buzz was all about the electronic management of learning resources. Company after company described plans to launch systems that will help teachers create lesson plans, correlate lessons and multi-media resources to state learning standards, aggregate the instructional resources from across the internet, manage deployment of these resources through the school system networks to the individual desktops, assess student progress, and report test results to teachers, administrators, and appropriate agencies.

Here’s a rapid review of what was happening around the NSBA exhibit hall:

3Com emerged as one of several major players rushing to develop what Vice President of Strategic Alliances David J. Katz describes as a “rich-media content delivery system” for schools. A pilot program is just getting under way in California’s Campbell Union School District. The company intends to beta-test the system in January and begin delivering the product to schools a month later. The system will consist of a core set of servers running under Windows 2000 and Windows NT and a series of relay points that will optimize media transmission from the servers to the student desktop.

After AbleSoft, Inc. acquired Vantage Point from Word Enterprises of Lancaster, Penn., the company formed a new subsidiary called AbleSoft Systems that will offer a complete classroom, school, and district administrative solution that integrates AbleSoft’s Teacher ToolBox with the Vantage Point software. Soon AbleSoft Systems hopes to provide a web-enabled ASP version of the software.

America Online announced new features and functionality for its free online learning service, AOL@School. Each week AOL@School features a topic of the week that teachers can use to plan a week’s worth of activities and now those weekly themes will be archived by subject so teacher can access them at anytime. Also, teachers and administrators can now access their AOL@School eMail accounts from home giving them more flexibility in grading, creating lesson plans, and communicating.

Apex Learning, a virtual school provider, now offers online schooling for teachers called Online Teacher Development Institutes. As an alternative to workshops that demand on-site attendance, these Institutes individualize professional development and make them available through the internet at any time. Teachers can also receive college credit from accredited universities and colleges by taking these courses that include Designing Classroom Procedures and Routines, Assessing Oral Reading Fluency, and Understanding Criterion-Reference Assessments.

bigchalk.com, provider of online educational resources, now offers an online professional development series, called Critical Issues, that focus on aligning standards with curriculum and assessment, creating online learning environments, and enhancing home-school communication. bigchalk also offers Classmate Language Arts, a tool that gives teachers the building blocks they need to create thematic, standards-based language arts lessons.

The Arkansas State Board of Education agreed to adopt Science Brainium, an online science program by Brainium, as supplemental instructional material in 801 public elementary and middle schools until 2007.

Computer Explorers’ new Staff Training for Technology Integration program provides trainers that go into a school and train the school’s staff one-on-one to use the school’s commercially purchased software in the classroom. The Computer Explorers’ trainers reinforce what the school has chosen for its curriculum and software.

Now that CWK Network, Inc. has secured funding, the company will develop reality-based curriculum, student directed-learning activities, and professional development programs based on CWK Network’s flagship broadcast news program, Connecting with Kids. The programs will meet standards for teaching subjects such as substance abuse prevention, anger management, and school safety.

Teachers can now access eHomeRoom, an online community for schools, with their Palm Pilots since they just launched a version of its product for the Palm operating system.

A new web site, called Fotobug, is tapping into the popularity of digital photography for the purpose of school fundraising. The site offers a free and secure space where high school students and their families can view and purchase photographs and related merchandise online. Then, Fotobug donates 20 percent of all purchases to the customer’s school of choice.

Hewlett-Packard Company and NetSchools Corporation have teamed up to offer schools nationwide the e-School program, a complete internet-based learning solution. HP will provide every student and teacher at participating schools with a wireless, durable laptop along with support services and training for NetSchools Constellation, a complete computer-based teaching and learning solution.

Intel Corp., has expanded its Intel Teach to the Future program to Colorado with a $95,000 grant from the Intel Foundation. The goal of the Colorado program is to train 4,500 of the state’s teachers over the next to years. The Community Colleges of Colorado’s Higher Education Advanced Technology Center received the grant to operate the state’s Intel Teach to the Future program.

JonesKnowledge.com, provider of online learning, will be the exclusive online course delivery platform used by The Florida Online High School, one of the country’s first virtual high schools. This platform is complete with an eLibrary and automatic grade recording features.

The Learning Network announced Learning Pod for Math, an online tool that helps students in grades three to eight prepare for standardized math tests. This tool lets teachers monitor a student’s progress by reviewing the results of practice tests and educational games.

Limitless, Inc., which developed the browser-based school management solution SchoolSpace, teamed up with Brightpod, Inc., to offer wireless access to SchoolSpace so educators can easily enter data, analyze trends, and check attendance from anywhere at anytime using wireless technology on their PDAs.

The National Semiconductor Corp. announced the winners of its third annual Internet Innovator Awards that recognize the effective ways 15 teachers use the internet in their classrooms. Winning teachers receive $10,000 for their personal use and their school wins $20,000 to spend on technology. This year, eligibility for the award has increased to permit applications from teachers from every region across the country. Before, only teachers from California, Texas, and Maine were eligible.

National Computer Systems, Inc., now offers REALskills, a program that teachers can use right in the classroom to teach CompTIA’s I-NET+ Internet professional certification. Complete with curriculum certification and internships, this program directly targets the growing demand for internet-skilled workers. Teachers who become trained through the REALskills information technology program will receive continuing education credits through Southwest State University.

The OptiStreams Broadband Browser, known as the OBBY by OptiStreams Inc. was designed for safe browsing in the education environment. OptiStreams developed the browser as a result of filtering legislation introduced to Congress. The OBBY browser blocks out the eMail capabilities of sites that offer free, anonymous eMail accounts and the filtering code is buried deep within the browser so students can’t override it.

Pearson Education has created CCC NovaNET by combining two recently acquired companies Computer Curriculum Corporation and NCS NovaNET Learning, both providers of online learning solutions. CCC NovaNET will now provide online curriculum, management and assessment tools, and support services for kindergarten to grade 12 students.

The Princeton Review test preparation services Homeroom.com will now reach more classrooms since Princeton Review has partnered with SchoolNet, Inc., an education management solution ASP.

Scholastic Inc., is developing educational content for students and planning tools for teachers to be used on Palm handheld computers. The content will come from the Scholastic web site including popular sections such as News Zone, Best Lessons, and Events Calendar.

Since SkillsTutor.com acquired Teacher Technology Systems, of Pinson Ala., teachers using SkillsTutor will be able to align their instruction with specific state standards. They will also be able to assess student’s ability in core subjects found on state tests, and provide supplemental classroom instruction with SkillsTutor online tutorials.

Sun Microsystems has teamed up with VIP Tone, Inc. through the Sun Education Service Provider program that delivers, installs, and supports a school bundle with pre-loaded and pre-configured Sun Ray appliances and an integrated customized server. VIP Tone will integrate an eLearning portal—complete with web-based content and browser-based tools—on Sun’s thin-client computing platform.

TimeCruiser Computing Corporation has launched SchoolCruiser 2.0, an updated version of its communication tools for customized school web portals that let teachers, students, parents, and administrators get and exchange information about homework, classes, events, and have email privileges. Teachers can author and save lesson plans, record attendance and grades. Schools can use SchoolCruiser for free by participating in a revenue-sharing program or eliminate advertising at the cost of 40 cents per student per month.

VIP Tone Inc., providers of customized eLearning web portals, announced that five curriculum, administrative, and communications companies—including Edmin.com, iMind, and PowerSchool—joined the VIP Tone Alliance Program which will bring together the services of several education companies on one web site. www.viptone.com