Parents will now have a way to interact with teachers and school staff in any language. Image copyright ICG.

New York City parents will have a way to interact with teachers and school staff in any language. (Image copyright ICG)

In what could be a huge sign of change in how students learn, New York City Public Schools has begun implementation of communication and collaboration software from ePals and Microsoft—education technology tools that not only will connect students to other classrooms across the world but also will connect teachers to parents, regardless of the language they speak.

The New York City Department of Education (DOE)—the largest system of public schools in the United States, serving about 1.1 million students in more than 1,600 schools—chose ePals in a competitive-bidding process. The DOE was looking for a cost-effective, secure, and private space where students easily could communicate and collaborate as part of their learning.

ePals won the bid, providing the DOE with free access to its SchoolMail product—secure eMail software that is hosted on the web and integrates technologies from Microsoft’s Live@edu, so the district does not need to maintain its own software, hardware, or server-side technology for the deployment.

The cloud-based solution is expected to save the district from spending up to $5 million annually on infrastructure needed to host eMail for students, teachers, and parents, officials said.

“In New York City, we have an empowerment model, meaning the principal of each school acts as CEO, having the power over decisions relating to budgets, programs, and personnel, in exchange for higher accountability,” said a DOE representative in an interview with eSchool News. “Many schools have been trying to set up their own eMail systems, and there’s been a big push towards online learning and communication with students and parents. All of this takes a tremendous amount of resources and work. That’s why we decided to try this project.”

The DOE not only was looking for a product that could offer varying degrees of monitoring and filtering across staff and administration, but it also sought a tool that could leverage eMail and communication as part of a blended learning model.

“Schools are increasingly moving towards a student-centric model of learning, and one way to focus on student learning is by [giving students] a tool that they know how to communicate with and will want to communicate and learn with—eMail,” the representative said.

According to Tim DiScipio, co-founder of ePals, students who use ePals increase their writing output and have improved spelling and communication skills because they are communicating with their peers.

“They want to be seen as articulate and convey what they know. It’s definitely a self-directed learning tool,” he said.

City students also will be able to communicate with classrooms across the world as part of ePals’ global community, which reaches 600,000 educators who teach 25 million students worldwide. (Read more about ePals teacher-led pen pal projects here.)

Students, and teachers, also can take part in online journaling, mentoring, and writing projects.

ePals SchoolMail will be provided without advertising of any kind to students. Parents, too, will be given free accounts, and these will be supported through educationally appropriate ads.

This will enable parents to interact with teachers and school staff in almost any language. Parents will be able to receive eMail regarding school events and their children’s progress in class.

“For the first time, we’ll be providing every parent with an eMail account or linking to their own eMail account,” said the DOE representative. “SchoolMail can translate instantly in 58 languages, which is important considering that more than 40 percent of the city’s students report speaking a language other than English at home.”

The deal is a big win not only for ePals, but also for Microsoft, which is competing with Google in offering schools free eMail and productivity software. In April, Microsoft and ePals announced a collaboration in which ePals users would have access to Microsoft’s Live@edu and, eventually, web-based versions of Microsoft Office software.

“Having the safety and security of Live@edu, the opportunities for collaborative learning provided by ePals, and the low-cost solution of using the cloud for hosting is a great marriage for schools,” Anthony Salcito, vice president of education for Microsoft, told eSchool News. “ePals gives us the chance to work with the K-12 market, and we bring the enterprise-level, reliable, and scalable solution of Live@edu.”