NYC schools to deploy free eMail, collaboration tools


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.”

Microsoft said last month that the Kentucky Department of Education has implemented Live@edu for its 700,000 students, teachers, and staff throughout the state, saving districts an estimated $6.3 million in costs over four years. In April, the Oregon Department of Education announced that its 540,000 public school students would have access to Google Apps for Education, which includes free eMail and collaborative tools. Earlier this month, Google Apps also won the endorsement of Iowa and Colorado, which will offer the tools and training to their public schools.

ePals SchoolMail plus Live@edu will be available to all New York City schools, but given the district’s empowerment model, it is not mandatory for schools to use the tools, said Ed Fish, president of ePals. “Rather, is being deployed in initiatives across schools in 2010, including the New York City Virtual Learning Environment and NYC Connected Learning … as well as through open calls where schools themselves deploy,” he said.

According to the DOE, the Connected Learning project plans to provide computer training, desktop computers, educational software, and free broadband access for one year to more than 18,000 low-income sixth-graders and their families (approximately 40,000 residents total) in 100 high-need public middle schools throughout the city.

“New York City is setting the standard for other U.S. school systems by introducing collaborative technologies to equip students with digital literacy skills and the ability to create, manage, and share their work,” said DiScipio, “… putting [the city] on par with classrooms in Europe and Asia that have already embraced internet-enabled learning technologies.”

He concluded, “Less than 10 percent of school kids are given the opportunity to use collaborative technology. It’s our hope that the country is influenced by this news.”

Links:

ePals

Live at edu

NYC DOE

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Re-imagining Education resource center. Inspiring and engaging today’s 21st-century learners, who have grown up surrounded with digital media and are used to having instant access to information, requires flexible resources that change with students’ needs. When teachers can leverage multiple technologies in a resource-rich classroom—supported by top-notch professional development—students forget they’re in school and instead become excited about real-world applications of the lessons they are learning. Go to:

Re-imagining Education

Meris Stansbury

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