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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

eSN Special Report: Education Portals

Weaving your way wisley through the web
By Gwendolyn Bradley

Beginning this month, high school students in Connecticut can enroll in free online course...          
Skip over to the brave new world of the internet, however, and it's a different story. There, educators are being sweet-talked profusely by dot-com companies that realize the vast potential for marketing that exists when you add up the number of teachers, students, and parents on the web.

"Content is king, but eyeballs is king-maker," Chris MacAskill, chief executive officer of, told As the battle for educators' eyeballs—and web clicks—becomes big business, internet companies operating education portals have proliferated wildly over the past year.

Education portal companies aspire to have their web site be the first that schools or families look at when they log on to the internet, and the site that schools use as a home base. In order to attract this kind of heavy use, portal sites offer a variety of services to school-affiliated users—usually for free.

With, for instance, high school journalists can post their school newspapers on the web, read news feeds from the New York Times and other papers, access writers' resources, and participate in journalism contests. Schools can build web sites using templates to make pages for activities, classrooms, guidance, and sports.

At, teachers and administrators can read lesson plans, follow links to online education resources, and build school or class web sites. Parents can get help with the subjects their kids are studying, look at state and national education standards, and access content from Family PC magazine. For students, has games and homework help. The site also offers discussion boards, tips for parents and teachers, and an online shopping mall. HiFusion goes a step further and offers free, filtered internet service to families of students at registered schools. A partnership with Compaq Computer Corp. allows parents to buy desktop computers at a discount. Once online, families can access newsletters, parenting materials, and educational resources in both English and Spanish; use eMail, chat, and instant messaging services; and click through to their schools' web sites.

Within a few months, HiFusion hopes to roll out its emergency messaging system, through which schools will be able to notify parents about sick children, snow days, or other urgent situations. The system will send eMail or electronic voice messages—again in English or Spanish—to the eMail address or telephone number each parent has preselected.

As these examples show, the definition of a "portal" site varies. The purest portal is one that points users to other sites rather than having a lot of content itself, and some of the education portals adhere to that definition. But most offer quite a bit in the way of services, such as eMail, and content.

According to a report from the Software and Information Industry Association (see our Page 1 story), "The most comprehensive portals enable schools to communicate with parents, enhance parents' ability to guide their children's studies at home, and provide cost-effective student information management and assessment tools."  

Most portal sites are accessible to anyone on the web, though many have portions whose use is restricted to registered users. A few tie their services to software products., a product of the Canadian company Chancery Software Ltd., is linked to Chancery's student information software. Users of AOL@school need to order free software to get the full gamut of capabilities.

With such a mad scramble for schools' participation, it can be difficult to know which portals to choose. Not to worry—eSchool News has the lowdown on these high-tech gateways to web content.

Ethical dilemmas
Not only are services generally free to schools, but some education portals offer schools ways to make money.
Students can sell banner advertising on their HighWired school web sites and keep the entire profit. HighWired says it developed this option at the request of schools looking for fundraising sources, and HighWired's involvement is limited to giving schools suggestions on terms and pricing (usually comparable to the prices of ads in school yearbooks).

This fall, schools will be able to conduct magazine-sale fund-raisers through HiFusion, with a percentage of sales going to the schools and the top student salespeople receiving prizes. "It's your basic school magazine fund-raiser, but entirely online," said spokesperson Dean Kephart. "It will eliminate the need for kids to go door to door."

A task force of New York City school officials and computer executives, meanwhile, has proposed that the nation's largest public school system swap advertising space on a school portal site in exchange for low-cost computers. The proposal offers a means of financing new technology for New York City public schools that could not be paid for with tax dollars, board members said.

While some educators sing the praises of such deals with education portals, others say that using them at all means negotiating in ethical quicksand.

Critics express concern over exposing kids to advertisements, particularly in cases where using the site—and viewing the ads—may be part of the school day, rather than an optional at-home activity.

The presence of ads on portal sites varies. Almost all have "house" ads for other company-owned products, and almost all have partnerships with other companies which include mutual promotion, if only in the form of prominently placed links. Some contain advertising for outside products and companies as well.

As one might expect, there's generally an inverse relationship between the cost of a service to a school and the amount of advertising that viewers are subjected to. Ads enable companies such as FamilyEducation Network (FEN) to offer content-rich sites for free.

Yes, we have ads," said David Conti, a spokesman for FEN. "Ads are what make the sites possible. But the ads are wholesome—we haven't had any complaints." Many school systems, too, have ad content policies that prohibit the advertising of controversial things like tobacco, alcohol, condoms, and religious or political interests. But advertising per se is objectionable to many critics, and that includes fund-raising programs in which parents, students, or staff are encouraged to buy from certain vendors.            

"Schools should be concerned about spending one second of time promoting the goods and services of a special interest," University of Wisconsin Education Professor Alex Molnar told Education Week.

Molnar, also the director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, pointed out that although schools receive a small percentage of the dollar amount of goods purchased, most of the profit goes to the retailers selling goods and to the companies running the fund-raising sites. When these companies promote their products through public schools, he said, they're using institutions funded by taxpayers to get free advertising.

Educators who agree may be willing to pay to use education portals that are ad-free. Riverdeep, for instance, makes its money through subscriptions rather than through advertisers, and the content is deeper than that on many other portals. Whereas other portals have teaching tips and activity ideas, Riverdeep offers true lesson plans in math, language arts, and science.

"A lot of the other sites are true portals: they point to other sites," said Riverdeep spokeswoman Nancy Atwood. "We have real content used in the classroom and curriculum correlated to state standards." The cost: about $20 per student, per year.

AOL@school, which has separate sites for teachers, administrators, and children in grades K through 2, 3 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 12, is an exception to the rule that fewer ads mean more expense for schools. Both ads and shopping are restricted from AOL@school's four children's portals, and all are accessible free of charge to users. AOL@school software enabling eMail, chat, and other features is also free (though users must have their own ISP).

How? It's supported by internet giant America Online and is not particularly concerned with profitability, says spokeswoman Lisa Gibby. Why? Some observers suggest that AOL@school is a subtle marketing tool, building brand loyalty in children and familiarizing millions of future customers to the AOL interface. AOL@school's marketing materials have a more selfless tone: "We don't believe there should be a price tag attached to educating our nation's children."

Gibby's answer is somewhere in between. "We want to help the internet become integral to people's lives," she said. "If you want to increase the power of the medium, there's no better place to start than in the schools."

Some critics say more invidious than ads themselves are the data collection techniques companies use in order to better target their ads at consumers. Companies, of course, find it useful to know as much as they can about consumers: ages, names, income brackets, habits, and preferences. Education portals can reasonably claim to need some of this information in order to operate: They need school information and a contact person to register schools, and they need to know the age of students using the site to tailor its content appropriately.

But how much information these portals gather and how they use it are matters of concern. Most companies have privacy policies, but having a privacy policy is no guarantee that a company does not collect information some users would consider private.     

For instance, the privacy policy posted at allows that the company "may ask for your name, age, address, telephone, eMail address, and school details (name of school, position, and/or grade level)." The information gathered is used to "tailor the content, services, and advertising on our web sites. ... We may share the personal information you provide to us with third parties who are affiliated with our sites." In addition, "we and our partners may use this information to alert you to product upgrades, special offers, updated information, and new services."

Lightspan also retains the right to "assign, sell, license, or transfer any information, including personally identifying information, that our visitors have provided to us to third parties."

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), enacted in 1998 and enforced beginning in April of this year, prohibits companies from collecting personal information from children without a parent's permission. In accordance with the law, Lightspan has some additional protections for children under 13. Children 12 and younger who register with a Lightspan site are asked to give a parent's eMail address. The company sends a notice of registration to that address, whose owner may then cancel the registration if desired. Sounds good—but what's to prevent a child from using a friend's eMail address for the notification instead of a parent's?

In addition, personally identifying information on Lightspan users under 13 is not provided to third parties "unless otherwise disclosed during collection." But whether children note and understand such disclosures is an open question.

Critics contend that even adult users often fail to read provided privacy information. When they do, the policies aren't always easy to understand, said Jason Catlett, the president of Junkbusters Corp, a web site offering information on privacy issues. "In order to keep up with the data-collection practices of many of these companies, you need a degree in marketing and computer science," Catlett told Education Week.

A study released this past spring by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that children, especially those older than 12 and thus outside of COPPA's reach, are not as guarded as adults about exposing personal information on the web. Forty-five percent of children participating in the study said they would give out personal information—such as names and addresses, parents' skin problems, how many days of work their parents missed, how often the family attends church, and whether the family drinks beer or wine with dinner—in exchange for free stuff.

If users do object to the privacy policies posted on Lightspan or other internet portals, they are asked not to use the sites. Fair enough for recreational sites—but when use of education portals is encouraged by the school, students or parents may feel pressured to use them.

The amount of information Lightspan says it may gather is not atypical and, in fact, some say Lightspan is to be commended for spelling out its practices in detail. Many sites' privacy policies are short and vaguely written.               

Several education portals, along with many other online businesses, participate in a privacy seal program run by TRUSTe. After demonstrating that their practices are in accordance with TRUSTe's requirements, sites can display the TRUSTe "trustmark."

TRUSTe's primary requirements for handling users ages 13 and older are the posting of an accurate privacy policy, provision of an opt-out mechanism for secondary uses of information, and a way for users to view and correct information gathered about them. (Secondary uses are uses other than the main use for which information ostensibly is gathered—for instance, if names and addresses are gathered from contest entrants for the primary purpose of notifying prizewinners, they might be put to a secondary use on a direct-mail advertising list.)

For children under 13, TRUSTe requires that participating companies refrain from collecting contact information, distributing information to third parties, or allowing children to publicly post or distribute personally identifiable or contact information without parental consent or notification. It also requires that participants not "entice a child under 13 . . . to divulge more information than is needed to participate" in an activity.

A TRUSTe seal didn't stop failed e-tailer Toysmart from trying to violate its own posted privacy policy after the company declared bankruptcy. Despite a privacy statement pledging never to share customer information with third parties, Toysmart offered for sale assets ranging from its inventory of toys to its catchy internet address to its customer database, which reportedly included children's ages and wish lists along with customer names and addresses.

The Federal Trade Commission brought a case against Toysmart, which was settled in July. Under the settlement, Toysmart may sell the customer information, but only to another family-oriented business which agrees to abide by restrictions on how the data can be used.

Likely to last?, FEN, American School Directory,, Classroom Connect, AOL@school, Riverdeep, HighWired, HiFusion—if the number of companies seems high for one specialized area, it is.

Both industry analysts and officials from the portal companies themselves agree that market consolidation is likely. Some companies probably will fail, and others may merge or be acquired by their competitors.

"It's a pretty safe bet to assume that two or three years down the road, there will be fewer education portal companies, not more," said Peter Grunwald, a dot-com analyst.

Many education portal companies are young, and like other young dot-coms, most have worked on building up customer bases before developing substantial revenue streams.

So far, this has been a land-grab game," said FEN's Conti. "Companies have been signing up schools and districts, building audience, and generating page views." All that costs money, and portal companies have raised millions in venture capital to support their activities. FEN raised $51 million in April 1999 alone, Conti said.

Since last spring, however, investor enthusiasm for huge spending in the service of securing market share has dwindled, and venture capital is harder to come by.

This June, the Norcross, Ga.-based fired half its 70 employees after failing to secure a second round of capital when funds originally raised were spent. Following the layoffs, Chief Executive Officer Lindsay Cook said he would try to sell the company.

Innovative portal company, meanwhile, closed its doors last month. Kickstart made headlines recently when it signed a deal with Denver Public Schools to create a series of web portals that would serve as "front pages" for individual Denver schools, administrative departments, clubs, and teams. Every time a user visited a Kickstart school site, the district would have been paid a portion of what advertisers on the page paid Kickstart.

Less drastically, is putting the brakes on its education portal operation. "We're shifting our focus to the tremendously successful eCommerce side of our company," said Paul Drysch, a spokesman for the company. (Kawama operates both a straight education portal at and an electronic procurement site at The company has laid off a number of employees and will not continue to develop its education portal, though the site will stay online, Drysch said.

"Everything that was on is still on," Drysch said, "but it's operating with a skeleton staff now. We're not taking things to the next level." Drysch said Kawama has received several inquiries from companies and even school districts interested in taking over the site.

The site was relatively successful, Drysch said, and was coming close to breaking even. But he agrees with others in the industry that consolidation is in the air. "Barriers to entry into this market are stronger now," he said. "The strongest companies will gobble up the others."

Indeed, relationships between companies are many and change constantly. FEN is a case in point. Since launching its web site in 1996 (which makes it impressively old by dot-com standards), FEN has had significant investment from America Online (also, of course, the owner of the new AOL@school); acquired (a reference site), (an eFund-raising operation), (a site for children), and (an electronic gradebook); and was acquired itself in June by Pearson PLC (a large education media company).

Pearson plans to fold FEN into its Learning Network, and spokesman Conti says customers used to the site can rest assured that changes will be minor. That's not always the case with acquisitions, and certainly not the case when companies go out of business.

Unless they have paid subscription fees to a company that goes bankrupt, schools and districts won't lose money if the education portal companies they use fail. But they may lose another valuable investment: time.

Sharron Atkins, a teacher at Davie High School in Mocksville, N.C., estimated that the web site she made for her class using bigchalk's hosting service took three or four hours to post once she had her ideas together. Atkins found the system easy to work with, but she said not all of her colleagues did. "One guy here put all his information in and then he lost it," she said.

For Craig Cook, chief operating officer at Denver Public Schools, the collapse of only means a minor setback for the district. "Obviously, the deal we made with Kickstart is off, but the net is still a viable tool for the generation of revenue," he said.

"For the future, we basically have two choices. We can go with another education portal company—several have approached us—or we can create revenue-generating web sites ourselves. We've learned a lot about how to do it in the last year. Anyone who's not using the internet to generate revenue appropriately is missing the boat. We'll get there, we just have to do it another way."

No matter how good the tools provided by a portal site are, learning how to use them takes time. Gathering information to put on web sites takes time, and building those web sites takes even more time. Researching education portals to pick the right one, training teachers on the sites, and publicizing hosted web sites to parents and students are all time-consuming activities, and if a portal site fails, school administrators might be back at square one.

Choosing a portal
Obviously, it's in a district's best interest to choose a portal company that will be around for the long run. But how can a district predict longevity? And what other considerations are important when picking a portal, or deciding whether to use one at all?

School and district administrators should sit down and draw up a web development policy, said Elliott Levine, who went to work for portal company in July. Levine previously worked as director of communications, ISP service manager, and web master for the Lawrence Public Schools in New York.

"How will a web site help teachers? Parents? Students? The district?" he asked. "Look at what you actually need, rather than accepting portal companies' claims about which services are important."

Peter Grunwald would agree with that point. According to a survey conducted by his company, Grunwald Associates, and the National School Boards Foundation, many parents don't use school web sites because they don't need the information the sites contain or because they are not even aware that schools have web sites.

Sixty-four percent of parents are interested in using the internet to communicate with schools, the report shows. But too often, the report suggests, schools have an unrealistic "build-it-and-they-will-come" attitude toward web sites, instead of building them to meet the school community's needs.

Once needs are determined, administrators should plan for how to meet those needs and should coordinate their web activity, Levine said.

"[Individual] schools might want to pick and choose between companies to get different services, but the overall approach should be coordinated," Levine said. "If homework assignments are going to be posted on the web, they should be posted in one place and they should be kept current."

Without a district policy to follow, Levine said, teachers and clubs too often create web pages willy-nilly, using different portal companies and failing to maintain the pages. "There's an enormous amount of material smacked up all over the web that's sitting there getting outdated," Levine said. "What happens if a parent goes to one of those sites and doesn't realize that the information is a year old?"

Besides looking for companies that offer the services you need, choose companies that will make using those services easy, Grunwald said.

"If a school is going to make a web site with a portal company, it should choose a company that is realistic about the amount of time it takes to make a good web site," Grunwald said. "The company has got to have easy, intuitive services and an array of tools and templates that make the job doable. Too many companies don't understand how many demands on their time educators already have.

"The company should also provide technical support—a human being that schools can talk to," he added. "This has not always been the case."

Grunwald also suggests that you consider not only what you will get from the arrangement, but what the company is getting as well. A company that is not giving much thought to covering its own financial needs might not be around for the long haul.

"The results of our survey argue for success coming when companies have a variety of revenue sources," Grunwald said. For instance, a company might have revenue coming from some combination of banner advertising, eCommerce, fee-based services such as tutoring, and subscription fees.

Like other businesses, portal companies like to publicize their popularity. But don't take their claims at face value. Surfing around on the sites suggests that many aren't as well-used as their numbers imply.

For instance, companies that offer web site hosting may claim to have registered a certain number of schools for the service. The claim might be true—but it doesn't mean that all those schools have bustling, well-developed web pages on the site. A school will be registered if one teacher once posted a syllabus on the site—or if one teacher once signed up, then quit out of frustration.

Similarly, look into the depth and quality of features that are important to your school. Yes, a site may have discussion boards, but do they host a lively discussion, or do they show that only four messages were posted in the last two semesters? Does the "homework help" touted by a site include reliable resources that children are likely to use, or does it consist of one dictionary or a difficult and frustrating tool?         

With the competition for your schools' and students' web traffic at an all-time high, education portal companies are doing their best to woo educators into using their services. Doing your homework before choosing an internet portal could save you from an ill-advised fling or a bad break-up down the road.

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