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Leading computer companies combine to offer education 'portal' services

August 18, 1999
Web posted at: 2:14 p.m. EDT (1814 GMT)

by Brian Robinson


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(IDG) -- Leading computer, Internet and education service companies have joined forces to take thin-client computing to the nation's schools, something they believe could bring schools within reach of the Holy Grail of technology-enabled education: a computer and Internet service for every schoolchild in America.

"Schools today are stalled when it comes to their using computers," said James Ransdall, vice president of marketing and business development for The, an education services company. "They can't drop below an average of 10 students per computer. Using this [thin-client] model, I think there is a reasonable chance we will be able to put a computing device in front of every student." is one of the principal players in the SchoolTone Alliance, an independent nonprofit initiative led by Sun Microsystems Inc. Companies that have said they intend to participate include America Online, the Jason Foundation for Education, SRI International, Asymetrix Learning Systems Inc. and ACTV Inc.
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Schools will use standard World Wide Web browsers and existing PCs, Macintoshes and workstations-or low-cost "network" computers-to enable students, parents and administrators to access Web portals that will carry educational content customized for each school and that can be personalized to suit each user. By typing in a password, users would not only have access to common educational content but also would have their own e-mail, calendar and workgroup tools.

"It represents a big shift in the way this market is addressed because it projects the belief that schools are not in the business of buying computers," said Shirish Netke, Sun's market development manager for service providers. "They should instead be about buying services. In that respect we are no longer selling computers but services."

Instead of regularly having to upgrade computers and software, schools would pay a subscription fee to gain access to the Web portal. The service provider would be responsible for upgrading software and providing hardware where necessary. Schools would get extended life out of computers because they would simply be used as access devices -- so-called thin clients-to get to the portal's Web site.

The school district of Lexington, N.C., has begun a thin-client trial through a similar service by While there still are concerns over modem speeds that limit download times, officials there see thin-client computing as a natural program for schools.

"Thin-client technologies are now where cable TV was in its infant stage," said Jon van Roekel, director of technology for Lexington City Schools. "But it's obviously the place where people in education and small businesses will have to go. They just do not have the resources to keep up with the technology changes."

South Carolina is using the concept to provide Internet-based distance learning for its more than 100,000 adult education students. An online high school curriculum matched to school standards has been developed, and students are assigned to Web portal sites according to their needs.

"We use it because it is very cost-effective," said Colleen Clark, educational associate with the South Carolina Department of Education. "Adult education receives very little money, and this is the best way to provide this service. Plus, we don't have state-of-the-art hardware, and this allows us to take advantage of that."

As far as education is concerned, thin-client computing "is definitely not a niche application," she said. "There are just too many tiers for which it can be used."

Sun and other companies in the SchoolTone program are putting together a campaign to evangelize the concept. Ransdall expects an "explosive" reaction, with his company alone going from 4,000 thin-client school installations now to as many as 30,000 by the end of the year. Sun's Netke believes it could eventually address 80 percent to 90 percent of the computing needs of U.S. schools.

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