Companies Combine to Offer Education 'Portal' Services
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 Learningstation.com, 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."
Learningstation.com is one of the principal players in the SchoolTone Alliance (www.schooltone.com), 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.
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 Learningstation.com. 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.
- Brian Robinson
CellPort Builds Net on Wheels
CellPort Labs Inc. has developed a tool for law enforcement agencies, ambulance corps and other groups that need to distribute information quickly and securely across a fleet of vehicles.
The CP2100 mobile network server supports two-way data communications between a vehicle-based units and the Internet or an intranet. The system also provides data communications between vehicles.
The product eliminates many hassles associated with remote-access technology by turning a vehicle system into a node on the Internet, company officials said. Such an approach makes it easy to give vehicles access to centralized applications and to give central offices access to information on the vehicles.
Boulder, Colo.-based CellPort, a developer of wireless connectivity products for cellular phones, has been contacted by officials from public safety agencies that are looking to better monitor their fleet of vehicles, said Tom Kubancik, the company's director of business development.
"State and local [organizations] using cars, trucks, construction equipment or snow plows are interested in the product because it...allows a wide variety of vehicles to be integrated into a fleet-management scenario," Kubancik said.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Louisiana, AMS Launch Electronic Permitting System
Louisiana's Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) can now issue permits to oversize and commercial trucks over the Internet in a move that will streamline what was a time-consuming approval process.
American Management Systems Inc. in June announced that it had launched the new Permitting Electronic Routing Bridge Analysis (PERBA) system, which will enable DOTD to issue more than 235,000 permits a year.
"Everything's working and seems to be going fine," said Jim Norman, the enforcement and vehicle permits administrator at DOTD. "Now we're trying to educate our customers to the advantages of this system over the old one."
The old approach had agency staff members handling permit requests over the phone and manually entering the data into a mainframe system.
PERBA uses a World Wide Web-based permitting system that enables DOTD customers to request and receive real-time oversize/overweight carrier permits over the Internet. The permits are granted based on the size and weight of the loads and only after several criteria are taken into account, including highway conditions and geometry and the day and time of travel.
All permits are going through the new system, with about 20 percent-or 150 to 200 permits a day-being issued via the Internet, Norman said. Eventually, DOTD hopes to issue up to 40 percent of the 1,100 daily permits through the system.
Eventually, PERBA will be able to provide routing directions and bridge analyses throughout the state for the truck loads as well-a much-anticipated feature that should be available by the end of the year, Norman said. "That will be one of the greatest benefits of the system when it's done," he said. "The customer will be able to do it all--routing, pricing and permits-and talk to no one."
- Dan Caterinicchia
Microsoft Ships Office 2000
Microsoft Corp. in June announced the official release of its Office 2000 desktop application suite, which company officials say will offer government users a substantial upgrade to a commercial off-the-shelf product with new collaborative features and easier enterprisewide deployment.
Office 2000 includes Microsoft Word, Excel spreadsheet software, the Outlook e-mail and personal information manager, PowerPoint presentation software, the Access database program and the Publisher desktop publishing application.
Office 2000's hottest new feature is support for Hypertext Markup Language. All documents can be saved in the HTML file format, so a document created by one employee can be made available on the Internet or an intranet, and another employee can read it or make changes using any browser, Microsoft officials said.
Microsoft aims for the new feature to "tear down the walls" between knowledge workers and the information they need, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said in a telecast announcing the product. Rather than just a spreadsheet and a word processor, Office 2000 offers ways to help workers collaborate on documents and share information, Ballmer said.
The new HTML feature offers great potential to government agencies, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., San Jose, Calif. "When you think about government documents, they are almost always collaborative," Bajarin said. For example, the ability to merge calendars and group schedules and put documents into HTML are features that a government workgroup would find enticing, he said.
Also, Microsoft has made it possible to deploy Office 2000 centrally across a global network with an unlimited number of custom configurations, which should ease management headaches associated with desktop software.
Other new features include:
* Menus and toolbars that automatically remember a user's most frequent selection from a menu and reorder the menu with the frequently used ones at the top.
* "Collect and copy," which lets a user store up to 12 blocks of text on a clipboard.
* A three-part view in PowerPoint that shows the user's outline, the slide and the notes so that the user does not have to toggle from one to another.
Retail prices for new users of Office 2000 range from $499 for the standard version to $799 for the premium version. Upgrades range from $249 for the standard version to $399 for the premium version.
- Margret Johnston
Fairfax County Builds Court Record System
The Clerk of the Circuit Court in Fairfax County, Va., recently contracted with Performance Engineering Corp. (PEC) to develop the Courts Automated Recording System, which is a program that digitally captures court records and makes them readily accessible via a World Wide Web-based interface.
CARS represents the court's efforts to tackle the gargantuan task of ensuring the accuracy and availability of more than 30 million public records-some of which date to 1742-without using additional office space.
CARS will be completed in phases, the first of which includes online searching, retrieval, viewing and managed printing of land records. Other public documents, including marriage licenses, wills and trade names, eventually will be made available through the system.
Land records dating to 1983 are available using the public-retrieval option, and they can be accessed through 20 PCs at the clerk's office.
"Citizens, the media, anyone can come in to do research," said Doug Clegg, technical project manager at the circuit court. "Presently, January 1999 to January 1983 are available, and we're heading back to 1742."
The current system of stamping, indexing and verifying the records before scanning them into the system will be changed in the next two months to make scanning the first step in the process. That way, records can be viewed in multiple locations at one time, Clegg said.
Remote access for the roughly 60 title companies that regularly visit the clerk's office eventually will be added as a subscription service, but there are no plans to put everything up on the Web, Clegg said.
The image work on the actual documents has been completed back to the 1940s, but digitizing the paper indexes to all those files takes a little more time.
"The land records are digitized, staged and on the system back to 1973, and the records themselves have been digitized back into the '40s," Clegg said. "We're just waiting for the indexes, which are still in the paper books in the clerk's office. It's all part of the staging and phasing aspect of the project."
Another phase of the project involves day-forward documents and their corresponding indexes, which will be incorporated into the overall system of land records and public service documents, providing real-time, centralized access to interested parties. That aspect of the project is in the final test stages and should be operational in the near future.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Software Can Trace Net Threats
A new Internet "forensic tool" has been introduced that aims to help educators, police and other law enforcement officials trace the past World Wide Web activity of computer users.
Net Threat Analyzer, from Gresham, Ore.-based New Technology Inc., can be used to identify past Internet browsing and e-mail activity done on a particular computers. The software analyzes a computer's disk drives and other storage areas that are generally unknown to or beyond the reach of most general computer users.
"Kids can figure out ways so that their parents don't find anything on their machine, but Net Threat Analyzer goes back in after the fact where things are easier to detect," said Scott Stevens, program manager at NTI.
Stevens said the company will make its Net Threat Analyzer available July 6 free of charge to computer crime specialists, school officials and police.
The program is booted from a floppy disk and uses filtering tools to collect data on users' basic browsing and e-mail history. "It flags possible threats like anything dealing with drugs, bombs, country codes or pornography," Stevens said. "Web sites are changing so often that it's difficult to keep up with which ones are porn sites or drug sites."
Stevens used the example of www.whitehouse.gov, which is the official White House Web site, and www.whitehouse.com, which is a pornography site. "If Junior's been to whitehouse.
com 300 to 500 times, it will make it through most 'Net nanny' software," he said. "But that will cause a red flag with our product."
Stevens said the software was designed to help prevent situations like the recent tragedies at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., where weapons were made by teen-agers who had downloaded instructions from the Internet.
- Dan Caterinicchia