One way to build a smarter school infrastructure

A new partnership gives teachers and schools help with tech integration

Ask a hundred kids to draw a picture of “home” and you’ll see some common themes: “home” should be safe, warm, fun, inviting. There should be room to play, to rest, to grow — maybe even to work. And then there will be a million differences, including laugh-out-loud details (bunkbeds on the ceiling?) as well as sweet ones.

Ask a hundred educators to draw a picture of what “school” should be like, and some big common themes will similarly crop up: school should be engaging, have genuine connections to the real world, should nurture different talents, help kids no matter what their strengths and weaknesses and, of course, be safe.

Ed Fish, president of ePals, spends a lot of his time thinking about that beautiful, shimmering image of school — and then all the puzzle pieces that need to fit together to make it possible. ePals has had some stunning success: it boasts that it is the largest online community of educators and students, delivering mail and other communications services to 600,000 classrooms around the world and 25 million students. (About half of those are in the U.S., Fish says.)

Today ePals said it was teaming up with Microsoft to try to create another piece of the puzzle — namely, how to shore up the foundations underlying school email and collaboration technologies. There’s a second element of the deal, too: Microsoft took a minority ownership stake in ePals (less than 10 percent), making it the second outside investor in the privately held, 14-year old firm. (National Geographic made a similar investment 18 months ago.)

The gist of the deal: ePals will offer Microsoft’s Live@edu mail and calendar services to its far-flung constellation of teachers and users. (Here’s the official release.) In practice, educators won’t see much evidence of the alliance until at least September. Then ePals expects to nudge them to look first at the email applications available through Live@edu, then at the calendar capabilities. By 2011, other web applications should become available.

The journalist in me immediately figured that the ePal-Microsoft alliance was another bit of saber rattling between Microsoft and Google. Many educators — both in higher ed and in the K-12 arena — are embracing Google Docs as a nifty way to provide free email, collaborate on documents and share calendars. (Experiences such as those of Bronx middle school principal, James Levy, are compelling.) Even though just about everybody uses Microsoft Word documents, the Redmond company trails Google on the “cool” factor among geek educators.

I’ll confess I’m also suspicious of proclamations that cloud computing is on the verge of transforming public education’s rickety technology infrastructure. At one marvelous elementary school I know, the valiant IT guy wrestles with nine different versions of operating systems sprinkled across a fleet of more than 100 computers, many of which are old enough to register for first grade—not to mention two different networks connected to two independent servers that share less communications than a divorced couple. And did I mention that this IT guy is only scheduled to visit the school twice a week? Stuffing all that complexity in the cloud would be awesome—almost as awesome as the complexity of transferring the management to the cloud in the first place.

Fish, of ePals, understands that kind of problem well. “It’s the small things that kill you,” he agrees—like figuring out how to reset a student’s lost password in a way that doesn’t waste a day or even a week of instructional time.

When Fish ticks off the pieces that he believes are necessary to build that bright and shining picture of education, he starts with giving individual teachers the ability to design (and easily use) “prescriptive policies,” real and workable ways of establishing who can communicate with whom. Teachers need to set the rules: Should a class in Detroit be blogging or emailing a class in Mexico? Should students be able to comment on one another’s work? What should be done to shut down bullying? And what constraints should be on students’ school email accounts when they use them outside school hours?

“Those policies have got to be designed to support learning and safety,” Fish says. And teachers have got to have their hands on those knobs, he adds.

Until recently Microsoft had little that could help on this front. Its communications technology for schools was built on its Hotmail product. But 18 months ago, nudged by customers, such as universities that wanted to offer life-long email to alumni, Microsoft migrated its support for education messaging to an Exchange environment. “Live@Edu was born from that demand,” says Anthony Salcito, vice-president of worldwide education at Microsoft.

“We thought a lot about who was the right cloud partner,” says ePal’s Fish. “We need an ecosystem. It needs to be a sustainable model. Fewer than 10 percent of school kids have collaborative email accounts—but we think that’s going to explode.”

The education infrastructure may indeed be on the verge of tumultuous change, provoked by those final grains of sand dribbled on top of the existing pile: the financial incentives offered by the Obama administration, the wrenching local budget crises, and the growing agreement about what we want to see happen in schools.

More telling to me than much of the rhetoric surrounding the ePals and Microsoft deal is the personal alliances that have been forged: the ePals board is packed with long-time anti-Microsoft firebrands: former AOL CEO Steve Case, former Lotus CEO Mitch Kapor. Nothing draws erstwhile competitors together like an opportunity. “Even as a competitor, I’ve always been impressed with how Microsoft’s corporate culture embraces others’ technology and approaches,” says Fish, who is also a former AOL executive. (It’s not a total bear hug, however: Microsoft did not get a seat on the ePals’ board.)

I hope ePals and Microsoft are a success. Schools — and teachers — do need great controls to make that bright and shining picture of schools a reality. I’ve got my version of that picture pinned on my wall. Far more important — so do millions of kids.

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