Thursday, November 4, 1999 Published at 18:17 GMT
Net education: the business
Schools need fast access to trusted material
Pupils and parents are becoming spoilt for choice in the way of internet-based educational material - and under pressure to pay for it.
Tutornet, which has just launched in the UK, is only one of many commercial operations anxious for a slice of the burgeoning, net-based home schooling market.
"By establishing a presence in the UK, Tutornet will be able to more aggressively market its services to the over 11.0 million students in the region," said a recent press release.
"Tutornet's mission is to globalise quality education," said the company president, Euburn Forde.
The Virginia-based parent company was founded not by educators but business technologists.
Like Tutornet's chief financial officer, Rajiv Dalal, Mr Forde was a technology manager at Citicorp before they co-founded an international network outsourcing company.
One of its new competitors is ChildU - "the e-knowledge leaders" - providing tutoring services but also a complete home schooling package and material for schools, using a curriculum developed over almost 40 years by the Indiana-based Agency for Instructional Technology.
ChildU's chief executive officer, Scott Udine, got into the market through concerns about the future schooling of his own four-year-old twins - "the violence, the drugs, the overcrowding" - and a desire to make things better, but clearly sees it as a big business opportunity.
He and his partner attracted almost $7m of venture capital, and launched the service two weeks ago - charging $699 a year for one pupil's unlimited use of a teacher.
"Education is a buzz word, it's on everyone's lips right now, and it's somewhere where we wanted to be," he said.
The reason for the growth in the market he believes is that those parental concerns coincide with increasing availability of internet-connected computers in homes and schools.
"You're in the right place at the right time and it's and I don't think it's ever going to go the other way, it's going the way where they continue to learn more and more, the technology continues to get better."
Learning for free
The managing director of Tutornet in the UK, David Walker, identifies the same trend. A potential problem for their online chat model of tutoring, rather than ChildU's e-mail or freephone service - is telephone charges in the UK.
But he reasons that call costs are dropping all the time and that should not be a deterrent to a business plan that assumes "thousands" of users online simultaneously, the attraction being the instant personal feedback.
News International has recently used the prestige of its Times Educational Supplement title to launch the Learnfree internet service for children and parents in England.
As the name suggests, this costs nothing. It does have an online forum for registered users, but does not provide one-to-one support.
BBC Education has a variety of material, including the Bitesize revision services for secondary school pupils throughout the United Kingdom.
That includes an Ask a Teacher feature which attracts about 150 e-mails a day. Users get a reply from a qualified teacher within 72 hours - fine for revision, but too slow for homework purposes, which is not the main intention of the site.
Anglia Multimedia teamed up with British Telecom to offer the paid-for AngliaCampus service. It has two parts - for school and home users.
The latter, costing just under £50 a year, has specially-commissioned content designed to support the work children do at school. It has multiple-choice worksheets with automated marking, but no mechanism for personal feedback or tutoring.
The schools service, costing £120 a year for primary schools and £450 for secondaries, has attracted 2,200 paid-up users so far.
Anglia Multimedia's sales and marketing manager, Tim Youngman, says he does not have figures on the take-up of the home service, but describes it as "slow but reasonably good".
Much of the schools business - the core market - has come from local education authorities signing up all their schools. Hertfordshire, for instance, has just delivered 556 in one go.
They have been using the money provided by central government for connecting schools to the National Grid for Learning, the web-based network of educational materials in the UK, on which AngliaCampus is one of the searchable resources.
"It's definitely a growing market - the problem is there is so much out there," Mr Youngman said.
"I think the National Grid for Learning will become the portal for quality websites."
By 'quality' he means those with content of value to schools and parents, who do not want to have to waste time casting around the net for nuggets.
It was significant of the growing market that this month's EdNET industry awards in America attracted more than 150 entries, the largest in the history of the awards programme for organisations that have either made significant contributions to education or industry growth, or show great promise of doing so.
One of the winners in the 'not for profit' category was ThinkQuest from the philanthropic Advanced Network & Services, which says it is "the largest and fastest-growing Internet-based education program in the world" and "the most heavily trafficked educational destination on the internet".
Big claims. The options are already bewildering. The scramble is on therefore to become the 'portal' of choice - a trusted, reliable access point to educational material that people will return to.
The Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) project, begun by the US Department of Education in 1996, is an effort "to provide educators with quick and easy access to the substantial, but uncatalogued, collections of educational materials found on various federal, state, university, non-profit, and commercial internet sites."
The Gateway is open to anyone with internet access, providing links to free, partially-free and paid-for resources - very much like the UK's National Grid for Learning.
The same principle underpins other governments' efforts to make sense out of the web confusion.
Denmark's first educational web portal now includes the EMU 'shop' - something of a misnomer as much of the educational material is free for download.
Teachers and producers can place their own material on the 'shelves' of the shop.
"We believe that very soon the EMU will be one of the 10 largest portals in Denmark," said Martin Bech, head of net services at UNI-C, which developed and operates the service.
"From our close daily contact with the schools we know that a rapidly growing number of teachers and pupils wish to use the net in connection with daily teaching, but in many cases it is difficult to get a comprehensive view of the many different offers and resources available.
"With the EMU all they have to remember in order to find what they are looking for is one single web address."
The trick for educational content and service providers everywhere is getting their web address into users' memories. One obvious way to tap into the growing market of home consumers is to work through the schools.
"Next year what we will be doing, to further boost the home service, is sell through the schools to the parents, and say: ''This is the stuff your children are using in school - and you can buy it as a resource for your home'," said AngliaCampus's Tim Youngman.
The pressure is on.