Last update at : Mon May 8 22:12:20 1995

Building a Commercial Internet Service for Education

Building a Commercial Internet Service for Education:
Learning from One Vendor's Experience

May 8, 1995

Richard D. Perlman


As more-and-more schools consider "getting on the net," they face an increasing number of options claiming to meet their needs. It is difficult for schools and potential service providers to know just which features are necessary and how to deliver them. This paper will use the experiences of one company in the Internet Education field to clarify what is needed by K-12 sites as they implement LAN based Internet services in their schools.

The information presented is intended to help service providers and their customers create a common understanding of the key elements necessary for successful implementation and application of Internet services in schools. It is hoped that through such understanding the overall quality, quantity and usefulness of "education focused" products and services on the market will be increased.


1 The Market for K-12 Educational LAN Based Internet Services
   1.1  Nature of the School
   1.2  Grade level (Based on US schools)
   1.3  Options for Internet Services (How or from whom can Internet service be Obtained?)

2 The "Ideal" Product -- Major Service Features and Attributes
    2.1  Internet Access (and Data Transport)
    2.2  Flat-Rate Billing
    2.3  School Site Servers
    2.4  Provision of Internet Services for use Locally and by the Internet
    2.5  Ability to Access the System Without a User ID
    2.6  Local Control Over ID Assignment
    2.7  Internet Navigation and Resource Finding Aides
    2.8  Augmenting the `Free' Internet Resources
    2.9  Advance Notice of Services and Projects
    2.10 Appropriateness of the System to the Curriculum
    2.11 Teacher and Staff Training and Support
    2.12 Access from Home
    2.13 Technical Consultation
    2.14 Internet `Safety'
    2.15 System Security

3 Problems Encountered in the Educational Market
    3.1   Bandwidth (circuit speed)
    3.2   Wide range of Classroom equipment
    3.3   Site organization (labs, classrooms, etc.)
    3.4   Teacher "Comfort"
    3.5   Cost of the Service
    3.6   Similarity Between Home and School Services


Author Information

1 The Market for K-12 Educational LAN Based Internet Services

The potential market for a commercial Internet based educational service can be broken down by the following criteria.

1.1 Nature of the School

Publicly Supported Schools This segment consists of publicly funded (tax supported) schools. In most cases this is the school the average person would attend. In some areas (particularly outside the USA) religiously supported schools may partially or fully provide this function. Public schools generally provide instruction at all grade levels, and may have additional educational programs for students with special needs. These schools are often part of a greater system with attendant bureaucratic procedures.

Purchasing decisions in public schools must often follow well-defined procedures typically requiring official RFPs (Requests For Proposals) and multiple bids.

Privately Supported Schools These schools are typically smaller, often with a single campus, and may specialize in limited grade levels. Financial and managerial control is often local and not subject to higher approvals.

1.2 Grade level (Based on US schools)

K-4 (Ages 5- 9) It is assumed that students in the lowest grades will, for the most part, not personally interact with the system. For these students the major usefulness of Internet access is to provide teachers with curriculum and connections to other teachers. Some guided uses may occur, such as email messages to another class or as part of a collaborative project with another group.

5-6 (Ages 10-11) At this age students will begin personal interaction with the system. E-mail is usually the entry level application. Students are typically organized into classes that stay together for the entire school day. Use of the system is under the supervision of the teacher and is often done as a classroom activity, usually in a computer lab. Students are attracted to visually exciting materials -- the WorldWide Web is an enticing interface to present relatively complex materials to this age group. Some advanced students will begin setting up servers and creating multi-media content.

7-9 (Ages 12 - 14) Students move into a multi-teacher environment. Specialized classes may be offered for "Internet" related topics. Some classes may use the computer lab to work on class projects. Students begin to use the Internet for individual exploration often after school or in the library. Strong interest in on-line "chats." Some students start to stand-out as "system experts."

10-12 (Ages 15 - 18) Students begin to specialize in their course of study. Attention is now much greater on the content than the media. Students will look to the Internet as an information resource. The net is also a platform for distribution of students' creative works -- art, journalism, poetry, photography, video, etc. There is interest in looking at career related information and higher education sites. Students will be running servers as well as accessing other services on the net. (See Sec. 2.3)

1. 3 Options for Internet Services (How or from whom can Internet Service be Obtained?)

On-Line Services

On-line services like America Online [1], Prodigy [2], Compuserve [3], etc. have been offering specialized education based products. Typically, these involve the addition of relevant K-12 content to the existing service, often through a specialized entry point. Partnerships with information providers such as encyclopedias and full-text databases of magazines and periodicals are usually featured. Other services may be targeted at certain age groups or interest groups. An ID is required for access to the system and billing is per ID or account. Individual and shared user IDs are provided, often a single "account" can support more than one user ID.

Issues: Cost control is usually implemented by limiting usage after a certain billing level each month. This can make product usage difficult to plan for, especially late in the month. Individual IDs for more than a few students are prohibitively expensive and shared IDs can be a security problem since there is no way to associate activity with an individual user. There are 'equity of access' issues regarding students who also subscribe to the service at home. They may have an individual account and greater access to the system than students who can only use the system at school.

Vertical Market Integrators

Vertical market integrators can supply all of the service attributes (as described in Section 2) by themselves or form partnerships with other organizations that have expertise in the various product elements. This method of product development and delivery has excellent potential. Local organizations and consortiums ( Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh [4] for example) are working on projects in this area and some networking companies are looking at vertical market products. However, at the present time there are no services commercially available. This is the segment that includes Pacific Bell's Knowledge Network Gateway Project.

Issues: Small margin for profit may limit entries into the field. This type of service may be more costly than other options and may require purchase of a `bundle' of services.

Colleges and Universities

Many higher level institutions are now providing "educational services," often in conjunction with local school districts. Some services may be extensive and attempt to deliver a full package of services -- from connection to training. Others may be focused on specialized projects or activities.

Issues: Often staffed by students, these services can be difficult to plan for from year-to-year. Budgets are often limited and subject to cancellation. The College or University offering the service generally does so independent of other organizations.

"Skilled" Persons at the School Site

The basics of connecting to the Internet are not that complex. A teacher with initiative and local support can put together an Internet "service" at a very low cost.

Issues: Dependent on the "spark" provided by the local person. Often dependent on volunteers whose availability is not reliable. Typically low budget, may be dependent on donated equipment that is not what would ideally have been selected.


Knowledgeable parents and community members may also be able to establish an Internet service for the school.

Issues: Same general problems as teacher supported systems. Also, the volunteer is not part of the educational bureaucracy and may have difficulty with activities that require approval and/or funding.

2 The "Ideal" Product -- Major Service Features and Attributes

The key to the design and implementation of a successful product for the education market is a fully integrated package of services. The individual service elements necessary to meet the users' requirements are individually fairly easy to achieve. However, the key value, and difficulty, comes from combining as many service elements as possible into a single, comprehensive and competently executed product. The major service elements and product attributes as identified in the Knowledge Network Gateway Project are outlined below.

2.1 Internet Access (and Data Transport)

Internet access is often seen as the major hurdle by educators. While the process of purchasing Internet access is becoming much simpler, it still seems complex and mysterious to many people. For most school sites it is best to have Internet access, local transport (the data circuit) and network maintenance bundled together.

Provision of network numbers, domain registration and Domain Name services will make a product much more attractive. Additional services, such as centralized network management, are highly desirable for schools.

Service providers should be able to help schools understand the following transport options, and help them to select the best offering for their situation.

2.2 Flat-Rate Billing

School budgets are based on the annual academic year and are not generally flexible concerning variable expenses. The ability to buy a service based on a flat-rate billing structure is an essential attribute if a service is to be widely used and become an integral part of the educational process. Billing methods may vary from a single price for each site connected, regardless of size, to schemes based on student population or number of workstations. Pricing schemes based on the number of assigned user IDs are less desirable because they may discourage usage. Systems that are sensitive to school size will generally be more attractive and provide a more equitable pricing structure.

The flat-rate structure need only apply to system usage. Other services such as training, consultation, special projects, access to special information resources, etc. can be charged for as contracted and used.

2.3 School Site Servers

It is no longer feasible for a service provider to run an entire service from a central site. The complexities of sharing servers between a number of unrelated sites and the increase in Internet traffic required by centrally located servers make this type of service impractical and costly.

It is now more-or-less mandatory to locate servers as close to the user as possible, either at the school site, or in a central district location. This server can cache large amounts of information, especially Web pages and NetNews, greatly reducing the amount of traffic actually sent to the Internet and significantly improving user response times. A local server also allows for the creation and distribution of locally produced content. The ideal server should be easy to install and maintain.

The actual platform is not as significant as most users think. Because the Internet protocols (TCP/IP) are available on all modern computer systems it is no longer necessary that the Internet server platform be the same as the systems used for user workstations.. A school could easily run a Macintosh Internet server while using only Windows based workstations.

The most important factor is to find a server that meets the schools' needs for ease of administration, service, operation and budget. System designers and purchasers should consider the following:

The following services should be provided for the school from the service provider's site:

2.4 Provision of Internet Services for use Locally and by the Internet

School sites should be encouraged to become information providers as well as consumers. Services like the World-Wide Web and Gopher can be easily created and maintained by students and teachers on Macintosh and Windows computers. The service provider should provide guidelines, software and support to assist and encourage schools in this venture.

A local www "home page" or gopher server can feature local events, school news and information and also include pointers to other Internet resources. The concept is to make initial access easy for those who may not see the Internet as an "opportunity." Local services can also be used to distribute locally produced information like school newspapers, sports information, student art, etc. The server design should make it easy for a school to decide if part or all of their "home page" should be visible outside of their local domain.

2.5 Ability to Access the System Without a User ID

With school populations as high as 4,000+ it is not always feasible or even desirable to issue each student and teacher a user ID. Many aspects of Internet usage do not require the identification of the user i.e., access to public web servers and anonymous ftp sites. If a system requires an ID for access to these types of resources local administrative time will increase and system usage will be adversely affected.

Even when authentication to special resources is required, the site information may be all that is necessary to authorize access -- using access controls based on network address or domain name.

An analogous situation is a library. Anyone can walk into a library to read or browse through the collections, but in order to check something out, a card is required. This makes even more sense when we consider that in many cases the Internet access is provided in school libraries and study halls and the Internet `terminal' may even sit alongside the card catalog.

2.6 Local Control Over ID Assignment

Many Internet services such as e-mail, chat & news posting should require a user ID to identify the source of the input. Establishment and maintenance of IDs should be directly under the control of the school staff. A good ID administration implementation will allow the site to permit or deny access on a service by service basis. For example, only certain users could be permitted to use the chat, access the MUD or be allowed telnet access to the system.

Systems where ID requests need to be submitted to a central agency are generally slow and cannot respond to requirements for adding or deleting IDs on short notice. Also, there may be charges associated with each ID change.

2.7 Internet Navigation and Resource Finding Aides

In addition to a home page, or local starting point, it is essential to provide an organized view into information resources on the Internet for both students and teachers. These guides can be organized by subject, grade level or other schemes that meet a school's needs. Service providers may maintain listings of this type or refer users to any of several excellent educationally oriented K-12 listings available on the Internet [9].

More specialized or localized resource guides will encourage and support usage of the system by teachers and students. However, as guides become more specialized, the amount of time and effort to maintain them increases proportionately. It should also be noted the use of finding guides will diminish as users become comfortable with the net and begin to collect their own hotlists. It is therefore important to teach users how to maintain a bookmark list so they can easily return to places of interest. Some sites encourage the creation of personal web home pages where students and teachers can feature their own personal "hot lists."

2.8 Augmenting the `Free' Internet Resources

Most first-time Internet users have an image of the Internet as a well-stocked resource library and are dismayed to find that there is no central organizational structure to the net. While materials in some areas, like biology, may be extensive other areas, like theater and dance, are hardly covered at all. Up until now, most information has been provided by Universities and similar institutions, much of it at too high a level for the general K-12 student population.

Fortunately, the recent expansion of the web and its user interface standard has made it much easier for Information providers to bring their services to the Internet. Information providers that previously supported only private network access and proprietary interfaces can now be accessed directly from the Internet through the Web. While the details of billing and access control are still being worked out, there is now a much broader, and continually growing variety of educational materials on the net.

The provider of an Internet service for schools can add great value by acting as a broker or sales agent for proprietary information sources. It is much easier for the service provider to keep up with new information sources than for each site to perform this service for themselves. It would also be an advantage to schools to manage all their "Information" accounts through a single vendor.

2.9 Advance Notice of Services and Projects

Most school activities, classroom and otherwise, are generally planned far in advance. Teachers often plan for an entire year's curriculum before school opens in the fall. If projects or special services are going to be offered by the service provider, teachers and school staff should be informed well ahead of time so they may include them in their planning.

2.10 Appropriateness of the System to the Curriculum

If localized content or services are available students will have greater success with the system. Look at the service being planned to see how it can be made to fit local requirements and uniqueness. For example, if 4th grade students study native populations, will material on native peoples be available on-line.

Often teachers and local university staffs will be willing to develop such resources, especially if a small stipend can be made available. If specialized materials have a wider range of appeal than the local school site they may be made available, or even sold, to other schools. A vendor can provide a valuable service by facilitating the creation, exchange and sales of such resources.

2.11 Teacher and Staff Training and Support

It is unfortunate, but true, that students are often much more open to learning about the Internet than teachers. A service provider should design training that recognizes this. Instead of simply teaching the "keystrokes" to operate the programs, good training should teach the reasons why someone would want to use the programs. For teachers, the use of the net is generally not an end in itself. They need to see for themselves how use of the Internet can help them achieve their classroom goals.

A training schedule should be flexible and allow schools to pace the training to meet local needs. Teachers, as a group, have fixed schedules. If training is to be offered during the regular school day, substitute teachers must be arranged for well in advance. A good service will recognize these factors and provide options such as after-school and weekend sessions and flexible scheduling to reconcile such problems.

Initial training is fine and necessary, but it is not enough. Teachers need specific training targeted to specific applications. For example seminars on "using email in a cultural studies unit" or "using NetNews for peer review in creative writing." A good service provider will expect, and be prepared to respond to unusual requests like "how do we set-up our journalism dept. on the Internet," or "how can we use the World-Wide Web in our photography class."

Service providers should not count on email for "getting the word out." Teachers and administrators are very busy, and even if interested, often do not have time to follow-up on every interesting idea they receive. Use of faxed announcements, regular site visits and "in-service" sessions are good ways of communicating between service provider and the school sites.

2.12 Access from Home

Teachers do much of their day-to-day planning at night. If they are going to include Internet services in their lesson plans and classroom activities teachers need to have access to the same material from home as at school, preferably with the same user interface. Similar desires and needs also apply to students. The Internet service becomes a much more valuable educational tool if students can continue their school work from their home.

The requirement for home access is also amplified as local information expands to include content and features such as two way communication between home and school and access to work assignments and lesson materials. Some key considerations in providing a service accessible from the home are:

2.13 Technical Consultation

Schools will have as varied a range of equipment as is possible to find, often without competent support at the school. No matter how an Internet service is positioned the service provider is likely to be expected to help resolve problems with the schools' local area networks, desktop systems and other school owned equipment. Clearly, supporting the broad range of school needs could be an excessive drain on the service provider's resources.

The solution is for the service provider to offer consulting services, for a fee, to handle areas outside the contracted service. Consultation can be provided directly by service provider's staff, if the skills are available and volume justifies the staffing, or through contracted 3rd parties. The key point is that the service provider should be the schools' single point of contact for all Internet related problems and needs.

2.14 Internet `Safety'

As in most situations, the best guarantee of safety is a capable and well-prepared user. While that is easily stated, it does not resolve the complex concerns about children and the Internet. There are a variety of methods for dealing with the actual problems, and parental concerns, regarding student access to materials deemed inappropriate for the classroom situation. Some methods to consider are:

Router access management. A router can be configured to deny access to certain sites based on their network address. This requires that the school or service provider keep track of questionable sites and maintain the router access control lists accordingly.

Local software based Internet `monitors.' Products are just appearing that promise to actually scan the incoming data stream from the net and "disconnect" sessions with inappropriate content. It remains to be seen if these systems can be made to work with sufficient speed and accuracy.

Social policy. Many sites require students to sign an "Internet" contract before they may access the net. Students are expected to honor the contract, and violation typically brings a denial of access.

2.15 System Security

Each school site must assume that its network and server is the object of unwanted attacks and act accordingly. The service provider should provide detailed plans and explanations as to what security measures will be implemented and how. Since vigilance regarding security is an ongoing task, the service provider should also have plans to monitor network advisories and keep the school site up-to-date with the latest patches and security software. This is a significant area that requires much more detail than is appropriate for this paper, much information is available on the Internet [10] and from other sources.

3 Problems Encountered in the Educational Market

3.1 Bandwidth (circuit speed)

While the cost of data transport is dropping rapidly, due to the introduction of services like Frame-Relay, ISDN and SMDS, costs for line speeds above 64-128kbs are still too high for most locations, even in the US. In many countries, even dedicated service at 9.6kbs is prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, recent developments in caching technology can mitigate many of the problems associated with slow line speeds. While there is no authoritative study, it is safe to guess that a relatively small number of Internet sites will account for the vast majority of information accessed from any one school in a day. Properly designed and managed caching schemes supported by adequate disk storage can greatly improve response times for local users who can receive the cached information at LAN speeds.

Other actions, such as running a local news server and pruning the newsfeed to a reasonable set of groups will also greatly affect the need to access data from outside the local domain. In fact, at least one Internet service for education is based on the concept of nightly downloads and does not require full-time Internet access.

3.2 Wide range of Classroom equipment

This is probably the biggest hurdle faced by service providers and school sites alike. While no amount of planning and software can turn an IBM-PC with a 80x24 `green screen' character display into a windowing graphics terminal, it can still be used to access a wide variety of information from the net. The same applies to older Macintoshes, Apple IIs, Commodores, etc. The following measures can make a big difference:

3.3 Site organization (labs, classrooms, etc.)

Think carefully about how workstations and other user equipment (printers, scanners, etc.) will be deployed. There will be a direct relationship between successful implementation of the school's Internet connection and how closely the installation maps to the current process at the school. For example, if classes normally use labs for science, language, etc., a computer lab may fit in well. On the other hand, if classrooms are generally autonomous, a lab concept may be inappropriate.

3.4 Teacher "Comfort"

There are several valid, and quite a few invalid, reasons for teachers to feel uncomfortable with the new Internet service. While it is not the purpose of this paper to detail these reasons, it is a good idea for the vendor and school site staff to work closely and identify and reconcile as many of the teachers' concerns as possible.

Some concerns, such as job security, will need to be dealt with locally. Although these concerns cannot be resolved by the service provider, the service provider can facilitate communications to find solutions.

Support from all levels of the school hierarchy is also essential for success. Support and buy-in from everyone from the superintendent to the custodial staff, and especially classroom teachers and technical support staff, will make a big difference in how quickly the system becomes accepted and how widely it is used.

3.5 Cost of the Service

This is probably the first problem most sites will identify. It is, however, a less important problem than having complete support. Nonetheless, money is a factor and there are things a school and vendor can do to help make the system more `affordable.'

Plan the installation carefully and look for ways to `grow' the network. For example, although the need for a large router to serve the entire district in five years may be clear, perhaps two small routers can be used now to serve the first site, and be redeployed later.

Analyze transport options carefully. Switched services such as ISDN may carry low monthly service charges but per minute usage charges can quickly add-up and push the cost beyond the costs of dedicated, full-time services. In many areas special tariffs [11] and service plans may be available for schools -- again, be sure to check with the local phone company.

Think about how the connection will be used. If the school will not be providing services accessible from the Internet, it may be more effective to use a usage sensitive service like ISDN since the "line" will not be up when not in use. On the other hand, if the school plans on building the greatest High School web site in the world, and wants the world to see it -- when they are awake, figure on 24 hour connectivity and consider a dedicated service.

Think about becoming a profit center. In some areas Internet access is very limited. Perhaps the school can setup a terminal server and re-sell service to the school community at night, but beware of numerous pitfalls. This is an area where a good relationship between vendor and customer can mean the difference between substantial income and horrific losses.

3.6 Similarity Between Home and School Services

Two seemingly conflicting directions were suggested in section 2.12 -- have the home service mirror the school service, and provide home access to the lowest possible platform. Clearly, a user on a vt100 terminal using Lynx (a character web browser) and Pine (a character based mail program) will not see the same thing as a user with Mosaic and Eudora. Good training and positive reinforcement of the value of information over the value of appearance are essential to reconciling this conundrum.

Schools can also work with local businesses to build programs to redeploy older equipment (many `386 systems are now being replaced). It may also be possible to have `loaner' or library systems that can be checked out for use at home.


America Online



Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh
URL: h

Pacific Bell ISDN Info.

Pacific Bell Frame Relay Info.

Pacific Bell SMDS Info.

Pacific Bell ATM Info.

K-12 and Children's services of note on the web

Kids Web - A World Wide Web Digital Library for School kids, part of "The Living TextBook" project.

Uncle Bob's Kids' Page

Yahoo Education Page

Janice's K-12 Cyberspace OUTPOST

WWW Schools Registry

Berit's Best Sites for Children
URL: /KSites.html


Kids Com

CERT ftp site

USENET Security FAQs (Frequently Asked Question s)

Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams

Pacific Bell - Education First

Author Information

Richard Perlman is Technical Director of Pacific Bell's Knowledge Network Gateway Project, a commercial effort to provide a complete Internet service to K-12 schools currently serving 16 individual schools, two complete school districts and one county office of education. The project's present user base is over 25,000 users accessing the system -- and the Internet -- over dedicated data lines and ISDN services using low cost, mostly public domain, software. Richard has been an Internet user for the past 15 years. He can be reached c/o Pacific Bell, 1118 Oxford St., Berkeley CA 94707, USA - Tel 1+510+528.1118.
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