Commercial Online Services: Benefits for Educators

Commercial online services offer much to the academic community. While current fervor is on the Internet—and most services now have links—additional benefits exist for members of commercial services. Foremost is convenience, but the other is the membership themselves, who readily share expertise and advice. While most commercial services are broad-based, each is strong in specific areas. Following is a brief overview of the major commercial online services, highlighting those aspects of interest to educators. CompuServe The largest general online information service in the world, CompuServe's strengths lie in its technical support forums, education-specific forums, a huge array of databases, its current and archival news, and a worldwide membership of two million plus. For technical support, this is the place to go. Over 850 vendors supply technical support for their products in forums; shareware is plentiful too. Alone this can be worth the cost of the service. Of the some 900 different special interest forums, a number are devoted to education. The Education Forum is a semi general-interest spot; Students' Forum is for learners and the Educational Research Forum discusses recent findings. In specific disciplines, there is the Foreign Language Education Forum, Science/Math Education Forum, IBM Special Needs Forum and more. Over 2,000 research and reference databases are available, including those from Dialog. To search over 850 bibliographic and full-text databases, IQuest offers fully indexed historical data updated daily. America Online AOL, as it's known, is purposely tailored for the home user. The friendliest user interface in town is AOL's distinction and strength, and Education is one of the nine Main Menu choices. From here, one gets to a wide range of activities, forums and mini-networks devoted to the process of teaching and learning. One can sign up for tutoring sessions, public or private. For papers, use the Academic Research Service, Compton's 30-volume encyclopedia set or Barron's Booknotes. For adult and higher learning is the Electronic University Network, which provides credit-by-exam college courses, degree programs and corporate training. AOL's Online Campus holds eight-week-long classes. And for that "coffeehouse" feel, one can go to meeting spots and chat—Bull Moose Tavern for politics; Afterwards Cafe for the arts or International House for foreign culture and language. AOL boasts a number of mini-networks devoted to specific areas of education. These are umbrellas under which one finds links to professonal organizations; searchable databases of publications, software, etc.; staff development opportunities; discussion forums and message boards; and more. The Teachers' Information Network, for example, includes NEA Online, AFT Online and ASCD Online. Joint projects are in both The Electronic Schoolhouse and Multimedia Exchange. Teachers' University offers six-week inservice seminars. For administrators, the National Principals' Center contains many of the same elements of the Teachers' Network. AOL also has services sponsored by the National Staff Development Council, National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Council of Chief State School Officers. AOL also links to: Scholastic Network (K-12), Smithsonian Online, Library of Congress Online, CNN Online, National Public Radio Online and more. PRODIGY Distinguishing itself from other services, PRODIGY offers two flavors: regular, for home users and Classroom PRODIGY. On the regular service, several areas off the Main Menu merit a look. Reference holds the Academic American Encyclopedia, Consumer Reports and two features on U.S. politics. News supplies current headlines, AP Online and more. Home/Family/Kids offers NOVA science activities, Carmen Sandiego geography adventures, etc. For an extra fee, Homework Helper, by Infonautics Corp. of Wayne, Pa., lets K-12 students do research via natural-language queries and icons. Classroom PRODIGY is uniquely tailored for K-12 school-based use. It includes all educational features of the regular service without the ads or other commercial content. Instead, it has its own message boards for teachers and students at elementary, middle and high school levels plus other special areas, projects and activities. One can exchange private e-mail with members of the regular service and the Internet. A Teacher's Manual binder serves as both user guide and aids incorporating the service into everyday teaching. Organized by discipline, a list of curriculum areas is on the Main Menu, each leading to other features. The areas are Math, Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, Art and Music, and Games. A matrix in the Teacher's Manual shows how most features address more than one area. The PRODIGY services host unique interactive learning adventures. In MayaQuest, students literally directed a team of scientists on mountain bikes as they explored Mayan ruins and culture. Other cooperative ventures include SuccessMaker Online from Computer Curriculum Corp. As one element of CCC's new Multimedia Science Classroom, which uses their Amazonia and Virtual BioPark titles for a thematic approach to middle school science, SuccessMaker Online is the link to online resources and communication. eWorld This service, originally for Apple users but with Windows software due out this year, shows its unique style at first glance. eWorld uses a graphical "town square"; one clicks on different buildings, like the Arts Pavilion, to go to parts of the service. eWorld is education rich. There are forums for educators to exchange ideas and to participate in live conferences with various academic experts. Soon new text-to-speech technology will allow members to actually hear the conferences. Lesson plans, sources for grants or fellowships and other opportunities are shared. Plenty of areas on eWorld suit students' needs as well, including collaborative learning projects run by teacher members. A special eWorld subscription program for schools was launched this spring. Links to the Internet are also planned for this year. Delphi Internet Services This older service revamped itself and changed its name. While its new focus is providing more Internet access and tools than other services, it also offers the same spectrum of features as its counterparts. Delphi Internet is the only service that lets members set up their own personal online forums open to the public, complete with software libraries and direct links to appropriate Internet sites. This facilitates collaborative learning projects and teacher exchange. The Reference and Education area draws upon the resources of the Internet to let subscribers join special interest groups such as the Nature/Science Forum. It also has the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Groliers Encyclopedia and the Federal Register. Real-time learning adventures debuted on Delphi Internet in 1994 with Class Afloat, an international study program featuring e-mail contact with students sailing around the world. It occurs again this year. 1995 brought the Young America Electronic Adventure with correlated math and science activities, plus e-mail exchange with the America's Cup PACT 95 syndicate and the Young America yacht's crew. Other Names to Recognize The DIALOG online service from Knight-Ridder Information, Inc. excels in professional and scholarly databases (450+); many other commercial services utilize them as well. GEnie, on the other hand, leans toward hobbies and recreation, with only a smattering of features that would suit education. It, too, boasts Internet access with a Web browser due out in August. Accu-Weather is a unique online service offering real-time weather data and forecasts. The core is the Accu-Data database, updated every second and including all available weather data, charts, forecasts and maps for the entire world. Among the highlights are real-time satellite imagery in 3D and infrared, plus complete NEXRAD Doppler radar information. Schools get toll-free access, free software, DataShare Student Weather Network and more. Educational Modules, for grades 7-12 or grades 3-6, add a teacher's manual, activity sheets and other integration tools. The Microsoft Network A Beta browsing of The Microsoft Network, MSN for short, shows promise. Clicking Categories on the opening screen brings up an Education & Reference choice. From there, eight areas (so far) are offered: Colleges & Universities, Computer Education, Educator-to-Educator, International Students, Primary & Secondary Education, Continuing Education, Reference, and Field of Study (where the action is in terms of disciplines). Most areas have message BBSs and live chat; other features vary. MSN integrates software libraries, user forums and projects, even links to related material on the Internet that automatically fire up and "fetch." The technology is impressive; now all it needs is members. Time will tell. Quick Contact Info Accu-Weather, Inc. State College, PA (814) 234-9601, x400 America Online, Inc. Vienna, VA (800) 827-6364 CompuServe, Inc. Columbus, OH (800) 848-8199 Delphi Internet Services Corp. Cambridge, MA (800) 695-4005 DIALOG Knight-Ridder Information, Inc. Mountain View, CA (800) 3-DIALOG eWorld Apple Computer, Inc. Cupertino, CA (800) 775-4556 GEnie General Electric Information Services Rockville, MD (800) 638-9636 Prodigy Services Co. White Plains, NY (800) PRODIGY The Microsoft Network Microsoft Corp. Redmond, WA (206) 882-8080

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.