California Educational Data Processing Association
The DataBus - Vol. 36, No. 4
There is so much cool stuff out there on the Internet. Why, someone can surf for hours, days, and never hit the same site twice. Secretaries, directors, students and parents find themselves meshed in explorations of wonder and awe. There is so much....Digital movies, collections of them, old movies, new avant-garde expositions. Sounds, music, animation, real time news and games are all now de rigueur. Web success is measured as much by presentation and panache as by substance. One of the best sites I have ever visited was a text based expose on Chernobyl. It will never make the "Pick of the Week." The Web at first blush appears to function like a human brain, but unlike its organic cousin, its axons and dendrites are not interactive. It takes a good deal of human effort and intervention to force communication between the pieces of the Internet. Herein lies the dilemma for organizations who have accepted the Web as a necessity for doing business. Connectivity, the notion that the ecology of the Web will improve productivity and learning, is not always borne out by experience. Teachers are ecstatic when their classroom gets its connection to the Web. They then often struggle trying to help students make sense of the apparent stream of conscious design of Web sites. What is real and relevant in a medium where everyone is a potential author and publisher? That the Internet is profoundly changing American political, educational and business culture is not debatable; organizations and individuals are connecting at rates that defy expectations and control, but to what benefit?
For individuals, the anarchy of the Web is its allure. Simple and ubiquitous connectivity and interaction is the design paradigm that has been the basis for the Internet's success. The browser becomes the extension of the psyche. Bookmarks become personal history, a way to keep and organize information and direction. The individualistic approach to collecting and interpreting information has begun to permeate the desktops of institutions. Institutions are ill equipped to deal with the magnitude of the impact. Information systems managers find "it is difficult to stop the in-roads of a technology that literally anyone can obtain for nothing and install on their desktops within minutes. Resorting to draconian measures will only poison the working relationship between IS and the user community; in a time of rapid change..." [Michael Milliken, Telecommunications Magazine, 1968]
The solution for organizations lies in the development of an Internet inside the firewall, an Intranet. While the press has paid perhaps too much attention to the Internet, it has missed the real impact of protocol technology that relies on cross-platform simplicity. Corporations and now educational institutions are using the inherent power of the collaborative tools developed by the world-wide Web community as a front end for mission critical applications and as a way of organizing workday information. "While 1995 was clearly the 'Year of the Internet', 1996 is well on its way to becoming the 'Year of the Intranet'. Thousands of organizations have already found that internal Intranets can help empower their employees through more timely and less costly information flow. This empowerment bolsters the company's competitive advantage, improves employee moral and assists in getting more timely information to customers and suppliers." [Lee Levitt, Internet Technologies Deployed, 1996]. Consider the inefficient way that schools acquire, distribute and utilize textbooks in today's hectic educational environment. Textbooks are outdated when purchased. Keeping classroom sets of the same edition is practically impossible. Ordering new copies is a laborious and personnel intensive process. Textbooks don't work very well anymore. In addition to this example is the constantly evolving nature of the modern organization. Responsibilities shift frequently in response to technological implementation, fluid personnel positions, budgets and policy changes. How is all of this to be managed in a fashion that provides relevant information to teachers and students while protecting the public's investment. A great deal of effort is wasted as it is devoted to checking on process and validating the entry of information.
A standard district document like a publication of "Goals and Objectives" may cost $5.00 each to produce. Add the distribution cost and multiply this by the number of staff, parents and public who need or want it, and then by the number of times per year it is produced or reproduced. It can be very easily seen that a substantial cost is required to deliver just a single, accurate document to educational stakeholders to allow them to perform their jobs or have relevant information. But if the hidden cost of the people verifying accuracy and quality of the information is added in, then the cost becomes even more astronomical. And this is just one document!
Today's cost-cutting environments demand that more be done for less. Institutions need efficient internal communications tools. In fact, it is known that increased communication is absolutely essential within schools, districts and county offices. Also, the increased demands on busy staff mean they do not have the time to waste chasing down the corrected information for revision publications nor is there a means to keep a document current on a weekly or even monthly basis. Intranets can help institutions overcome the inertia of this type of inefficiency.
Intranets are the implementation of Internet technologies within the organization's firewall. The information and processes are meant for internal consumption, and are not the public face characterized by Web sites as they are known today. Their purpose is to convert and deliver as many of the organizations resources as possible, electronically to the individual's desktop and in the process save cost, time and effort. The term Intranet was coined in early 1995 and is just now coming into common acceptance.
"Vendors say they are seeing substantial growth in corporate Internets--or Intranets --where groups ranging from individuals and product teams to corporate departments are posting Web pages and installing Telnet and FTP servers. This is becoming particularly true at Fortune 1000 companies.... In many cases, Intranets have grown ... in ways that emulate the public, capital "I" Internet...." [Stephen Lawton, Digital News and Review, 4/24/95]. Many products will soon be taking on new life as Intranet tools and legacy products and ideas will become Intranet compliant. Consider the following passage from an abstract written for the Internet Society.
"IS and functional department managers quickly identified the power of the..(Internet's tools)... as a resource to be leveraged on the corporate network as well. Forrester Research interviewed 50 Fortune 500 companies and found that fully two-thirds already have or are considering some involvement with Intranet applications. These companies have identified the Intranet as a powerful mechanism to make information more readily available.
With corporations under tremendous pressure to empower employees and to better leverage internal information resources, Intranets provide a highly effective ommunications platform, one that is both timely and extensible. A basic Intranet can be set up in hours or days and can ultimately serve as an 'information hub' for the entire company, its remote offices, partners, suppliers and customers.
Intranets offer the following application feature set:
The Intranet offers the educational institution an ability to organize and disseminate information in a comprehensible, timely and revisable format. It also offers an emergent tool set that will enhance and foster collaboration, engage learners with a relevant and media-rich presentation and provide teachers with curriculum and resources that are immediately accessible. Whether in a computer lab or on a teacher workstation, that information that is necessary for productivity can easily be arranged into a Web page. Lesson plans, media and film bookings, email, resources for classroom presentation and primary and secondary research documents are only a click of a mouse away. The resources can be arranged for a single department, a school or district-wide. Students can assist in the design and implementation of much of the information. They are proficient at using HTML and other tools. The Web is second nature to many of them. Existing site and district equipment can provide much of the infrastructure. Servers can be created on Macintosh or Windows NT computers connected to a network.
Given a schoolwide or districtwide adoption of Intranet strategies, the diversity of applications of Web technology can be applied to the teaching and learning process and to organizational activities. The following represent a few examples for Intranet application:
Lee Levitt outlines a strategy for deployment of an Intranet that is readily adaptable to educational institutions. His points for consideration include:
The second step is to identify the content source or author - the person actually responsible for the intelligence behind the information and for getting it down on paper. Where does the information currently reside? Is it in a series of Microsoft Word or WordPerfect documents? Excel spreadsheets? Lotus Notes, Oracle or other database? Should this particular person be responsible for "HTMLizing" the information, for serving it on their personal computer?
Further study will uncover other authors of similar situated pieces of information, most likely leading to a distributed content development and serving strategy. Individual content owners, most likely student groups, department chairpersons, managers and individual contributors, save their documents to HTML or leave them in their original format and forward them to a group publishing expert. This could be a secretary, teacher or administrator who has some desktop publishing skill. This expert, who may already have desktop publishing responsibilities for the group, can convert non-HTML documents quickly using a pre-defined template for consistent look and feel with any number of HTML converters.
The content can then be forwarded to a Webmaster who can apply it on a system running other educational and administrative applications, aggregating both the management and security activities for the content. Thus the content is available to anyone with appropriate access rights to the site.
Many districts will find building Web interfaces to "legacy information" as a key application. With appropriate tools, end users can build simple point and click access to this legacy information without any programming, making it available to non-technical users through their Web browser. Key database applications include: student records, warehouse information, inventory, technical problem tracking, CBEDS reports, enrollment projections. In addition, individuals can quickly set up inservice or training registration forms for short term usage, loading the registrants' information into an easily manipulated database.
Conversely, interoffice email may be more appropriate for "interrupt-driven" time sensitive information, particularly for a focused group of recipients. "Our Governing Board is stopping by for a visit of your school on Wednesday." In this situation, the Web server can be used as an extended information resource: "Before they arrive, please be sure to check the internal Web server link Board Visitations for more information on the reason for this visit."
For instance, usually a district can directly measure the cost of duplicating and distributing copies of its employee benefits manual. When this traditional process is moved over to an Intranet solution, the savings in direct costs can be taken directly to the bottom line, and the incremental costs of managing the content on the Intranet server can be tallied and easily justified.
On the other hand, the costs of informal information publishing, such as a curriculum guide, may not be directly measurable. Therefore, the move from traditional paper-based information flow to the Intranet may not result in direct measurable costs savings.
In these instances, it is important to focus on the value of enhanced access to information, and anecdotal accounts of the value may be helpful in measuring the results of the pilot. Statements such as "I was able to assist three new teachers overcome classroom problems because I had the information at my fingertips, and I knew it was current. With the old system, I was always putting the teacher on hold and trying to arrange for the delivery of appropriate information..." illustrate this value.
Once the value of an Intranet solution has been established through such a pilot, it can be expanded into other departments and functions. In addition, access to other legacy information can be provided, so that employees can search and update student databases, vacation days, or register for training classes.
Second, security may include encryption, also at several levels. Again, popular Web servers offer SSL encryption for communications between the server and browser, effectively scrambling the message and keeping it from interception. Encryption may also play a role if the Intranet application spans multiple organizations or locations - effectively a virtual private network running over the public Internet. This is particularly relevant for County Offices of Education who must service a number of Districts. An increasing number of organizations use their public Web servers in this manner - setting certain pages for use only by partners or customers through access control. Intelligent firewall solutions can create "tunnelling" applications that establish and keep open trusted communications lines between sites for further security.
Finally, security of the local area network within the school, district or County infrastructure and from the Internet is an important issue. Intranet servers may offer proxy servers as part of the Web server. Proxy servers handle HTTP, gopher and FTP requests and can be configured to restrict/allow these functions for each host. Proxy servers sometimes offer caching which means the Web server will cache Web pages, FTP and gopher data allowing client requests to be served by the local proxy. This reduces Internet requests and requests between Intranet Web servers.
Privacy can be enhanced by the use of Intranet applications through the delivery of sensitive information in a largely anonymous manner. While the interoffice mail staff may snicker (or worse, peek) when they deliver a memo marked confidential, the Intranet server will serve all pages with no similar bias or prejudice. Employees can feel free to review the Employee Assistance Program information at their desktops. Similarly, they may browse information on Board Policy or Sabbatical programs without fear of raising eyebrows (or gossip) from their managers or from personnel representatives.
On the other hand, some of the tools taken for granted in the Web server marketplace, such as the site log, do have the potential for invading privacy. Intranet administrators must balance the desire to track visitors (and therefore, value attained from the site) with the need for privacy with regard to certain content. It may simply be inappropriate for the company to track who has visited the Employee Assistance Program page, particularly since those with access to the log files may be IS rather than human resources personnel.
In addition, certain pages, such as competitive matrices, should have regular updates or "refreshes" scheduled, along with someone identified to provide instant updating as soon as new competitive information is received. In this way, browsers can trust that the information represents the competitive wisdom of the organization.
Other steps, such as providing an email address or telephone number of the author, can further assist in the use of the information, as users will be able to contact the author to request further information or clarification on specific points.
Second, an increasing number of tools empower the user to create HTML for the Intranet application. Many, if not most of the popular word processing packages, allow documents to be saved as HTML, and tools are beginning to enter the market that allow for large scale migration of content from traditional word processing format to HTML. These tools allow the non-sophisticated user to continue to create content in their familiar application and to move this content to the server without having to manipulate each file or document. [Lee Levitt, Internet Technologies Deployed Behind the Firewall, 1996]
The acceptance of Intranets in such a short time by so many organizations speaks to the power of the tool for managing information across schools, districts and county offices. Caution must be exercised as hidden costs can temper even modest deployments. There is also a consequent management burden that needs consideration. Educational institutions will need to invest in retraining IS personnel to take advantage of the current technologies. The result of successful implementations can lead to improved collaboration, increased learning, more efficient workers and more successful organizations. The power of the Internet when applied to educational institutions can have a truly liberating effect on the enterprise. Much that had seemed unachievable will be possible. Issues of equity, quality, rigor, efficiency, responsiveness and creativity can all benefit from effective Intranet strategies.
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