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CYBERCULTURE | HEARD ON THE BEAT

January 19, 1998|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER

Student Sites: The promise of free technology is alluring to financially strapped educators, many of whom struggle to find a balance between their hardware needs and the cost of these tools.

So it comes as no surprise that schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties flooded a New York firm with requests for help last week after it began offering free space on its servers to any K-12 school that wanted to put up a home page on the World Wide Web.

The offer comes from Homework Heaven, a branch of Jumbo.com, an online archive of free software. The site, financed by banner ads, has 150,000 links to more than 700 educational resources on the Web.

"There are more than 100,000 schools in the country, and only 4,000 of them have Web sites," said Peter Shankman, a spokesman for Homework Heaven. "We looked around and realized it wouldn't cost us very much to get the schools online."

So what does the company get out of this deal? Access to a "killer" demographic, Shankman said.

The number of teenagers and college students tapping into the Internet is expected to boom from today's 11.1 million users to 28.7 million by 2002, according to a recent report by research firm Jupiter Communications.

That's a lot of young consumers who might be interested in buying goods online, such as the computer software and music and stereo equipment advertised throughout the Jumbo.com site.

Although there will be no advertising on the free student home pages, users will have to go through Jumbo.com's banner-laden pages in order to reach these student sites.

Similar ventures have been launched in the past. There's the American School Directory, a private initiative to build a free or low-cost Web site for each K-12 school in the United States. Started last year, the venture was spearheaded by Computers for Education Inc. in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a company that helps schools to get free hardware by cashing in "points" earned through magazine subscription sales.

Some educators hesitate to embrace any deal where the lines between academia and commercialization blur too much. Schools expect to recognize companies that donate equipment or money, said David Aylward, founder of 21st Century Teachers, a volunteer initiative that helps educators integrate technology into the classroom.

"But there's a difference between showing appreciation and supporting blatant advertisements," Aylward said. "Teachers need to be very sensitive to sites that mesh the marketplace too much with the classroom."

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