At the behest of Vice-President Al Gore, Silicon Valley computer makers are pursuing a scheme to allow parents to access their children's school grades via the Internet and e-mail their teachers with questions and comments, writes Tim Cornwell.
The "education dashboard" project involves some of the best-known corporate names on the World Wide Web. But its organisers are already at pains to show that highly-sensitive information about parents and pupils will be protected.
The Clinton Administration has staged a high-profile effort to get American schools on-line. Mr Gore, a likely front-runner in the presidential election in 2000, has gone a step further.
The gloss has begun to wear off cyberspace recently, as research suggests that the use of computers in US schools has been a mixed blessing. But the Vice-President himself unveiled the Dashboard project at an annual conference he runs on family issues in his home state of Tennessee, with President Bill Clinton in attendance.
The Dashboard package of hardware and software will be available to schools in about six months, it is hoped. About a dozen firms involved include the Netscape Communications Corporation, and Yahoo!, famous for their software allowing users to surf and search the World Wide Web.
It will be offered mostly free of charge for use on a voluntary basis to schools, spokesmen say. They call it a display of corporate altruism that also serves to shape a pool of young talent for the computer industry, as well as introduce new users to the Internet.
If it develops as Gore and others hope, parents would use Dashboard with a password to communicate with teachers, hash out common problems with fellow parents, and easily access information about their schools and school districts, from teaching budgets to test scores.
They would also, it is suggested, be able to obtain details on their child's homework, attendance, and progress. Teachers could also use it to communicate with parents, pupils, and each other.
Dashboard, entered via a screen that shows the school building and rooms, is presented as a kind of "virtual community" that could work wonders for parent involvement.
But its organisers faced questions about security and whether it would be limited to upper and middle-class families, who make up most of the 20 per cent of American households currently on line.
In northern California, where most of the firms involved are based, a far higher percentage of homes have computers than nationally. But backers counter that interested parents could access the school through their television sets, using "Web TV" programs now available.
Beth Johnson, a spokesman for Marimba, a northern California firm that is co-ordinating Dashboard, said teachers would not be deluged by electronic mail. "They are already inundated with e-mail," she said. "This would give them a more structured environment for conversations with parents."
The system would be designed to ensure that parents and students can only access their own grades, and not change them.
Sensitive communications, such as teachers debating a child's behavioural problems, could be encrypted. Unauthorised requests for reports or grades would trigger an alarm to the school.
"We are working with people in the security and encryption area to make sure issues of security and privacy are addressed," said Johnson. "This thing will be like Fort Knox, trust me."