Logging On 

City schools offering digital storage and e-mail addresses to middle school students.

The "dog ate my homework" excuse may be a thing of the past at Memphis City Schools (MCS), but "my computer crashed" will probably become more popular.

In a few weeks, Memphis' middle school students will begin using Gaggle.net, a web-based e-mail, homework storage and social networking system designed especially for schools. The program provides each student with an e-mail address, virtual locker for storing assignments, and a homework dropbox to submit papers digitally.

"We're trying to go green. Plus, one of the things the teachers have asked for is a reduction in paperwork," said Felicia Fowler, coordinator of instructional technology at MCS. "This is the ultimate way for kids to submit papers and projects."

The district is currently waiting for parents to return authorization letters sent out last week. Students whose parents do not approve of Gaggle.net will be able to submit assignments the old-fashioned way. Gaggle.net will expand to include high school students in January and elementary students in the spring.

Fowler said most classrooms have at least two computers, and students may also access their Gaggle.net accounts from home. As for low-income students without home computers, Fowler said they can log on from free computers in public libraries and community centers.

In addition to providing e-mail, Gaggle.net gives each student blog space to post pictures and videos. Students also will be able to chat with other kids in the district on message boards. Administrators will filter everything posted to the site, even during after-school hours. The district will have approval over all message board topics.

"But it's driven by the kids. They might say they'd like a message board on Twilight. They'll give their suggestion to a teacher, and the teacher will funnel it up to us," Fowler said.

Kyle O'Guin, a seventh-grader at White Station Middle School, doubts the district's ability to filter out negative message board comments quickly.

"Some people might not like a teacher and say something mean," O'Guin said. "A lot of the kids at my school think this is dumb. But it would be good if you forgot what you're supposed to do for your homework assignment."

David Lindsey's daughter also attends seventh grade at White Station Middle, and he thinks Gaggle.net is a great idea: "Most of us in the professional world don't lug around briefcases anymore because doing business electronically is more efficient.  I don't see why the same wouldn't be true for students."

MCS will be using a paid version of Gaggle.net, though a free ad-supported version is available. The district's subscription will cost $45,000 annually.

School systems across the country, such as the Mansfield Independent School District in Texas, have been using Gaggle.net for several years with no problems.

Said Richie Escovedo, a spokesman for the Mansfield Independent School District: "Gaggle.net has provided ways for us to reduce paper needs and costs, and it's made documents more accessible for students."

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