You might have heard America Online is offering free software to help schools make better use of the Internet.

You probably didn't know Harry McGregor has a similar plan.

AOL is, of course, an online juggernaut with a multibillion-dollar stock market valuation and more than 20 million subscribers. McGregor is a 19-year-old kid who lives with his parents in Tucson, Ariz.

Nobody subscribes to Harry.

Who's got a better deal for your kids? Read on and decide for yourself.

AOL's offer is called AOL@SCHOOL. It's essentially a portal site for schools, with separate home pages for primary, elementary, junior high and high school students as well as teachers and administrators.

Each section offers links to outside Web sites under subject areas like math, science and social studies. While the sites are available without AOL's software, the package does a nice job of organizing them.

AOL@SCHOOL also comes with free e-mail and instant messaging software. I don't know many teachers clamoring for more ways for their students to waste time, but kids will be pleased that these features can replace primitive technologies like note-passing and whispered conversation.

To use AOL@SCHOOL, campuses must already have fully functional Net-connected computers. AOL isn't providing free Net access just the software.

"Getting schools hooked up to the Internet has been an important national priority," AOL CEO Steve Case said. "Now it's time to help them make the most of this technology to help students learn more."

Exposure for AOL

One of the things they'll learn is that AOL runs the entire Internet. Whether or not that's true (I'm still checking), it sure looks that way to kids surfing the Web through AOL@SCHOOL. While AOL isn't selling ad space on its student pages, the company's logo remains stamped in a frame atop every outside Web site that's visited.

Welcome to AOL-ementary school, kids.

Teachers who aren't already familiar with the sites linked from AOL@SCHOOL might find the service valuable. But Web-savvy educators will see it serves primarily to entice schools into selling AOL's brand to their students.

McGregor, by contrast, doesn't really care if students remember his name. All he wants is to help educators get the most out of the Net for the least amount of money.

When schools spend several thousand dollars apiece for computers equipped with commercial software, that money can't be used for teacher salaries, classroom construction or other educational services. So McGregor and a few of his friends are trying to build PCs that, loaded with software and networking equipment, would cost schools no more than $1,000 apiece.

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