FirstClass Education Summit

Report of the May 1996 event in Las Vegas, Nevada

by Peter Davies,
Milton Keynes Community Network, UK

Fifty delegates were treated to a series of presentations for the first two days and and had the opportunity to visit local schools using FirstClass on the third day. Most of the presentation time was allocated to unveiling new FirstClass capabilities and developments rather than in-situ educational case studies. The nature of new and envisaged FirstClass capabilities caused general excitement and considerable interest.

Scott Welsh of SoftArc gave a two hour opening address in which he undertook a general outline of actual and envisaged developments in FirstClass during the coming year. He began by emphasising the growth in FirstClass use resulting in its present position now with 4.5 million mailboxes using 20,000 servers. A central showpiece is a protocol module that acts as a conversion unit to allow FirstClass input to output with a variety of Internet protocols. Internet protocols with different histories and different functions generally do not have a robust capability to talk to one another. FirstClass version 3.5 scheduled for late summer/autumn 1996 will support real time protocol exchange between FirstClass and HTML, POP, SMPT, FTP, Gopher, IMAP4, LDAP, Finger and others. A demonstration was given of serving out an FirstClass mail list on Netscape as well as core data including the FirstClass icon format in which the data was contained.

People concerned about launching themselves into the arcane world of WWW authoring either directly or indirectly through WWW authoring software can sit back and relax while their FirstClass document automatically transforms itself into HTML. There will be a number of recalculations by many offering community network services across the web as well as FirstClass platforms. The necessity to operate separate servers for each diminishes with the integration of many Internet protocols into FirstClass generally.

For schools, FirstClass has provided a useful intermediary so far to full WWW access. While many political issues remain to be resolved in schools concerning Internet access, FirstClass with its offering of OneNet and support of listserv subscription, has allowed schools a flavour of Internet resources within non contentious boundaries. In future, FirstClass will offer to act as a place to intercept every WWW request within three settings criteria on the FirstClass server - one site only access; from a list of acceptable sites and completely open access.

Full web surfing within FirstClass is a facility that SoftArc are committed to developing but not to deliver this year. Developing FirstClass as a database query tool is well under way. In tandem with the new FirstClass off-line reader included in 3.5, it will be possible to construct database queries off-line. FirstClass "Delivery" is one custom application that will enable the development of a number of FirstClass applications including the writing of form data to databases external to FirstClass. FirstClass "Delivery" also supports sending hundreds of individualised notices and automatic file and data transactions among its features.

"Binary High" and the "Virtual School" are part of another planned FirstClass custom application described as giving "intuitive but controlled access to Schoolnet, the Internet and to local BBS services." These consist of a series of colourful screens representing a 3D town square, High School, schoolroom, treehouse, diner and others. These areas can be customised to meet individual requirements. While these environments may not be a total fit for personal taste, philosophy or function, they are illustrative of colourful possibilities.

The introduction of an FirstClass off-line reader is a late but very welcome feature. This was demonstrated and is essentially a mini server itself housed on the client software. FirstClass off-line looks and behaves exactly the same as FirstClass on-line to all intents and purposes. This will be extremely significant for schools for whom the telephone bills associated with any kind of browsing time whether within an FirstClass environment or on WWW remain prohibitive.

It was also announced by Apple representatives at the conference that a deal had been signed by Apple to build an "Internet" computer in association with: IBM, SUN, Netscape, Oracle, Adobe, incorporating a Java operating system supporting drag and drop programming, Navigator, User Ease, OpenDoc. This also included what was referred to as a "Quicktime media layer." "OpenDoc" and "Cyber Dog" will allow Netscape to be operative from within any application. e.g. Claris or Excel.

Apple at the same time endorsed their commitment to work with SoftArc expressing themselves as "over the moon" with what SoftArc had unveiled at the conference.

The "Virtual School" is a product of Dream Weaver Communications Inc. For further details email: info@dwc.com.

FirstClass "Delivery" is a product of VIZ-Soft Development details can be found at: http://www.vizsofyt.com.

Issue 9 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 12 August 1996