Today I attended a demo for the content portal/federated search product called SchoolRooms. The short of it is that this is a SirsiDynix product designed to be the only information tool K-12 kids need when doing homework or looking for curriculum-related information.
The long of it is that this tool has, as I count it, two primary functions. First, it is a browseable portal of selected web resources. "Selected" is emphasized here for two reasons. First is that these resources were selected because they were relevant to schools' curriculum, browseable by elementary school, middle school, etc (these are call "guides," and there are also guides for parents, educators and librarians, which focus on the curriculum, but from a "how to I help the kids" standpoint).
All of these resources are websites freely available on the internet - which leads to the second meaning of "selected." To build this product, SirsiDynix worked with INFOhio and Kent State University's School of Library and Information Science (where I earned my MLIS) to bring together students, teachers, librarians and programmers. As a development team, these groups conducted exhaustive usability testing (read the report of their findings [pdf], lead by Jason Holmes) to make sure the product would be useful, useable and functional (for instance, they realized that the product would need to have a graphics-based K-2 interface, since kids that age can't read yet).
Further, paired teacher/librarian contributor teams hand-select websites that are both reliable and relevant. These websites form the bulk of the content within the browseable section.
If the browseable section isn't enough, SchoolRooms also functions as a federated search interface. From one search box (on every page within SchoolRooms), patrons can search the library's catalog, all the library's subscription databases, all of the hand-selected websites, and lastly, the internet in general using Google (although this last one could be done by anyone, SchoolRooms has a nice built-in feature that helps people search better than they might if they were to go to Google themselves. For instance, if you were on the SchoolRooms page for "Elementary School > Geography > Maps > Africa," SchoolRooms will incorporate those keywords in the Google Search, which will yield better results than a freehand search, as a patron might not think to include all of those words).
This demo session was lead by Kenneth J. Peterson of the Boston Regional Library System and the Boston Public Library. He point out that BPL is the first to roll this product out city-wide (although San Diego is not far behind, and Ohio is looking into state-wide implementation. Also, libraries in Canada and Denmark are interested). He was very excited about this product, especially coupled with BPL's eCard program. And to encourage use, there is a large link on the BPL homepage to their SchoolRooms portal.
The bottom line seemed to be that this is a great product for K-12 homework help. In the usability study, it was found that 88% of students said they'd use it again, and 51% said it was more helpful than Google or Yahoo. That's a tool to keep an eye on - although I can't even imagine what the price tag would be.