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Computer Educators: Network's Potential May Elude Schools

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Washington--When Walter E. Massey, the director of the National Science Foundation, announced the signing of a groundbreaking cooperative agreement with the Education Department earlier this year, one program he said would benefit from the pact is the National Research and Education Network.

The network, now under development, is a high-speed computer system that by the mid-1990's will link the nation's premier supercomputing and research facilities using the latest in fiber-optics technology.

When fully deployed, Mr. Massey said, the N.R.E.N. "will allow every school to hook up to a supercomputer and will allow students to share data across the country and around the world.''

Similarly, when D. Allan Bromley, President Bush's science adviser, joined Mr. Massey to discuss the role of the federal government in the reform of mathematics and science education before a Congressional panel last month, both touted the N.R.E.N. as a key technological weapon in the struggle to improve math and science literacy.

"Before the end of this decade,'' Mr. Bromley told lawmakers, "[N.R.E.N.] will make it possible for at least a very large fraction of the schools of the nation to be connected so that they can have the benefit of the really superb teachers, wherever they may be, [and] the very best of programs and curriculum.''

Unprecedented Access

The network the two scientists envision is a powerful communications tool that would give the nation's 16,000 school districts unprecedented access to state-of-the-art scientific research and potentially limitless new curriculum possibilities.

Yet many computer educators remain less than convinced that the advent of the network is close at hand, or even that a majority of elementary and secondary schools would be able to use the network.

The overwhelming majority of school districts, they note, lack both the computer hardware and the staff expertise needed to harness such a sophisticated and information-rich network.

These educators believe that only a major overhaul of federal regulations to encourage the development of a fiber-optic-based, "broad-band, telecommunications highway'' to serve every home, school, and library in the nation will ensure universal access to the network.

The debate over such a monumental change--now taking place largely unnoticed by most educators--may prove vital to solving what Mr. Bromley conceded is the knotty problem of laying the electronic "last mile'' that separates the average American school from the ultra-sophisticated network.

Or as Barbara O'Connor, the chairman of the California Educational Technology Committee, recently wrote of the potential of N.R.E.N. for education, "You cannot have a debate on whether N.R.E.N. should be extended to all school sites in the country without opening up the federal telecommunications policy morass.''

The foundation for N.R.E.N. was laid late last year, when President Bush signed into law the $2.9-billion High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991. That measure mandates that a version of the N.R.E.N. capable of carrying a billion bits of data per second must be in existence by 1996.

As proposed by Senator Albert Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, the N.R.E.N. initially was to connect only the nation's federally funded research facilities and supercomputer centers via fiber-optic cable--a hair-thin glass rod that is capable of carrying immense volumes of information at very high speeds.

But vigorous lobbying by educators and librarians resulted in a widening of the measure's scope to include their facilities.

Yet some experts believe that the experience of users with "Internet'' and "N.S.F. Net''--two existing, heavily used precursor networks to the N.R.E.N..--does not bode well for precollegiate users hoping to tap into the N.R.E.N. The strict hierarchical protocol under which users access the existing networks would make it difficult for K-12 users to obtain entree into the exclusive "pecking order'' of users, they say.

Moreover, observers note that even the highly successful N.S.F. Net, which links 65 percent of all universities and government and research laboratories, is not a single homogenous entity. Rather, it is a 20-year-old "network of networks'' connecting some 5,000 individual networks in which common standards have been devised over time to allow interconnectivity between users.

Nevertheless, as envisioned by the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology, the predominating vision of the N.R.E.N. "is of an interconnection of the nation's educational infrastructure to its knowledge and information centers,'' from preschools to postdoctoral institutions.

Under the terms of the legislation, the Education Department was to conduct research on how schools and libraries might use computers, while the N.S.F. was directed to devise a means for interconnecting schools, libraries, and other institutions.

And the N.S.F. already is developing recommendations for educators on how to effectively use the vast quantities of information that theoretically will be available to them when the N.R.E.N. comes on line.

Those suggestions include clustering schools and districts into on-line "virtual communities'' to aggregrate and focus demand and helping educators to formulate non-trivial inquiries, or "grand challenges,'' of the sort that the new network was developed to address in higher education.

A parallel effort also is under way to help precollegiate educators develop the appropriate computer proficiency to effectively access the new network and to fund grants to pay for the necessary hardware.

"We're looking at what software do you need, how do you organize these communities on line,'' said Beverly Hunter, the program director for the N.S.F.'s applications of advanced technologies program.

But in an article published in the Journal of Education and Technology earlier this year, Ms. Hunter cautioned that a host of obstacles remain between the day-to-day reality of the classroom and the grand vision espoused by N.R.E.N.'s architects.

She noted in the paper, for example, that teachers in only a few elementary or secondary schools enjoy full access to Internet.

She also pointed out that few people with technological expertise in networking have an understanding of the educational applications and reforms. Conversely, few educational leaders understand the technology.

"One thing no one talks about is how unable most schools are to receive these powerful resources,'' said Pam Keating, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, who, with N.S.F. support, is devising a prototype network that would allow precollegiate teachers to access the N.R.E.N.

"The computer capacity in school districts is being used largely for record-keeping,'' she noted.

Yet another major handicap to widespread use of the N.R.E.N., Ms. Hunter noted in her article, is the lack of "communications infrastructure,'' such as telephones, local area networks, and desktop computers in schools and districts.

Ms. Hunter concluded that a reasonable goal by 1995 is to "have in place the intellectual, technological, educational, and organizational foundation necessary'' for effective educational use of telecommunications.

Changing the Rules

Ms. Keating and others favor opening the N.R.E.N. to precollegiate educators, particularly those who teach math and science, because the databank is potentially so valuable in fields where knowledge can change virtually overnight.

"If you could get real-time access to a NASA database,'' she said, "why in the world would you be interested in a 4-inch by 4-inch photograph in a textbook?''

Ms. Keating is one of several researchers who have been following the telecommunications policy debate, but she is wary of "quick fix'' proposals that in the long run would make the proposed network much less useful to schools and libraries.

But, she concedes, "K-12 access to all of this capacity really is problematical.''

Meanwhile, through her work with the consortium, she has managed to give at least a handful of teachers a glimpse at the potential the N.R.E.N. may offer.

However, a major stumbling block to further progress, as Ms. Hunter and Mr. Bromley concede, is the telecommunications bottleneck at the school level.

"Certainly we've have many obstacles having to do with tariffs and how the telephone industry markets to the schools,'' Ms. Hunter said. "There are many such issues and I wouldn't say we've made a lot of progress on that.'

Efforts such as those in Seattle notwithstanding, Ms. O'Connor and other critics argue that unless a way is found to provide universal connections to the N.R.E.N., few schools will make use of the network, effectively creating groups of information "haves'' and "have nots'' in the nation's schools.

Ms. O'Connor recently criticized the current thrust of the N.R.E.N. proposal in a paper she wrote for the Annual Review of the Institute for Information Studies. The review is jointly published by the Aspen Institute and Northern Telecom Inc., a major manufacturer of digital switching equipment for telephone systems.

Under the plan, she said, some schools would still gain access to the system through a local university that is operating on the Internet.

But such a provision does not address the more immediate problem of providing widespread access to the fiber-optic lines that will carry the N.R.E.N., a problem which even Mr. Bromley conceded to lawmakers must be overcome.

"The real gap is in getting the fiber-optic to those schools,'' he told the Congressional panel. "And that is something that we are working on very rapidly with the private sector to develop a truly national, broadband information highway.''

Ms. O'Connor said that even the billions of dollars that the High Performance Computing Act authorizes to be spent on developing the N.R.E.N. infrastructure, there is not enough to make the service universally available to precollegiate users.

The federal government, she argues, should instead be developing an industrial policy that removes restrictions on the nation's regional telephone companies in order to facilitate their entry into the high-speed communications market.

One proposal that Ms. O'Connor and others say might set the right course for revamping telecommunications policies is a measure being debated in the Congress that would encourage the nation's regional Bell telephone operating companies to accelerate their efforts to wire homes, schools, libraries, and other users with fiber-optic cable.

Although the cost of the cable itself has dropped dramatically in recent years, the regional telephone companies, or telcoes, argue that it will be a multibillion-dollar undertaking to rewire individual homes.

They argue that they can afford the cost of the changeover only if federal law and court-ordered restrictions on their operations are lifted to allow them to compete effectively with the cable-television industry.

That debate, which had raged in the Congress for several years, has spilled over into many school districts as the telcoes and cable companies have mounted sophisticated advertising and pilot programs designed to demonstrate their commitment to education. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

The measure, S 1200, authored by Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, and co-sponsored by Senator Gore, would encourage the telcoes to replace their copper wiring with fiber-optic cable by the year 2015 with priority given to schools, hospitals, and libraries.

In exchange, the measure would allow for restrictions on the telcoes to slowly be relaxed, a proposal vigorously opposed by the cable industry.

Such an approach is, according to Ms. O'Connor, "the only way you're going to get [fiber-optic service] to everybody.''

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