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Investors Urged To Help Spur the Use of Education Technology

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NEW YORK--A United States Senator has called on some of the nation's most prosperous investors to help federal lawmakers in their effort to "reinvent'' schooling to make better use of sophisticated technology.

Speaking to investment bankers and money managers at a meeting here on "Innovations in Education'' last week, Sen. Bob Kerrey said that software developers and other technologists can help the federal government "invigorate'' the American commitment to public libraries and education by developing home-based electronic learning centers.

Senator Kerrey said that two things must happen if sophisticated electronic teaching aids are to have a significant educational benefit.

"The first is that we must develop a concrete vision of a home-based learning center,'' he said. "The second is that we must recognize that our current educational institutions ... are probably incapable of making the kinds of decisions needed to build a home-based system.''

Public agencies must depend on the private sector to make these educational systems a reality, he said.

The Nebraska Democrat was the featured speaker at the first-ever conference on the investment opportunities in education technology sponsored by Robertson, Stephens & Company, an investment-banking firm with offices here and in San Francisco.

The invitation-only conference attracted at least 500 participants, about half of whom could be characterized as institutional investors, according to Karen Silva, a company spokeswoman.

Investment Potential Touted

Senator Kerrey also hinted in his speech that the Clinton Administration may look more favorably on the role of educational telecommunications than did its predecessor as it seeks to honor its pledge to "reinvent government.''

He described a four-point program that he said was needed to lay the groundwork for change that included:

  • Establishing state agencies in every state to develop a "telecommunications agenda.''
  • Creating a White House committee, possibly headed by the Vice President, to coordinate "overlapping and competing'' agencies and policies that govern telecommunications.

He noted that Vice President Al Gore, during his years in the Senate, was active in telecommunications policy, including the educational applications of new technologies.

  • Creating a new generation of electronic libraries that will help to lower the costs of educational hardware and software.
  • Providing the education and training to insure that students and teachers have the opportunity to become "tele-literate.''

Since its founding in the late 1960's, Robertson Stephens has focused on investment opportunities in technology, priding itself on identifying and investing in "promising new industries.''

The firm points out that the educational-technologies market--which includes computer hardware and software, distance-learning, and other products--is a $2.2 billion-a-year enterprise.

And a briefing book prepared for the meeting calls educational technology firms "one of the nation's most promising'' investment opportunities.

Company analysts noted further that "several powerful forces are beginning to converge that are now driving technology into a central, mainstream role of delivering curriculum into classrooms, reinforced by products used in homes.''

The document cited a public perception that the schools are failing to adequately educate students, a "new paradigm'' of lifelong learning, and the growing price competitiveness of technologies with traditional textbooks as some of those factors.

A Fragmented Market

But the prospectus also cautioned that despite the efforts of classroom pioneers who are "increasingly supported at the highest levels,'' the education market is a fragmented one in which funding for technology is scarce, though increasing.

Nevertheless, the conference attracted representatives of such nationally known companies as Simon & Schuster, the Walt Disney Company, and 3M Company as well as a host of private investment firms familiar largely to Wall Street insiders.

The meeting also attracted smaller players, such as Thomas M. Haver, the president of William K. Bradford Publishing, a Massachusetts-based company that markets mathematics and literacy programs exclusively for K-12 use.

"It gives me a chance to hear their 'guesstimates' of the size of the different markets,' he said. "Though that's all they are.''

Many of the products displayed during the session demonstrated the rapid advances being made in such technologies as CD-ROM, videodisks, and fiber optics.

But Patty Burness, the executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, the brainchild of the famed film director, pointed out that prospective investors ought to pay more attention to pedagogy than to panache.

The foundation is working with nationally known educators to develop a vision of the "classroom of the future.''

Ms. Burness was echoing remarks made during a panel discussion by Tom Snyder, a leading software developer, who warned that "any innovation that does not take into account the complex nature of teaching and learning will fail.''

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