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Educators Say Technology Program Comes Up Short

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WASHINGTON--Technologically savvy educators are questioning whether a grant program proposed by the Clinton Administration to foster pilot programs in telecommunications will be sufficient to provide precollegiate students and teachers with widespread access to a planned "information superhighway.''

In the fiscal 1994 budget that it unveiled this month, the Administration is requesting $1 billion to help develop a national telecommunications network that would carry voice, video, and data nationwide over high-capacity fiber-optic cables.

The initiative stems from a policy statement, called "Technology for America's Economic Growth: A New Direction to Build Economic Strength,'' released in February.

In that paper, Mr. Clinton and Vice President Gore painted in broad strokes their vision of a national "telecommunications infrastructure'' that would build on existing electronic networks to link schools, libraries, and other public institutions with individual homes over a high-speed, digital connection.

However, the bulk of the President's budget request is slated to fund research-and-development projects to help make the network a reality. Included in the figure is $300 million to resolve technical and policy issues surrounding the development of the proposed National Research and Education Network that is envisioned primarily as a way to link postsecondary institutions.

The budget does include $51 million for a Commerce Department grant program to support pilot efforts to help schools connect to such existing networks as the Internet, a global "network of networks.''

The rest of the money in the budget request would go toward non-educational uses of technology.

While some educators are encouraged that the Administration is even considering helping schools enter the information age, they also contend that precollegiate education generally is woefully unequipped in personnel and technical expertise to make use of the technology without intensive efforts beyond those proposed in the budget.

"We have a real infrastructure problem,'' said Connie Stout, who manages the precollegiate services on the Texas Educational Network, a joint computer-networking project of the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas system. "We have schools that do not have electrical outlets and schools that only have one telephone line and six telephones.''

A Change in Federal Policy

Yet despite the budget's apparent shortcomings, the President's commitment to the networking project represents a change in federal technology policy, said Barbara O'Connor, who heads the Alliance for Public Technology, which supports the deployment of a national, fiber-optic-based network.

During the Reagan and Bush years, said Ms. O'Connor, who heads California's educational-technology project, "these issues [were] adjudicated in the courts, solely on the basis of antitrust regulations and [with] no regard for the public interest.''

The Administration's posture may also lend legitimacy to efforts already under way by national education groups to develop policies for educational telecommunciations, said Henry Marockie, the state superintendent of schools in West Virginia.

Mr. Marockie is heading a panel of the Council of Chief State School Officers that is developing such a national policy for submission to the Commerce Department.

Even so, other observers said that large-scale efforts are needed to bring a critical mass of schools into the computer age.

"We can easily have a few eye-catching, captivating pilot programs. And education is very good at producing pilots,'' said John Yrchik, a senior professional associate with the National Education Association, who helped develop the union's policy statement on telecommunications.

However, he added, "we've yet to think about how to make these things work in a mass way.''

Outside Support

Support for giving schools priority in becoming an integral part of the developing network comes even from those outside the education community.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics late last month in Seattle, William H. Gates, the co-founder and chairman of the board of the Microsoft Corporation, said that a digital network will become a reality, with or without government support.

"We don't need the government to invent the technologies or even build the network,'' the billionaire software developer said. "Those things are happening because of the commercial opportunity that's out there.''

However, he added, "one thing the government can do is ... make sure that schools are among the first [institutions] to get tied in.''

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