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Schooling and Telecommunications

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The incredible transformation taking place in the nation's telecommunications infrastructure may be advancing with little regard to education. Do we really expect the hundreds of interactive, entertainment, and home-shopping channels, and new and exotic multimedia services, to complement the educational efforts of parents and teachers? While educators look forward to the day when all classrooms will have access to free and inexpensive on-line networks, a huge commercial industry is focusing on distributing unlimited entertainment video services to all households. Which is likely to have the greater impact on education?

Plans to overhaul the nation's education system should look beyond the present. Educators first should understand that the telecommunications industry, and the complex alliances of new business ventures it has spawned, are focusing not on the classroom, but on the living room. Secondly, educators should be less concerned about shaping the technical design and development of the emerging telecommunications infrastructure, and more interested in the type of programming services that will be offered. Third, they should devise a strategy for formalizing relationships between the education enterprise and the converging telecommunications industry. And, finally, educators and others representing public interests must recognize that alliances of private corporations don't normally negotiate with individuals or independent groups. For obvious reasons, a huge business conglomerate is more likely to listen to the needs of a broad coalition of prospective consumers.

  • Shared Goals and Common Interests of the Private Sector. Investments to improve schools pale in comparison to the funds targeted to a vast new digital industry. Gigantic business alliances of computer, television, communications, and entertainment companies are accumulating huge investment portfolios directed at the home video market. Complex groupings of companies have coalesced for the purpose of developing a wide array of on-line services. These services will have an enormous and direct impact on families and young children, and an equal, albeit indirect, impact on formal schooling. Industry spokespersons admit there will be a few "ho hum'' educational and informational programs, but that the bulk of the services will be for amusement and entertainment.

Claims by some telecommunications-industry officials that their investments in interactive technologies will revolutionize education are misleading, if not deceptive. Developers of the technologies will admit that the limited number of educational and instructional materials generated will be dwarfed by an extraordinary assortment of entertainment videos and games. Huge commercial ventures are justified by market research predicting a $3 trillion home-video market--a revenue source that far surpasses any amount that could be generated by school officials. Plans to capture interactive audiences and to upgrade the infrastructure that will carry the new services are progressing in tandem. The basic network architecture and software that will support the advanced infrastructure have already been developed and are being tested in various locations around the country--by cable-television, telephone, direct-broadcast-satellite, and "wireless cable'' companies.

  • Connecting Business and Public Interests. New business alliances have emerged as the strategic objectives of computer, television, and telephone companies become one and the same. These inexorable developments should be emulated by comparable public ventures that recognize more direct relationships between formal education and public information services.

Public-private partnerships attempting to meld broad economic and social interests in telecommunications applications are unfolding slowly, and in scattered locations. They should be encouraged. Incentives developed by several states and communities, for example, have already stimulated improvements in economic development and in promoting the integration of social services. Rural areas have become the most entrepreneurial with regard to telecommunications. And states such as New Jersey, Missouri, and Maryland have used regulatory incentives to promote public and private cooperative ventures. In return for accelerating investments in advanced or broadband networks and linking all of the state's schools, hospitals, and rural communities, telecommunications companies are given earnings flexibility. The benefits derived through such arrangements, which include improved educational services, are described as "win-win'' propositions.

  • Convergence of Telecommunications Technologies. The standard incentive for business partnerships is survival. In the telecommunications sector, converging technologies also help explain the sudden convergence of industries. Computers have been speaking a digital language; eventually, all electrical devices will have the same vocabulary. When you digitize information, it doesn't matter whether the receiver is a satellite dish, a television set, computer monitor, or "smart'' telephone. All become "interoperable.'' The complex business partnerships have thus emerged out of strategic interests to hasten the integration of complicated and competing technologies. The winners will gain an enviable position of controlling what, how, and where digital information is sent, that is, its content, delivery system, and receiving device.

Five of the world's largest industries are involved in most of these alliances: computing, communications, consumer electronics, entertainment, and publishing. In almost every case, the strategic objective of a cooperative venture in this arena is the same--converging three otherwise distinct segments of the industry into one business which owns or controls the following: (1) a programming or information service; (2) a transmission system or network using cables, fiber optics, satellites, or wireless technologies; (3) a computerized software package which can manipulate and interpret data sent by different sources or at different speeds. Initially, the latter will be housed in a "converter box'' that will sit on top of the television set.

Eventually, most electronic information and programming services will travel through fiber-optic lines--glass cables that transport pulses of light. Fiber cable capable of carrying digital signals has not been around all that long, but by 1991, over 5.5 million miles of it had crisscrossed the nation. Next year, fiber will extend over 16 million miles, and by the year 2000, experts predict that 40 million of the nation's 92 million households will be linked to a fiber-optic network. By about 2020, the entire nation could have an integrated public switched network that will be totally digital and interoperable. In other words, a standard protocol or dialing code will enable every household user to send or receive digital messages. Even now, most schools, libraries, and social-service agencies can make use of a variety of available and affordable service options. For example, telephone companies can install devices that enable schools and other local institutions to access full-motion video and high-speed digital services--all over regular thin pairs of telephone wires. Most local telephone or cable-television companies have the capacity to provide digital on-line information services and one-way video services to schools and households.

  • Converging Public and Education Interests. Unquestionably, the vision of an "electronic household'' or "electronic classroom'' will evolve steadily over the next two to three decades, though the benefits of this evolutionary change will be uneven. Some experts say that the uneven development of "superhighway'' networks, added costs of digital receivers, increased software patents and licensing fees, and increased commercialization of information services are among the factors that could contribute to a widening gap between information "haves'' and "have nots.'' Over the next two years, telecommunications-policy issues, including a redefinition of "universal service,'' will be addressed by Congressional committees that oversee the communications laws and by federal and state commissions that regulate services.

There is no reason why advanced electronic networks cannot be designed to strengthen the viability of both public and private institutions. Steps and procedures for developing communications technologies are identified in several recent reports. One such report, prepared for the nation's governors, suggests that state and local communities should begin by developing a vision, one that incorporates strategic opportunities for using new technologies to improve a wide range of social and governmental services. At a national level, we should expect the formulation of new policies to guide the overall development and expansion of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure. And we should expect spokespersons for national public organizations and associations to assume more responsibility in identifying critical problems that might be alleviated by electronic services and resources.

  • Identifying Potential Applications for Education. There seems to be no limit to the number of proposals for exploiting cutting-edge technologies to solve most social and educational problems. There is also a legion of experts who assume the fruits of technology will always be positive. Unquestionably, technological "solutions'' for education will be developed to solve problems that may not exist, or are less critical. Telecommunications officials might be expected to design advanced networks after educators and other public officials tell them what they would like the system to do. Limiting demand to "dedicated systems and services,'' and even access to the Internet, is misdirected and shortsighted. More sensible are enhanced systems which provide additional and useful services to schools, libraries, hospitals, correctional facilities, and other public institutions; systems that could captivate a broad constituency with substantial political clout. Ultimately, however, public-services providers, with or without technology, will have to demonstrate improved services and benefits to the constituents they are expected to serve.
  • Partnerships To Promote Models at State and Local Levels. Building a new telecommunications infrastructure which serves both economic and social purposes will require uncommon cooperation among diverse interest groups, partnerships between the public and private sectors, and new organizational arrangements--at all levels of government. Several state and local initiatives that promote or support innovative applications of telecommunications have demonstrated that partnership techniques can be used to overcome political, regulatory, and administrative obstacles. Alternative models exist, as indicated by recent reports from the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, the Council of Governors' Policy Advisers, and Richard Hezel Associates. Realizing the promises and minimizing the perils will require the formulation of national telecommunication policies that reflect the practical experiences and experimental efforts under way in different locations around the nation. The responsibility for developing the national vision and plan for advanced electronic networks and services should not be limited to a few individuals or corporate investors preoccupied with the commercial landscape of this nation.
  • Forming Alliances To Influence National Policy. Alliances in the private sector have been formed on the basis of a common interest to succeed, or survive. If educators want to influence the development of telecommunications, they should begin by participating in the appropriate forums--in Congressional and regulatory hearings on telecommunications policy, for example--or in creating new forums on education and telecommunications. Education officials should recognize that there are multiple numbers of telecommunications systems and services offering a diverse set of alternatives. They should be able to match their critical needs to alternatives that are affordable and sustainable. Most importantly, educators should begin by addressing educational concerns that transcend the jurisdiction and responsibility of schools.

We cannot expect an advanced telecommunications infrastructure to fulfill broad social and economic goals if it is planned by teams of self-serving experts operating alone in one sector or another. The promising vision of an advanced telecommunications infrastructure lies not in its potential to help public and private institutions prosper or survive, but in its capacity to improve social, educational, and economic services for the vast majority of the nation's citizens.

Arthur D. Sheekey is a senior program analyst with the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect policies or positions of the department or the federal government.

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