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The Last Mile

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Hip deep in fiber-optic cables, connectors, and other gadgets that turn a mass of electronic signals into a usable teaching tool, Jim Bostick is being rapidly worn down by life in the fast lane of the "information highway.''

As the head of computer services for the prestigious North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, Bostick will be the school's traffic manager for the "North Carolina Information Highway,'' the state's answer to the national data networks that have captured so much media attention.

Despite his engineering background and his experience managing the school's computer systems, Bostick admits he is hard-pressed to keep up with the technical demands of fabricating a local connection to the statewide network.

"Things are going so fast here, it's kind of scary,'' he says. "I'm sure there are a lot questions that I haven't even asked yet.''

Bostick is not alone in that feeling. Educators nationwide are scratching their heads over just how to bridge the so-called "last mile'' between their schools and the vast on-line universe.

Increasingly, that last mile is shrinking to the last few hundred feet as cable-television, telephone, and telecommunications companies mount efforts to connect school buildings to their services at reduced rates or free of charge.

But school officials are finding that extending the lines from the one connection the companies provide to various classrooms is prohibitively expensive and, in some cases, practically impossible.

Unanswered Questions

In slick television commercials and print advertisements, and in the committee rooms of state legislatures, the industry is selling the sophisticated telecommunications services that are now, in theory, available to teachers and students as the way to "bring the world into the classroom.'' Students in Montana, it is said, will be able to take "electronic field trips'' to the famed museums of the nation's capital. Expert teachers will have a means of sharing their knowledge simultaneously with thousands of students nationwide.

At the same time, the various firms with services to offer are elbowing each other aside in their efforts to connect schools--and, not incidentally, tap a potentially vast and lucrative new market--before their competitors.

Last month, for example, Pacific Bell, a California telephone company, pledged to spend $100 million by 1996 to insure that some 6,500 public schools in its service area have at least rudimentary access to sophisticated data networks.

That announcement came on the heels of a pledge by Bell Atlantic, a regional telephone company, and Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's leading cable-television system, to wire 26,000 schools nationwide.

But as Bostick has found, the cost and technical challenges involved are largely being ignored in the high-stakes rush toward the "digital future.''

"The cost and complexity of the last mile is the issue that I can't get anybody to pay attention to,'' says Cheryl S. Williams, the director of technology programs for the National School Boards Association. "And if you bring it up, it's sort of like you're being tacky, because [people argue], 'Well, the [telecommunications companies] are bringing the information highway to the schools.'''

Observers say that policymakers are overlooking a number of important technological and human-resource issues. They include:

  • While everyone talks about the information highway, there is no common definition for what it means in any context, least of all in education.

Does it mean, for example, that every classroom should be able to tap into the global Internet computer network--a relatively simple goal? Or should distance-learning via two-way video and audio links be available to every student?

  • The cost of bringing the information highway to an individual school--usually by means of hair-thin fiber-optic cables that can carry vast amounts of voice, video, and data--is only a very small fraction of the actual costs involved.

Schools built before personal computers even existed simply don't have the electrical wiring to bring the data to large numbers of P.C.'s; many lack even sufficient electrical outlets just to plug in the computers. Running new wiring through existing ceilings and walls will take time and money that most districts will find hard to come by.

Some observers believe that better use of existing computers and other resources will make wiring classrooms easier, but others contend it will take billions of dollars to rewire the majority of schools.

And those initial costs do not even include the costs of maintaining equipment or paying for on-line services once the hardware is installed.

  • No one has done a cost-benefit analysis to see if the expenditure is worthwhile.

Even if the technical issues are resolved, what advantages will the sophisticated, high-speed connections bring to the classroom?

Will the bulk of the new programming replicate the failed "talking head'' programs that typified early experiments to bring television into schools? Or will instruction and curriculum be radically modified to take advantage of the new capabilities?

  • Someone will have to train teachers to use the new services and provide them with incentives to do so.
  • Many schools already use a system of satellites, short-range television broadcasts, and other means to receive educational programming and services. How will the information highway, which for the most part is owned by private concerns, fit into that structure?

The answers to these and other questions will determine whether this sophisticated computer linkage becomes the boon to teachers and students that proponents promise or yet another failed technological "fix'' for schools.

Competing Interests

Observers say a number of factors have spurred the corporate push to wire schools.

For one, telephone service has become ubiquitous, driving telephone companies to seek new sources of revenue. For another, telephone, cable, and telecommunications firms are engaged in high-stakes federal regulatory battles over the rights to run--and the ability to control--programming distributed to households and other sites. Indeed, critics derided the Bell Atlantic-T.C.I. school venture as a mere public-relations effort designed to influence the federal officials who would have to approve a merger then pending between the two telecommunications giants.

The two firms called off plans for the merger last week, blaming a decision by the Federal Communications Commission to cut cable-television rates by 7 percent. But the firms earlier had promised the school project would continue whether or not they merged.

The telephone companies have long argued that they could hasten the rewiring of the nation with fiber optic--a process that they say could stretch into the middle of the next century--if the F.C.C. would allow them to develop and broadcast programming, thereby recouping the multibillion-dollar cost of the refit.

Their rivals in cable television, meanwhile, have jealously guarded their niche, arguing that allowing the phone companies to enter the broadcasting business would create a new monopoly.

And both sides have pointed to pilot projects they have funded in schools as evidence of their concern for the public good.

"Education is being used as an excuse for them to put fiber in,'' says Geoffrey Fletcher, the associate commissioner for technology applications with the Texas Education Agency. "But they're going to put fiber in anyway, and they admit it.''

In recent years, the F.C.C. has allowed the phone companies to carry, but not to create, video programming and has permitted some mergers between phone companies and cable companies serving different markets.

Whatever the benefits for telecommunications companies, students likely will benefit from the effort, many observers believe.

Frank Withrow, a technology expert with the Council of Chief State School Officers, for example, hails the Bell Atlantic announcement as a "critical first step'' in bringing schools into the "information age.''

Expensive Decisions

But the next step is up to school districts and individual schools. And, more often than not, it is the Jim Bosticks of the world who are left to answer the nuts-and-bolts questions of how to disseminate within their schools the mass of information that is expected to spill from the high-tech pipelines aimed at schoolhouse doors.

Districts will largely have to decide on their own whether the "highway'' should end at the school door, reach into individual classrooms, or--by far the most costly alternative--be available at every student's desk.

Officials in Fairfax County, an affluent suburb of Washington, for example, estimate that it will cost several million dollars per school to connect multiple classrooms at each of the system's 23 high schools, a bill they hope to pay by floating a technology bond issue.

Linda G. Roberts, the newly appointed adviser on technology issues to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, does not downplay the size of the task of making advanced telecommunications available in all of the nation's schools.

But she encourages educators to develop partnerships with the private sector to find low-cost solutions. (See related story, Page 20.)

She notes, for example, that the Pacific Bell initiative attempts to address many last-mile issues, including plans to encourage industry to help support the costs of wiring individual classrooms. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

Still, it seems clear that retrofitting schools to provide classroom-level access will require a huge public-works project easily comparable to the national effort to make aging schools safe from asbestos contamination.

Meanwhile, no one has yet made a convincing case for why districts should even consider undertaking such a project.

"What people are not talking about very much is what people are going to be putting on the system,'' Fletcher of Texas notes. "To me, it's a piece of cake to put out the wires ... it's much more difficult to put something on those wires that's beneficial in the classroom.''

Unlearned Lessons

Critics also contend that education policymakers apparently have learned little from the successes and failures of the microcomputer revolution of the 1980's about how to harness a new technology effectively.

The issues of providing teacher training and developing new curricula to complement the computer network, for example, have received little study.

"The reality is that probably no one really understands the training needs,'' says Withrow, who is overseeing a state-by-state assessment of educational telecommunications as part of the Clinton Administration's National Information Infrastructure initiative.

And the vast resources of the Internet are nearly impossible for teachers to use effectively, largely because there is no easy-to-use guide analogous to a telephone directory or a television guide to help users find the information they need.

"The 'last mile' is not just the connection to the school or even the connection to the classrooms,'' Roberts points out. "It also implies support for teachers.''

Moreover, few policymakers appear to have given any thought to how the existing education-technology infrastructure, which includes some sophisticated national and state-operated satellite networks, will fit into the fiber-optic-based future that the telephone and cable-television companies are so eagerly touting.

"I think that there's just too much hype,'' says Sandra H. Welch, the executive vice president of education for the Public Broadcasting Service, which is developing its own national satellite-based-learning network.

Many states and individual districts, she notes, have already invested heavily in a range of technologies to carry distance-learning programs, investments that do not appear readily compatible with ground-based telephone or cable systems.

"There's just this impression that there is only this one 'highway,' and it's totally new, and that it's going to be 'built' sometime'' in the future, Welch adds.

Shelly Weinstein, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Education Telecommunications Organization, observes that states like Kentucky have already spent millions of dollars to equip their schools with satellite dishes.

"Does anybody think that state legislature, in the next 10 years, is going to say, 'Oh, let's throw that out'?'' she asks.

"My view,'' says Williams of the school-boards association, "is that there is going to be a whole panoply of 'highways' and there's going to be a real period of chaos.''

Furthermore, critics say, the most ambitious scenarios for the information highway ignore the reality that schools have yet to widely embrace even the most commonplace technologies.

"Computers in American Schools,'' an international assessment of educational technology recently released by the C.C.S.S.O., notes that only 35 percent of U.S. high schools reported using an external computer network, and only 16 percent of those schools reported using such an external network daily or weekly.

Network use, the report adds, is primarily for electronic mail, rather than for accessing on-line information services.

"I don't think anybody understands the primitive nature of telecommunications equipment in schools,'' Williams says.

Unless these issues are addressed at the national level, perhaps at a White House summit for educators and telecommunications providers, schools soon will be run off the road in the rush to build the information highway, Weinstein asserts.

Yet, spurred on by the telecommunications industry, the rush toward the digital future is "moving so fast, with so much weight behind it, and with so much money involved, that schools won't have a say,'' she argues.

State Snafus

One person who has been working to give educators a say is Vice President Gore, a longtime Congressional supporter of insuring that schools have access to the Internet and other such networks.

Gore invited several influential education policymakers to a White House forum on the Administration's information-infrastructure initiative in January. At that meeting, Gore "clearly articulated his desire for schools to get the connectivity they need,'' says Connie Stout, who administers Texas Education Network, a joint venture of the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas system.

"He knew that they didn't have the equipment in place,'' adds Stout, who attended the meeting.

But, despite Gore's championing of schools, it is unlikely the federal government will underwrite a massive effort to wire schools, leaving that responsibility to states or districts.

Developments in several states suggest the process may be a rocky one.

Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, for example, was recently forced to admit publicly that "mistakes were made'' in developing a statewide fiber-optic network to serve schools and other public institutions.

The Governor acknowledged at a press conference that he does not know how much more it will cost to extend to individual high schools, hospitals, and other facilities a fiber-optic system the state has installed in every one of its 99 counties.

He estimated only that "last mile'' costs in Iowa would be less than the $100 million the state already has spent to develop the fiber-optic backbone.

The final cost estimates are not expected to be available until summer, however, and some state lawmakers already are threatening to withhold further funding for the project if those estimates are not available before the end of the current legislative session.

In Maryland, meanwhile, an agreement between the state and Bell Atlantic to develop a statewide distance-learning network faces a legal challenge from a Virginia cable-television company that says it was unfairly excluded from the chance to compete for the networking contract.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other state officials announced in June that the C&P Telephone Company, which has since been renamed Bell Atlantic-Maryland, had proposed a plan to offer a statewide distance-learning network that would link 270 schools as it developed a fiber-optic network in the state.

The phone company had offered as much as $50,000 worth of telecommunications equipment to each school and college that signed up.

But in late January, FreBon International Corporation filed suit, claiming that the telephone company negotiated its offer "secretly'' with state officials to avoid a possible bidding war for service that other companies could provide.

As a result, State Attorney General Joseph Curran recently warned the superintendents of the state's 24 school districts to avoid signing individual contracts with telecommunications providers until the state awards a single contract this spring for distance-learning services.

In Rhode Island, where schools have obtained more than 1,200 free telephone lines as part of an agreement between the state's public-service commission and New England Telephone, state education officials have turned to universities and interested parents to help design wiring plans for schools.

Under the agreement with the telephone company, any of the state's 305 public schools, as well as private, not-for-profit schools, may obtain as many free telephone connections to the building as they wish. The only restriction is that the line must be used to access the Internet or to communicate with an independent provider of Internet access.

But the popular offer, good through December 1995, does not address the issue of how to make the service available widely within individual schools. Some school buildings in the state date from the 1890's, which makes distributing the information from the phone line to individual classrooms difficult.

Technical advisers from Brown University have made available generic wiring designs and have been conducting workshops for school officials to help develop local wiring proposals. And one parent who works for the Navy's Underwater Systems Center in Newport, R.I., has been using his expertise to connect his child's school to the Internet.

Costs in Context

Back in North Carolina, state officials admit that some schools are far more prepared than others to take advantage of the state network and that many of the most advanced schools already are part of it.

The state network--a partnership of the state government, Southern Bell, G.T.E., and the state's roughly 25 local telephone companies--is designed to bring state agencies on-line and act as an incentive for others to follow.

Quentin Lindsey, the science adviser to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., who has championed the network's development, concedes that universal educational access, even at the building level, is years away.

"I don't want to mislead you into believing that this is highly organized and is a highly coordinated activity,'' he says. "It will, I would suspect, be another couple of years before we're really on top of things.''

If all goes well for Jim Bostick at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, by the beginning of the next school year, teachers at the statewide magnet school for gifted students will be able to use a campus video studio to beam interactive mathematics and science lessons to the 51 public schools across the state that are also part of the North Carolina pilot network.

But to make that vision a reality, he has had to both design and have assembled a series of sophisticated electronic switches and other devices that will encode and decode electronic signals coming into the studio from a fiber-optic telephone line owned by G.T.E. That's been a time-consuming and costly effort.

But for Joyce Bornfriend, the principal of Cape Hatteras School, a K-12 pilot site on the isolated Outer Banks, the cost of gaining access to the network must be weighed in the context of advantages it offers to students.

Plans to wire a single classroom adjacent to the school's media center will allow college-bound students in the school's 50-member senior class to enroll in a university English course and earn college credit.

Bornfriend estimates it will cost $60,000 to wire the room, a considerable sum for a district with a $3 million annual operating budget.

But the alternative, she asserts, would be to deny opportunities to students.

"We could choose to be very isolated and remote from the rest of the world,'' she says. "But we don't want to be. And technology is the way to avoid that.''

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