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The renowned scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke recounts in How the World Was One, his history of the communications revolution, a tale of technological shortsightedness that resonates today.

In the 1880's, he writes, after word reached Britain that Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone, a parliamentary commission asked the Post Office chief engineer whether the device would be useful to Britons.

"No sir," the engineer answered. "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."

Clarke was saying that in the midst of a technological revolution, it is both comforting to cling to familiar ideas and difficult to foresee how a particular invention can set off a chain of events that can change the face of society.

And so it is with the phenomenon that has come to be known as the "information highway."

The term describes a host of technological, regulatory, economic, and sociological developments that, in combination ,are likely to have unforeseeable effects on the ways people communicate, use information, and learn.

Last January, when Vice President Gore challenged the telecommunications industry to wire every school and library for access to the "National Information Infrastructure," he hoped to precipitate a sea change in education akin to the one brought about by the advent of the telephone.

Yet, almost a year later, few can define what "access to the information highway" means.

This special report is designed to provide a straightforward and nontechnical discussion of some of the key issues surrounding the development of the digital information networks so that education policymakers can more effectively plan for the information age.

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