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'How To' Guide Seeks To Help Educators Create Computer Networks

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State and local policymakers are under increasing pressure to understand the intricacies of telecommunications as political support builds behind the idea that every classroom in the United States should have access to the Internet.

And a new and exhaustive "how to" document may hold some of the answers to the vexing technical questions about how to build and effectively employ an educational network.

"Creating Learning Communities: Practical, Universal Networking for Learning in Schools and Homes" was prepared by the Education Products Information Exchange Institute of Hampton Bay, N.Y., and the Center for Information Technology & Society of Melrose, Mass., two independent technology-consulting firms.

"[M]any schools and communities may feel that they are being asked to invest in a technology with unknown costs and largely undemonstrated benefits," the report points out. "Others may feel that the goal, though laudable, is impractical, given the constraints under which their schools have to function."

Kenneth Komoski, EPIE's director, stressed in an interview the benefits of school networking, arguing that computers and modems can harness telecommunications to link home and school, thereby "expanding" the school day. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1996.)

Mr. Komoski also said that while the approach can have its pitfalls, having technically capable parent volunteers to wire schools, as happened in many California schools on NetDay96 last month, can save money can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in some districts. (See Education Week, March 20, 1996.)

The report also contains strong rebuttals to what it says are exaggerated claims about the academic utility of the global Internet computer network and other networks. It discusses, for example, the "myth of the on-line expert," which holds that telecommunications gives students automatic access to the world's best minds.

"Nonetheless," the document says, "we will have improved access to 'secondary experts'--librarians and teachers who specialize in particular knowledge and can be contacted via the networks."

The 165-page report may be found on the World Wide Web on the Consortium for School Networking's home page, at http:\\www.cosn.org.

Because of the document's length, however, the authors advise obtaining printed copies, which may be ordered for $9 each by writing to the EPIE Institute, 103-3 Montauk Highway, Hampton Bay, N.Y. 11946.

Meanwhile, a new study of home access to the Internet, while small in scale, found that telecommunications can encourage parents to become more involved in their children's education.

Researchers at the Center for Excellence at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, as part of a federally funded study, furnished six poor families whose children attend the college's laboratory school with Internet access, software, and electronic-mail accounts.

While the participants were given little direction on how to use the technology, one of the researchers said, most of the parents soon learned to communicate among themselves and with their children's teachers electronically as well as to find medical and other information on the Internet.

And although few of the parents had any formal education beyond high school, and most considered themselves poor learners, the exploratory nature of the Internet gave them new confidence in their ability as students.

"Their whole perception about themselves changed," said researcher Melinda Bier. "They realized that they really learned well in a self-directed way."

Ms. Bier released the preliminary results of the project at the Florida Educational Technology Conference earlier this year in Orlando.

She said that the researchers will face a serious ethical dilemma when the study ends because the technology will have to be taken away. The parents had agreed to surrender the equipment.

"They had no idea what they were agreeing to because they didn't know how integral this would become to their lives," she said.

One surprising and inadvertent finding of the study, Ms. Bier said, may be bad news for one segment of the recently deregulated telecommunications industry. Given the choice of how to connect to the Internet, parents all chose a telephone line over a cable-television link.

"They somehow perceived the telephone companies to be more reliable than the cable companies," Ms. Bier noted. "And cheaper."

A document designed to help guide schools that are evaluating what role technology should play in their instructional programs is available from the National Study of School Evaluation, a nonprofit association of six regional school-accrediting organizations based in East Woodfield, Ill.

"Technology: Indicators of Quality Information Technology Systems in Schools," was released last week in Chicago at a meeting of the North Central Association, one of the accrediting bodies.

The survey gives policymakers tools to help answer two main questions: "What should students know and be able to do as a result of a quality information-technology program?" and "What are the indicators of high-performing instructional and organizational systems that support students' achievement of the desired results for their learning?"

Arguing that "information technology should be considered the 'fourth R' in today's educational system," the report offers a list of "performance indicators" to help educators decide whether students are capable of effectively using the tools of the information age.

One of the elementary-level indicators, for example, is that students be able to "demonstrate an understanding of key concepts related to the legal and ethical uses of technology," including on-line privacy and intellectual property.

Copies of the document are $37.50 each, or $30 each for 10 copies or more, from the NSSE, 1699 Woodfield Road, Suite 406, Schaumburg, Ill. 60713; or by fax at (847) 995-9088.

--Peter West
pwest@epe.org

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