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Technology Update: Center Seeks To Spur Use of New Media for In-Service Training

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Two leaders in the field of education technology have left high-ranking jobs with state education departments to help launch a professional-development venture.

Michael Eason, who served as both the chief of educational technology in Florida and as the executive director of the Florida Distance Learning Network, and Geoffrey Fletcher, the associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and technology at the Texas Education Agency, last week became co-executive directors of the THE Institute.

The new venture is an offshoot of Technological Horizons in Education Journal, an educational-technology publication based in Los Angeles.

Mr. Fletcher said he and Mr. Eason will investigate ways that new media, including CD-ROMs, the Internet, and other electronic tools, can help educators rethink the way they do their jobs. The use of technology to spur professional development has not been explored to its fullest potential, experts say. (See Education Week, April 17, 1996.)

Mr. Eason said that though the exact direction of the new institute is uncertain, he looked forward to seeking unconventional approaches to teacher training. "Practically the only model that has been out there is to pull the teacher out of the classroom for a day at a time to attend a meeting," he said.

Both Mr. Eason and Mr. Fletcher said that one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of the venture will be its reliance on telecommunications, rather than face-to-face meetings, to get the project off the ground.

"I'm here in my house in Tallahassee. Geoff is in his house in Austin. And the magazine's in Los Angeles," Mr. Eason joked during a telephone interview. "If we can't make the technology work, we don't deserve the job."

Wireless technology that would allow computers to communicate across the classroom or across a campus is often seen as a cost-saving alternative to connecting every school to the information highway.

But like every technology, wireless has its advantages and disadvantages, according to participants in a round-table discussion held by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington last month.

The forum, which the FCC's wireless-telecommunications bureau held at a District of Columbia elementary school, brought together educators and industry representatives. They discussed ways that the FCC might encourage the development of equipment and cost-effective services that would allow schools to set up wireless telecommunications networks.

The event was co-sponsored by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. The Washington-based trade group last year launched a project called Classlink to provide selected schools with access to wireless communications.

Cost estimates for meeting the Clinton administration's challenge to business to connect every U.S. classroom to advanced telecommunications networks by the end of the century vary widely, but most start in the billions of dollars. Much of that high cost represents the expense and difficulty of running computer wires through antiquated buildings.

Participants at the forum cited ongoing experiments in wireless communications by, among others, the cellular-telephone industry and the National Science Foundation as evidence that the technique has promise.

But at least for now, experts warned, the technology is at best one of several options for connecting schools. Its limitations include limited range and restrictions on the amount of data that can be transmitted inexpensively.

As they sweltered in the lack of air conditioning during an unseasonal heat wave, the participants also noted that schools are a much more hostile environment for most technologies than the average office.

Heat and other factors such as a lack of sufficient electrical outlets make schools less technology-friendly, said Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, an official of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Installing a system in a school is a lot different from hooking up, for example, a shopping mall, she said.

And, though both government and industry officials said the cost of developing wireless technology for schools would drop if a market for it emerged, some participants remarked that educators by necessity are wary of technological fads.

"Public education does not have the luxury of writing this stuff off and buying 'the next greatest thing,'" said James Finkelstein, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who has conducted trials of technology in nearby public schools.

As federal and industry officials discussed the equipment end of schools and technology, others have begun looking at its social implications. One question is how to encourage girls, who traditionally are less likely than boys to embrace computers, to use electronic tools.

The National Coalition of Girls' Schools will release a videotape later this month called "Girls & Technology," designed to provide teachers with guidance in how to ensure that girls are given equal exposure to classroom technologies and encouragement to use them.

The 17-minute tape and a companion booklet will be available June 15 from the Concord, Mass.-based NCGS for $29.95. Copies of the tape may be ordered by calling Sue Sauer at the NCGS, (508) 287-4485.

--Peter West
e-mail: pwest@epe.org

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