Turning 'NetDay' Into Next Day
Throughout October of last year, at least 37 states and many localities participated in NetDay '96. Governments, businesses, nonprofits, and volunteers joined together to wire the schools in their communities to ensure that they had access to the Internet. But what happens now that all the hammering, splicing, and connecting is done?
If the dream becomes real, teachers across America will plug into the Library of Congress, have students take virtual field trips down the Amazon, and upload autobiographical newspapers onto the school Web site.
But a more likely scenario will be that volunteers leave and the kids and teachers return to business as usual. The student will not learn any differently than the week before, and many of the teachers will not know how to take advantage of the new technology now available to them thanks to community volunteers.
We can change this scenario by turning our focus from NetDay to Next Day.
Connecting schools is only the beginning. We know that technology alone is not the silver bullet that will solve the problems facing the American education system. Merely having access to the Internet will not make U.S. students better equipped to enter the 21st century. Those who want to bring networking to students and teachers face a massive challenge--one that tackles not just the technology, but also educational concerns and social issues. NetDay was a giant step in the right direction, but wiring the schools without an ongoing commitment to the Next Day--the day when the teachers and students return to the classroom and need to learn how to use the new technology--will result in a net loss.
What is "Next Day" in the best of all possible worlds?
It is the day when we turn from the physical infrastructure and focus on the human infrastructure. It is a commitment by the community to engage in a broader discussion about what skills students will need and how classrooms will function differently once they are connected. Without such a dialogue, the new technology may be used in ways that have little effect, and today's high expectations may become tomorrow's disillusionment.
Next Day is the day we decide to invest in more teacher training, so that schools and the people who run them will make good use of the computer networks once they are in place. The fact is that districts often find it easier to acquire computers than to help teachers learn how to use them creatively. According to a 1993-94 report from the U.S. Department of Education, only 14 percent of public school teachers had had more than eight hours of training in the area of educational technology. As millions of Americans who have learned to use computers on the job know, the task requires continuous hands-on experience and follow-up support. Yet in 1992, the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment found that only 6 percent of elementary schools and 3 percent of secondary schools employed a full-time computer coordinator. The agency said that 60 percent of all schools had assigned no staff member to coordinate or supervise computer use.
Next Day is the day we integrate the technology into every classroom, enhancing the educational experience. Consider this: Even though there has been an increasing number of computers installed in schools, the average U.S. student spends just two hours a week using a computer. And students at school spend much of the time in computer labs learning about computers, rather than in classes actually using computers as tools for communication and research. Integrating new technology into the classroom will help turn students into active learners and help them develop such higher-order skills as problem-solving, analysis, and synthesis--the key skills needed for good jobs in the next decade.
Next Day is the day we use the model partnership of NetDay to establish a volunteer community network that helps teachers learn how to use the technology, then finds ways to keep teachers learning new, better ways to leverage this knowledge. The initial knowledge transfer could occur through volunteer hot lines and professional-development days. Sustained learning can happen many ways, including setting up networks for educators to share knowledge and learn from each other. Even though resources are limited, the public, private, and nonprofit sectors could find ways to connect teachers. Educator networks can break down professional isolation and demonstrate to teachers the potential for computer networking in education. Already, there are groundbreaking educational models that can be replicated if only more teachers and administrators know about them.
Most importantly, Next Day is the day after the hard work of wiring is completed and the job of installing, upgrading, and supporting the human infrastructure begins. It is the day the community truly commits to connecting the schools.
Andrew Blau is the director of the communications-policy project for the Benton Foundation in Washington. Patty Burness is the executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in Nicasio, Calif.