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Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as Technology Update

Technology Update

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E-Rate Program Is a Success, Case Studies in Four Cities Suggest

The E-rate is working, a report released this month by the Benton Foundation concludes.

According to the Washington-based foundation, the federal discount program supporting the educational use of telecommunications in U.S. schools and libraries is helping urban districts wire their classrooms and use technology to improve student learning.

"The fact that the E-rate was made available gives these school districts a pool of cash that allowed them to pay for professional development or electrical upgrades," said Andy Carvin, the editor of the report and a senior associate at the foundation.

Andy Carvin

The group advocates using telecommunications to address social problems, among other causes.

To measure the E-rate's impact, researchers at the New York City-based Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology visited four urban districts with high levels of poverty—the type of schools that the "education rate" discounts were designed to help the most.

Interviewing school officials in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee last fall, the researchers concluded that the E-rate discounts have had a profound effect in those cities.

For More Information

Read the Benton Foundation's report "The E-Rate in America: A Tale of Four Cities." (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.) A printed copy may also be ordered online for $15.

The discounts have been crucial to the school systems' progress in creating "robust, high-quality networks" that gave most of their classrooms access to the Internet, the researchers say.

They say the impact of the E- rate was enhanced by its requirement that schools receiving discounts carefully plan how to blend technology and instruction.

Another benefit stemmed from the rule that the districts pay a portion of the costs of their telecommunications projects. To cover that portion, the districts mostly tapped grants from their states and other outside sources, which created broader participation in the projects, the report says.

But the city school officials said they were hampered by the E-rate program's tight time schedules, shortages of contractors, and the challenge of wiring buildings that were more than 100 years old. They also said their expanded telecommunications infrastructures would be highly dependent on future E-rate discounts to remain operating and up to date.

The researchers observe that greater use of technology means that the professional-development needs of the districts' teachers are increasing "geometrically."

"The E-Rate in America: A Tale of Four Cities" also documents the E-rate's contentious history and provides a "tool kit" that school leaders can use to measure the program's impact in their own districts.

The report appeared a month after the Universal Service Administrative Co., which runs the E-rate program, announced that schools and libraries have requested an estimated $4.7 billion in funding for the program's third year, which runs from July of this year through June 2001. That figure surpasses the requests in the previous two years combined.

The discounts, authorized by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, currently are capped at $2.25 billion annually by the Federal Communications Commission, which collects that sum from telecommunications companies.


Ensuring Online Quality

The number of academic courses provided online is growing rapidly, with most of them offered so far by colleges and universities. But the rise of this instructional method has been hampered by a lack of widely accepted standards of quality, some educators and policymakers say.

For More Information

Read the executive summary of "Ensuring Online Quality," from IHEP (requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader).

A study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy attempts to fill that need by compiling 24 "quality benchmarks for distance learning in higher education."

IHEP, based in Washington, is a nonprofit think tank that has conducted several studies on distance education. The new study, "Quality on the Line," was commissioned by Blackboard Inc., a company that helps universities provide online courses, and the National Education Association, which represents 100,000 university faculty members in addition to 1.9 million K-12 teachers.

The benchmarks were unveiled last week at a forum of higher education policymakers in Washington, where both groups are based.

"The distance from faculty to student must be measured in results achieved for our students," NEA President Bob Chase said in a speech.

The benchmarks include having a technology plan that addresses electronic security to ensure the integrity and validity of information, and having an extremely reliable technology-delivery system.

Good online programs also have guidelines for course development and effective design, according to the benchmarks. Students should be able to interact with instructors in a variety of ways, such as voice mail and e-mail, and students should receive timely and constructive feedback to their questions and assignments, as well as lessons in how to conduct research.

Support for faculty members should include assistance in developing courses and in adapting their skills to the online format, the report says. Courses should be evaluated against "intended learning outcomes," which should be reviewed regularly to ensure clarity, utility, and appropriateness, it says.

Although the quality benchmarks were derived from a study of highly regarded college online courses, they are relevant to the precollegiate world, too, said Christine E. Maitland, the NEA's higher education coordinator.

"Distance education is being used for high school Advanced Placement [preparation courses], so it's already happening in some settings," said Ms. Maitland, who helped craft an NEA policy statement on online courses that the union approved last summer.

"A lot of these benchmarks are the same as [the NEA's] policy on quality distance education, which didn't separate out K-12 but applied to the whole enterprise of distance education," she said.

She added, though, that college-oriented benchmarks are not sufficient for younger students. "There are important distinctions because of the needs of children," Ms. Maitland said. "You don't just set them alone to learn. All sorts of values are taught in the classroom, and [children] need to have supervision."

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 19, Issue 29, Page 8

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