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Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as Federal Study Details Major Barrier To Internet Learning

Federal Study Details Major Barrier To Internet Learning

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The World Wide Web can be shaped into a vibrant educational tool serving all learners if more money is devoted to research and development and if governments clear away many conflicting and obsolete rules, a federal panel has concluded after a 10-month study.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey

"Technology offers tremendous potential for improving the delivery of education, and we should not squander this opportunity," Sen. Bob Kerrey, D- Neb., the chairman of the Web-based Education Commission, said as the panel's report was released here last month. Congress authorized the commission in 1998 to advise lawmakers on how to develop the Web as a medium for learning.

Despite the Web's potential, "significant barriers" to using the global computer network as a teaching tool remain, said Mr. Kerrey, who has since retired from the Senate and has a new job as president of the New School University in New York City. The main hurdles identified in the study include providing widespread, affordable access to broadband communications, which allows two-way transmission of digital video; better training for teachers and school administrators; and more high-quality, online educational resources.

The 16-member panel also called for better protection and privacy for online learners, and advocated sustained funding at the school level to acquire and maintain new technology.

Policymakers also need to break down "regulatory barriers that were not intended to be barriers," said Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the vice-chairman of the commission. "We should quickly repeal them or modernize them to reflect the value of the Internet in education."

For example, he said, some federal funding and scholarship aid are contingent on students' logging a certain amount of time in the classroom. But with online learning, Mr. Isakson said, "seat time is sort of irrelevant."

Hearing From the Field

Over a span of 10 months, the commission received oral and written testimony from hundreds of organizations and individuals concerned about the use of technology in schools. The commission has now wrapped up its business, but its report, "The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving From Promise to Practice," released Dec. 19, will remain online at www.webcommission.org.

The recommendations in the 129-page document stretch far beyond federal action—and in most cases hinge on collaboration among federal, state, and local governments, school boards, the information technology and education industries, and the education research community.

Many of the report's conclusions echo those of other groups, including the CEO Forum, composed of 22 high-ranking executives of high-tech companies and educational organizations, and the Clinton administration's President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology, which called for more research and teacher training, better digital content, and greater access to online technologies.

But the Web commission's report goes beyond those efforts to reflect the growth of online university and high school programs, the impact of billions of dollars of federal E-rate discounts on telecommunications services for schools and libraries, concerns about the so- called "digital divide" between Americans with greater and lesser access to new technology, and other developments.

On two central issues—copyright of online materials and funding for technology—the commissioners did not find clear solutions, however.

"We were lobbied very hard" by publishers interested in protecting the value of their content in a digital world, said commission member Richard J. Gowan, the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D. Teachers, meanwhile, were passionate about not losing their traditional "fair use" right to use copyrighted materials in instruction, Mr. Gowan said.

Overall, the report sends a "strong message that the Internet gives us great capacity and great advantage for learning, but there are hurdles and important things we need to provide to make it work well," said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. Ms. Bryant is also a member of the CEO Forum.

Critics of the use of technology in schools were unconvinced by the panelists' findings. "You could predict their conclusions by looking at their witness list," said William L. Rukeyser, who runs Learning in the Real World, a Woodland, Calif.-based organization that questions the growing use of technology in schools.

Others expressed similar concerns. Colleen Cordes, a member and editor of the Alliance for Childhood, based in College Park, Md., questioned the educational and physiological appropriateness of having young children spend time using computers. The alliance recently called for a halt to the introduction of computers into elementary and middle schools.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will make the commission's report a foundation for action, said Frank B. Withrow, a former director of the federal Star Schools program who has also worked on various school technology programs for more than 30 years.

"A large part of it will depend on the direction set by President- elect Bush and [his nominee for secretary of education] Rod Paige," he said.

Mr. Withrow noted that the Houston public schools, where Mr. Paige has been superintendent for seven years, is known for its use of technology in education. With that in mind, he said, "I'm optimistic."

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 34

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