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Published in Print: April 30, 2003, as Ed. Dept. Floats Plan for Overhaul Of ERIC Clearinghouses

Ed. Dept. Floats Plan for Overhaul Of ERIC Clearinghouses

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The Educational Resources Information Center, or ERIC, the world's largest and most widely used educational database system, would be overhauled under a proposal released by the Department of Education this month.

Under the plan, a single contractor would administer the 37-year-old system—a strategy that could spell the end of the 16 clearinghouses devoted to specific subject areas, and lead to drastic changes in the services now available.

For More Info
A draft of the Education Department's proposal for overhauling the ERIC database is available.

The draft "statement of work," posted on the department Web site April 10, includes a detailed description of the functions of the new centralized system, which would replace the clearinghouses housed primarily at universities around the country when those contracts expire Dec. 31.

According to the proposal, the changes are intended to make the system more efficient and cost-effective—as required under the 2002 law creating the agency's Institute of Education Sciences—and to speed the time it takes to archive the thousands of education studies, papers, and scholarly articles that are collected by the clearinghouses each year.

"The clearinghouse structure was established in the mid-1960s, when journal articles and other information materials were only available in paper form and when microfiche was a relatively new technology," the proposal states. Despite technological advances that make such materials more readily available, the plan maintains, "the time required to enter a document in the database has not changed significantly."

Supporters of the existing structure acknowledge the need for improvement and say they have been working to smooth the system. But the department's plan, they say, does not recognize the contributions of the clearinghouses in expanding customer services and bringing subject-area expertise to those collections.

"We don't want exactly what we have now ... but we're not sure starting from scratch is the easiest way or the best way to go about this," said R. David Lankes, the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology, based at Syracuse University.

Mr. Lankes and other advocates for ERIC say that the draft plan could allow many popular user services to be discontinued. The guidelines do not require the contractor, for example, to preserve AskERIC, which provides research services to individuals, or the ERIC Digests, the system's popular papers on specific education topics. The online listservs developed and maintained by the clearinghouses might also be abandoned.

Ignoring Other Activities?

While the draft requires the contractor to seek advice from experts in subjects currently covered—such as social studies, assessment, or reading instruction—their participation would be limited.

"The clearinghouses have a whole host of activities not funded by the government," said Lawrence Rudner, the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation, located at the University of Maryland College Park. "There's a whole lot of infrastructure that should not be ignored."

But the guidelines do not necessarily prevent the main contractor from incorporating existing services, or some clearing houses, into the new structure, said Jeff C. Halsted, a contract specialist with the Education Department.

Public comments on the proposal will be accepted through May 9 via e-mail at Jeff.C.Halsted@ed.gov. The department has already received hundreds of responses, Mr. Halsted said, many expressing support for improving the current infrastructure.

After reviewing the comments, department officials will issue more definitive guidelines over the summer and sponsor a public meeting to discuss the proposal, according to Mr. Halsted.

Vol. 22, Issue 33, Page 32

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Correction: 
The headline to this story says that a U.S. Department of Education plan would overhaul "ERIC Clearinghouses." In fact, as the accompanying story makes clear, the plan seeks to overhaul the ERIC system overall, and could include the elimination of some or all of the 16 research clearinghouses housed primarily at universities around the country.

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