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Connections: Opportunity Knocks

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Americans have long believed that one of public education's essential contributions has been to provide "the glue'' for our republic--the shared experience of attending a public school that has bonded us around common values. If that was true in the past, it is not so now. Our common culture today is largely a product of the entertainment media and the ubiquitous advertising that fuels it.

If we wonder where children get most of the ideas, information, and role models that shape their attitudes and behavior, we need look no further than the world of entertainment. We spend more on entertainment ($300 billion) in the United States than we do on public schools ($270 billion). More significantly, the average student spends only 2.8 hours per school day on academic subjects (the rest of the time in schools is spent on the plethora of ancillary programs like sex education and drug education). These children then go home, where, on average, they spend more than five hours watching television; any spare time is likely to be spent playing video games.

Dale Mann of Columbia University's Teachers College notes that the most popular video games come shrink-wrapped with 100-page game books. A preteen probably devotes at least 100 hours to get to the last screen page. "That's a curriculum!'' he says. "We may not like everything that video games teach, but they do teach.''

Who is surprised that in the battle for the minds and souls of our kids, education is getting soundly drubbed by entertainment? How can a music teacher compete with MTV or a history teacher win against the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? Young people who do the minimum in school and can barely stay awake in class become easily immersed in the things outside of school that they find interesting and fun--like television and video games.

Obviously, the technology has made possible the entertainment industry's enormous influence, but it is silly to blame it for eroding our sense of community, corrupting our values, and undermining our social institutions. The technology is neutral; the content is not. Mann says technology is a cannon, ready to be loaded and aimed. Entertainment companies load it with verve and imagination. Education does not.

But that may be changing. As the special section in this issue suggests, the new and rapidly developing technology provides the same opportunities to education that it does to entertainment. It has the potential to break down the psychological and geographic barriers that tend to separate schools and homes, parents and educators, learning and fun. It has the capability of engaging students and encouraging them to take more responsibility for their own education. And technology is the key to finding more time for learning--not necessarily in schools, but in the home. John Kernan, head of the Lightspan Partnership, which is designing interactive educational video games for home use, ponders the impact of capturing just one of the five hours spent daily on TV. "You'd be increasing the time spent on academic study by more than a third,'' he says.

Kernan also believes that education is in the catbird seat. There is an intense war being waged to determine who will provide Americans with the technology of the future. Who will aim and load the cannon? The cable-television industry, local and long-distance phone companies, and satellite providers are all competing with each other to bring the new technology into our homes. And because schools provide an easy and direct access to homes, education is ideally positioned to influence who wins that war. That's why the giant cable, phone, and satellite companies are providing millions of dollars in hardware and software to schools. After all, hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake.

The question is whether states and school districts will realize they are perched on the brink of a revolution. British writer Arthur C. Clarke noted that in the 1880s, after word reached Britain that Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone, a parliamentary commission asked the post office chief engineer whether the device would be useful to Britons. "No sir,'' the engineer replied. "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.''

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