Technology Adviser Seeks To Help Put Theory Into Practice

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Shortly after the Northridge earthquake severely damaged several Los Angeles schools, Linda G. Roberts took part in a transcontinental teleconference to argue that the need to rebuild the facilities provided an opportunity to upgrade them for the digital future.

Ms. Roberts, the U.S. Education Department's first full-time adviser on educational-technology issues, shared the electronic link with U.S. Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown, local politicians, school officials, and leaders of California's telecommunications industry.

She stressed the "unique opportunity to make [the schools] models for interactive learning,'' adding that "we shouldn't miss this opportunity to wire these schools ... to give staff, teachers, and students a leg up on becoming part of the telecommunications revolution.''

The inclusion of such a voice among the ranks of federal education officials is indicative of the Clinton Administration's interest in educational technology, observers say.

"The creation of this [post] signals [the department's] intent ... to be a major player in the development of technology for education,'' says Ms. Roberts, who joined the department in late August. "And we're not talking about this in an abstract sense.''

"I've spent 10 years thinking about these issues,'' she says. "The challenge in this job is to take this knowledge and bring it to the government and think through what it is we should be doing [so] we can leverage the federal resources most wisely.''

'A Credible Profile'

Observers offer lavish praise both for the Administration's decision to appoint an educational-technology advocate and for the choice of Ms. Roberts.

"I think she is the perfect choice for that position,'' says Geoffrey Fletcher, the associate commissioner for technology applications with the Texas Education Agency.

"I say that because someone in that position has be able to interact with the folks at the federal level,'' he adds. "Yet, at the same time, she's got a very, very strong and a credible profile in the field.''

Frank Withrow, a former Education Department technology specialist who now serves as the director of learning technologies for the Council of Chief State School Officers, also praises the selection.

He noted, though, that while a technology adviser can guide the direction of policy, she will not necessarily have the power to carry policies out.

Much of Ms. Roberts's credibility was earned at the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan government agency. During her nine years at the O.T.A., she directed the production of three reports on education technology and, in the process of doing so, developed relationships with practitioners in the field.

Before joining the O.T.A. in 1984, Ms. Roberts, a former elementary school teacher, served for several years in the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.

The first of her O.T.A. reports, Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning, released in 1988, was one of the most comprehensive inventories ever published of the ways in which computers and other electronic aids were being used in schools.

Many computer-using educators were reinvigorated in their efforts by the knowledge that the federal government had published a study that validated their work.

In naming Ms. Roberts one of 10 "educators of the decade,'' Electronic Learning magazine noted that Power On offered "new hope to technology-using educators.''

Ron Luckenbill, an education specialist in the Chapter 1 program in the Montana office of public instruction, says he was surprised but gratified when Ms. Roberts agreed to visit the state shortly after the release of Power On to address a local technology conference.

"Back when people were wondering if there really was a role for technology in the classroom,'' he says, "she was really a person who saw the promise in very direct applications of computers, satellites, and other technologies.''

It was one of many such appearances she has made in recent years.

A New Priority

Ms. Roberts's activist agenda stands in stark contrast to the backseat role that many say educational technology was assigned in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The emphasis then was largely on "basic skills,'' even as the microcomputer revolution was changing the nature of the workplace. The most notable exception, the "Star Schools'' distance-learning program, was a project of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.,and the Bush Administration proposed eliminating it.

Mr. Withrow, who oversaw technology programs from the Carter Administration into the Bush years, notes that, between 1966 and 1981, the department oversaw the development of $150 million worth of children's television programs, from "Sesame Street'' to the "Voyage of the Mimi.'' But that spending then slowed to a trickle.

Ms. Roberts says part of her mission is to help put technology high on the department's agenda again.

She also hopes to capitalize on a "heightened awareness'' in Congress of technology's power as a teaching tool to insure that pending legislation to reauthorize federal education programs reflects recent technological advances.

"We have an incredible opportunity to use our technological prowess ... to help us really improve the quality of education,'' she says, "for all our citizens, not just the few who can afford to acquire it on their own.''

Indeed, technology provisions are progressing in both houses of Congress. (See related story, this page.)

The 'Information Highway'

Ms. Roberts's task for the longer term is to guide Administration policy at a critical juncture in the convergence of technological and economic forces, and to insure that schools are part of the equation.

Most important, states and high-technology firms are competing to insure that schools have some access to the much ballyhooed "information highway.''

Ms. Roberts touts the ability of computer networks to metaphorically break down classroom walls and allow teachers, who generally work in isolation, to communicate as professionals.

"I'm talking about 'virtual communities' of learners,'' she says.

Last fall, Ms. Roberts attended a news conference here when Genentech, a San Francisco-based biotechnology firm, launched Access Excellence, a telecommunications project designed to link biology teachers with their colleagues and with scientific professionals.

This spring, the department plans to sponsor a conference on professional-development resources available on computer networks, she says.

The Clinton Administration, meanwhile, has made educational access to telecommunications a priority of the Commerce Department's "national information infrastructure'' initiative.

And Vice President Gore has called on the private sector to insure that every American classroom has access to the information highway by the turn of the century.

While most technology decisions will be made at the state and local levels, Ms. Roberts argues that the federal government also has an important role to play within the electronic classroom.

She notes, for example, that one reason the majority of educational software programs are bland, repetitive drill-and-practice exercises is that the federal Chapter 1 program, which is mostly remedial in nature, largely created the software market in schools by providing districts with the funds to buy the programs.

"Yet, the department really had no influence in how that software was developed,'' she says. "You might ask yourself, 'What would have happened if we had?'''

As Congress strives to mandate a greater emphasis on critical-thinking skills in Chapter 1, she says, the time is ripe to work with software developers to help them understand how to produce more demanding products that meet the requirements of the program.

Vol. 13, Issue 23

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