A Soft Sell

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Peter West
Carlsbad, Calif.

John Kernan would have you believe that the quest for the "killer app"--the Holy Grail of the information age--leads here, to a small coastal town north of San Diego and the headquarters of the Lightspan Partnership.

In his vision, the cup bearer is an animated blue moose from a distant galaxy who rides into homes and classrooms on a beam of electrons controlled by the local cable-television company. The moose's mission: to help teach youngsters the value of reading.

Killer app, in the parlance of purveyors of services for the so-called information highway, is shorthand for "killer application." Borrowed from the software industry, the term refers to a product so immediately useful--and potentially lucrative--that it will create consumer demand.

Still, for all of the hyperbolic tales about the "500-channel future" and "on ramps" that will lead to untold riches of data on the information highway, it's far from clear whether such a commodity exists. Yes, the cable-television, utility, telephone, and other telecommunications industries are eager to build a high-volume, digital delivery system to individual homes. But despite such optimism, most observers are left wondering whether there's enough quality content in the consumer market to justify the expense.

Content Counts

Whether a killer app exists, or can be developed, that will support the Clinton Administration's challenge to wire every classroom in the country to what it has dubbed the "National Information Infrastructure," or N.I.I., is an even more open question.

Certainly, a small percentage of schools already are engaged in activities--from on-line research projects on the Internet to two-way distance-learning pilot projects over fiber-optic telephone lines. And one day, industry observers predict such services will be available more widely, more efficiently, and in a more sophisticated form on the advanced networks.

But in the meantime, experts note that technology generally has yet to make noticeable changes in a critical mass of classrooms. In fact, they point out, most of the nation's classrooms aren't even equipped with basic telephone service.

Still, Kernan--who built Josten's Learning into the largest educational software company in the nation before founding the Lightspan Partnership in 1993--says that these pessimists have all "missed the big one." The killer app, he argues, is education, a commodity that already commands billions of dollars worth of public and private spending every year.

Here, and at Lightspan's production studios in Los Angeles, teams of media technicians and educators are developing what he calls "interactive, industrial-strength K-6 curriculum," packaged as entertainment. Lightspan hopes, in short, to persuade parents that their children can learn the basics (whether or not they're taught at school) by tuning in to the commercial-free adventures of "Mars Moose" and other Lightspan characters.

Whether the Lightspan venture will succeed is, at best, a gamble. Some think the odds look good. Just last month, Kernan announced that the Comsat Corporation, the Microsoft Corporation, and TCI Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of the cable-television giant Tele-Communications Inc., had agreed to invest $35 million in the Lightspan project.

Others wonder if Lightspan's commercial aspects will doom the company to the same litigious limbo as the advertising-supported Channel One--a comparison that infuriates Kernan. In a booming and speculative marketplace where new business alliances form daily to develop products and services for networks as yet unbuilt, picking winners and losers is akin to grasping quicksilver.

But even as lawmakers begin anew to hammer out the technical and regulatory frameworks that will undergird the N.I.I., a nagging question remains. Can enough killer apps be developed so that the average teacher and student will use the new networks as regularly and easily as they might a conventional library or any other educational resource?

The problem, according to John Lent, the director of the Scholastic Network, an on-line service aimed at K-12 teachers and students, is one of priorities. While a great deal of money is being spent to build an electronic infrastructure in some states, Lent argues, few policymakers have seriously considered how those connections might enhance--or even transform--teaching.

"There are states that are already coming up against this question," he notes. "Unfortunately, there's not a lot of thought given to content issues."

"Content," adds Frank Withrow, the director of learning technologies for the Council of Chief State School Officers, "is the name of the game."

Roadblocks Along the Way

No two experts, it seems, can agree on exactly what form, or forms, the information highway will eventually take, or even when it might be completed. But almost all informed observers would agree that the technological revolutions that will one day define the National Information Infrastructure are already at hand.

Lightspan, for example, began trials of its initial curriculum offerings in selected markets in November 1994. The company expects to formally launch its service nationwide next month. Meanwhile, a In the meantime, a growing number of schools have started to tap into the Internet, a global network of computer networks, for everything from electronic mail to on-line database searches.

Indeed, experts point to regulatory and economic barriers--not technological ones--as the major roadblocks to the full deployment of the information highway.

Schools find such barriers especially challenging. Few classrooms come equipped with cable television, telephones, or modems. Even fewer are wired for new technologies. Most teachers can only provide students with obsolete personal computers. And many scramble just to offer those. What's more, the majority of the nation's schools lack the funding they need to find their way to the information highway.

Reed E. Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, describes the components of the information highway as vastly improved versions of the communications services most businesspeople take for granted today.

But, he adds, one important change that the Administration hopes to foster is that telephone lines, voice mail, and other communications devices become as vital to schools as they have to businesses.

Still, when that will happen is largely a matter of conjecture.

Next Best Thing To Being There

Although no one killer app has yet emerged that could alone justify the multibillion-dollar estimated cost of wiring every classroom, there is no shortage of ideas for the kinds of educational services that can--or might one day--be delivered electronically.

The difficulty for educators will be to develop the skills necessary to discriminate between educationally meaningful fare and the merely entertaining. Indeed, the distinction between technologically feasible uses of the information highway and "vaporware"--a derisive term for fanciful ideas that are unlikely to come to fruition--continues to blur almost daily.

"To me, the hardware is the easy part. The content is the hard part," notes Mike Eason, the administrator of instructional technology for the Florida Education Department. "We have a very good system in place for the evaluation of printed material. We do not have anything similar in place for electronic media."

And the electronic choices are many.

  • Working the net. Many educators think the information highway is synonymous with the Internet, whose development was largely subsidized by the federal government. Part of that misperception stems from an established familiarity with the Internet. They already use the network to organize national chat sessions, send electronic mail, and conduct research.

"To a great extent, the only real, existing element of the information highway today is the Internet," argues Bob Weir, the director of product development for EduQuest, the K-12 subsidiary of the International Business Machines Corporation. "So, from our standpoint, the first place to show a value for the instruction of students is how to employ the Internet."

Not surprisingly, I.B.M. has begun to test a system that will allow teachers to access the Internet from their classrooms and effectively search for and retrieve information.

But educator concerns go beyond Internet access. Little thought has been given to how to blend the resources of the Internet into meaningful teaching, says Jesse Rodriguez, the director of information technologies for the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District. "How are we going to take the next step and say, 'By the way, how are we going to take the Internet and integrate it into the curriculum?"' he wonders. "To ask, 'What are the resources available to me on the net?'"

Many observers also warn against too great a focus on the global network. Internet access, they caution, is likely to be only one of the potential applications of telecommunications technology in the digital age. And the aging installed base of school computers also limits the use of the Internet's cutting-edge multimedia features, such as the Worldwide Web, a hypertext-based navigating system.

Malcom Phelps, who heads the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Internet resource called Spacelink, takes a conservative position. Even though the number of schools with Internet access has grown rapidly in recent years, he argues, "we are a hell of a long way from having ready access to all teachers in their classrooms."

  • Going the distance. Other educators look for alternate routes along the information highway. A draft report published by the Council of Chief State School Officers in cooperation with the U.S. Commerce Department, for example, argues that distance-learning on a national scale will play an important role in the information infrastructure. "Applications of distance-learning and learning technology resources," it notes, "are necessary for meeting the national education goals."

In a similar vein, several experiments are under way in K-12 classrooms using telepresence, a field pioneered by Robert Ballard, the renowned oceanographer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic. For six years now, the Jason Foundation, which Ballard established, has allowed students to "join" underwater biological and archaeological expeditions via satellite links and fiber-optic connections from remote geographic areas to local schools and libraries.

Meanwhile, Classroom Prodigy, an educational branch of the commercial on-line service, has joined forces with the nationally known software firm mecc to launch its own on-line archaeological expedition. Dan Buettner, who will lead the expedition, argues that such "real time" experiences could make textbooks obsolete. "The information in a textbook can change in the four or five years it takes to get to the classroom," he says. "In an increasingly MTV-style world that kids live in, this sort of real-time delivery is going to be very important. We give kids the power to direct a learning adventure."

  • Making up for the miles. Other projects set out to circumvent the physical and geographic barriers that separate teachers and students by creating "virtual communities."

Genentech, a leading biotechnology firm based in South San Francisco, for example, has launched Access Excellence, a telecommunications project that makes virtual neighbors out of 105 biology teachers from across the country. Using America Online, a commercial computer network, the teachers share lesson plans, track flu epidemics across the United States, and discuss the latest developments in their field with Genentech staff scientists.

  • Keeping it on-line. Some states, meanwhile, are experimenting with the on-line delivery of instructional resources over existing statewide networks. In Florida, as part of an initiative called School Year 2000, vast databases, such as an electronic version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, will soon be available to any school over the Florida Information Resource Network.

"The concept is that all of those supports that are needed to carry out the task of learning should readily be available to every student on-line," notes Phil Stockton, the vice president of editorial and production at Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation in Chicago, which is a major partner in the venture. "This is a massive undertaking. Nobody's ever tried to manage anything on this scale before."

  • Connecting to cable. Computer Curriculum Corporation of Sunnyvale, Calif., a Viacom subsidiary, has turned to cable television as its delivery system.

Late last year, C.C.C. announced plans to distribute some of the 4,000 hours of multimedia software developed for its "SuccessMaker" integrated-learning system over a Viacom cable network into home computers. As part of a cooperative pilot program with the Intel Corporation, the world's largest maker of computer chips, C.C.C. will beam the software directly into computers through a special computer chip.

Communication Is a Two-Way Street

Though there is little agreement on any other aspect of the developing market for educational software, almost all observers agree that what makes the information highway unique is the potential to develop national--and even global--communities of learners.

"The key is that the network is not just a one-way delivery system," says Hundt of the F.C.C. "It's interactive."

Kernan, for example, believes that when Lightspan hits its stride, teachers will post homework assignments on the network, students will work cooperatively from distant locations, and parents will keep in touch with their children's teachers using voice mail.

Lent would certainly agree that interactivity is the key feature of the Scholastic Network. Students and teachers interview favorite authors, celebrities, and political figures; teachers exchange curriculum tips and other information in electronic "chat rooms," and students share letters with virtual pen pals.

But what no one seems to understand, Lent argues, is that managing those electronic conversations is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and costly. "Managing that kind of interactivity is the biggest wake-up call for publishers when they get into this," he says. "Every one of your users is a reporter, and an editor, and a publisher. There aren't many people out there who know how to do it. Most people aren't even beginning to think about the issue."

Advocates of the Internet's free access to information, however, argue that the interactivity that commercial companies such as Lightspan and Scholastic offer is illusory. Those users, they say, are limited to interacting with whatever content the companies choose to make available, rather than indulging their own intellectual curiosity.

"In the Internet, users have created a new medium where there's no central authority," notes Andrew Cohill, the director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village Project, a cooperative networking venture of the municipality of Blacksburg, Va., Bell Atlantic of Virginia, and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. "There is no precedent for this in human history."

But most software developers, while enticed by the prospects of electronic delivery, are leery of security issues and copyright violations, as well as technological barriers to on-line delivery of proprietary materials.

"The issue is that the information highway is not a free-for-all," argues Mark Traphagen, a lawyer for the Washington D.C.-based Software Publishers Association. "If people can replicate information easily, they think they're entitled to do so. An average, everyday teacher doesn't understand the intricacies of the copyright law."

Form Follows Function

For some time to come, the characteristics of existing transmission systems will dictate the type of content available to schools and homes. In the future, industry analysts note, technical and regulatory "convergence" may mean that cable-television companies might provide telephone service or the electric company may use its lines to deliver video programming. But for now, existing industries are largely limited to technologies and markets at hand.

Those in the cable-television industry, for example, tend to view the potential applications of the information highway through the prism of delivery over a vastly upgraded cable network, which today is primarily a medium for delivering a televised image.

For Lightspan, the cable-television medium, at least in certain markets, allows for some interactivity between users as well as two-way communications with a "headend," or control center where the curriculum is stored. (It comes as no surprise that prior to joining Josten's, Kernan was an executive with a Northern California cable concern.)

Yet, cable television does have obvious limitations. Unlike the nation's telephone system, cable TV doesn't reach into nearly as many homes and schools, making it far from the "seamless network" the Administration has envisioned. So Lightspan also bills itself as an "open solution" to the networking problem and is willing to work with telephone and other telecommunications companies, too.

"Everybody is talking about the information highway in terms of their own perspective," notes Connie Stout of the Texas Education Network, a joint undertaking of the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas system. "The truth is it's going to be a strange mix of 'all of the above.'"

As eager software developers await the advent of the digital delivery system, many have turned to the CD-ROM format as a "bridge technology." By delivering their wares on CD-ROM today, they hope to demonstrate, at an elementary level, the kind of interactivity possible over the electronic networks in the not-too-distant future.

Identical to the silver platters used to record music, CD-ROM's offer immense storage capacity and a rapid rate of retrieval, two key factors in creating an interactive environment. The best CD-ROM's store voice, text, charts, animated graphics, and even full-motion video on a single disc. And most are built around some form of "hypermedia," which allows users to navigate through large volumes of interrelated information by clicking on highlighted words known as "hot buttons."

Lightspan, for example, plans to make its courseware available on CD-ROM until local cable systems can upgrade their networks to transmit the company's products.

The idea of using an existing technology until the emerging ones have been fully deployed has great appeal, says Margaret Young, a spokeswoman for Club Kidsoft, a San Francisco-based company. Club Kidsoft mails to home users thousands of CD-ROM's, each complete with a sampler of exemplary educational software programs. Potential customers can not only preview the software on the disc, but they can actually buy the product using a special code to "unlock" a security code.

"We firmly believe that electronic distribution is going to be the way that people are going to purchase software," Young says. "We really feel that the CD-ROM technology is a bridge to the digital highway."

Art Bardige, the chief executive officer of Learningways, the networking division of software publisher Davidson & Associates, adds that schools can also prepare for the networking age by acquiring multimedia P.C.'s, equipped with a CD-ROM drives and modems.

The Info Highway Goes Home

Unlike in schools, millions of dollars are already being spent to upgrade the information infrastructure with top-of-the-line multimedia computers in homes across the country.

And some analysts argue that the growing influence of the home market on the development of educational software, and on "edutainment" products for the information highway, presents both an opportunity for schools and a wake-up call for education policymakers.

Drawing on his cable-industry experience, Kernan argues that policymakers can exploit leverage they don't even know they have (or at least haven't exercised as yet) to drive the development of educational software and the installation of hardware to use it.

Superintendents, he says, should channel the competition among the players in the telecommunications industry to wire every home by exacting a promise from them to first wire every classroom. Of course, one of the premier services available to homes and classrooms in his scenario would be Lightspan's Mars Moose and other edutainment programming.

"They want those homes so badly," Kernan notes. "You have to buy a computer from Apple. But the cable industry will give it to you free. And if it won't, the telephone companies will."

Computer Curriculum Corporation's recent foray into homes also highlights the home market's growing influence. That C.C.C., which previously sold exclusively to schools, is considering on-line delivery to homes highlights the industry's perception that parents, particularly middle- and upper-middle-class parents, are willing to invest heavily in electronic resources to help their children learn.

Notes Lori McBride, the vice president of new media markets for C.C.C., "Part of the purpose of the trial is to determine what services parents want and what they want in the home that is different from what the schools want."

Many observers also note that selling software products directly to the homes is a far simpler proposition than dealing with the cumbersome purchasing systems that most local school boards use. Others see the exploding home market as a warning to schools that they can no longer afford to ignore the electronic revolution taking place around them.

"Parents are going to be furious if schools haven't changed and don't provide something as good as or better than students can get at home," argues Sandra Welch, the executive vice president of education for the Public Broadcasting Service, which is piloting its own interactive professional-development service for mathematics teachers.

No Substitute for Substance

The potential payoff for killer-app developers is envisioned as immense, in both monetary terms and its ability to reshape teaching and learning. So the race to produce content is a competitive one that is attracting players from show business to the news business.

Reuters, the international news service, for example, recently launched a joint venture with Tele-Communications Inc. to deliver a daily, multimedia news service to schools. The Anheuser-Busch Companies have begun "repurposing" curriculum materials developed around its Sea World and other amusement parks for delivery on the Worldwide Web.

Lightspan has recruited artists, writers, animators, and special-effects artists from such entertainment-industry heavyweights as Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox.

Others in the telecommunications industry have come to their own realization: Encouraging the development of educational content will help justify the expensive technological investments needed to use them.

Late last year, for example, the Oracle Corporation, of Redwood Shores, Calif., established a $1 million fund to reward innovative developers of K-12 multimedia educational products specifically designed for delivery over the interactive networks. Oracle's stake in the venture is obvious: The company develops the software for the television set-top boxes that will decode the digital signals transmitted on the commercial networks.

Whatever the killer app turns out to be, it's likely that it will have to strike a delicate balance between education and entertainment.

Despite having spent years at the helm of Josten's Learning, Kernan, who also serves as the chair of the Software Publishers Association, argues that most educational software is nowhere near entertaining enough to remotely qualify as a killer app in the digital age.

"Name all of the great characters in television," he asks over his turkey sandwich. "There are thousands." Then, leaning in for the kill, he prompts with his fork, "Now, name all of your favorite characters in educational software."

Even Kernan's critics, and they are many, would have to concede that the list thins rapidly once the name "Carmen Sandiego" has passed the lips. To be successful on the new networks, Kernan argues, particularly in the crucial home market, electronic learning will have to become far more entertaining.

Harrison Miller, Lightspan's director of marketing, draws an analogy to describe how Lightspan hopes to position itself in the new marketplace. It would have been difficult, Miller says, if not impossible, in the early days of cable television to predict the success and worldwide influence of an Atlanta-based 24-hour news channel called the Cable News Network. But that's exactly the type of niche that Lightspan would like to develop and exploit on the information highway for educational publishers.

Yet, Scholastic's Lent, from his vantage point in the New York office of one of the nation's largest educational publishers, firmly disagrees with Kernan's assumption that television, interactive or otherwise, will be the on-ramp of choice for educators.

"We believe as a publisher and distributor that on-line is where the future lies," he says. "We firmly believe that somebody's 'big wire' is going to be in every school and that that presents an opportunity and a big challenge."

Lent concedes that there is debate within Scholastic over who will build and control the wires connecting schools to the information infrastructure. But when it comes to developing educational content for the information highway, he claims the medium really is the message. "I think that in our market, the education market," he argues, "there is a fairly wide perception that TV's make you dumb and computers make you smart."

Consumers in a competitive marketplace will eventually decide whether Kernan or Lent, or both, have the winning combination.

But it would be a mistake for any electronic publisher to assume that flash can substitute for substance in the education market. So warns Nancy Ozawa of the San Francisco-based Institute for the Future, a think tank that helped develop the Access Excellence project.

Often, she says, the simplest of technological breakthroughs, such as the electronic mail available on the Internet coupled with access to a fax machine, are the most valuable tools for classroom teachers.

"I think that there is a gap between what the technology providers think is the world of classroom teachers and what it is really is," Ozawa says. "I would rather have a classroom with no technology and a really good teacher," she adds, "if it meant all those resources were available but the person didn't have a clue how to use them effectively."

Vol. 14, Issue 16

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