Wired For The Future

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Christiansburg, Va.

From an aged armchair in a converted 1920's-era school building, Larry Arrington tosses out words and phrases like "T-1 lines," "modems," and "I.S.D.N." with abandon as he describes the future of communications that lies just over the horizon for the Montgomery County, Va., public schools.

He spins a vision, larded with the jargon of the "information age," about the district's plan for a "virtual school system" in which the lines of demarcation between home and school, between the information-rich world outside the classroom and the information-poor environment inside, will largely disappear, thanks to the telecommunications revolution.

For a system of only 8,900 students, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the district already has made some prodigious leaps into the digital age.

Each of the district's 20 schools is equipped with high-speed modems and has access to the Internet, the global network of computer networks. A recently approved technology plan spells out in detail exactly how the district hopes to catapult from the era of the printed page to the age of the computer screen by equipping schools with broadband telephone lines.

"Eventually, what we hope to have is a seamless network of interactive-video-equipped classrooms," says Arrington, the district's technology coordinator.

The school system has not always been so forward-looking. "We are one of those systems that has not done well in preparing for the future," Arrington concedes. "Not to badmouth anybody, but our past superintendent was not a computer user. Never would be."

The district had the extraordinary good fortune, however, to be located within a few miles of what is arguably one of the most "wired" communities in the United States. A short drive west on Route 460, in the small town of Blacksburg, Bell Atlantic of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, and the municipal government are engaged in an ambitious cooperative venture to provide ordinary citizens with immediate access to the so-called information highway.

Whether they're at the public library, or in the privacy of their homes, Blacksburg residents are just a local telephone call away from the Internet--and the global communications network it supports. And the system is commonly used for everything from electronic mail to advertising.

"This is a massive social re-engineering project," asserts Andrew M. Cohill, the director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village. "We've created the electronic front porch."

The project aims to extend that electronic community to the Montgomery County district's schools and eventually to link schools and homes.

With the advent of a new school administration, and armed with grants from the National Science Foundation and Bell Atlantic to further upgrade its infrastructure, the school district is poised to act as a test site for educational applications of advanced telecommunications.

Highway to Hype

When Vice President Gore challenged the telecommunications industry last January to wire every classroom in the nation for access to the "information superhighway," it's likely he envisioned the kind of links that are available today in Blacksburg.

Yet, despite their many advantages in the race to merge onto the information highway, officials here, with the help of experts at Virginia Tech, still are pondering how ubiquitous access to telecommunications might fundamentally change the way that schools do business.

From deciding what content is appropriate for grade school students, to figuring out how to train teachers to use the networks effectively, to retrofitting aging buildings for the electronic age, the district is grappling with questions that other school systems haven't even begun to think about.

What's clear so far is that connecting to the network is just the first step schools must take.

"There's more to it than dropping computers into the classroom," says Roger Ehrich, a professor of computer science at Virginia Tech. "The whole school system was brought up without networking technology of this type."

Since the Clinton Administration took office two years ago, a seemingly endless stream of news stories about the information superhighway, its potential benefits and hazards, has filled the newspapers and airwaves.

"We've started to call it the 'information hypeway,"' says Glenn Kessler, the director of media services for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools.

Most people, however, would still be hard-pressed to define just what the term "information highway" means. And even fewer could accurately say what the Vice President's challenge implies for the way that public schools operate.

"I think it means something different to everybody," says Cheryl Williams, the director of the technology-programs department at the National School Boards Association.

Kessler, for example, notes that in Fairfax County, an affluent Washington suburb, the information highway is structurally in place. The district operates its own cable-television system and satellite, students can download materials from any library in the state, and trials are under way with various firms to provide Internet access and "video-on-demand" to every school.

Yet, for the average school district, the information highway remains just a vague and shapeless concept.

Montgomery County officials have agreed that access to the information highway means access to the Internet. Many educators, especially those with some experience with telecommunications, would agree with that conclusion.

K-12 educators have increasingly used the Internet in recent years. In part, that's because its government subsidies make the Internet essentially free to users.

Clinton Administration officials, however, are quick to point out that the Internet is just one component of a vastly upgraded national communications network that should be available to every classroom.

Many in the telecommunications industry, meanwhile, argue that the Internet model is not at all what they have in mind when they talk about connecting homes to the information highway. Instead, they expect that subscribers will one day be able to shop or call up the latest hit film through a computer-like device atop their television sets--services they hope will generate healthy revenues. The television-set model, they believe, is perfect for the large number of people who are not "computer literate."

Other observers contend that the information-highway phenomenon is an extension of the microcomputer revolution that began roughly a decade ago. The development of universal access to telecommunications networks, they say, simply increases the power of the personal computer as a productivity tool.

The reality is that the information highway will probably combine all of these elements. But which of them, if any, will be of value to educators is far from clear.

Beyond Commercialism

Although Gore has not spelled out what educational access to the information highway would look like, Administration officials largely reject the commercial model, arguing that it has little to do with the Vice President's vision.

"If people think of it as the 500 channels of television that are going to deliver entertainment or home shopping, then, in fact, they ought to be dismayed," says Linda G. Roberts, the special adviser on education technology to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

She notes that in several recent national surveys, respondents gave the highest possible rating to the idea that the information highway should carry interactive educational programs.

"This is phenomenal," she adds. "It says to me that the public as a whole has really got it right. The information superhighway has the potential to bring the best of our world to our classrooms."

No two educators, technologists, and other telecommunications experts interviewed for this special report could agree on exactly how the development of the information highway will affect education.

Gordon Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, for example, argues that it will be impossible for the nation to meet its education goals unless students have relatively widespread access to telecommunications.

The jobs of the future, he predicts, will require that all workers know how to use telecommunications and how to access information by computer.

Moreover, because advanced telecommunications allows global electronic conversations and ready access to information, it has the potential to radically reform instruction, Ambach says.

"The technologies now, I believe, are actually transforming the ways that people learn," he says. "The potential of that for reshaping pedagogical design is extraordinarily powerful. I don't know where it's going to take us--but I think we need to think very carefully about it."

Many would agree that applications being tested in Montgomery County give some idea of how telecommunications could be applied in the classroom.

Here, students are developing a multimedia magazine that is posted on the Internet's Worldwide Web; Virginia Tech graduate students are helping high school physics teachers post student papers on the "net" for peer-review by experts around the globe; projects are under way to link home and school via voice mail; and teachers are encouraging students to use the Internet as a massive research library.

Even so, notes John Yrchik, a telecommunications analyst at the National Education Association, at the national level there is as yet no guiding vision for what universal access to the information highway should imply for educators.

"We're a long way from a consensus," Yrchik says, "or even a very clear direction, about where we want to go."

High-Stakes Battle

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the information highway is actually an interrelated series of technological, regulatory, economic, and societal changes that were set in motion long before Gore challenged the industry to bring schools on board.

And for the most part, educators have been, at best, peripheral players in the game.

A central concept undergirding the phenomenon is "convergence," or the ability to convert voice, video, graphics, and computer data into digital signals and to transmit information over newer, and faster, high-volume transmission media.

Fiber-optic cables, for example, allow huge quantities of digital signals to be transmitted as pulses of light along hair-thin glass wires at high speeds over great distances. Both the telephone and cable-television industries propose to upgrade their networks with such "broadband" capability.

But the cost of replacing existing copper telephone wires with fiber-optic cables is estimated to be in the billions of dollars, causing the phone industry to argue that it must be allowed to carry such services as video-on-demand to support the costs of upgrading the network.

Yet, those same digital signals can also be transmitted by a new generation of satellites to remote or mountainous locations where laying cables would cost too much.

How the signals are carried, however, is not as important as the rich variety of information that the networks can make available to anyone, almost anywhere.

"People confuse the delivery system with the content," notes Cohill of the Blacksburg Electronic Village. "It's much more important to be connected at low speed than to say we're going to wait for a 'broadband connection."'

The race to build the information highway is also a high-stakes regulatory battle, played out in deadly earnest in the halls of Congress, over who should be allowed to transmit what kinds of information and in what markets.

In the rapidly changing telecommunications field, some of the major players obviously include the cable-television and telephone industries. But many utility companies also have begun to weigh the idea of using fiber-optic cables that they already use for internal communications to send programming to homes and to offer such services as automated monitoring of heating and cooling systems.

In the unlikely event that all federal communications regulations were to be abolished tomorrow, the cable-television industry would likely offer customers telephone service over its lines, and the local telephone company would offer video-on-demand and home-shopping services in addition to telephone service.

But the Communications Act of 1934, the primary federal telecommunications measure that remains largely unchanged since the heyday of radio, sharply delineates the markets open to the cable industry, the Bell regional operating companies, and other players.

A bill designed to revamp the law and insure access for schools was withdrawn in the last session of Congress. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich reportedly is weighing as a blueprint for reform a "Magna Carta for the Information Age," drafted by a group of well-known futurists for the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The most recent draft of the document does not address the idea of connecting schools to developing telecommunications networks, though it does call for sweeping deregulation of the industry.

Other conservative think tanks argue that the federal government should essentially get out of the business of regulating the telecommunications market, including oversight of educational access.

"There should be no federal policy on this issue," argues Adam Thierer, a telecommunications-policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Instead, states and municipalities should determine what their needs are and create an open process that allows all carriers to compete for service."

Thierer argues that requiring access for schools and other public entities could actually slow development of the information highway by placing unfair burdens on providers that would eventually limit competition.

The one role that the federal government should play, he adds, is to insure that individual networks conform to an "open data" standard so that information can be conveyed over a variety of systems. The National Research Council endorsed that concept in its report on telecommunications called "Realizing the Information Future."

And while complex questions about "cross subsidies," regulations, and "barriers to competition" may seem abstract to education policymakers, the fact is that in places like Montgomery County, school administrators are faced almost daily with competing claims of the telecommunications companies as they jockey for market share.

"We just had that discussion in our technology committee about which is the best carrier," reports Arrington. "The cable companies are a lot more aggressive than the phone companies about this."

Paying for Change

The Vice President's challenge to the industry, observers note, has helped spur several major telecommunications firms to pledge to wire schools for the information age.

"It seems to me there's enormous power just in the idea, and just that Gore said it," Yrchik of the N.E.A. contends.

Gore's remarks also alerted the telecommunications industry to a huge new market.

Unfortunately, few educators are aware of the potential impact of the regulatory and technological change swirling around them.

"We're changing communications patterns, the way people access and retrieve information," says Connie Stout, the past chair of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit umbrella organization. "It is very important that we be at the table to participate in discussions."

Unless schools get guaranteed access, it is virtually certain that homes will be connected first. Parents who can afford access to the on-line educational services available will be able to purchase them for their children, thereby widening the educational gap between economic classes.

Public schools, argues John Phillipo, the executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology in Malborough, Mass., can either take advantage of the opportunity to "get into the learning business" and act as a broker for educational services for students of all ages or run the risk of becoming even further removed from the technological mainstream of society.

Unfortunately, Williams of the N.S.B.A. says, such ideas do not rank high on the list of local policymakers' priorities.

"I think you've got a group of people who don't get it," she laments.

No matter how the debate in Washington over telecommunications policy turns out, many problems unique to education must be resolved if schools are to take full advantage of digital communications.

Estimates vary wildly, for example, as to what the costs of wiring every classroom will be, how it will be paid, and by whom. At the low end, Secretary Riley has estimated it will cost $10 billion to wire every school. High-end estimates range in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

"What we really need now in education are specific and credible proposals to fund the National Information Infrastructure," says Yrchik, "and that's what we don't have."

The Administration has provided some seed grants through pilot programs at such federal agencies as the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the N.S.F., and made technology grants a part of its Goals 2000 reform legislation.

And the Vice President recently endorsed a suggestion that money raised by the auction of the public airwaves for advanced cellular communications should be used to help defray the costs of wiring schools. But, for the most part, the Administration has said it will rely on private industry and local government to underwrite the costs.

The costs for providing access to every classroom will vary widely depending on what blend of technologies and level of service is deemed necessary to support instruction.

And while some states are experimenting with taxes on video rentals and other schemes to raise money for technology upgrades, "I don't think anybody has a clue as to the magnitude of investment we're talking about," the N.S.B.A.'s Williams says.

Meanwhile, few educators are aware of the costs associated with using telecommunications once the connections have been made to individual schools. Although regulatory bodies in some states, such as Texas, offer special rates for educational use of telecommunications, in most states, schools are charged relatively high business rates. Such costs can put even the Internet out of reach.

The Last Mile

Another major stumbling block to achieving the goal of universal classroom access is bridging the so-called "last mile" between the advanced networks and the nation's relatively old stock of school buildings, many of which require major modifications to accommodate even the most basic technologies.

According to one reliable estimate, for example, fewer than 4 percent of public school classrooms have access to telephone lines, making classroom use of telecommunications virtually impossible.

"There isn't a technology base out there," stresses Kathleen Fulton, a senior analyst at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which plans to release a study this spring on teacher training in technology. "It's amazing to me how people outside of education have no idea how teachers still have to line up outside the teachers' lounge to use the telephone."

Only a handful of states, meanwhile, have begun to allocate the funds needed to wire schools for telecommunications.

Florida has spent roughly $74 million over the past three years to help retrofit schools so they can use the statewide Florida Information Resources Network. The competitive grants average $225,000 per school. Officials predict it will take six or seven years and $675 million to bring every school in the state into the network.

Kentucky expects to spend $80 million just to develop the wiring and other infrastructure to connect the state's 1,370 schools to a statewide network developed under the state's landmark 1989 reform law. To cut costs, one district required the contractor to hire students to help wire its buildings.

"We run it on a shoestring," admits Lydia Wells Sledge, who oversees the network's development. "But to implement at the speed that we want to, we do have to create time and services out of nothing."

Technology an 'Option'

Yet, outlets and cables are only part of the needed infrastructure.

The N.E.A.'s Yrchik estimates that 80 percent of classroom computers are incapable of handling multimedia software or receiving high-speed data, two key telecommunications functions.

Roughly half of the computers in schools, according to recent data, are Apple II's, a machine that was first introduced in the 1980's. While still adequate for some tasks, the discontinued Apple II simply does not have the features or computing power of newer machines.

Ronald E. Anderson, the editor of "Computers in American Schools 1992: An Overview," a survey of technology inventories and usage released by the C.C.S.S.O., says that schools have made progress in upgrading their equipment. He notes that since the 1992 survey was conducted, the percentage of schools with at least one modem has grown from 40 percent to 55 percent. The number of schools with access to cable television has risen from 55 percent to 75 percent. Meanwhile, the number of computers in the nation's schools has grown from 3.5 million in 1992 to about 5 million today.

And a recent report compiled by Quality Education Data, a Colorado-based market-research firm, found that 70 percent of school districts with enrollments greater than 25,000 reported having at least one school with Internet access.

Nonetheless, Anderson says, "it's still going to be quite a while before all of the schools are hooked up to external networks."

A related hardware problem is that few schools employ the technical support staff to effectively run a technology program. "Our problem here is manpower," Arrington says. "It's much easier for schools to buy computers than to 'buy' people."

Unlike many businesses, and even some government agencies, schools generally do not recognize the need for technical-support personnel, adds Jesse Rodriguez, who heads the division of information technologies of the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District.

"I can't pay a competitive rate to an individual who has the skills I need," Rodriguez says. "There's no way I can pay the technician $50,000." Instead, the district purchased the state-of-the-art telecommunications system that allows him to troubleshoot many problems from his office.

But too often, he says, districts designate a science or mathematics teacher as the resident "technology guru" leaving that individual to run the computer program. "You might as well take a man off the streets who happens to speak Spanish and make him a bilingual teacher," he says with chagrin. "I think a basic problem is that districts are not looking at what the real costs of what managing information systems are going to be."

Finally, experts note, the vast majority of teachers have never been encouraged to use technology or provided with the support to integrate it effectively into the curriculum.

"It does not take much to excite a teacher about telecommunications," notes Norman Dodel, a professor of instructional technology in the college of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "But when they leave a place like this and go to a place where the technology is just not available, it is very likely those people will put that vision on the shelf."

Although she won't discuss the findings of the upcoming o.t.a. report, Fulton says that, in general, most teachers who use telecommunications today are self-taught. Few education schools effectively incorporate technology into their programs, she says.

And teachers, notes Melissa Matusevich, the supervisor of programs for gifted students with the Montgomery County schools and an avid user of the Internet as a classroom teacher, are not given any incentives to learn.

"We are one of the few professions that sees technology use as an option," Matusevich says.

Vol. 14, Issue 16

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