Jostens Building Ramp to 'Information Highway'

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A coalition of investors plans to purchase a large portion of Jostens Learning, a move that will bankroll the education-software company's efforts to merge on to the information highway.

Stan Sanderson, the president and chief executive officer of San Diego-based Jostens Learning, announced last week that a Boston-based investment group led by a company called Information Partners had agreed to buy 81 percent of Jostens Learning from its parent company.

Although details of the investment had not been completed, the investment group was expected to pay $50 million in cash plus a roughly equal amount in notes and preferred stock.

Jostens Learning, a subsidiary of Jostens Inc. of Minneapolis, is best known in the school market for software that runs on centralized computer systems. Its "integrated learning systems" provide instruction, student assessment, and teacher record-keeping in a single package.

Information Partners will contribute vital knowledge of cable-television, telecommunications, and technology companies that will help "get this company's feet wet and get on-line," Mr. Sanderson said in a telephone news conference last week. "That's going to be the number-one priority."

While software developers, Hollywood producers, New York publishers, and Washington policymakers jostle to corner a niche in cyberspace, not all scenarios about the future of telecommunications are rosy.

One of the most skeptical outlooks, which appeared recently in a book called Silicon Snake Oil, has sent shock waves rippling through the world of cyberspace.

The book's author, Clifford Stoll, an astronomer and computer expert, vents his "strong reservations about the wave of computer networks"--including their highly touted value as educational tools.

Such networks "isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience," he writes in the book's preface. "They work against literacy and creativity. They will undercut our schools and libraries."

While any phenomenon that has received so much breathless media attention as the information highway was bound to draw a backlash, Mr. Stoll is a surprising person to launch a counterattack.

He is best known as the author of The Cuckoo's Egg, a 1989 New York Times best seller that recounted his efforts to use the Internet to track down criminal "hackers" who had infiltrated U.S. Defense Department computers and sold top-secret information to the Soviet Union.

But an entire chapter of his new book argues that claims for computer and telecommunications as teaching tools are, at best, overblown. At worst, he argues, they guzzle resources that might be better used elsewhere.

"Elementary and high schools are being sold down the networked river," Mr. Stoll argues. "To keep up with this educational fad, school boards spend way too much on technical gimmicks that teachers don't want and students don't need."

He further argues that while the software industry has exaggerated the educational value of computers to boost sales, education leaders who favor the application of technology in the classroom are equally guilty of bogus claims.

"If computer vendors seem filled with puffery," he writes, "you haven't heard these people talk."

A somewhat more optimistic, though still skeptical, take on educational telecommunications emerged from a special mini-conference last week on "America's Children and the Information Superhighway."

The Washington conference, sponsored by the Annenberg Washington Program of Northwestern University, featured a keynote address by Reed E. Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He stressed the importance of linking classrooms to the world via telephone, fax, modem, and satellite technology.

Another speaker, however, recalled similar claims for earlier innovations. Armando Valdez, the founder of LatinoNet, a national computer network, recalled his days in graduate school in the early 1970's when cable television was viewed by some as an educational panacea.

While government should insure universal access to telecommunications, Mr. Valdez said, among the lessons to be learned by educators from the experience of the 70's is that "most of the social benefits of these new technologies are way overstated."

Gary Arlen, the president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Washington-based media-research company, defended the new technologies against charges that they are the enemy of literacy. Critics, he said, often miss the point that many young people today process information in ways that are frequently incomprehensible to adults.

"There is an audience that is growing up that thinks differently than we do--that really understands cyberspace," he said.

Most participants agreed that student access to computer networks, CD-ROM's, hand-held calculators, and other electronic tools is largely useless without good teachers.

"Whenever you find these successful [technology] programs, you always find an absolutely incredible master teacher who makes it all work," said Linda G. Roberts, the U.S. Education Department's technology adviser.

Two educators argue in a recent report from Northern Telecom Inc. and the Aspen Institute that four big trends have emerged in education technology. Those trends, they say, will influence learning in the home and in the classroom.

The report, "Crossroads on the Information Highway: Convergence and Diversity in Communications Technologies," was written by Barbara Kurshan of Educorp Consultants Corporation and Cecilia Lenk of Tom Snyder Productions.

The four trends, the authors write, are:

The explosive growth of multimedia products such as CD-ROM's.
The merging of multiple technologies.
The overlap of entertainment technologies, such as video games, with educational technologies.
The use of technology to connect multiple learners in different geographic settings.

--Peter West [email protected]

Vol. 14, Issue 36

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