Homeward Bound

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Alan Griffin is one of the nation's first "virtual teachers." From his desk at the administrative offices of the Weber school district in the suburbs of Ogden, Utah, he can monitor the 40 junior high school students enrolled in his world civilizations course simply by turning to his computer screen.

There, on a district-run electronic bulletin board, students discuss assignments on line, retrieve course outlines and other information, and question their teacher via electronic mail, all from their homes.

They tap out their messages on personal computers at home or in the school district's media center. Those messages speed through their modems along regular telephone lines to a PC dedicated to running this on-line course. The software then sorts out their messages and allows Griffin to answer their questions and conduct class discussions.

The students are not required to--indeed cannot--attend the class in the generally accepted sense of the word. But to give them a chance to meet "this living, breathing entity who's on the other end of the computer," Griffin arranges occasional field trips, such as one to an exhibit on ancient China at nearby Brigham Young University.

Griffin's course, which he is piloting this year, is testing the limitations and potential--both technological and human--of the so-called information highway.

If it is a success, the experiment may give the district one way to expand the physical boundaries of school and more efficiently schedule the use of brick-and-mortar classrooms in the face of booming student enrollments. In each of the last 12 years, the Weber district's student body has grown by roughly 1.5 percent, almost 500 students this year alone. Little state money has been available for building new classrooms.

Few communities are willing, even fewer schools are sufficiently equipped, and only a handful of educators are prepared to implement the equivalent of telecommuting for grade-school children.

But a growing number of educators, politicians, and technology companies are investigating whether computers and modems, cable television, or even a simple telephone voice-mail system can break through the geographic and psychological boundaries that too often separate schools from homes and educators from parents.

Educators have long known that students learn more when their parents are involved in their education. Reformers often cite the link between increased parent involvement and improved student performance in arguing that schools should do more to reach out to the communities they serve. The kinds of efforts discussed in this report to link homes and schools electronically take their cue from this philosophical base, though some blend equal parts idealism and the urge for commercial success.

No one argues that technology alone can turn around a failing school system or create academic achievers out of mediocre students. But the ability of technology to provide both instantaneous worldwide communication and information on demand has caught the eye of policymakers at the national, state, and local levels as one way to tackle a number of education ills.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, as part of his overall strategy for increasing parent involvement, advocates the use of technologies to bridge the gap between school and community.An upcoming report from the U.S. Department of Education called "Connecting Classrooms, Computers, and Communities: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age" stresses the importance of such links.

The department also has funded several pilot projects, from rural Indiana to Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, through its new Technology Challenge Grants program.

"Learning in school has to be supported by learning at home and learning that goes on after the school doors are closed," says Linda G. Roberts, Riley's technology adviser. "We literally want to expand the time for learning, and I think that's the real key here."

The Clinton administration--which has invested a great deal of political capital in the notion that the information highway can foster the development of "virtual communities"--also has supported several pilot projects through grants from the Department of Commerce.

At the state and local levels, efforts to bridge the gap between home and school frequently are driven more by pragmatism.

In Utah, Gov. Michael Leavitt has encouraged school districts to experiment with alternatives to new construction to accommodate one of the nation's fastest-growing student populations.

"We can't build our way out of the difficulties that we are in," says LaVarr Webb, a policy aide to Leavitt. "The governor is pushing really hard to look at technology as a means to be able to at least slow the growth" of school-construction budgets.

One fast-growing Utah school district, he notes, plans to build a "school of the future" in which a third of the student body would telecommute at least part of the day from home, local libraries, or community centers.

But Webb concedes that technological fixes do have their limits. Not every household has a parent at home to monitor children's progress and not every student is sufficiently self-motivated to succeed in such a course.

Alan Griffin himself doesn't foresee the dawn of a complete "virtual school."

"I don't see this program replacing what we have in the public schools," he stresses. "What this does is provide alternatives for some students."

If Griffin's social-studies class proves a success, the Weber district may expand the program to other classes, says Assistant Superintendent Tim Chatelain. But the district is determined to keep its focus on technology as a means to deliver curriculum, not as an end in itself.

For obvious reasons, the idea of linking home and school is attractive to companies that sell technology.

Apple Computer, which launched its 10-year-old Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow research project with a strong home technology component, is considered the "grand daddy of them all," notes Cheryl S. Williams, who oversees technology programs for the National School Boards Association.

But financially troubled Apple later dropped the home component, citing, among other reasons, the difficulty of keeping equipment current. The Cupertino, Calif.-based computer maker, however, recently held two national seminars highlighting the importance of ensuring compatibility between home and school educational software and computers.

In a speech last month at Georgetown University, meanwhile, the chairman of Microsoft Corp. said that the growing numbers of personal computers in American homes provide an unprecedented opportunity to create two-way electronic gateways between the classroom and the living room.

In outlining his vision of the "connected learning community," William H. Gates III said that Microsoft will give every school in the nation software to develop electronic mail and other services to communicate with other schools. The program, which works with the networked version of the company's Windows software, can also be used to build links to homes, such community resources as museums, and the Internet.

IBM, meanwhile, announced last month that the final $2 million grant in its Reinventing Education program would go to the Cincinnati public schools, which will use the money to extend and restructure the school day and instructional year. Links to the home are likely to be one element of the program, as they are in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools, where the first of the 10 IBM grants was awarded in 1994. IBM gives the grants to districts that want to use technology to aid reform.

The nation's telecommunications industry looks at the idea of linking the home and classroom and sees dollar signs. From Carollton, Ga., to Union City, N.J., cable-television and telephone companies are testing ways in which advanced telecommunications networks capable of carrying voice, video, and computer data can make that connection a reality.

Critics see these trial programs as the industry simply positioning itself to reap enormous profits should Congress agree on a plan to rewrite the 50-year-old law that regulates the telephone and related industries. For example, the law currently bars telephone companies from entering the cable-television market and prevents cable companies from offering telephone service. The industry argues that new technologies make these restrictions obsolete. In a deregulated environment, industry lobbyists contend, new services would mean expanded revenues, some of which could be used to underwrite the costs of providing educational services to schools.

A deregulation bill passed by the Senate would require companies to offer schools services at affordable rates; the House bill has no such requirement. A House-Senate conference committee will resolve the issue.

Geoffrey Fletcher, an associate commissioner with the Texas Education Agency, says that deregulation of the kind now being considered could radically change the nature of schooling.

Today, Fletcher says, there is no economic incentive for companies to develop innovative curriculum products that can be delivered to both home and school simultaneously. For example, instead of spending money to print textbooks that rapidly become outdated, textbook firms should discuss with telecommunications providers methods for delivering curriculum and reference works when they are needed to both homes and schools electronically.

"People should think about the education market and the textbook market as more than just 'the book to the student in the school,' " he adds. "It may be that a textbook publisher says, 'Here's our information, but we're not going to print it; we're just going to put it on line.' "

Fletcher notes that Texas gives its school districts roughly as much on a per-pupil basis to buy technology as to buy textbooks. And a separate state fund, which contains money provided by local telecommunications firms, contains $150 million to help wire schools.

These funds, taken together, could pay for some meaningful experiments to provide courses on demand through small set-top boxes--akin to the familiar cable converter boxes--that would turn television sets into the equivalent of computers.

"Unfortunately, the telecommunications industry in general is just not used to dealing with education," he adds. "It's real tough for companies to envision this because they have to look quarter to quarter and year to year, and this is not going to turn a profit overnight."

The kinds of home-school connections Fletcher describes are probably several years in the future. Not only do schools lack up-to-date technology, but there are vast disparities in technology ownership in America.

"That's the crux of the issue; How do you equip everybody and make sure everybody's equipped in the proper way?" asks Cheryl Williams of the NSBA.

Roberts of the Education Department suggests that lending computers to students or making them available in libraries and community centers are possibilities. And other ideas have been touted. Because nearly every American home has a television set, the set-top box was once promoted as the solution for delivering curriculum outside the classroom. Today, a leading proponent of the idea admits that the cost of the high-end set-top boxes, at between $1,000 and $1,500 each, and the slow development of the high-speed communications lines needed to deliver an interactive curriculum make the venture too expensive, at least for the immediate future.

"The economics basically are not there right now," says Stacey Sultar, a spokeswoman for the Lightspan Partnership, of Carlsbad, Calif. Lightspan was founded to help close the technology equity gap and to extend the school environment into students' homes. Its method was to develop sound curriculum and persuade telecommunications companies to provide it free to schools. The idea was that the companies would be so eager to capture the home market that they would gladly make such a deal.

Today, Sultar concedes, the idea of delivering curriculum over cable-television and telephone lines is "looking more complex than the industry originally thought."

Meanwhile, the coursework at Lightspan's 16 pilot projects nationwide still is delivered on CD-ROM, though Lightspan is considering using video game players as a relatively inexpensive alternative. The company also is investigating using the Internet as a communications link with the home to enhance the CD-ROM-based curriculum.

The difficulties inherent in getting schools and homes connected to the latest equipment have led some experts to conclude that more mundane technologies are often the most successful in getting parents involved.

Since the late 1980s, Jerold P. Bauch of Vanderbilt University's Peabody College has been perfecting his "transparent school" model, in which parents and teachers communicate by telephone. Bauch reasons that 95 percent of homes in the United States have access to telephones, giving that humble technology a reach far greater than that of the personal computer, which is in just over 30 percent of American homes. "There is an equity issue with jumping too fast into these high-end technologies," he says.

Today, using a top-of-the-line voice-mail system, parents and teachers at schools using Bauch's idea share information at their convenience, 24 hours a day. As a bonus, the systems, which at $15,000 cost far less than a computer network, frequently have sufficient capacity to store messages in more than one language.

Voice mail, he adds, would complement more sophisticated technologies as they become available.

The idea is so straightforward, and yet its results so well demonstrated, that the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, a coalition of some of the nation's largest industries, plans to spend $1.4 million to equip 102 schools in 11 communities nationwide with the voice-mail systems and Bauch's technical support.

Corporations rely on voice mail "as the bread and butter of their business," says Leanne Barett, of Work/Family Directions, a consulting firm that helped the coalition develop the project. Thus, corporate executives understand the value of the system to help reduce the stress and absenteeism that result when employees have to deal with problems at their children's schools.

But technological innovation alone cannot create a learning community.

"You can screw up any innovation," Bauch says. "It has to be embedded in the school culture that 'this is the routine way that we communicate with the broader body of parents.' "

One effort to embed technology in the school culture is that of the Edison Project, a chain of for-profit private schools. In a nod to the realities of the modern workday, Edison schools equip every student and teacher with a home computer to provide more time for learning. Deborah McGriff, Edison's senior vice president, notes that the New York-based company, which opened its first four schools this year, schedules a seven-hour school day and is in session for 206 instructional days to meet that goal. But, she adds, "we also know that having computers in the home extends the day even more."

Edison schools encourage students, parents, and teachers to use the home computer to continue work on student projects stored on the school's central computer. Busy parents can also use the computer to keep in touch with one another and with their children 24 hours a day both locally and nationwide.

"It's an issue of being responsive to the current lifestyle of parents," McGriff says.

Most schools, however, have done little to help parents become technologically literate. As a result, they are unlikely to support technology programs that go beyond basic instruction, notes Manina Dunn, an assistant dean at Seton Hall University's College of Education and Human Services who served on the New Jersey Department of Education's task force on long-range technology plans.

She says parents in West Orange Township, N.J., where she serves on the local PTA, probably won't back plans to link schools with the outside world with technology because most of them don't use e-mail, the Internet, or other technologies at work.

As a result, "when technology is introduced, it's the students and teachers who benefit," she says in an e-mail message. "State long-range technology plans include teacher training and student learning in their goals. None that I have seen include parents, a serious omission."

And, notes Anne Gold, the principal of Lansdowne Elementary School, a Lightspan pilot school in a blue-collar suburb of Baltimore, while the Lightspan curriculum is compelling and effective in motivating students, parents are free to ignore programs that might help their children learn. "Parent involvement is not a strength here," she says. "Even when the program is free."

Some observers also note that before adopting technological quick fixes, educators should consider the human dimensions of fostering meaningful connections with parents.

Tom Berger, who teaches math at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has spent a lot of time attempting to persuade parents to support new methods of teaching his subject. He says that too strong a focus on technology to link home and school may be flying in the face of basic human nature.

"I think one of the major problems with parental contact with schools has to do with disinterest," he notes. "You can use the U.S. mail to increase contact between parents and schools, but there is a problem: People don't read their mail. And that's a problem with e-mail, too."

The resources mentioned in this story can be reached at the following Internet addresses:
U.S. Education Department's parent-involvement gopher:gopher://ericir.edu:70/oo/inforguides/fall 1994/parentinvolvement
Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow:http://www.info.apple.com/education/acot.menu.html
Vanderbilt University:http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/gpc/peabody.html

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