Federal Study Cites Barriers To Internet Learning

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The World Wide Web can be shaped into a vibrant educational tool serving all learners if more money is devoted to research and development and if governments clear away many conflicting and obsolete rules, a federal panel has concluded after a 10-month study.

"Technology offers tremendous potential for improving the delivery of education, and we should not squander this opportunity," Sen. Bob Kerrey, D- Neb., the chairman of the Web-based Education Commission, said at a Dec. 19 news conference held here to release the panel's report. Congress authorized the commission in 1998 to advise lawmakers on how to develop the Web as a medium for learning.

For More Information

The study, "The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving From Promise to Practice," is available from the Web-based Education Commission.

Despite the Web's potential, Mr. Kerrey said there are still "significant barriers" to using the global network as a teaching tool.

The key hurdles identified in the study include providing widespread, affordable access to broadband communications, which allows 2-way transmission of digital video; better training for educators and school administrators; and more high-quality, online educational resources.

The 16-member panel also called for better protection and privacy for online learners, and sustained funding at the school level to acquire and maintain new technology.

Policymakers also need to break down "regulatory barriers that were not intended to be barriers," said Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the panel's vice-chairman. "We should quickly repeal them or modernize them to reflect the value of the Internet in education."

For example, he said, some federal funds and scholarships are contingent on students logging a certain amount of time in classrooms. But with online learning, Mr. Isakson said, "seat time is sort of irrelevant."

Hearing From the Field

Over the past 10 months, the commission received oral and written testimony from hundreds of organizations and individuals concerned about the use of technology in schools. The commission has now wrapped up its business, but its report, "The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving From Promise to Practice," will remain online at www.webcommission.org.

The recommendations in the 129-page document stretch far beyond federal action—and in most cases hinge on collaboration among federal, state, and local governments, school boards, the information technology and education industries, and the education research community.

Many of the report's conclusions echo those of other groups, including the CEO Forum and the President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology, which have called for more research and teacher training, better digital content, and greater access to online technologies.

But the Web commission report goes beyond those issues to reflect the growth of online university and high school programs, the impact of federal E-rate discounts on telecommunications services for schools and libraries, mounting concerns about the so-called "digital divide," and other developments.

However, on two key issues—copyright of online materials and funding for technology—the commissioners did not find clear solutions.

"We were lobbied very hard" by publishers interested in protecting the value of their content in a digital world, said commission member Richard J. Gowan, the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D.Teachers, meanwhile, were passionate about not losing their traditional "fair use" right to use copyrighted materials in instruction, Mr. Gowan said.

Still, the report sends "a strong message" that the problems surrounding the use of the Web can be worked out, said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Critics of the use of technology in schools, however, were unconvinced by the panel's findings. "You could predict their conclusions by looking at their witness list," complained William L. Rukeyser, who runs Learning in the Real World, a Woodland, Calif.-based organization that questions the growing use of technology in the nation's schools.

Others expressed similar concerns. Colleen Cordes, a member and editor of the Alliance for Childhood, based in College Park, Md., questioned the educational and physiological appropriateness of having young children spend time on computers. The alliance recently called for a halt to the introduction of computers into elementary and middle schools until those concerns are addressed.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will make the commission's report a foundation for action, said Frank Withrow, a former administrator of the federal "Star Schools" program who has also worked on various school technology programs for more than 30 years. "A large part of it will depend on who [President-elect] Bush picks for secretary of education," he said.

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