Arizona's One-Stop Internet Education Zone Hits a Snag
A growing number of states are looking to "network" their way past the imbalances of educational resources separating their public schools.
A prime example is Arizona's costly program to connect 1,400 schools and district offices to a password-protected Internet portal, where they can access content linked to state standards, online encyclopedias, and software applications for teaching and learning.
It's a daunting task for any state to undertake, as Arizona has seen this year. Its program, begun in February 2001 and run by the Arizona School Facilities Board, a state agency, has encountered financial and infrastructure problems that may delay many schools' full access to the state education portal.
Still, educational technology experts are watching the developments in Arizona with interest to see what lessons can be learned from its ambitious attempt to link all schools to the state's portal.
Greg Nadeau, the director of the U.S. Open eLearning Consortium, which is helping states work together on developing portals, said the Arizona board is achieving a breakthrough by creating one secure portal that the state's 45,000 teachers and 904,000 public school students can use to access educational content from many different sources with a single password.
"No one can defend a world where kids need 10 different passwords or 50 different passwords—that's not going to work," said Mr. Nadeau, who is based in Massachusetts, though the consortium is run by the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium in Portland, Ore.
He said the Arizona project also extends to the Internet the state's role in other areas of being a trusted source of curriculum information— similar to that of state textbook-adoption committees—and of using the purchasing power of the state to aggregate demand for content and services.
For example, he said, states are finding that they can buy a comprehensive suite of "online learning tools" for their districts for $1 to $3 per student per year. In contrast, it can cost up to $50 per student when a school district buys those learning tools directly.
A half-dozen states—notably Massachusetts and Washington—have taken steps toward creating statewide Web-based educational resources, and others are considering it. And the U.S. Open e-Learning Consortium is allowing states to work on setting common technical standards for Web portals. ("Online-Education Consortium Created for States," Nov. 7, 2001.)
Arizona's technology program stems from a plan that the legislature crafted in 1998 to satisfy the state supreme court, which had found in favor of a coalition of poor districts that sued the state in 1991, arguing that its method of paying for school facilities violated the state constitution's call for a "general and uniform" public school system. Under the law, the school facilities board has a timeline for achieving equity in facilities by July 2003.
"Equity issues are key—that's exactly why the state facilities board exists, as the legislature's response to a court case that required a significant change to the way public school facilities were built and financed," said Brad Tritle, the telecommunications development manager at the Government Information Technology Agency, which oversees technology procurement for the state.
"On the technology side, ... it does bridge the digital divide," Mr Tritle said. "Schools will be wired with an equitable curriculum- delivery system that is not dependent on where you live. You get computers, high-speed delivery, and content—it doesn't matter if you're in northwestern Arizona, or on an Indian reservation, or in downtown Scottsdale."
The Arizona School Facilities Board more commonly functions as a banker to help districts finance school construction, according to state officials.
The technology program serves the board's other purpose: to help remedy deficiencies in schools and bring them up to a common standard.
And that program is actually two projects that are being implemented by different companies. One project is to set up a common "enterprise portal" on the Web through which all students and teachers could access information resources and software tools from any Internet-connected computer, at school or at home.
The other, complementary project is to upgrade and complete the wiring of many schools and to provide other essential equipment.
Both projects are supplemented by a third project, completed in the 2000-01 school year, in which the board distributed 30,000 computers to schools.
The enterprise portal puts in one place a host of Web-based resources provided by at least 80 "application service providers," companies that specialize in offering software tools that are stored on central servers.
Created by Atlanta-based Cox Communications Inc. and its partner, Charlotte, N.C.-based LearningStation Inc., the Arizona portal offers schools a free basic package of resources that were selected by the facilities board. Those include more than 250 software titles and resources—from 15 application service providers—that are aligned closely with Arizona's academic standards, said Craig M. Larsen, the chief executive officer of LearningStation.
Those application service providers and about 65 others that are partners with Cox are hoping that schools will choose to purchase a wealth of additional resources they can offer over the system, similar to premium services offered by cable television.
States also see such projects as a way to build momentum for putting more government services online and encouraging Internet-based business.
The projects underway in Arizona "build demand for telecommunications in the rural parts of our state" said Mr. Tritle of the Government Information Technology Agency. He said the projects generate public demand for online services. Anticipation of the rollout of the state portal has generated momentum for several other telecommunications initiatives, he added.
But the Arizona School Facilities Board's other project—to complete the wiring of the state's schools so they can all make efficient use of the Internet portal—has had some trouble.
Last year, the state hired Qwest Communications to complete the complex task of delivering the statewide network to desktop computers in every classroom. The task includes surveying each school's technology needs and designing solutions based on those surveys. It also requires the company to implement the solutions, which include Internet wiring, network integration, and installation of computer equipment.
But that project, called the "LAN/WAN" project because it would install both local-area and wide-area networks, has been put on hold, after Qwest told the facilities board in April that it would need $85 million more than the $100 million cap that the board had placed on the project. Already, the company has exceeded that cap by $15 million, although it says it has only been paid a tiny fraction of the amount, because of delays in inspections by the board. The company has asked for an additional $85 million to complete the job.
In May, James E. Jurs, the facilities board's interim executive director, recommended to the board that it suspend the project until the board could analyze the finances and Qwest's charges could be reviewed. His memo highlighted concerns, including $45 million that Qwest has billed for "professional services" and large bills for travel.
So far, Qwest has rewired 512 schools out of more than 1,400 and has surveyed or started the project in 98 percent of the schools, said Claire Maledon, a company spokesman. She said, "When the original agreement was signed in February 2001, Qwest and [the facilities board] and the governor's office had no idea what the cost of this project would entail."
The board is scheduled to meet at the end of this month to consider a range of options. For now, the board's actions and public concerns have cast a pall over the project.
In addition, state lawmakers have asked Arizona's auditor general to review the project.
Until the billing dispute is resolved, Qwest has slowed down work, limiting it to schools where the efforts were already under way.
Hank Stabler, the administrator for information management and technology for the 35,000-student Peoria, Ariz., district, said work was completed or under way in about half of his district's 33 schools. "For us, being in the middle of the project, [the slowdown] is a big deal—there's some disruption to school in all these activities," he said.
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Vol. 21, Issue 41, Page 8Published in Print: June 19, 2002, as Arizona's One-Stop Internet Education Zone Hits a Snag