With razzle-dazzle and some lofty goals, a panel created by Congress to explore the Internet’s potential uses for education kicked off its public deliberations last week.
The 15-member panel of congressional legislators, educators, business leaders, and other experts in education and technology is charged with advising policymakers and educators how the Internet and other technologies can be harnessed for learning at all levels.
Authorized in 1998, the Congressional Web-Based Education Commission will spend the next 10 months holding hearings around the country before reporting to the president and to Congress in November.
“The Web is really not a new technology but a new way of communicating,” said Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., the commission’s chairman, opening the two-day hearing Feb. 2. “It offers tremendous potential to help young people learn in a student-centered environment much faster and more conveniently.”
The group adopted as its mission “to ensure that all learners have full and equal access to the capabilities of the World Wide Web, and to ensure that online content and learning strategies are affordable and meet the highest standards of educational quality.”
One concrete objective is to provide input on use of the Web as Congress considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The group also plans to create a Web site to discuss and debate policies concerning online content and learning strategies.
“A commission such as this often ends up setting the table for an agenda, rather than responding to an agenda, in Congress,” Rep. Johnny Isakson, R- Ga., the vice chairman of the commission, told reporters.
Highlighting last week’s hearing was an impressive demonstration of multimedia projects by students from Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J. Four students and their teacher, commission member Florence McGinn, showed off their Web-based literary magazines, or “e-zines,” multimedia student portfolios and poems, and examples of online collaborations with another school.
Ms. McGinn said the extensive array of tools at the suburban school allows her to individualize instruction and her students to unleash their creativity.
Quality and Access
Commission members said the panel will place a priority on studying the quality of available online educational resources and the “digital divide” between schools and individuals who can easily afford access to technology and those who cannot.
Mr. Kerrey asked the visiting Hunterdon students, all of whom attend honors-level classes, how the technologies they use could benefit ordinary students who need help with basic skills.
In response, they described their school’s partnership with Asbury Park High School, in one of New Jersey’s poorest communities. Hunterdon students go online weekly to critique the writing of Asbury Park students or to write poems collaboratively. Their activities together include joint online publishing.
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who testified before the panel, endorsed the focus on access and quality: “The greatest benefit [of access to the Web] is to those traditionally denied access,” he said.
On the issue of quality, Mr. Riley alluded to the concerns of some educators that the Web, while extraordinarily powerful, also contains a lot of useless and inaccurate information. The group should find ways to help users “separate the wheat from the chaff,” he said.
Several members of the commission, speaking at the hearing and in interviews with reporters, said new Web-based models for education may affect—even undermine—familiar, firmly rooted structures of education, such as state and local accreditation, school funding priorities, and diploma-granting authority.
Mr. Kerrey, for example, questioned whether “regulatory barriers” might prevent full use of the Internet for education. “The Web doesn’t know school districts, it doesn’t respect school districts and state boards of education,” he said.
He noted that the development of online courses raises questions about existing educational institutions and procedures. “If I go home on the Web and take course offerings for algebra [from another district], will I get credit at my school?” he asked.
The panel should steer clear of some questions, Mr. Kerrey suggested. “If we start talking about national accreditation,” he said, “our goal of making the Internet work will get lost in the politics of it.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2000 edition of Education Week as Commission Begins Study Of Online Educational Materials