Technology Comes Home

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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, just outside of Ogden, Utah, he can direct and monitor the 40 junior high school students enrolled in his World Civilizations course by simply switching on his computer.

There, on a district-run electronic bulletin board, his students discuss assignments, retrieve course outlines and information, and fire questions at their teacher. And they do it all from their homes. They do not--indeed cannot--attend class in the generally accepted sense of the word. The district hasn't even assigned them a classroom. That doesn't mean the students and teacher never meet in the flesh.

Every so often, Griffin arranges a field trip, and the students converge, like they did recently at an exhibit on ancient China at Brigham Young University.

Griffin's on-line course is a one-year pilot project. In a sense, he and the district are taking an educational test drive on what is now commonly referred to as the "information highway.'' If successful, the experiment may give local school officials a cost-effective vehicle for meeting the educational needs of a booming student population, one that wouldn't necessarily demand additional "brick and mortar'' classrooms.

Few communities are willing, equipped, or informed enough to follow in Weber's footsteps and offer whole courses on-line. Griffin, for one, isn't convinced that telecommuting is a particularly good way to provide the entire curriculum. "I don't see this program replacing what we have in the public schools,'' he says. "What this does is provide alternatives for some students.''

Still, a growing number of educators, politicians, and technology and telecommunications companies are convinced that computers and modems, cable television, and simple voice-mail systems can help school districts accomplish an important educational goal: They can break down the geographic and psychological barriers that too often separate school from home, educators from parents.

Many school systems are experimenting with one or more of these technological tools, hoping to do just that. The districts featured in the three following stories--Union City, N.J., Vero Beach, Fla., and Crown Point, Ind.--are not offering entire courses via computer the way Weber is, but each has had some success using new technologies to close the gap between home and school.

Education reformers have long cited the benefits of parental involvement in schools. Schools that find ways to bridge the traditional gap between home and school, they point out, often see the academic performances of their students improve. For this reason, they argue, schools should do more to reach out to the communities they serve.

The disparate efforts nationwide to link homes and schools electronically take their cue from this philosophical argument, though many of the companies involved in these experiments have their sights set on dollar signs. If initial efforts prove educationally worthwhile, many of these companies stand to make considerable sums of money in the not-too-distant future.

Few people argue that technology alone can turn around a failing school system or create academic achievers out of mediocre students. But the unique properties of today's technologies--the ability, for example, to receive instantaneous information on demand--has caught the attention, and sparked the imaginations, of national, state, and local education policymakers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, as part of his overall strategy for increasing parental involvement, wholeheartedly advocates the use of technologies to bring school and community closer. An upcoming report by the Education Department, called Connecting Classrooms, Com-puters, and Communities: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, stresses the importance of such links. The department has funded several pilot projects through its new Technology Challenge Grants program. And the Clinton administration, which has invested a great deal of political capital in the educational potential of the new technologies, also has supported several pilot projects through grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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

At the state and local levels, however, some of the efforts to bridge the gap between home and school have been driven by more expedient concerns. In Utah, where the school-age population is rapidly expanding, Gov. Michael Leavitt has encouraged districts to experiment with technological alternatives to building new schools and classrooms. "We can't build our way out of the difficulties that we are in,'' says LaVarr Webb, an adviser 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].''

At least one Utah school district, Webb says, plans to build a "school of the future'' in which a third of the students would telecommute via computer from home or a local library or community center. And in Alan Griffin's district outside Ogden, school officials may expand that system's pilot program to other classes if the civilizations class he is currently teaching proves successful. Webb concedes, however, that technological fixes like these have their limits. Not every household has a parent at home to monitor children's progress, he says, and not every student is sufficiently self-motivated to succeed in such a setting.

For obvious reasons, the idea of linking homes and schools electronically is attractive to companies that manufacture and market technology. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, argued that the growing presence of personal computers in American homes provides 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,'' Gates said Microsoft is willing to give every school in the nation software to develop electronic mail and other communications services. Such software could be used to build links to homes, community resources such as museums, and even the Internet. It also requires other Microsoft products to work.

The idea of using computers to bring students and educators closer together is a key element of the educational program developed by the Edison Project, a for-profit company that contracts with districts to run schools. Edison equips every student and teacher with a home computer as part of its strategy to provide as much time for learning as possible. Students at Edison schools attend class seven hours a day, 206 days a year, according to Deborah McGriff, senior vice president for the New York-based company. "But having computers in the home,'' she adds, "extends the day even more.''

Edison encourages its students and teachers to use home computers to work on projects stored in each school's central computer. Busy parents can also use the computer networks to keep in touch with one another, their children, and their children's teachers. "It's an issue of being responsive to the current lifestyle of parents,'' McGriff says.

Like the computer industry, the nation's telecommunications interests also stand to make out well if efforts to link the home and school catch on. In a wide range of communities nationwide, cable-television and telephone companies are working with schools on communications networks that could make both of those dreams a reality.

Some critics see these trial programs as the industry positioning itself to reap enormous profits. And certainly some of them are designed to persuade federal regulators of the industry's goodwill as Congress debates a deregulation bill that would open new markets for telecommunications companies. Industry advocates argue that the profits from these new markets would allow companies to offer electronic services to schools at cut rates, something they now say they can't afford to do.

Geoffrey Fletcher, an associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency, believes that deregulation could change the nature of education for the better, especially if it brings new communication technologies to the home and school. Because the electronic infrastructure is not currently in place, he says, textbook, software, and telecommunications companies are not really developing new curricular products that can be delivered on-line to both home and school. "People should think about the education market and the textbook market as more than just 'the book to the student in the school,' '' he says. "It may be that a textbook publisher says, 'Here's our information, but we're not just going to print it; we're also going to put it on-line.' ''

Fletcher notes that Texas already allots roughly as much money per-pupil for technology as textbooks. What's more, he says, a separate state fund contains $150-million provided by telecommunications firms to help wire schools for the Information Age. That money, he says, could pay for a number of information-on-demand experiments that would essentially turn the average television set into an on-line computer. From a living room or classroom, users could order up a wide range of information and programing, which would be delivered via cable or telephone lines. "Unfortunately, the telecommunications industry in general is just not used to dealing with education,'' he says. "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.''

Most experts agree that the kinds of information-on-demand, home-school connections Fletcher is describing are at least several years away. Despite previous, over-optimistic projections, the money is simply not available right now to build an infrastructure that could deliver on-demand curricula to television sets, says Stacey Sultar, a spokeswoman for the Carlsbad, Calif.-based Lightspan Partnership.

The partnership, which is working to create an interactive K-6 curriculum packaged as entertainment, has been trying to persuade telecommunications firms to offer certain services free to customers in order to gain access to the home and school markets. It hasn't been easy. The company has come to see that delivering curriculum over cable-television and telephone lines, while not impossible, is "more complex than [we] originally thought,'' Sultar concedes.

Skeptics argue that current efforts to link schools and homes electronically ignore certain simple facts: that schools remain barren islands in a technology-rich society and that there are vast technological disparities among American households. "That's the crux of the issue,'' notes Cheryl Williams, who heads technology programs for the National School Boards Association. "How do you equip everybody and make sure everybody's equipped in the proper way?''

One way is for schools to purchase computers and lend them to students or make them available through public facilities, such as libraries and community centers. But Jerry Bauch, a professor of education at the Betty Phillips Center for Parenthood Education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, has an easier, cheaper alternative that does not even involve home computers or television sets. Since the late 1980s, Bauch has been perfecting a model that uses the good old-fashioned telephone to promote communication between teachers and parents. He points out that 95 percent of homes in the United States have telephones, a saturation rate that the personal computer is not likely to reach for years. "There is an equity issue with jumping too fast into these high-end technologies,'' he says.

Using a top-of-the-line, $15,000 voice-mail system, parents and teachers at schools that have adopted Bauch's model share information at their convenience, 24 hours a day. The idea is so straightforward and simple, and the results so well-documented, 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 with the system.

"It really rang true to some of our corporations because they rely on voice mail as the bread and butter of their business,'' says Leanne Barrett of Work/ Family Directions, a consulting firm that helped the coalition develop the project. By providing a quick and easy way for parents to communicate with their children's school and teachers, the corporate sponsors hope to reduce stress and absenteeism among their employees.

Some experts urge school districts to examine the more fickle aspects of human nature before sinking great sums of money into high-tech communications projects. One such person is Tom Berger, a professor of mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who has been trying to persuade parents to support new ways of teaching math to youngsters. "I think one of the major problems with parental contact with schools has to do with disinterest,'' Berger says. "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.''

Vol. 07, Issue 04, Page 1-24

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