Spinning A Web
NetDay96, the highly publicized volunteer effort in March to wire California's schools for computer networks, will go nationwide in October, with as many as 40 states expected to stage one-day events. .
The original NetDay96 mobilized an estimated 20,000 volunteers to install some six million feet of wire in 2,600 California schools. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore both took part, unrolling spools of cable at a high school near San Francisco.
Since then, organizers of the San Francisco-based movement have enlisted private organizations, individuals, school districts, and state departments of education across the country. Each participating state will select a Saturday in October for volunteers to fan out to schools, installing plastic-coated strands of copper or glass cable to link classroom computers to the Internet and its World Wide Web.
At a national organizing conference in Washington, D.C., in June, Gore, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, and other federal officials endorsed NetDay as an example of the corporate and grassroots volunteerism that can propel the nation's schools into the technological age. "NetDay is an important effort," Riley said, "because it puts in place one of the essential elements needed to make technology a tool to improve teaching and learning--connections in every classroom that give all of our students access."
Led by two California businesses--San Francisco-based Sun Microsystems Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose--a number of major telecommunications, networking, and software companies have announced that they will participate. John Gage, a Sun Microsystems executive and co-founder of NetDay, enthusiastically predicted that the October turnout will be massive. "We ought to get one million," he said.
Schools that don't participate will be held accountable, said Gage, who plans to post on the World Wide Web the names of all the school board members in the nation and whether they took part. Gage, who helped organize protests against the Vietnam War during the 1960s, believes the NetDay cause is worth turning up the heat. "The school without access to the Web is out of it," he said.
In most places, NetDay will not be paid for with tax dollars. Organizers are urging corporations to buy wiring kits and donate them to schools, as well as to volunteer employees who have technical expertise to spearhead installation. They are urging schools to wire at least 20 percent of the building: roughly five adjacent classrooms and a library. That, they estimate, should require at least five volunteers and 2,000 feet of wire.
Wiring kits assembled by technology vendors are listed for sale on the NetDay96 site on the World Wide Web. Kit prices average about $380, although organizers say prices might drop. The kits all include heavy-duty, "category five" telephone wire that can provide high-volume, high-speed Internet access. Missing from the list is a wiring option that is the preferred choice of some schools: fiber-optic cable. Fiber has much greater data-carrying capacity than wire but is more expensive and much harder to install. According to Gage, at least one vendor may soon offer a fiber-optic kit that would simplify installation by volunteers.
The NetDay96 Web site is the effort's main information clearinghouse, with links leading to related sites, including schools that took part in the California event and those that are organizing for October. The site also includes a U.S. map color-coded to show each state's level of participation.
As of early August, 31 states were shaded green, meaning they were "organized." Those colored yellow--nine at press time--have NetDay "contacts." The 10 states in red "need help."
However, at least two "green" states--Mississippi and Texas--appeared to be less "organized" than the map suggests. In Mississippi, for example, "we have registered with the NetDay people," said Helen Soule, technology director for the state education department. But officials there are waiting to meet with school technology coordinators to determine their level of participation. At best, Soule said, the state would take part "at pilot scale" in October. "We're looking at March for more full-blown activity," she said.
Anita Givens, the acting director of instructional technology for the Texas Education Agency, said the department "right now has no concrete plans" to participate in NetDay but is exploring logistical and legal issues. She added, however, that some individual school districts in the state might be taking part.
Other green states have jumped enthusiastically on the NetDay bandwagon. Massachusetts and North Carolina, for example, are home to large numbers of technology companies that could become long-term partners to local schools. Both states have extensive Web sites devoted to NetDay.
Linda Roberts, the technology adviser to the U.S. Department of Education, noted that in many schools the October event might simply be a planning day. "Every NetDay in every state and in every community is going to look a little different," she said.