I was in elementary school when the launch of Sputnik set off a national panic over science education. Within months, fancy science equipment began pouring into our school. But no one bothered training the teachers to use it, and the gear ended up collecting dust.
The passion to give schools Internet access could lead to a similar sad end. Politicians, from President Clinton to Newt Gingrich, believe that getting on the Net is a good thing. Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the Federal Communications Commission is levying the equivalent of an annual $2.25 billion tax on business phone bills to subsidize access for schools and libraries.
CHIPPING IN. The trouble is, no one seems to know which of the myriad problems facing American education Internet access can solve. Student access to the World Wide Web is useful, but probably less so than access to a good library. Perusal of school-run Web sites suggests that most of them serve mainly to give kids a chance to design Web pages, a useful, but hardly critical, skill. There's little evidence that many schools are integrating the technology into curriculums or providing such basic services as putting an activities calendar and homework assignments on the Net so that parents can check them from home.
One obvious reason is that school systems don't provide teachers and administrators with the new skills they need. A recent study by the Educational Testing Service found that only 15% of teachers had received even nine hours of training in educational technology. Billions of federal dollars will be wasted unless states and school districts do their part.
Fortunately, educators can take advantage of some well-established programs and promising experiments. One of the most interesting is Co-NECT Schools (co-nect.bbn.com), part of a galaxy of education reform projects organized by the Educational Commission of the States and its New American Schools project. There are 38 Co-NECT schools in 7 states. To qualify, schools must link their computers on an internal network that in turn is connected to the Internet. They also are expected to provide teachers with the training needed to carry out Co-NECT's broad educational reforms, which include keeping classes and teachers together for more than one year and intensive evaluation of student progress. It also provides such services as lesson plans for teachers and discussion groups for educators, and help in using networks to automate school- management chores. But the main factor that has limited participation is probably the cost, estimated by ECS at a minimum of $55,000 per school per year.
These demands are simply too much for many schools. On a more modest scale, the Global SchoolNet Foundation (www.gsn.org) provides a clearinghouse of valuable information on the effective use of computers and the Internet. Among other services, GSN sponsors conferences and courses for teachers, distributes classroom projects, and, as GSN puts it, "provides training wheels" for educators.
One school that appears to have made its network part of nearly every activity is New York's Dalton School (www.dalton.org). Of course, being a leading private school with more than $5 million in technology grants helps enormously. But less well-endowed schools could study Dalton's Web pages for ideas, which include projects ranging from a simple science notebook for young students to an interactive tour of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Commercial products also can help schools use the Net effectively. For example, Mathview software from Waterloo Maple Inc., priced at $99, gives teachers an easy way to create interactive math work sheets for posting to a Web site. Students, using a browser and a free plug-in program, can view the work sheets and can experiment by changing values and seeing what happens to equations or graphs.
KID-PROOF. NETschools (www. netschools.net), a Mountain View (Calif.) startup company, has more ambitious plans. For around $1,200 per child, financed over five years, the company will provide schools with a complete network, including a custom, kid-proof Windows 95 laptop for each student and software to administer the system and automate school-management tasks, including testing, progress monitoring, and attendance.
Given the financial realities facing school districts, NETschools, which is in the midst of its first installation in El Paso, is unlikely to find a huge number of takers. But there are far less expensive ways, especially investing in teacher training, to make technology an effective part of education. Do you know of schools that are doing an exceptionally good--or exceptionally bad--job? Send me an E-mail message or a fax to let me know about it.