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The Internet as Classroom

Former FCC chief Newton Minow and ex-PBS honcho Lawrence Grossman want Uncle Sam's help to make the Net a better teaching tool

In a May 9, 1961, speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, Newton N. Minow, then head of the Federal Communications Commission, famously described television as a "vast wasteland." During the '70s, he tried to improve the state of that medium by helping the Public Broadcasting Service develop math, science, and humanities courses to enable people to get a college education through TV. Now, Minow is switching his focus to the Internet.

Along with Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS, Minow is proposing to Congress that it use $18 billion from upcoming FCC auctions of radio spectrum to fund the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT). One of DO IT's goals is to help digitize material from universities, museums, and libraries and put it on the Internet, in the belief that doing so will revolutionize not only K-12 formal education but lifelong learning as well.

Minow and Grossman recently spoke with BusinessWeek Correspondent Darnell Little about their proposal and why they believe the resources of museums and libraries should be available online. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow.

Q: What's your evaluation of content on the Internet right now?

Grossman:

The content is phenomenal. It's a little hard to search for things, but you can find almost anything you want in terms of information.

Minow: I read Slate. They've got a wonderful service where they give you the front page of the country's major newspapers. I use CEOExpress.com, which takes you into all kinds of publications. There's a lot out there. There's not much, however, in the way of [formal] education.

Q: Do you mean for children, teens, young adults, or continuing education for working people?

Grossman:

What we have been talking about is that the Internet is a phenomenal tool for young people as long as they can contribute to it, and not just take facts from it. And with streaming video, with the potential for 3D, and certainly with interactivity, you can use the Internet not just as a source of information but also as a much richer, more diversified, more realistic educational tool.

Minow: We made a presentation at the Field Museum in Chicago, and John McCarter, head of the museum, said they've got 22 million objects and specimens in that museum yearning to get out and be reachable. And very little of that [type of specialized content] is available today.

Q: The two of you are proposing that the federal government help museums and libraries put those collections on the Internet.

Minow:

That's a big part of what we're proposing.

Grossman: We're also talking about not just digitizing collections but [exploring] new ways of using this material for learning. To actually do the research and development to enable us to get the maximum value of the many billions of dollars we spend on education....

[The government is] spending $2 billion a year to connect every classroom to the Internet, but we spend virtually nothing on content. So when they connect to the Internet, the uses of it for educational purposes are extremely limited. And certainly the training of teachers is virtually nonexistent.

Minow: We visited the Library of Congress, which, with very limited resources, is trying to train some teachers in the summer. They...train 48 teachers a year, when we think what's needed is training thousands of teachers a year.

Q: In the past, you [Minow] have criticized the government for giving away digital-TV spectrum to broadcasters instead of selling it. Now you want to use those proceeds to fund DO IT.

Minow:

The Congressional Budget Office has indicated [the scheduled auctions over the next five or six years] would produce about $28 billion. What we're proposing is that a share of that go to fund this project.

Q: What sort of support have you gotten from Congress?

Minow:

We have gotten very encouraging support from both sides of the aisle. In fact, we haven't run into anybody who doesn't think this is a splendid idea. Land-grant colleges were established in the midst of the Civil War, the GI Bill was passed in the midst of World War II, the Northwest Ordinance was created in the 18th century -- we see this as a 21st century equivalent of what [the government has] done in the past.

Q: When will we see the proposal introduced to Congress?

Minow:

We think after the first of the year in the next Congress.

Grossman: The legislation that's being drafted calls for a percentage of the revenues from the spectrum auctions to be set aside for a public dividend in education for the trust fund. [We also think there should be] an appropriation of about $2 million for the National Science Foundation to set up a task force to examine this whole issue, recommend the structure, and report back to Congress in a year, so that when the auction funds do come in there will be a structure in place to receive it.

Q: Why do you believe that we need to spend more on R&D for education?

Grossman:

We're very backward in doing research in education. It's interesting that with all those billions that we've spent on it in this country, we have nothing like the National Institutes of Health to do the R&D. We've got to have the equivalent for education so that we can get more efficient use of the money we spend.

Leon Lederer, the Nobel Laureate, said educators from 1900 would be very comfortable in today's schools, where they would be uncomfortable in any other part of today's experience.

Q: You've both been involved with public television. This sounds like Public Internet. Will people go for this?

Minow:

We encounter this question all the time. "Why doesn't the marketplace take care of this? Why do we have public libraries when we have book stores? Why do we have public parks when we have country clubs? Why do we have public schools, public hospitals?" These are all things that the public market doesn't provide for everybody and I think that the likelihood that the market will answer all the needs and all the possibilities for enriching life is very dim.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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