Merlin John logs on to the mass hook-up of US schools to the information superhighway Tomorrow, in Washington DC, educators and businesses from across the United States get together to plan the next stage of NetDay 96 - a series of days of action throughout October to connect US schools to the "information superhighway". The programme will be based on California's NetDay 96, the collaboration which, in March, brought together 20,000 volunteers, including President Clinton and Vice-President Gore, to connect 3,000 of the state's 20,000 schools in one day.
"There has to be a coming together, based on the Californian experience which greatly exceeded everyone's expectations," says Linda Roberts, special adviser on educational technology to the US Department of Education. "It was very significant. What happened even before NetDay was important because there was planning in the schools. The teachers and students talked about what they wanted to use the technology for and where the connections were needed. In many instances, the schools were motivated to get additional hardware. The students got excited, the educators got involved and the businesses really came forward in record numbers.
"The plan right now is to hold NetDays on every Saturday in October, to use October as the month for NetDays all across the country. That will certainly contribute to getting schools connected."
According to a survey published this spring, 50 per cent of US schools are now connected to the international networks (it was 35 per cent in 1994). But the survey also confirmed the anticipated gap between the better-off schools and the disadvantaged ones. Sixty-two per cent of the former are connected but only 31 per cent of the latter. There was also an expected disparity between secondary and elementary schools (65 per cent to 46 per cent).
"The survey shows that we have really made tremendous progress in one year, " says Roberts, who started her career as an elementary school teacher and was once named an "educator of the decade" by an IT magazine. "But our goal is to connect every classroom, and to start by connecting every school, and we want to do this by the turn of the century. We sense that this goal, one of four goals that the administration has articulated for technology, is the most do-able. The second goal - it isn't enough to build the infrastructure - is that teachers have to be able to use these resources well and effectively. "
What was particularly encouraging in the survey, she says, was that three quarters of the schools without access say they will connect.
The key to successful national connection is partnerships in which individual states play a central role. Around 47 of them are using federal funds to assess technology needs and plan major projects. For example, Ohio has budgeted to connect all its schools - and put multimedia machines in the poorer schools - by the year 2000.
"So you combine the forces of state money, state leadership, local initiatives and the private sector interest in being good partners," says Roberts. "The critical question is, what about the communities where the needs are the greatest and where the resources are most constrained? Here we are working with the Vice-President's office to focus specifically on schools in the empowerment zones [poorer areas being targeted by the Government], to get them connected and get that technology and training."
The impact of the recent Telecommunications Bill, with its call for universal service, has probably not yet had time to work through, she says. "I think Congress made its intentions very clear. They want to see our schools and our libraries connected to the information superhighway, and they have specifically requested a mechanism for getting schools affordable rates for a long-term service."
The private sector is also seen as a major player, one with a long-term self-interest. "If the telephone and cable companies take the long view, what has to be absolutely clear to them is that they are not only ensuring their long-term market, they are also contributing to improving the quality of education in this country. If I was a regional telephone or major cable company, I would be thinking what I could do to help teachers learn about technology and use it in their teaching because, if we help teachers, we are creating the demand for the next generation of tools and services that we could deliver."
Support for teachers is regarded as a crucial element in the superhighway equation. Linda Roberts identified a "quorum" of technology-literate teachers - "I meet them in every single school district I visit" - representing about 10 per cent of all teachers. The challenge is getting to the other 90 per cent, while about 30 per cent of teachers are knowledgeable but not confident. "I think we have to adopt a two-fold strategy. First of all, we must get to the teachers who are not yet in schools, those who are in training right now. " Accreditation organisations are already working on new IT requirements for trainee teachers, and about 18 states now require IT standards for certification.
School districts themselves (like local education authorities) are also increasing IT support, some using teaching time, and expert teachers as mentors for their colleagues. Training is offered during the summer, with local workshops by community colleges and universities and support from local businesses and IT suppliers.
"The most exciting opportunity we have is to help teachers once schools are on line. Once teachers have computers on their desks and a connection to the world outside, what's to stop us using the technology itself to help teachers find the most promising practice and the most effective models and to talk about their needs with colleagues around the country?
"We have already seen in the Department of Education's World Wide Web site and in on-line discussions how powerful this network of networks can be to support professional development for teachers."
The department was already working on a Web listing of summer schools and training for teachers across the US. It is also working with other departments to stimulate progress. One programme, of Challenge grants for innovative educational technology, will support 19 five-year projects this year and a further 20 next year. "This is real venture capital," says Roberts. "It's not large but it's important."
Meanwhile, the National Centre for Education Statistics will continue to conduct regular surveys for the Department of Education. "Our plan is to continue to track on an annual basis the progress we are making. I would expect that once again we will continue to see real progress being made because, quite frankly, the schools want to get on-line."
"I would argue that, under the right conditions, we really have the chance this time around to go beyond what I would describe as the minimalist curriculum that textbooks offer. It's a real challenge, but I cannot think of a more exciting time to be in education than now."
* Contacts. US Education Website:http:inet.ed.govindex.html