Setting out the superhighway

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Linda Roberts smiles at her picture above her computer. It's a photograph of herself and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. "My first foray into technology was to help think about the role of television, helping young children learn and be ready for school," she says. "In this town, if you start to know anything you become an instant expert, so I've been an expert ever since."

Dr Roberts has been the technology adviser to the US Department of Education in Washington DC for the past four years of the Clinton administration. Her job is to work closely with the President's and Vice President's advisers to develop a strategy for the nation on technology in schools. "The timing is right," she says, "the technology is there, the capability is there, we're building an infrastructure . . . more pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together."

The puzzle she is referring to is in four parts. She wants teachers trained to use technology, schools resourced with modern computers, schools connected to the Internet, and good - including on-line - software.She is confident a number of schools are already achieving these goals but says, "The real challenge is to build out from these innovative examples and create the kind of exciting learning opportunities not just in demonstration schools but in every school." This, Roberts agrees, is harder to do.

She cites the feedback that she gets in letters from teachers who want to use the technology in their schools but are crying out for extra time, release time, planning time, time with experts and peer mentoring. Sounds familiar?

They need the computers in their classrooms, not in labs they have to book. Roberts sees the next 10 years as an incredible opportunity to change this situation, as a massive infusion of new teachers is forecast. Of the three million US teachers, two million will be replaced within this 10-year span. "Teacher education programmes are going to be critical in giving teachers the skills and knowledge they need," she says.

On the one hand, some institutions are still not teaching computer use, although some schools are starting to say that they won't hire a teacher if they don't have those skills. On the other hand at least 17 states now won't certify a teacher if they don't have these skills. Roberts is optimistic: "Between new certification and learning IT skills, new teachers will be technology literate at the very least, and ready to teach in the 21st century."

Roberts is dedicated to making the technology accessible. In 1994, 35 per cent of schools had Internet access; in 1996 this figure had risen to 65 per cent. However, most of these connections are in resource areas and only 14 per cent of classrooms are connected. To be properly effective the computers must be connected to the Internet in classrooms.

Roberts gives the example of a history lesson where high school students who have never been to Washington DC, can track legislation through Congress on its Web site. "You hear people talking about wanting to be 'connected', but what does connection mean? I think it is that, all of a sudden, the classroom or the community of learners is different . . . What if you could go out and collect real scientific data that could be helpfully interpreted and useful to other scientists, and could be connected to other classrooms collecting similar data? We could start to see this little phenomenon - whether it was trash or acid rain - is something we could all be concerned about because we're part of a global environment."

Roberts also describes a project called the Alphabet Highway, in which students' poems and compositions are put up on the Internet after meeting specific criteria for standards and quality in writing. "On the Web they are doing something the rest of the world might be interested in and that's a very powerful idea."

Roberts feels more research is needed, and evaluation to see what's working "because right now it's very ad hoc . . . do kids end up doing more writing and reading because they're on-line? I have a suspicion that they do - that certainly came out in Union City .

"Our strength in America is our diversity. It's also our weakness. It means there's an unevenness of educational efforts. We love experimenting; however, there are some very tried and tested things, and we should never give up on those fundamental skills. In the course of experimenting, we'd better be sure we're benefiting kids, not hurting them."

It is thought that, by next year, 28 per cent of classrooms will be connected and that, by the year 2000, 95 per cent of schools will have at least one general connection (Bill Clinton and Al Gore's stated objective is to wire up every classroom by 2000). Connection has been helped by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This Act was seen as an opportunity for infrastructure provision, so that cost would not be the barrier for every school and library in the US to get on-line. There is already a "Universal Service" on telephones so that, broadly speaking, everyone in the US can have a phone, and this Act expanded the definition of a universal service to include schools and libraries joining the information age. It basically meant that, if not free, then 90 per cent of the cost of connection would be subsidised. But schools still faced some expense - computers, cable and the laying of cables around the school buildings. That's where NetDays came in.

The idea behind a NetDay is that, over the course of one Saturday, a school will get connected and ready to use the Internet in the library and classrooms. It means an army of volunteers from the community - parents, teachers, businesses, students - spend the day drilling holes and pulling wires, and making sure that the cables are all in place to have the final electrical connections made. Schools have to nominate at least five connection sites, including the library, and the cables are run along the ceilings, down walls, through walls and through doorways to these sites to be connected. To plan the project, people from industry met with the President and Vice President who put their support behind it, and on the first Netday agreed to launch it and help pull the first wires.

"Where it worked," Roberts enthuses, "it was amazing, and by the end of the day the kids were on-line." In Massachussetts the education leaders and the bosses of high-tech companies spent a year planning, identifying resources, encouraging businesses to donate cables and time, signing up volunteers, getting the kits to schools and so forth. On one Saturday in April, 400 schools in the state had a NetDay. In a single day, the 400 schools were wired up. "It didn't work everywhere", says Roberts. "There wasn't necessarily this industry leadership in every community." However, NetDay across the US has seen 40,000 schools wired up, using 500,000 volunteers.

It is important to see some of the real movers in this process, Roberts praises the companies: "Bell Atlantic telephone company has been so active in getting schools connected #201; what's very encouraging to me is the combination of NetDays and investment at the state and local level."

And the future? "We could go in different directions," Roberts muses, "Connectedness, globalisat ion of education might lead to everyone's standards being lowered. I can't see that happening. This is interactive communication. The minute it's interactive it means that you're a user and a producer. I'm as much a part of the Web as I want to be. I want higher levels of literacy and opportunities for people to be learners for the rest of their lives."

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