U.S. could learn from Europe's wiring of schools
By Lawrence J. Magid
Twice a year, people from every state in the U.S. gather at local schools to lay cable as part of Net Day, a national effort to connect every American school to the Internet by 2000. Cheered on by the Clinton administration but coordinated by an industry-financed nonprofit agency, Net Day has not only resulted in the stringing of miles of cable, it has helped raise awareness of the role of the Internet in education.
I was part of a group of Net Day volunteers that helped wire our local school. We had a great time that day and did, indeed, lay some cable. But once the day was over, we went about our business as usual, leaving the teachers and students to fend for themselves.
Installing cables, network cards and computers isn't enough. To make a difference you need teacher training, good curricular materials and a willingness to change what happens in the classroom. I know of several schools where the technology is way ahead of the teacher's ability to use it. Sometimes it's a matter of technology mismatch. Wiring a school is a good start, but it won't do any good if you don't have classroom computers to connect to the network.
Frankly, I'd rather leave the cabling to people who do it for a living and spend my time in the classroom working with students and teachers. Developing curriculum and inspiring students and teachers is more challenging and more difficult to measure than wiring classrooms, but it is far more rewarding.
I just returned from Britain, where a private consortium, endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, is developing a home-grown version of Net Day, which, in some ways, is more advanced than what we're doing here. UK NetYear is dedicated not only to wiring all of Britain's schools by 2002, but to developing curricular materials, teacher education and public awareness. It's a much more holistic way to prepare schools to function during the next millennium.
At a London news conference last week, UK NetYear officials unveiled their ambitious plans "to help all schools obtain and use modern information and communications technology for teaching and learning."
The NetYear activities coincide with the British government's "National Grid for Learning" campaign, which the Labour government introduced last fall. Currently, only about 6,000 of that country's schools have Internet access. In many cases, that's just one computer connected to a single telephone line, according to UK NetYear Executive Chairman David Wimpress. Wimpress estimates that 60 percent of all computers in schools are out of date and that there is a need to train "80 percent of (Britain's) 450,000 teachers in the use of information and communications technology."
The NetYear campaign has pledged to double the number of schools wired by the end of 1998. UK NetYear's founding sponsors include Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems, which are also founding sponsors of Net Day in the United States.
Jon Tutcher, a spokesman for Sun in Britain, acknowledged that the original concept there was born from Net Day. However, it "has evolved into something rather larger ... in terms of its concept." Britain's model, according to Tutcher, includes "full-blown teacher training, helping schools and educational authorities raise money, and raising the visibility of Internet and computers in schools."
Most of the actual wiring in the British project will be done not by volunteers, but by network and telecommunications professionals, according to Philip Boyle, program manager for UK NetYear. There will be Net Day-like events throughout the year, but they will primarily be occasions in which children and adults gather at schools and other locations to show off curricular materials and interesting projects and demonstrate the value of the Internet in education. The campaign has the support of BBC Education, which is developing a packet of materials, including books and CD-ROMs.
Across the channel, the European Union, which sponsors Net Days on the Continent, is taking a stance similar to Britain's. "We put priorities on (the) content side," said Alain du Mort of the European Commission, the EU's executive body. "It's important not to have a one-day event that's a big bang, but to follow up and put Net Days into a global format to have permanent teacher-training programs and the encouragement of developing pedagogical content."
In the United States, meanwhile, much work remains in getting the physical infrastructure in place. Thanks to a provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, $2.25 billion is now available to help schools and libraries purchase telecommunications services, Internet access and internal networking.
The so-called e-rate funding is available to public and private schools, school districts and libraries that receive discounts on services based on financial need.
The program is administered by School & Libraries Corp., a nonprofit entity established by the FCC. The level of discount is based largely on the percentage of students eligible for the subsidized school lunch program, but it ranges between 20 percent and 90 percent. Schools or districts submit an application on paper or online; if the application is approved, the school posts its list of requested service on SLC's Web site (http://www.slcfund.org). The site is under development, but for now you can obtain information and download applications at http://www.neca.org/funds.htm
Once the site is launched, probably by early February, applicants will have 75 days to file. All applications submitted during that period will be given equal treatment. So, if you know of a school or district in need of networking funds, have them log on soon. The Los Angeles Unified School District has set up its own e-rate site at http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/lausd/itd/erate/, which not only focuses on programs in Los Angeles, but also provides access to forms and other information of interest to schools nationwide.
The e-rate funds and the efforts of companies and volunteers in programs such as Net Day will go a long way toward getting our schools connected. But, as we crawl under desks, punch holes in walls and install servers, we should also pay heed to what our European neighbors are saying. Getting schools "wired" means more than just laying cables and connecting machines.
It requires a new way of teaching and a new way of thinking. We have a lot of work ahead of us.
BBC Education (http://www2.bbc.co.uk/education/)
School and Libraries Corp. (http://www.slcfund.org)
(c) 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate