A task force appointed by the federal government to study how the internet can change education for the better held its first public hearing in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2.

The initial meeting of the Congressional Web-based Education Commission set the group’s agenda and laid the groundwork for a 10-month study of the issues–and criticisms–surrounding the use of online content and learning strategies to improve K-12 and higher education.

The commission is made up of senators, congress members, educators, and business leaders, most notably Sen. Bob Kerry, D-Neb.; Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.; Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; John Gage, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems; and Sue Collins, senior vice president at bigchalk.com.

In his introductory comments, Kerry, who is the commission’s chairman, asked the question that will steer the group’s work in the months ahead: “How can we improve the quality and control the costs of education using the world wide web?”

The 15-member panel, which is scheduled to report its findings to Congress in November, started by outlining a three-part list of principal objectives. First, the group will try to “articulate a comprehensive policy ‘road map’ for key education stakeholders, public policy officials, and the private sector.”

The second goal of the commission is to develop a web presence that will act as a forum for discussion and debate over the policy issues affecting educational web content.

Finally, the group will provide specific policy guidance to Congress regarding how the web can help improve student achievement as Congress seeks to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) later this year.

At the commission’s first meeting, a group of students from New Jersey’s Hunterdon Central Regional High School showed off a multimedia journal produced entirely by students. The project is an example of the potential that web-based education holds for the nation’s schools, said their teacher, creative writing instructor Florence McGinn.

Doug Gorton and Emily Judson, editors-in-chief of the student-generated online literary magazine “Electric Soup,” presented portions of the journal, complete with video, computer-generated animation, and full, high-quality audio.

Judson also talked about her work in a school-sponsored video-mentoring program that Hunterdon students have initiated with the Asbury Park, N.J. High School, an economically disadvantaged urban school where tech-savvy kids run weekly writing workshops assisted by technology.

When asked by commission members whether the videoconferencing seemed an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction, Judson said, “I don’t even feel like we’re in separate places.”

Hunterdon student Neela Mookerjee also demonstrated her work on “Vibrations,” a multimedia digital magazine, and explained the concept of creating mixed-media electronic portfolios for the purpose of college admissions. Students at Hunterdon can submit personalized CD-ROMs to the colleges they apply to, along with traditional applications, according to Mookerjee.

McGinn said the freedom online assignments give students to work at their own pace is one of the chief advantages of the web in education. “Technology helps educators transform into true mentors for each individual student,” she said.

Commission members next called on U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to give his recommendations for the future of educational technology.

“Today, more than ever, at the core of knowledge is an understanding of how to use technology in a meaningful way,” Riley told the commission.

Riley lauded the eRate program, created in 1996 to help connect underprivileged schools to the internet, saying, “Because of the eRate, we are almost on our way to closing the digital divide.”

The lack of hardware, software, and computer training in many poor urban, rural, and minority-heavy schools–called the digital divide–was a major concern of commission members.

In a pre-hearing statement to the press, Commissioner Dick Gowan, president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, expressed a desire to provide unlimited internet access to all students.

“In public education we better make dog gone sure that the equipment be available to all people,” he said, adding, “any funding recommendations that come out of the [year-long series of] hearings will have a cost implication. But we hope to make recommendations that will actually save money.”

Writing instructor McGinn testified that spending on school technology is a sound investment. “The digital delivery of information is this generation’s nuclear power,” she said.

Martha Dean, superintendent of Wetzel County (W.Va.) Schools; Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia; and Larry Irving, president and CEO of UrbanMagic.com, presented additional testimony to the commission.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov


Sun Microsystems
http://www.sun.com


BigChalk.com
http://www.bigchalk.com


OnlineLearning
http://www.onlinelearning.net


Hunterdon Central Regional High School
http://www.hcrhs.hunterdon.k12.nj.us


Electric Soup
http://www.hcrhs.hunterdon.k12.nj.us/esoup/welcome.html


South Dakota School of Mining and Technology
http://www.sdsmt.edu


UrbanMagic
http://.www.urbanmagic.com


University of Georgia
http://www.uga.edu