The nation’s top researchers would provide scientific data regarding the best technology to use in American public schools and libraries, says an amendment by Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., that passed the House of Representatives Feb. 15.

The government would commission three federal agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Institute of Standards and Technology—to research and produce a report on which Congress would act.

The report would identify the most effective and economic means of providing all public elementary and secondary schools and libraries with high-speed, broad-bandwidth internet access in relation to each school and library’s location, Larson said.

It also would recommend how to provide adequate access at individual workstations within each school and library, identify the most cutting-edge tools, and indicate how schools can put them into practice.

The amendment would “give people the empirical data that they don’t have,” Larson said in an interview with eSchool News. “Many people have different ideas; we want the scientific data.”

Such a large-scale study would level the playing field and help close the digital divide by determining the best way to give all students the same level of access to voice, video, and data technologies, Larson said.

“This [problem] is crying out for a national solution,” he said.

Schools need to know the most cost-effective ways to implement technology, Larson said, since it advances so rapidly that schools are constantly spending to upgrade what they already have.

The research mandated by Larson’s amendment would be a remedy to the “hodgepodge, piecemeal approach to closing the digital divide” that has been going on so far, he said.

Larson’s amendment is part of the Networking and Information Technology Research Development Act, which authorizes spending $6.9 billion in the next five years to conduct research into advanced computing and communications technologies. It also authorizes research programs proposed by President Clinton and guided by the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee.

Larson said his amendment would create inter-agency cooperation, allowing research organizations to work together to avoid duplication.

John Vaille, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, agrees that creating a master plan for educational technology could be beneficial, but he is also a little skeptical.

“I don’t think America’s schools are as naive about this as a legislator might think,” Vaille said. “I don’t know if it needs to be studied nationally.”

George Strawn, executive officer of NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, said it will be difficult to predict what products schools should buy, although NSF is an authority on up-and-coming technology.

“This stuff is changing so fast, it is not going to be possible,” he said. There are 100 million new products in development now, but only about 100,000 of those will make it to consumers, he added.

“In most cases, you just have to watch how things fall out,” Strawn said. Scientists can make predictions, but they aren’t always accurate.

For example, Strawn said, when the World Wide Web was being developed, researchers he spoke to said it would never replace Gopher, because it was too complicated for the average user. “They didn’t think the complexity could be hidden by something called a browser,” he said.

Larson said his amendment is intended to provide “an objective assessment and inventory” of the technologies that are out there.

As Larson describes it, the report is meant to evaluate which technologies exist to provide high-speed internet access and specify which are the most cost-effective for each region of the country. The scope of such research would be enormous.

The bill must still pass the Senate, and the exact terms of the research need to be defined. But Strawn said his agency is prepared to take on the project if asked.

“The NSF is very good at assembling members of the scientific community to do studies. Our friends are the smartest people in the world. We know who to contact,” he said.

Rep. John Larson
http://www.house.gov/larson

National Science Foundation
http://www.nsf.gov

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org