After a decade of significant public and private investment, most of our schools are wired for the internet. But successes have a way of unearthing new challenges and, in the case of technology in education, a welter of vexing issues remains.

We cannot yet say, for example, that most teachers are taking full advantage of technology or that they even have the training and know-how to incorporate it into their classrooms. We cannot yet say that students have equal access to the web or that all the educational content everyone has been clamoring to access is worth the expense.

We have concerns about matching the content of the material on the web to the curriculum standards that states have worked so hard to put in place. How will we ensure that the quality of learning offered by distance-learning institutions is the same as that offered by traditional institutions? And how will we put in place policies that protect and guide educators and students without stifling innovation and development?

These are but a few of the serious questions that face us all today, and we will not be able to sort through them without a systematic inquiry into the growing list of opportunities and obstacles that await our attention. That is why Congress has created the Web-based Education Commission, a 16-member bipartisan body representing members of both houses, as well as nationally recognized leaders in the fields of education and technology.

The commission has heard testimony at two hearings from witnesses in Washington, D.C., and in Silicon Valley, California. More face-to-face hearings are planned throughout the year and, appropriately enough, we will invite testimony from “web witnesses” on a specially designed web site that will make it possible for commissioners to hear from stakeholders representing a wide variety of perspectives.

Recent surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics have given us a picture of internet connectivity in K-12 schools. The data offer both good and bad news:

• The percentage of schools wired for the internet increased from 35 percent in 1994 to 95 percent in 1999. But divisions in access occur in classroom connectivity. Today, 62 percent to 74 percent of classrooms with lower concentrations of poverty have internet access, compared with only 39 percent with high concentrations of poverty.

• Private schools lag behind public schools. In 1998, only 67 percent of private schools and 25 percent of their instructional rooms had internet access.

• Two-thirds of all public school teachers use computers or the internet for some kind of classroom instruction. However, there is considerable variation in how frequently and in what ways they use the technology, depending upon how much training they have had, how long they have been teaching, and whether they teach in high or low poverty schools.

So, the issue of equal access to technology, what has come to be known as the “digital divide,” is clearly something that must be addressed. But it must be considered around a comprehensive definition that includes where that access occurs (home, school, workplace, or community access), and how well learners are guided by a skilled teacher or mentor to encourage maximum online learning opportunities.

The commission’s concerns go beyond K-12 education and reflect learning opportunities for higher education, training, adult literacy, and lifelong learning on the internet. It is especially at these levels where we have seen a virtual explosion in distance learning facilitated by the web. Researchers at InterEd estimate that by the end of the year, 75 percent of all U.S. universities, including Duke, Columbia, and Stanford, will offer online course work, attracting 5.8 million students.

New online universities and consortia are being formed to market one of America’s best resources—higher education—around the world. Distance learning is making its way into K-12 schools, too. Consider Daniel Jenkins Academy, a public high school in Polk County, Florida, that will offer students all its courses online when it opens this fall.

But what do we know about the promise of these ventures? Very little research has been done on the effectiveness of internet-based distance learning. Does student learning suffer because of the loss of human interaction among students and between students and teachers? Or does it provide the opportunity to reach learners in entirely new ways, with powerful multimedia tools that enhance collaboration and make studying more engaging and interactive? Some say that online learning increases access to those who do not have the time to commute to school or are too far away to make commuting a possibility.

Another complex issue is how to teach using technology. Clearly, pedagogy must change to take advantage of the web, but how? According to recent studies, only a third of the nation’s K-12 teachers feel well prepared or comfortable integrating education technology into classroom instruction. They continue to cite a lack of professional development opportunities as a stumbling block to wider, optimum use of the technology in their classrooms. But what kind of training is needed and how might the web bring new informal learning opportunities to expand the expertise of all who teach?

Districts need more information on what works and why—and what doesn’t work and why not. They need more information on the web’s potential to improve learning for those with disabilities. They need information on how to assess the quality of learning materials on the web and how to find these materials.

Since 1996, Congress has spent $5 billion to make our schools computer-ready, including $2 billion in funds provided through the eRate. But some experts estimate it may take many more millions to bridge the educational divide and assure that all teachers get the training and support they need to use technology effectively. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that the funds are spent wisely and to do so without imposing a regulatory burden on the private sector that stifles innovation or development. We hope the commission’s report will help us move forward to best meet the needs of all America’s learners.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., cochair the Web-based Education Commission, a 16-member bipartisan body charged with defining and articulating a comprehensive policy road map for key education stakeholders, public policy officials, and the private sector. The commission’s progress can be traced at http://www.webcommission.org.