For years, educators have known that students who don’t have access to computers at home remain at a disadvantage. Now, lawmakers and communications companies plan to bring the web into the homes of hundreds of fourth-grade schoolchildren using one of the most ubiquitous household devices available—the television.

Through the program, called WISH TV, students don’t need to own a personal computer in their home. Instead, companies will provide them with free digital set-top boxes for one year that will enable them to receive web services on standard televisions, plus the two-way cable connection needed to access the internet.

The companies hope the program, announced with lawmakers on Capitol Hill July 18, will expand to more homes each year, eventually reaching thousands of students.

“The significance of WISH TV is the low cost. For a nominal fee, every student in America can be hooked up to the internet at school and at home,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who heads the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee.

“We used to think the digital divide could only be bridged by a computer at each desk, but with WISH TV, they only need a television and cable access. It costs less than $10 per month,” Johnson added.

About a dozen schools and several hundred fourth-grade students will become the first benefactors this fall. WorldGate Communications, a provider of TV-based interactive services, is spearheading the effort with support from Tauzin.

Tauzin said that when he first saw a demonstration of accessing the web via a television set last year, “I thought, ‘Eureka!’ This is what we are looking for.”

“This is putting kids who can’t afford computers on the internet with their schools and their teachers using their old analog TV sets,” Tauzin said in an interview.

He and others are hopeful that the program will open new opportunities for educating young adults and their families.

“The idea of putting a PC in the local library was better than nothing, but it was far short of bringing the internet into every household in America,” said Hal Krisbergh, chairman and chief executive officer of WorldGate.

Companies such as Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola together are donating thousands of set-top boxes that can be used on TVs in homes and schools.

“This is the right thing to do,” said Scientific-Atlanta’s vice president of marketing, Perry Tanner. The company, a pioneer in interactive TV, has deployed 2 million set-top boxes. Cable companies are just beginning to offer such services.

Cable operators participating in the launch are giving free connections, and WorldGate providers are donating the internet service.

Once the year is up, however, families probably will have to pay to continue their internet service from WorldGate and for a cable subscription if they don’t have one.

Meanwhile, educators from several universities, including Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and Nicholls State University in Thibodeaux, La., are developing web-based curriculum for participating schools to use with children at home.

One sample lesson plan prompts students to collect weather data on high and low temperatures online, which are then plotted on a computer graph.

Janice Stuhlmann Hinson, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Louisiana State University, said the program helps train teachers to use the tool to bolster their curriculum.

“We want the technology to enhance the lesson plans,” Hinson said.

According to Tauzin’s office, schools where students will get the service this fall include Belle Rose Primary in Belle Rose, La.; West Ascension Elementary in Donaldsonville, La.; Madison Community Unit 12 in Madison, Ill.; Beach Grove, Newman, and Moffitt Heights elementary schools in Massillon, Ohio; Arlington and Raymer elementary schools in Toledo, Ohio; and Oakville Elementary School in St. Louis.

Links:

WISH TV
http://www.wgate.com/wishtv/wishtv.html

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
http://www.house.gov/tauzin