The Congressional Web-based Education Commission, a bipartisan federal panel charged with making recommendations on the future of educational technology, unveiled the results of more than a year of testimony and research at a Washington, D.C., press conference on Dec. 19, 2000.

In its report, the commission called upon President-elect George W. Bush and the 107th Congress to embrace seven goals—including broadband access, technology training and support, further research, high-quality online content, and sustained funding—as the centerpiece for U.S. education policy.

Entitled “The Power of the Internet for Learning,” the report outlines the promise of the internet in education, namely “to center learning around the student instead of the classroom, to focus on the strengths and needs of individual learners, [and] to make lifelong learning a practical reality.”

“We must immediately put to rest the notion that the full development of web-based technology for education is a choice,” said Sen. Bob Kerrey, D.-Neb., chairman of the commission. Kerrey left the Senate at the conclusion of the 106th Congress.

“The internet is revolutionizing all parts of society, but its impact on education is just beginning to be understood. We believe that a national mobilization is necessary to ensure that the tremendous potential of this new technology is harnessed to benefit all learners,” Kerrey added.

According to the commission, testimony revealed that while progress is being made in educational technology, it has not kept up with the exponential growth of technology in industry.

Commissioners discovered that while companies in the United States invest as much as $5,500 in technology and support per worker, the typical American school spends no more than $200 per student on technology.

“Our economy demands a technology-savvy workforce,” Kerrey said.

During the past year, the commission received testimony from hundreds of people who testified personally or as online “eWitnesses.”

“Overwhelmingly, what we heard from these witnesses is that technology offers tremendous opportunity for education and we should not squander this opportunity,” stated Kerrey.

The report outlined the commission’s seven-point call to action and made recommendations for government, education, and industry. Here are the seven recommendations:

  • Make powerful new internet resources, especially broadband access, widely and equitably available and affordable for all learners. The report identifies greater bandwidth, expansion of broadband and wireless computing, digital convergence, and low connectivity costs as important and potentially pivotal trends for web-based education.

  • Provide continuous and relevant training and support for educators and administrators at all levels. “In my home state of Georgia, and I’d assume in many states, we have more hardware and software than we do teachers trained to use it,” said vice chair Rep. Johnny Isakson, a Republican. The report also urges teacher education programs to begin teaching effective web-based education skills.

  • Build and research a framework of how people learn in the internet age. The report calls for a “vastly expanded, revitalized, and reconfigured educational research, development, and innovation program” that “should be built on a deeper understanding of how people learn, how new tools support and assess learning gains, what kinds of organizational structures support these gains, and what is needed to keep the field of learning moving forward.”

  • Develop high-quality online educational content that meets the highest standards of educational excellence. Pat Schroeder, former U.S. congresswoman and current president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, said, “It’s shocking to see that less than 1 percent of the national education budget goes to content.” Schroeder went on to express a hope for the future of electronic texts in America’s classrooms. “With electronic texts, we can keep content up to date forever.”

  • Revise outdated regulations that impede innovation and replace them with approaches that embrace anytime, anywhere, and any pace learning. According to Isakson, “Many of the rules and regulations we have today are designed for an educational world with geographical boundaries. They are simply not relevant any more.” Copyright issues are one item in particular the commission thinks may be incompatible with internet learning; another is using seat-time to determine education funding. “Those laws were written for a site-based world,” said Schroeder.

  • Protect online learners and ensure their privacy. According to the report, the internet carries with it danger as well as promise: “Advertising can interfere with the learning process—and privacy can be endangered when data [are] collected from users of online materials.”

  • Sustain funding—via traditional and new sources—that is adequate to the challenge at hand. “Technology is expensive, and web-based learning is no exception,” the report said. Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, cited the eRate as one successful federal program that has helped students across the country connect to the internet. “It’s made a huge impact so far,” she said. “This year, we had an almost $5 billion dollar demand” for the program, which provides discounts to schools for telecommunications service and internet access. Approximately half of that amount actually was awarded. The commission estimated that all other federal funding for technology totals $1.5 billion; this figure includes targeted programs (such as Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology) as well as “traditional” federal programs (such as Title 1 grants).

“The Power of the Internet for Learning” also shows there are troubling gaps in access to the internet, leaving millions of Americans lagging behind with outdated and inadequate technology—or none at all.

Commissioners cited the testimony of James Vines, a senior at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., taking classes using computers and the internet.

“If it wasn’t for my classes at school, I probably wouldn’t know the difference between a mouse and a monitor. My [computer] classes have given me many skills I need for the future,” he said.

During the question-and-answer segment of the press event, Colleen Cordes, a founding member of the group Alliance for Childhood, asked whether it was appropriate or financially responsible to put computers in the hands of younger children. The Alliance for Childhood recently called for a moratorium on investing in technology for elementary-aged students, citing a lack of conclusive research on the impact of technology-based education on younger children.

“We effectively have a moratorium … now, so [the Alliance for Childhood] should declare victory and go home,” said Kerrey. “You can take the most technology-rich school in America, and it pales in comparison to [the technological capacity of] any private-sector company.”

“I’m not sure if a pre-school child should be left alone with a crayon, much less a computer,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D.-Pa., another commission member. But “any notion that we should retreat from efforts to ensure that all children have equal access to computers” is counterproductive, he said.

Panelists agreed that more research is essential to the further development of web-based education, and they urged accountability in schools.

“We believe strongly in accountability in Texas,” said commissioner Jack Christie. Christie was the senior education advisor to President-elect George W. Bush during his term as governor of Texas.

“We are involved in multiple projects now to test and see if what we’re doing with technology has helped to improve education,” he said.

Linda Roberts, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology, agreed: “There is compelling research that children of all ages can benefit from the appropriate use of technology. But it is not a silver bullet. It all depends on the way we use technology to enhance education.”

Roberts also said the Web-based Education Commission’s report coincides nicely with the recently revised national ed-tech plan, announced earlier in December by Education Secretary Richard Riley, which contained similar goals.

“This is a rallying call” for the new ed-tech plan, she said. “The commission’s report is an invaluable framework for moving forward.”

Agreed Fattah, “We want to take these policy guidelines and make them real in the halls of Congress.”

Links:

Web-based Education Commission
http://www.webcommission.org

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

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