Has William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, changed his tune about technology in the K-12 classroom?

A vocal skeptic about technology-based education, Bennett announced in December that he would lead a new, for-profit educational venture developed by Knowledge Universe Learning Group. The company is developing an entire web-based educational curriculum for K-12 students that will be available to home-schoolers, charter schools, and more traditional private and public schools.

As recently as 1999, Bennett wrote critically about technology’s intrusion into education, noting in a book that “so far, there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.” He has been especially critical of flashy programs that offer little educational content or try to dress up learning as entertainment.

In publicizing the new venture, Bennett has defended his new-found interest in technology as an additional way to provide educational opportunities to youngsters, while staying within the bounds of the “traditionalist” approach he has long advocated. His mantra for the new project is, “Traditional learning, powerful technology.”

For example, the program, which is scheduled for release to kindergarten through second-grade students in time for the 2001-2002 school year, will teach phonics and basic arithmetic, Bennett said. It will hew to California’s educational standards, considered among the most comprehensive in the nation. But it will be accessible through the web. Parents and/or schools can purchase access to the program for about $1,200 and then supplement that (for an additional fee) with online tutoring.

A representative of the American Federation of Teachers chided Bennett and Knowledge Universe for starting a school “based solely on technology. We will have to wait and see if the quality of this particular product is as grandiose as Mr. Bennett’s quotes.”

The new school will start life well-funded by Michael R. Milken, the junk-bond king who founded Knowledge Universe a few years ago. Milken has invested a reported $10 million in the new project and has attracted other high-profile participants, such as David Gelernter, a prominent professor at Yale University.