The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is underwriting a $580,000 project to report on technology innovations in Japan. Grant recipients at the University of Southern California say their online project, dubbed the “USC Japan Review,” will alert Americans to important technology innovations that might otherwise go unnoticed. But some exasperated American educators say ED would do better giving that kind of money to one or more U.S. school districts.

Professors and other academics at USC Annenberg’s Online Journalism and Communication Program say they will spend the ED grant on creating a web site dedicated to highlighting technology innovations in Japan.

The site’s content will expose students, teachers, and other tech-savvy users to a wireless culture, which is advancing far more rapidly than anything yet to arrive in the United States, they say.

Be it expanded text-messaging capabilities; the integration of global positioning systems into cell phone technologies; or increased bandwidth and reception range, Japanese services typically outpace American innovations, according to Larry Pryor, director of the online journalism program and one of the study’s chief organizers.

“There is no question that the applications they have in Japan are well above what we do in the states,” Pryor said. “Japan is going to become the most intensely wireless country in the world.”

Pryor said the university based its grant application on broad evidence that Japan was continuing to build up its massive technology infrastructure, including an increase in PC hook-ups and broadband connections – all advancements the Eastern world typically lagged behind on in previous decades.

“The government’s policies on internet technology state categorically that it is the government’s goal to make Japan a totally wireless, hooked-up nation over the next several years,” he said.

USC Annenberg’s three-year initiative will focus mainly on providing information on three main topics: the hottest trends, government policies, and the latest technological developments to come out of the Eastern hemisphere.

A web log – updated daily – will contain world news stories, research reports, and coverage of new government polices on technology issues. Visitors also will have access to original content submitted by freelance writers. According to Pryor, the features will focus on exposing new technology trends not yet in vogue in the West.

And the site will host a live forum discussion where students, academics, and others can log-on to discuss changing trends and stay abreast of what new technologies are looming in the East.

Pryor said the research will be especially important for education as colleges and K-12 districts across the nation look to cultivate and expand their use of broadband and wireless technologies.

“Distance learning has gotten a bad reputation because it was tied up in the dot-com collapse,” Pryor said.

He believes that as demand for increased broadband and cable access increases so will the need to provide new technologies that people – especially students – can use.

“We want to gain a better understanding of what is happening abroad. The internet provides a perfect way to do that,” he said. “This site is designed to be an ideal educational tool.”

But some K-12 educators say they doubt the project’s potential to improve technology awareness and bolster the quality of education.

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Unified School District in California said he thinks ED is spending money where it doesn’t need to.

“Have we forgotten all of the technology companies whose job it is to know this information and bring to market those things of value? When compared to what $580,000 would do for a school district – any school district – to improve educational opportunities for students, my personal opinion is that someone at ED ought to lose [his or her] job for even considering this type of grant.”

But ED officials say the grant is part of the Technological Innovation and Cooperation for Foreign Information Access program. A program that was designed to keep U.S. industries informed about what’s happening in other countries.

Even so, Rick Bauer, chief information officer for the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., is skeptical about an academic institution’s ability to complete such a task.

“I wonder about the ability of a college to keep track of these developments. Most universities have to be dragged kicking and screaming into curriculum change and into teaching new technologies, so I would not quickly look to academia to keep me abreast of developments in this area. I hope there is some kind of real-world sanity check going on before we breathlessly are told what the next ‘new, new thing’ is going to be.”

But Pryor argues cautious restraint is one of the reasons Westerners have been slow to imitate the techno-wizardry so often associated with Eastern innovation.

In efforts to identify technology innovations passing under U.S. radar, Pryor’s team will employ a team of Japanese-speaking graduate students. Their goal: to translate important tech news from the East that has failed to receive publicity in the United States.

Pryor said he hopes the new online initiative, still in the planning phase, will shed light on the extensive work that is being done overseas and, thereby, increase the quality of education technology available in the United States.

The initiative is slated to launch in beta form sometime between January and February of 2003, with a final version expected by the end of March, Pryor said. “This is an exciting time because there are some positive signs that new media technologies are making good strides. The grant is intended to promote understanding between countries.”

Links:

Hill School Pottstown, Pa.
http://www.thehill.org/

Marysville Unified School District
http://intergate.mjusd.k12.ca.us/

USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications
http://ascweb.usc.edu/home.php

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

URL for when the USC Japan Review goes live
http://www.uscjr.org