As the U.S. Department of Education (ED) revamps its popular information clearinghouse system as required by the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, many educators and librarians fear the proposed changes will make it harder—and not easier, as ED intends—for them to access important research on educational technology and other topics.

The issue takes on added significance as educators struggle to incorporate “scientifically based research” into their educational approaches, as is now required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) currently operates through a network of 16 separate, subject-specific clearinghouses, each responsible for acquiring, selecting, indexing, and abstracting materials in its area of interest. Besides archiving educational research and information, each ERIC clearinghouse offers quick eMail digests, or summaries of the latest research, as well as electronic newsletters and listserves for users.

The popular, web-based resource contains more than one million bibliographic records dating back to 1966 and averages nearly 600,000 searches a month. The subject areas served include Information and Technology, Assessment and Evaluation, Educational Management, Rural Education and Small Schools, Teaching and Teacher Education, and more.

ED is proposing to eliminate the individual content-area clearinghouses and instead offer a single, searchable database of information, while also upgrading the system’s search technology, adding new topics, and making the entire system compatible with its new What Works Clearinghouse of carefully vetted research. In addition, ED plans to add full-text articles to the system’s current list of bibliographic records.

The result will be a more efficient system for tapping into the latest education literature, ED says.

But many educators don’t see it that way. Some fear the elimination of separate clearinghouses will mean each subject area won’t get the attention it once had, while others lament the demise of user-friendly features such as the digests, listserves, and a helpful search service called AskERIC.

When ED released a draft of its plan for public comment earlier this year, more than 3,000 organizations and individuals responded. The majority urged ED to abandon its plan to drop ERIC’s 16 separate clearinghouses in favor of a single, online database.

Opponents of the plan—such as Richard Hershman, vice president for legislative affairs at the National Education Knowledge Industry Association (NEKIA)—expressed concern that, although ERIC will still exist, many of its present features will not.

ED is “going to maintain ERIC, but it’s a stripped-down version of what currently exists,” Hershman said.

The new plan eliminates popular resources such as educator listserves and digests, which offer concise, two- or three-page summaries of each piece of research. The digests, Hershman said, are “what a lot of educators use, because they typically don’t go and look at the original research.”

The plan also does away with human support; educators no longer will be able to call the system’s toll-free AskERIC telephone number and ask a content expert to conduct a search for them.

“In the draft of the RFP [request for proposals], they would only have an 800 number to walk people through how to do a search, so [the help] is only technically oriented,” Hershman said. Those without computers or internet know-how would be out of luck, he added.

Hershman also fears each subject area will not get the full attention it now commands. “Each one of those clearinghouses has its own constituency,” he said. “Each one of those constituencies is using those clearinghouses as a great source of information.”

On the plus side, the plan upgrades the database’s technology and search engine to support extensible markup language (XML), meta-tags, and more. These improvements theoretically will allow information to flow freely between the ERIC database, the What Works Clearinghouse, and ED’s web site.

“There are some improvements that we advocated for, and we are pleased with that. But when you weigh what is being removed with what’s being added, it doesn’t match up,” Hershman said.

According to ED, ERIC is an outdated system that was devised in the mid-1960s, when most journal articles and other materials were available only in paper form and when microfiche was still relatively new. “Electronic technology now enables centralization of ERIC database operations, yielding much greater speed and efficiency at lower cost than has been possible in the past,” the proposal said.

Luna Levinson, director of the ERIC program at ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, said the department received several thousand comments about its plan during a 30-day period. “Some of the comments were indeed useful; they were technical and incorporated [into the RFP language],” she said.

Centralization of the system will make it more cost effective, Levinson argued, eliminating the duplicative work of database-building and allowing the department to reduce its labor costs. These savings, in turn, will provide funding to expand ERIC’s coverage, add full-text articles, and introduce new technologies into the system.

In addition, Levinson said, the new ERIC will be able to incorporate new research and information more quickly—instead of three to 24 months after it becomes available, after being processed by separate contractors.

See these related links:

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

Educational Resources Information Center
http://www.eric.ed.gov

ERIC Request for Proposals
http://www.eps.gov/spg/ED/OCFO/CPO/ED%2D03%2DR%2D0018/listing.html