Slow Drive to the Information Superhighway

The markets for launching the education revolution have been defined, but the funds are not there

In 1986 when Howard Wilson was communicating on a new computer concept called the Internet, he never thought that in 1996 more than 50 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade would have access to it. The reality is that 25 percent of all K-12 courses, affecting 10 million students in the United States, have integrated technology into the curriculum.

But the numbers don't look good considering there are nearly 50 million students enrolled in public and private schools nationwide. And, for several reasons, analysts and educators believe that the education revolution has come to a standstill.

Even though current education innovations are dominated by the aggressive growth of the Internet and educational software, there is little confidence that the two multimillion- dollar industries can drive the education revolution. The education technology market has been identified but state and local government funds are lacking, training is inadequate and schools are not able to keep up with the rush of technology.

The Software Publishers Association, Washington, which represents 1,200 publishers in the business, consumer and education markets, released a report for the 1993-1994 school year that said $565 million was spent in the United States on instructional software. The figure is small, considering that the Association of American Publishers estimated in 1992 that the textbook market was worth more than $2 billion with a compounded annual growth rate of 6.2 percent. The tug and pull of the educational software industry is driven by the rapidly growing Internet and the financial barriers of the U.S. educational system. Schools are looking to the Internet and software applications as their link to the information highway.

"Because of a greater access to information, a brand new educational software market has opened," said Michael Roberts, vice president of Educom, a non-profit group in Washington that wants to transform education through information technology. "Who wants a dumb, un-networked application for DOS?" Roberts said.

The software tools are equally justifiable.

The Lightspan Partnership Inc., a curriculum-based software program in 14 U.S. school districts, has proven its success in a recent study. The program was established two years ago with investors such as Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., Tele-Communications Inc. in Denver and Comcast Corp. in Philadelphia.

The study, conducted by RMC Research in Portsmouth, N.H., on 45 schools that use the Lightspan program, found that the software, which includes a World Wide Web-based interface, resulted in an increased time spent learning rather than watching television or playing video games. Some 93 percent of parents reported that students spend half an hour or more per day using Lightspan, and 43 percent of students spent more than one hour per day on Lightspan. Some 97 percent of families recommended continued use of Lightspan in their child's school.

Roberts says the ideal workstation, in terms of effectiveness, includes a multimedia Web interface. However, the wait for connected workstations and programs such as Lightspan could be as long as four years for half of the computers in U.S. schools to reach the ideal workstation -- if the numbers grow at a rate of 10 percent per year. So why the wait? There are many challenges in the way of the education revolution.

One hurdle is distribution. Although 50 percent of U.S. schools are connected to the Internet, only 10 percent have the proper equipment to connect to the Internet and have the training to effectively use it.

Another issue is a lack of supply and demand. Roberts says there is a lack of newly written software and a lack of demand from educators. Many large-scale developers are getting out of the educational software business because there are no customers.

But the most significant hurdle is money. Schools spend very little on software. According to Roberts, the nation spends $300 billion a year on K-12 education. Schools continue to rely on traditional textbooks, and the textbook market differs profoundly from the software market.

The study conducted by the SPA found that the student-to-computer ratio continues to decrease to approximately one computer to every nine students. More than 50 percent of the computers are out of date and cannot be used to access the Internet. The study also says Congress will sharply cut educational technology-related funding this year leaving states and local school districts to fill the void, if at all.

"K-12 schools spend under 1 percent of their budget in regards to telecommunications and computers," said Roberts. "Computers have been in the classroom for the last 20 years, but the technology becomes obsolete before implementation." The financial barriers cause a significant delay in delivering modern equipment to schools.

"The Internet isn't revolutionary," said Howard Wilson, a retired professor of applied mathematics who has been teaching for 30 years. While at the University of Alabama, he worked on Matlab, an interactive system that integrates powerful mathematical computation and unrivaled scientific visualization. "A lot of the current learning innovations are old but are just now economically attractive."

Currently, there are four prominent learning innovations in U.S. classrooms. The most widely used is computer-assisted or pre-programmed instruction on a network configuration, which is driven by the Internet and the software industry.

Distance learning is another innovation. Students are using two-way audio and video communication as a learning tool. CD-ROM is being used on stand-alone machines for instructional programs and simulations on video disk.

"No one approach will work well," said Charles Blaschke, president of Education Turnkey Systems in Falls Church, Va. He says that schools are spending $3 billion per year on telecommunications, hardware, software and training. And that figure increases 15 percent every year. "Technology can be used very effectively if schools spent more money on training."

Regardless of how education dollars are spent, educators and analysts find it hard to predict the future state of the software applications and Internet access in the classroom.

"We'll be doing real well if we have 50 percent of classrooms using a multimedia Web interface by 2000," said Roberts. "The two sides of supply and demand need to come together."n

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