New Paradigm May Be a Boon to Education

Oracle's new network computer could be a low-cost solution for putting more information technology into the nation's classrooms

Oracle Corp. is pushing its network computer as a way to speed the arrival of computer technology into the nation's classrooms and give more students access to the Internet.

Company officials hope these network computer, dubbed the NC, could be bought in large numbers by school officials who want a low-cost and simple way to display software and video programs to students.

These computers could be attractive to school administrators because they could be easily linked to the cable or phone companies' networks, cutting personal computer procurement costs while easing maintenance and upgrades.

Jack Pellicci, vice president for strategy, solutions and marketing at Oracle Government, said the company estimates the global education and training market will demand huge quantities of infotech. "This is the biggest business area around. It's a trillion dollar business," Pellicci said.

Oracle executives demonstrated the NC concept to Department of Education officials during meetings last month. Participants included Jay Nussbaum, senior vice president and general manager of the Bethesda, Md.-based government division, Education Secretary Richard Riley and Linda Roberts, director of the department's office of educational technology.

Education Department officials are looking at the concept "very positively," said Robert Golas, Oracle's director of business development for civilian agencies. "We've brought in a working reference model. We've got something that works and that will be produced by other manufacturers."

"Everyone applauds the concept of an inexpensive computer that could have the networking and Internet tools we want to use in the classrooms for teaching and learning, but we can't look at it seriously until all the [software] applications have been built," said one Education Department official.

The success of Oracle and other companies in selling the NC as a cost-effective solution in the education field will depend on whether software vendors will adapt their vast stocks of PC software to operate on an Internet-style network.

Oracle Government efforts to sell its NC/education vision have focused on the Department of Education, company officials said.

A prototype of the network computer that uses off-the-shelf technology costs $295, Golas said. Adding marketing and mass production costs, the cost will be $300 to $500 at the low end, Golas said. Of course, more capable devices will be available at higher cost, company officials said.

Companies such as Sun Microsystems and IBM are developing the NC hardware. The first production models are scheduled to be available in December, Pellicci said.

The education pitch fits Oracle Chairman Lawrence Ellison's vision of selling more network computers by the turn of the century than personal computers. Last fall, Ellison put the cost of a device able to run simple programs via the Internet at $500.

But Oracle officials say they are not out to replace the PC. "It's more like giving people a cost-effective alternative where a PC might not be able to be purchased, and now you can get those capabilities by being able to purchase an NC," Golas said.

The mix of PCs and NCs in a particular school system would vary. "If there are 50 million students in the United States, then one possibility would be that you have one work unit for every five. In some cases, it would be a PC, in some cases it would be an NC. I don't think there have been any rigid ratios established at this point," Golas said.

In Oracle's view, new models for education and training are keyed to a virtual infoplex in which cable TV, phone lines, wireless and satellites are the pipes; the World Wide Web, Internet and intranets are the technical interfaces and people at home, work and school are the human interfaces who will use a mix of PCs, NCs and TVs to access books, courses, records, documents and interactive video. The audiences? Trainers and educators, graduates, employers and workers around the globe.

Pellicci, who has attended numerous training and education forums, said resistance to the new paradigm still runs deep among some educators. Some teachers simply are not comfortable with the notion that their students know a lot more than they do about today's technology, he said. Then there are those who fret about technological advances that could shrink the size of the nation's classrooms and their work force.

Pellicci said, "Is it easy? No. Is it a new paradigm? Yes. Is there resistance? Yes."

In July, Oracle announced that its Education unit had been elevated to a new line of business offering worldwide integrated learning and technology training to meet the needs of corporations, government agencies and educational institutions.

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