From Pre-K to Gray, the Internet Is All the Rage

From Pre-K to Gray, the Internet Is All the Rage<@VM>NSF<@VM>MICROSOFT/MIT<@VM>ALCATEL<@VM>EMBARK.COM

C. Dianne Martin

By John Makulowich

While e-commerce garners most of the headlines, a quiet revolution is sweeping through the education scene, from high schools all the way to the graduate level. And momentum is building.

One marketing firm, Jupiter Communications, projects that 75 percent of all teenagers and 85 percent of all college students in the United States will be using the Internet in 2000.

The Department of Education estimates there now are more than 52 million students in public and private K-12 schools, with more than 122 million people directly connected to the education industry, including students, their parents, educators and administrators.

More to the point, in 1998, more than 50 percent of the higher education classrooms in this country were wired, compared with 27 percent the previous year. Today, more than 90 percent of higher learning institutions have Internet access somewhere on campus. And from 1994 to 1998, there was a 92 percent increase in secondary schools with Internet connections.

All this data is not lost on major government funding institutions, such as the National Science Foundation. Among key initiatives supported by NSF is one of several special projects known as the Digital Libraries Initiative, a multiagency research program designed to create large knowledge bases, the technology to access them and the means to improve their usability.

The program is in its second phase, and efforts are under way to provide leadership in research to develop the next generation of digital libraries, to advance the use and usability of globally distributed, networked information resources and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative applications.

Areas of focus include education, engineering and design, earth and space sciences, biosciences, geography, economics and the arts and humanities. Issues cover the digital libraries life cycle from information creation, access and use to archiving and preservation.

Part of the initiative is a better understanding of the long-term social, behavioral and economic implications of new digital libraries in areas such as research, education, commerce, defense, health services and recreation.

For C. Dianne Martin, lead program director in the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education, the breadth of attention today for education and the Internet ranges from pre-K to gray at both the local and national level. And while almost all programs contain a technology component, she warned about obsessing solely on technology.

"There is a lot of pressure, both political and economic as well as from within the university, to use technology in education, but we don't want technology to drive education," said Martin.

Underlying Martin's words are concerns about using technology as a way to cut costs and to see the World Wide Web as a convenient and inexpensive way to deliver traditional courses. But deep concerns surface as well among academics and others regarding intellectual property and its misuse and abuse.

Beyond the marvels of technology, Martin stressed the need for teachers to develop in students problem solving and critical thinking skills, especially in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

"We seek projects that stress interaction, the kinds that might develop case studies, that focus on thinking about and discussing issues, of recognizing complexity and not the single, right answer," she said. "Also, a number of projects are interdisciplinary, for example, environmental science, that engage the students at a much deeper level than traditional courses."

For Martin, the student of the future, the one who benefits from all these programs and initiatives, is someone who has learned how to learn, a person who can shift focus every three to five years as his or her field begins to change.

"The students of tomorrow will have multiple jobs in their lifetimes and must bring multiple skills to the task, a holistic attitude toward learning and problem solving," she said. "What will be required from institutions will be more interdisciplinary learning approaches and more learning about learning. In a sense, the student of tomorrow will be a meta-learner, one who has a better understanding of her own learning, who can reflect on her own learning and learning style."

C. Dianne Martin

At the enterprise technology end of the spectrum, Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., announced an alliance with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a program named I-Campus.

Focused on improving university education through IT research and development, the program's goal is to create and demonstrate technologies that can produce revolutionary IT teaching models and educational tools.

Also addressed will be research into new pedagogical structures, integrating IT concepts and methods throughout the curriculum and carefully inspecting the changing environment for university education.

Microsoft will provide $25 million for work at MIT over an initial five years, as well as software support and research staff for joint projects on novel course and program content and new educational tools.

For its part, MIT will contribute faculty, students and research staff as well as a "living laboratory" to develop and test those teaching models and educational tools and to direct project research and facilities.

Anoop Gupta, senior researcher in the Microsoft Research, Collaboration and Multimedia Systems Group, said part of what technology does is create greater opportunities for people through more chances.

"We want to be able to take a person to the place where experts are," he said. "If the expert is in Scotland, then technology should allow student and expert to interact. Lots of options are enabled by the technologies. Content will become more interactive. A core skill will be teaching people how to learn, learning to learn."

Echoing Martin's remarks, Gupta feels life-long learning will become the norm as skills become obsolete and specific skills become irrelevant. He gives the example of HTML, which already has become obsolete, not only with the arrival of software that automatically codes the digitized word, but also by XML, the emerging standard for coding Web pages to comply with increased interest in e-commerce.

Part of the Microsoft-MIT alliance is an effort to find ways to support different learning styles, to seek alternatives to the strong teacher-centric method of educating that dominates U.S. systems. Among the ways to do that is through interactive content and through delivery, distribution and access with anytime, anywhere, just-in-time learning.

One company that stays strictly on the hardware side and has wired numerous schools throughout the United States is Alcatel Internetworking Inc., Calabasas, Calif. Two of its successes are schools in Los Angeles: Rosewood Elementary and Manual Arts High School.

In just the last year, Rosewood went from three to 30 computers and started this school year with a new network that connects to the Internet as well as all classrooms. Fourth-grade students have used the system to develop digital movies.

Manual Arts went from 400 to more than 900 computers in the last year. Among the services the system will provide will be educational resources created by teachers and students and shared through public folders on the school's intranet.

Greg Kovich, associate director for education for Alcatel Internetworking, worked in industry for 15 years before becoming a technology coordinator in the district where he had attended school. Over four years, he helped design and develop the network.

For him, one of the main challenges in networking a school focuses on the cable contractors, those who pull the wire to connect the system to individual units through network cards. They never know what is behind the walls.

"You face generations of change. Most schools are not the original structure; they were not built as schools. And the changes are not documented. The cable guys never know what will hit them," Kovich said. "In one elementary school in Indianapolis, we had to redesign the whole system because we found asbestos."

In the best of all worlds, the approach to setting up the network should be a needs analysis that takes into account curriculum applications and makes the system future-proofed. By that, Kovich means it is flexible and scalable.

But difficulties enter at this point, depending on the breadth and depth of the network operator's experience.

"In the larger school districts, you often see a network administrator on retainer. In the smaller areas, however, more often you find the self-made man or woman who learned on their own," Kovich said.

While he said his company is comfortable saying that whatever you want to put on the network, it will support, he noted that a system is needed that is even more robust than an enterprise. The reason: the demand placed on it by students and teachers, starting with the need to close down the system after each class and start it up again in the next period.

Anoop Gupta

One of the more innovative Web applications and interactive guides catering to the college and graduate school market is Embark.com, formerly CollegeEdge, headquartered in San Francisco and founded in 1995.

With free service to users, students can access the site to research financial aid opportunities, and also to identify 6,000 undergraduate and graduate programs, including every accredited school, based on location and critical metrics, such as grade point average of entering students and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

For those schools that accept a common application, which is a standard form that registered users can prepare online, students can transmit it to the schools and pay the application fee with a credit card.

According to Katie Madden, a company spokesperson, the number of applications submitted online ranges in the hundreds and is growing. The firm itself already has experienced 40 percent growth in registered users over last year. And the company has just entered its busiest season. Madden said the growth has come with registered users, those people actively researching and applying to schools.

Embark.com's success mirrors the growth in the online education industry as more and more students look to the Internet as a centralized resource for research and information on helping them achieve education and career goals.

And more and more counselors are seeing less and less need for all the paper brochures and catalogs. One guidance counselor even told Madden that all the folders filled with college materials in her office will disappear in the next 10 years.

One of the more popular tools on Embark.com is the Match Maker service, which contains more than 120,000 pages of content on colleges, careers and financial aid. It allows students to enter their grade point average, SAT scores and choose a location, and have the system return the schools for which they have a chance at selection. An extensive database also allows searches for scholarships and other financial aid.

"We also outsource online solutions to middle schools, high schools, community organizations, colleges and universities," Madden said. "These solutions have truly begun to revolutionize the way guidance counselors help track and monitor their students' progress, and the way colleges, universities and other groups like the Peace Corps recruit and enroll their applicants."

On the other side of the fence, for colleges and universities there is the Recruiter tool. This allows institutions to identify high SAT scores, grade point averages and extracurricular activities and to send e-mail to unidentified students through the Embark.com system. The recipients remain unknown to the school and have the option to reply or ignore the letter.

Madden noted that while most of the activity revolves around high school juniors and seniors, interest in graduate school is growing. There also is increasing interest in the Embark service from smaller colleges and two-year programs, which see a benefit for both broader reach and more tightly targeted marketing.

Two of their services are the Enrollment Services System and Education & Career Opportunities System. The enrollment system helps admissions professionals identify, recruit, admit and enroll students and counts as users schools such as MIT, Stanford University, Boston College, Brown University and Duke University.

The Education & Career Opportunities System, recently upgraded with new features, targets high school administrators who work with students and offers them comprehensive information and services in careers, majors, colleges, scholarships and financial aid. Among users are the Urban League and the Boys and Girls Clubs as well as high schools and international organizations.

The newest feature is an Online Mentor Program. This lets the local community help students by allowing parents, friends, alumni and local professionals to contribute their expertise and offer advice to students through e-mail and online forums.

Also new is an expanded career database for students, with more than 1,100 career profiles. A so-called ECOS Portfolio also lets students store their complete personal history, including grades, awards, extracurricular activities, a four-year course plan, an event and deadline organizer, resumes and letters.

The company does not provide any of its users' contact information to outside marketers.

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