by Dr. Sylvia Charp Editor-in-Chief "Putting The Information Infrastructure to Work: Report of the Information Infrastructure Task Force Committee on Applications and Technology," a 1994 document from the National Institute of Standards and Tech-nology, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, states "Communication technology is transforming the way we live by connecting us with information and with each other. The National Information Infrastructure (NII) promises every business, government agency, hospital, home, library and school in the nation access anywhere to voice, data, full-motion video and multimedia application." The existing telecommunications infrastructure, as stated in the report, is composed of telephone, broadcast, cable and electronic networks. It is used for education, training and lifelong learning in five basic ways: (1) instructing with video; (2) gathering information; (3) communicating using two-way asynchronous capabilities: i.e., e-mail and information bulletin boards; (4) distance learning; and (5) electronic transfer of instructional software and simulations. It seems obvious the content of the material and the manner in which it is presented is of utmost importance. This is increasingly being recognized. For example, a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) has as its focus "to investigate and develop material, tools and content that support development and delivery of educational and training across the NII." Of particular interest are the participants: Digital Equipment Corp., Learning Services Group (DLS), AimTech, Enterprise Computing Institute (ECI), Consortium on Financing Higher Education, and Oxford Reading. Another interesting project is a three-year $6 million Science Learning Network linking elementary science teachers via the Internet, using the World Wide Web to create an online educational research network. Six museums have been awarded $3.5 million by NSF; Unisys will contribute an additional $2.5 million in advanced net- working and software technology hardware, network integration and training services. Despite all of the talk and publicity, many individuals do not understand what the Superhighway is or will be. On a general level, people agree that it will be a massive, global network connecting populations around the world and will provide access to information resources, entertainment and new methods of communication. Internet and the Information Superhighway are often used synonymously. However, although the Internet is part of the superhighway, many other networks are to be included, such as state-run and private dial-in networks. The NII is the current federal administration's version of the Information Superhighway. It will consist of many different kinds of networks; but the greater part of it will be created and owned by private companies. The federal government will find it necessary to provide seed money to ensure technological development to create the necessary hardware and software infrastructure. However, the Information Superhighway is rarely available for learning, according to a 1994 report, "Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Schools K-12," produced by the Department of Education's National Center for Education in cooperation with the Federal Communi-cations Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Some of the report's findings state: E-mail is the most widely used service, followed news groups and resource location services (Gopher, Archie,etc.). More than two-thirds of schools with access to the Internet offer services to teachers and administrators; only about one-half of schools offer it to students. Schools cite limited funding, lack of or poor equipment and too few access points in the building as the main reasons why they don't have or use telecommunications. Nevertheless the use of telecommunications, in particular Internet, is expanding. This was very evident in three conferences I attended during late February and early March in Orlando, Florida: Society for Applied Learning Technology (SALT); International Conference on Technol-ogy and Education (ICTE), co-sponsored by T.H.E. (next year it will be in Copenhagen); and Florida Educational Technology (FETC). Attendance at each of these was much greater than in previous years. Plus, the number of sessions on telecommunications and Internet had increased and proved very popular. Frequently stated were: While we know the NII is on its way, we are not sure what to do now. Lack of information is a problem. Loss of privacy and of being overwhelmed by information are two genuine fears. The public needs to be better informed on the value of telecommunications in improving teaching and learning and to be more involved in decision making. Cooperation between home and school needs to be improved. (An interesting project is Lightspan's school/ home bridge. Lightspan Partnership, Carlsbad, Calif., is creating a two-way connection between schools and students homes "A community's existing telephone or cable TV infrastructure becomes an external network of ad-vanced high-capacity pipelines. Interactive video programs, sound, graphics and text flow in two direction over these pipelines, controlled by the subscribers and by an inexpensive but powerful set-top controller box connected to a normal TV set.") It is essential for federal, state and local government to commit more resources. NII will only be as powerful as the quality and diversity of available information and educational resources. Need for outside assistance in creating local and wide area networks is essential. Where this will precisely come from is frequently not considered in planning. Assessment tools to measure materials, ease of delivery, development tools, and effectiveness of presentation must not be overlooked. Management tools are required to properly utilize all of the information as it becomes more readily available. Will commercial networks be capable of transmitting all the information people want to send? Will everyone have access? Will the network be secure? It is obvious educators are interested in telecommunications and how it can be used to assist in teaching and learning. Insufficient attention is being paid to staff development, technical assistance and development of proper resources. Compelling applications are not well noted. The NII environment is a seamless web of computers, communication lines, databases, and consumer electronic products that can offer exciting educational opportunities. The key question is, now that it is to be available, what do we want to do with it?
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.