January 25, 2015
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Winter 1995 Vol. 4 No. 4
A Teacher's Perspective on the NII
By Bonnie Bracey
The author, an elementary schoolteacher, is an outspoken advocate for American teachers, especially when technology is the topic.
For more than a year, the members of the Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure (NIIAC) have worked together to create a framework that will enable us to reach consensus and make recommendations on many issues related to the development and deployment of the National Information Infrastructure (NII).
The NIIAC has organized its activities into three Mega-Projects:
The Mega-Project teams have been working together since March 1994, examining the current NII and reviewing relevant articles and judicial opinions. In addition, they have had regular consultations with the Clinton Administration's Information Infrastructure Task Force, other government officials, and outside experts.
What Is the NII?
The phrase"information infrastructure" has an expansive meaning; the NII includes more than just the physical facilities used to transmit, store, process, and display voice, data, and images. It encompasses a wide and ever-expanding range of equipment that includes cameras, scanners, keyboards, telephones, fax machines, computers, switches, compact disks, video and audiotape, cable, wire, satellites, optical fiber transmission lines, microwave nets, switches, televisions, monitors, printers, and much more.
The NII will integrate and interconnect these physical components in a technologically neutral manner so that no one industry will be favored over any other. Most important, the NII requires building foundations for living in the information age and for making these technological advances useful to the public, business, libraries, and other nongovernmental entities.
That is why, beyond the physical components of the infrastructure, the value of the NII to users and the nation will depend in large part on the quality of its other elements.
The Role of Teachers
NIIAC's finished focus project, KickStart, zeroes in on K12 education, libraries, and community centers. We want to involve stakeholders in the deployment of the NII, and we picked K12 as a target area. We have worked together to develop a plan to share stories, much like the campfire model.
We've been attempting to answer a number of questions: What pioneering initiatives are models of success for lifelong learning in schools, libraries, and communities? What options are available to these sites? What about access? What concerns will these sites have about fair use, intellectual property, and other questions that will develop as we embrace the new ways of pedagogy?
When introduced to the concept of the information highway, many teachers will say that they don't know how we can add another thing to the school day or give them yet another responsibility.
Here is a letter from a teacher to an electronic bulletin board that posted criticisms about teachers. The remarkable thing about this letter is that many of us sing the same tune.
This is a topic that is quite near and dear to me. I teach in a public school system that requires that we teach the fine arts (dance, drama, visual arts, and music) as well as drug education, health/fitness, AIDS awareness, and the so-called "feel-good" topics such as self-esteem and good citizenship. Somewhere in an extraordinarily short work day we also have to teach math, science, language arts, and social studies (basically American history). My students arrive at my door eager and excited to learn despite the harsh realities of their everyday lives. Some have adults in their lives whose energies are focused on scoring drugs for the day, doing what it takes to get through the day alive. Many have witnessed murders of family and friends, and nearly all of these children live in truly abject poverty. I simply cannot meet all of their emotional/psychological needs, teach reading (most of my eighth-grade students read well below the national norms), mother them, and sometimes feed them and put clothes on their backs with the few resources I have. Somehow, I manage to save a few kids every year and spend an enormous portion of my salary making sure that these kids go on weekend trips to gain exposure to the opportunities available to them if they don't give up. So, forgive me if I feel a bit resentful of those people who have nothing but criticism to offer us.
There are many teachers who simply want to help kids as best they can. What is the motivation for the change from chalk and talk to the use of technology as a tool? In American education, the textbook remains the basic unit of instruction. Absorption of its contents tends to be the measure of education. How can we change that? What motivation is there to take on the task of change?
Teachers and instructors use chalk and talk to convey information. Students are often recipients of instruction rather than active participants in learning. When teachers upset the industrial model, what are the predictable differences? How do we convey to the public the models of this change and the reasons why U.S. education should change?
In the past, even the most dedicated, skilled, and caring educators needed paper, pencils, and books to ensure that their students got the knowledge they needed to succeed in the society they were being prepared for. To succeed in the society of the 21st century, however, today's students must graduate with more than the memorized knowledge of the past. They must be able to synthesize and analyze information, not just memorize it. Today's students must learn to think for themselves. And they must be able to adapt to a world in which the only constant is rapid change.
Most schoolteachers work largely in isolation from their peers, and many interact with their colleagues only for a few moments each day. In contrast, most other professionals collaborate, exchange information, and develop new skills on a daily basis. But teachers are often in the classroom, where the bell and the loudspeaker or PA system are the most significant technology. Although half of this nation's schoolteachers use passive video materials for instruction, only a small fraction have access to interactive video, computer networks, or even telephones in the classroom. And these technologies offer opportunities for collaboration in spite of distance.
While computers are a frequent sight in America's classrooms and training sites, they are usually used simply as electronic workbooks. The interactive, high-performance uses of technology that the NII will allowsuch as networked teams collaborating to solve real-world problems, retrieving information from electronic libraries, and performing scientific experiments in simulated environmentsare all too uncommon in our schools. U.S. schooling is a conservative institution that adopts new practice and technology slowly.
So how do we teachers make the change? We have a variable set of needs: access to hardware, some familiarity and training, on-site permission, and patience and support within the educational setting. The support should hopefully be systemwide and involve all of the layers of funding; parents and community members; andto effect significant national changeteacher inservice and training. And, finally, time: teachers need time to learn technology, to understand the applications, to synthesize ideas so they can use technology as a tool that will enhance the teaching process. All of these ideas are considered in detail in the NIIAC's KickStart Project.
I believe that if the teachers of America could speak of their dreams and hopes for the future, they would cry out to be a part of the age of information. Sadly, it is hard to ask for computers when we have such a hard time just getting phones and dedicated lines into our classrooms.
In medieval times, the scripters, the careful monks who painstakingly copied books, had most written knowledge in their hands. The monks and priests had a network even then to disseminate knowledge to the capitals of the countries that the Jesuits served. The "knowbots" of medieval times were the intellectuals who could read, write, and discourse, and they made decisions or were able to influence the decision making of that era. In those dark ages, information was available, but very few were privileged to be a part of the sharing of knowledge. Once the printing press was invented, the industrial secrets of that world and global niches of specialization were quickly shared. But even then, the movement of ideas was based on a person's ability to read and to purchase or have access to a book. It took a long time to bring the cost of books down to a level that the general public could afford. Hence, the town criers. Oyez!
Teachers are not far removed from those primitive ways of communication. We are still using the book for our basic teaching and the voice for the delivery of the program with a little help from some current technology, some hands-on projects, and a few field trips.
The good news is that many teachers are using the new cells of virtual communication and networks that exist on the Internet to reconstruct and improve their teaching practices. The number of people involved in network communications is larger than the cable and television viewing public. Teachers are learning multimedia and using platforms to create learning environments that are rich in motivation and interest and cater to different learning styles. Our link is the computer, online telecommunications, and our virtual communities of thought, conventions, and teacher organizations.
We are just beginning to develop new ways of learning. Unfortunately, we are like the monks. Most people outside our sphere do not understand our words when we talk about the information highway, any more than the peasants understood Latin from the monks. There are more people who do not understand this hue and cry about the information highway than those who do.
It is not that our current school systems are in error; it is that a whole national initiative is a crying need. The world has changedbut some do not know it. I am concerned that some in education may not want to know it.
Whose Job Is It?
The members of NIIAC are striving to include teachersthose who are technologically aware and those who are notin the discussion about and planning for the implementation of technology into America’s classrooms. I am privileged to be one of the voices, and I think that the release of the KickStart Project report will demonstrate the serious commitment of the other NIIAC members.
In talking, thinking, and writing about education, it occurs to me that no one agrees on everything and that many people are only passively involved in education. I know, though, that many of us have a real passion for what goes on in schools. What action are you taking? If you care at all about the use of technology in the schools, now is the time to get involved.
Here's an idea: The same Congress that funded the military knows that it secured a 70 percent increase in the ability to train the military through the use of technology. What if half of that increase were transferred to the learning population? What if the people who created the infrastructure within the military championed our cause? We send them our students, after allwhat if those students were already technologically aware before they joined the military?
Everyone says that money will not solve the problem, and that is true. But teachers cannot finance the technology revolution on their own. Parents are trying to help, but saving Safeway receipts to purchase computers won't solve the problem either. The leaders of business and industry are aware of the problem, but agreement on the problem fragments when we discuss solutions. Must the progress of the schools and education be tied to a political agenda? What can you personally do? I suggest a phone call, letter, or email message to your congressperson, urging him or her to support funding for the implementation of technology in our schools.
The members of the NIIAC feel that visionary leadership is essential and that leadership may come from a single person at the head of a school system, library or community center or from groups with special knowledge and skills, such as teachers, principals, librarians, community members, parents, and business people.
We are working to ensure active participation for all segments of the American population in the deployment of the NII. With the KickStart Project report, education will have a proper place at the tablejust as I have had, as an elementary schoolteacher. But mine is only one voice. I hope others will join in the discourse, and soon.Illustrations by Maureen Pesta
Click here to access the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council Sidebar that accompanied this article.
Click here to access URLs for NII Online Resources.
Bonnie Bracey taught fourth and fifth grades at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and is now Teacher in Residence at Arlington Career Center. She is the only K-12 teacher representative on the Vice President's NII Advisory Council. Bracey, a 1992 Christa McAuliffe Educator, serves on the national advisory boards of The Lightspan Partnership, the George Lucas Educational Foundation, and TECHNOS Quarterly.