You may not be able to move mountains, per se, but in Texas, higher education breaks down the geographic barriers separating public and private institutions with a statewide high-speed fiber-optic network. The network enables collaborated research efforts with throughput speeds greater than anything Texas education has ever experienced. 

The Lonestar Education and Research Network (LEARN) -- operated by a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization consisting of members from 33 higher-education institutions --allows participating Texas educational institutions access to the Internet, Abilene (a multistate backbone network for research and educational institutions to access Internet2), and the nation's largest educational research network -- the National LambdaRail (NLR).

The NLR, the inspiration for LEARN, lets scientists and researchers merge brain and computing power to conduct large-scale research efforts through optical data exchange -- creating a national infrastructure for networks across the nation to tie into.

Texas higher-education institutions wanted to access the NLR, but the state needed its own high-speed network to provide the backbone for statewide connection.

LEARN will provide that backbone, though it's in the early phases of implementation. Texas officials said LEARN is expected to be complete this year, and as the network grows, more institutions will connect and gain access to more extensive international research networks.


For the Common Good
The idea for LEARN was sparked at a 2002 meeting after a presentation by Tom West, president of the Corporation for Education Network in California (CENIC), and co-founder and CEO of the NLR. West talked about the benefits of having access to a national education and research network, and offered an active node in Texas and a seat on the NLR's board if Texas could contribute $5 million over the next five years.

If Texas had an active node to the LEARN network, institutions with access to that node would also gain access to the NLR. 

Texas opted in, and 23 schools participated in funding the NLR. A year later, 22 institutions agreed to contribute an annual fee of $20,000 each to support the development and recurring costs of what would become LEARN.

Additionally, Texas granted LEARN $7.3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, created by Gov. Rick Perry to boost employment. Within this $390 million fund, $55 million was allotted to technology and biotechnology, with one goal being to support university research. 

The purpose of LEARN is to create and operate a unified, statewide, cost-effective advanced-performance data network for research and education in Texas that is the equal of any in the United States, said Dan Updegrove, vice president of Information Technology at the University of Texas at Austin, and LEARN's chairman of the board.

LEARN's member institutions continue to pay the annual fee to maintain the network and to provide future funding for a dedicated technical staff to replace the current volunteers from member institutions.

LEARN's members collaborate in a way they've never experienced before, said Dave Edmondson, associate provost of Information Services for Texas Christian University and vice chairman of LEARN.

"We sit down around a table together, and we talk about issues and how we might collaborate between them -- not only in networking but in other issues as well," he said. "This is a vehicle to facilitate the possibility of collaboration amongst all of our institutions in the state of Texas."

Although higher-education institutions compete to recruit students, faculty and staff, Edmondson said, those institutions still share knowledge in a way that corporate America doesn't.


Government Interest
Higher-education institutions also contribute to state coffers. With technology driving the education process these days, technology itself is an alluring feature for prospective students, and in turn, a major benefit to state economies.

Students want access to the wealth of information technology and may select a school based on

Sherry Watkins  |  Contributing Writer