Problem/Situation: Some schools can afford to take advantage of technology learning tools, while others can't.
Solution: Pacific Bell's Education First initiative is giving all public K-12 schools, public libraries and community colleges in California an opportunity to hook up to the information highway and receive a year of service for free.
Vendors: Pacific Bell, America Online.
Contact: Education First hot line: 800/901-2210.
By Justine Kavanaugh
The wealth of information available on the information highway is perhaps most valuable for students and education as a whole. But the fact that things like access to the Internet and online services are now widely available doesn't do much good if tight school budgets don't give students the chance to take advantage of such opportunities. But a new initiative - called Education First - may fill this gap for many California schools.
Education First is, to date, the largest private sector initiative ever undertaken to connect schools and libraries to the information highway. The initiative, sponsored by Pacific Bell, is dedicated to accelerating the deployment of education technology in California. It includes $100 million in communications services from Pacific Bell and installation of T-1 lines allowing for telecomputing and interactive telelearning capabilities.
In addition, Pacific Bell has negotiated with more than 20 vendors to provide participants with discounts of 5 percent to 50 percent on computers, videoconferencing equipment, communications-related hardware, software and services. Subject to regulatory approval, Pacific Bell will also connect public schools and libraries to its broadband network as it is deployed, allowing these institutions access to video-on-demand and other forms of interactive multimedia.
The company is also fielding dedicated resource teams which will work directly with schools and teachers to help them fully utilize the new telecommunications resources at their disposal and prepare themselves with the necessary equipment, software and related components.
"The objective of Education First is to provide a comprehensive IT solution for California education, from equipment for students to training for teachers," said Pacific Telesis Chairman Phil Quigley.
Under the agreement, Pacific Bell will install as many as four T-1 lines for free and waive one year's associated charges for all 7,400 public K-12 schools, public libraries and community colleges in their territory - which consists of approximately 80 percent of California.
Pacific Bell began the Education First project by choosing 11 places to equip as demonstration sites. According to Rebecca Weill, Pacific Bell Corp. communications manager, "the 11 sites were chosen to represent a variety of geographic regions, different levels of schools and various community populations - basically, a representation of each part of the entire state." The demonstration sites serve as incubators for developing technology applications, training packages and curriculum for adoption by future Education First participants.
San Diego State University's College of Education will assist in applications development for Education First, and special projects will be developed in cooperation with organizations such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco and public television stations KCET in Los Angeles and KQED in San Francisco.
In an effort to ensure the long-term success of the project, Pacific Bell has approached the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) with a plan for a special educational access rate to provide affordable telecommunications connectivity on an on-going basis for all schools and libraries in the state. It is now just a matter of the CPUC reviewing the proposal, holding a hearing and approving or disapproving the new rate. "The education community is very concerned about getting a flat rate," said Mike Powell, group director for the education and libraries division of Education First. "They need to know what they will have to pay each month and not have to worry about regulating their usage."
Pacific Bell has also requested permission from the CPUC to extend the Education First offer to approximately 1,200 private, non-profit K-12 schools in its service territory.
Getting Schools Started
In January, Pacific Bell sent out Education First applications to approximately 8,600 K-12 schools, public libraries and community colleges. By mid-April, over 500 schools had returned applications. "We have about 60 or 70 customers that have already been connected," said Powell, "and we have another 400 to 500 applications that we are working on now."
The Education First project will run through the end of 1997, and schools and libraries interested in connecting can do so simply by filling out the Education First application. However, Pacific Bell does request that the school or library have the equipment to take advantage of the digital service. "We don't want to activate a line and have it sit there for three months with nothing attached to it," said Powell.
The most important thing a school needs to do, according to Powell, is to decide how they want to use the service. "Do they need data? Do they want to have video conferencing abilities? Do they want both those things? Once that is decided, then they need to make sure they have the equipment to connect to the line. Once they've done that, we work out a schedule with them to go in and do the wiring and activate the line."
Education First was designed to help those schools which, without help, may have to wait three, five or 10 years to get connected to the information highway. But once the schools are connected, they then have the opportunity to use the service any way they choose. For example, Bryant Elementary School in San Francisco is using the service to connect with experts to enhance study projects. They currently have linked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium as part of a unit on oceans.
Century High School, in Santa Ana, Calif., is using the service to hook students up to a United Nations server to research issues via transcripts of debates and general sessions. West Valley Community College, in Saratoga, Calif., is providing distance learning classes for high school students and business people. For example, an environmental technology program is available for business people and online calculus classes can be taken by advanced high school students.
Workshops and Open Houses
As a way to educate schools thinking about joining the Education First project, Pacific Bell is organizing workshops and open houses all over the state. These events will give school officials, students, parents and entire communities the opportunity to see the technology in action and to get as much information as they can so they can do appropriate planning at their own schools. The demonstration schools are also open to visits from other schools.
"We are offering a valuable opportunity for California schools," said Powell. "But in order for them to take the best advantage of it, they need to figure out what they want for their school and see how other schools are doing similar projects."