The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Charting the Future at the Speed of Light: Internet as a Planning Tool

Robert Bunge
Mount Vernon High School


School districts are faced with the need to plan network technology expenditures. An initial investment in Internet connectivity can pay dividends because of the speed with which you can obtain valuable and useful planning and technical information. Cyberspace is a self-reinforcing resource. The more it is used, the more benefits it provides. Information seekers become information providers. To get the most from this resource, you need an interactive planning process. Anecdotal experiences illustrate this process.

In one of his famous thought experiments, Albert Einstein imagined what might occur if two trains passed each other at the speed of light. From the vantage point of each train, the other would appear to be speeding by. Yet without a privileged reference point, who could say which train was moving and which was standing still? Or might they both be moving, but in opposite directions? Moreover, since any view of one train from the other would itself be carried on a photon stream no faster than the trains themselves, how could a reliable measurement of speed and direction be taken, without bending the ruler, so to speak? Einstein resolved such issues in his imagination by twisting and wrapping the existing Newtonian framework of time and space to conform to the dictates of his own revolutionary thought. Experience has since proven Einstein's fantasies to be a more reliable roadmap to physical reality than a red giant's worth of pre-relativistic calculations. In a somewhat similar manner, the new geometry of cyberspace bends and warps all existing rules of educational planning and program development. What follows is a traveler's tale from one school which opted to chart its future programs by rushing forward at the speed of light on the glistening rails of cyberspace.

The following strategies and their outcomes, although anecdotal, may be suggestive, if not definitive, in assessing the opportunities and dangers of cybernetic information gathering. Sometimes partial information, available early in a change process, is of more practical value to decision makers than a definitive study published years after the fact. For this reason, the necessarily incomplete impressions below may prove useful to educational planners who wish to weigh the costs and benefits of a serious strategic commitment to the Internet.

The context of our past year's experience with the Internet was documented at the beginning of the school year in an article written at that time (Bunge, 1994). Mount Vernon High School, in northwestern Washington State, faced a strategic growth management decision at the end of 1993-94. The choice for Mt. Vernon School District was between the construction of a second traditional comprehensive high school or a whole or partial commitment to an alternative strategy involving a constellation of techniques implied by terms such as magnet, satellite, and network. The latter set of terms carry a wide variety of connotations. Some keywords to the meaning of these terms in the planning context include: choice, technology, individualization, flextime, and alternative. To summarize in practical terms, the proposed magnet strategy for Mount Vernon High School would involve the development of an evening shift in the current facility that would utilize block scheduling, computer assisted instruction, peer and community tutors, community-as-classroom, and all manner of innovative instructional practices.

Because the new model does not fully exist yet, beyond a very general outline, a strategy of magnet, satellite, or network schools would involve a leap of faith by staff, students, and community members in Mount Vernon. [The framework for the new model was discussed in a recent online conference workshop through Virtual Online University: "Educational Networking: a new paradigm in school decentralization."]

Looking back over the past year, it appears that in spite of the inevitable uncertainties surrounding innovative models, the scales of strategic decision making in Mount Vernon have tipped strongly in the direction of the untested new approaches. As of this writing, Mount Vernon High School is committed to at least experiment with new forms of educational programming. Reasons for commitment range from budget, to demographics, to state and local politics, to fashionable educational theorizing, to personalities, to pragmatism and most decisively, to the introduction of the Internet to Mount Vernon High School.

Internet information gathering has the built-in tendency to expand exponentially. Cyberspace access is self-reinforcing. The more one looks, the more one sees, for the more one learns how to look. Although such self-reinforcing processes carry with them t he dangers of runaway, obsessiveness, or abuse, Internet access may prove to be the single most rewarding capital investment a school or any other organization can make. Again, the self-reinforcing nature of cyberspace communications provides an entry poi nt for understanding. When linked to the world through cyberspace networking, information seekers can leverage partial understandings to create ever fuller understandings. Contacts beget more contacts. Clues fall into place. Puzzles are solved, as pieces come flying into position. The phenomenon of hackers lost to the physical world in endless nocturnal chat rooms is frequently noted in the folklore of cyberculture; but for serious educational planners, the gravitational pull of the massive body of inform ation in cyberspace might become absorbing as well.

Bootstrapping a Network

Examples from our recent experience will illustrate the gains and costs of such self-perpetuating ventures into network communication. A basic parameter for technology planning at Mount Vernon High School is budget, with some special limitations because t he district's capital budgets have been stretched to the limit. A bond issue passed in the fall of 1995 provides for the construction of a new elementary and a new middle school. The money that in neighboring districts, went into computer networks, in Mou nt Vernon, went into portable temporary classrooms. "Throwing money" at technology was not an option for us. If we were to keep pace with revolutionary new developments in educational and communications technology, we would have to find another way.

Internet provided its own answer. We had imagined that without the services of a full time technology director, our site-based attempts at network design would surely fail. Budget limitations in the personnel area thus appeared as an impassable obstacle o networking. It turns out, however, that in retrospect the only true barrier to installing an educational network was our own ignorance. At this writing we now have 15 student workstations in a networked lab connected to the Internet.

By September 1995, another 50 workstations or so are scheduled to come online. This was accomplished without the benefit of a technology director and with a min imum of formal planning expenditures. A cadre of professional consultants in educational technology were helpful to us, but the coordination of our project larg ely rested on our own initiative. We succeeded, as amatuers, in developing a sophisticated educational network, because Internet changed the shape of the possible.

In October, 1994, three Mount Vernon High School staff members got Internet accounts through a local educational service district. Also, I had dabbled in e-mail for several months prior to that. When two of my real world colleagues entered into my virtual world of e-mail, we had a revolutionary combination. As soon as one of us found a choice bit of information in a newsgroup, the other two would know. No sooner had one of us made a useful contact on a listserv, than the other two would be introduced. Gop hers, Veronica searches, FTP sites, the World Wide Web-through virtual highways and byways we went scurrying in search of whatever piece of information might bring needed resources to our school. At first we went looking for grants (which is not difficult ), but soon it was expertise we really craved. It became clear to us that know-how is the most precious commodity in cyberspace. So we went prospecting.

We hit the motherlode of networking information when a new listserv for educational technology directors became available in our state. Our lack of a district technology director was no handicap at all when it came to at least the initial stages of educat ional network design. By typing our queries in the form of e-mail, we got substantive answers from dozens of experienced network specialists. The questions and answers flowed faster across the state than interoffice memos could make it across the hall. We used Wide Area Information Searches to find the best deals on computer equipment nationwide. When it came time to implement our new network link in April 1995, the regional technician who had promised to help us did not even have to come on our site. We made the needed adjustments over the phone. Our own students had wired the lab, and they had done their job very well indeed.

The point of this tale will be lost if you imagine that we had some kind of special insight into computers. We did not. At bottom, we hold only one distinction: if we don't know something, we ask. Then we know. Through cyberspace connections, the potentia l of such a simple search procedure is essentially unlimited. The more you work at it, the more you learn. Horatio Alger should have been on the Internet.

At first glance, the Internet appears to be a massive online library- a sort of virtual card catalog that has grown helter skelter in million directions at once. But the library metaphor is entirely too passive to convey the interactive qualities of cybernetic information seeking. A market place would be a better symbol for the give and take of online news, views, and information. But in this market place, the checkout lines move very quickly, and the most efficient way to gain information is often to give it away. A few examples may serve to illustrate.

In late December 1994, I bought a book. I liked the book, so I began to chat about it with an e-mail friend from another state. This friend and I each belonged to a listserv with a nationwide scope. Somehow our book talk got out on the list. Before I had got to Chapter Two in the book, an editor from across the country (who had picked up our chat on the listserv) had e-mailed me to ask me to write a review. Less than six weeks after first picking up the book, my review had been published (Bunge, 1995). Ot her than buying and reading a book, the whole process of solicitation, contracting, drafting, editing, and publishing occurred online. The 3000 miles between writer and editor made scarcely a difference. (We still have yet to meet).

In similar fashion, I established a relationship with Virtual Online University and presented a workshop there. I also began to create home pages on the World Wide Web. One electronic medium began to flow into another. An article would become a home page. E-mail would lead to a new article. Home page browsing gave rise to additional e-mail. Each new bit of information posted anywhere became a link in a growing chain. People I had never met before began calling with questions from out of state regarding our programs. Resources and partnerships began to flow towards Mount Vernon High School. In a recent instance of this, a local multimedia developer who had been hoping to volunteer with a school to help students learn about technology, encountered my home page address while touring Virtual Online University. Within three days our relationship moved from browsing the home pages, to e-mail, to a face-to-face meeting, to a formal partnership. We are now writing grants and developing curriculum together--by e-mail, of course.

Does the Internet represent forward progress for high school education, or is this yet another instance of a technology that promises far more than it will ever to be able to deliver? We have spoken in a sketchy fashion about planning, networking, publishing, and partnerships. The Internet evidently has some useful ness in these areas. (I find it worth my while to spend about two to fours per day online doing educational administrative work). But will the core school missions of curriculum and instruction ever be impacted in a substantial way by a medium as fluid an d transitory as electronic telecommunications?

Formal studies are called for to prove the point one way or the other. Our initial experiences are suggestive, however. Given the opportunity for access to the Internet lab, students will gladly stay two or more hours after school to work in it. These stu dents represent a wide spectrum of ages, ethnicities, and academic levels. Outside of the Internet lab, many of these students would be unlikely to come in contact with one another. Within the lab, they coexist, cooperate, and share information in a very natural way. Thanks to Internet, the concept of a magnet program has become far less hypothetical for us. We know we have an attraction. We know that through digital technology and cyberspace connectivity, students can choose to study and learn. On this b asis, we now face an unknown future with an additional degree of confidence.

But is this progress? Is it good education? Would our children be better off without a network connection than with it? The answers to these questions are a function of one's point of view. One thing, though, is certain at least. To stay in touch with today's technology, indeed to even see it, one has to move as fast as it does. Key information resources with a vast potential impact on the future of our schools are changing and growing at the speed of light. We will need to move quickly, even if we only wish to stay the same.


Bunge, R. (1995, February/March). Review of The Universal Schoolhouse. On the Horizon, 3 (3), 14-15.

Bunge, R. (1994, Fall/Winter). Magnets, satellites, and networks: Exploring the future. Curriculum in Contex, 22 (2), 4-6.

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