Universal access to computer-based telecommunications could be a real problem for America's schools. It is, of course, a worthy goal for which to strive, but like so many other noble pursuits such as feeding the hungry or job training), it is too easy for the idea to become such an important end that we disregard the means. When that happens, we generally end up with massive programs that actually serve more to prohibit than to promote progress.
So with election-year rhetoric just beginning to heat up, now we should carefully avoid both the technical and the economic pitfalls of rushing down the wrong road to universal access.
The Technology Questions
From a technical standpoint, the greatest pitfall on the road to universal access is the assumption that we all mean the same thing when we say that schools should be connected. Do we mean that every school should have a telephone line and a 14.4 Kbps modem? Or does a "connection" mean ISDN? And what about T1 (or even T3) connectivity? Since some schools are already connected at these bandwidth levels, are they the entry level for universal access? If not, what will be told to those who get less? Is it really universal access if there are wide discrepancies in bandwidth?
But wait, there's more. Does "being connected" mean that there is a connection to each district office, to each school, or to each classroom? And what about media centers, libraries, and computer labs? Does universal access include a communications infrastructure for distributing telecommunications services throughout a school district, or does it merely imply a drop to a single demarcation?
Beyond these questions, there is an even bigger issue. I have written numerous times about the advantages that a distributed intelligence network infrastructure (i.e., a symmetrical architecture which enables users to transmit data as easily as they receive it) has over a central broadcast network. So far, however, the calls I've heard for universal access totally ignore this all important debate. But it cannot be ignored, because it has everything to do with educational philosophy and with the process of education (stay tuned for more on this in a future column).
The Economic/Political Issues
Given the difficulty of defining universal access, we need to be especially careful in casting our votes about how to get there. …