Fall 2000

 

Read some related materials.

You Say You Want a Revolution: A Story of Information Age Politics. R. Hundt. (2000). Read the book online!

Spectrum Bottleneck Threatens United States Wireless Industry. A speech by Reed Hundt at the Unwired Universe Conference July 25, 2000.

Reed Hundt, Riding High at the FCC.  E. Nee, Upside Magazine, Nov 1994.

Reed Hundt's Homepage

The Internet: From Here to Ubiquity. A speech by Reed Hundt at the Symposium on Hot Chips at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers on August 26, 1997.

 

 

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What is the power of the Internet in the classroom? Will it spark a fundamental national education revolution by democratizing the way learning is designed and delivered? Is that a good thing? Depends on whose side you’re on.

Reed E. Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the nation's chief regulatory agency for media and communications industries, sat down with LiNE Zine Publisher, Brook Manville, to discuss those questions and more.

From 1993 to 1997 Hundt led the FCC through revolutionary decisions and partisan battles that helped start the New Economy wave of entrepreneurship, and helped make the United States the world's leading Internet economy. As a major driver of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Hundt helped create new funding mechanisms and communications-driven educational reforms that enabled schools, for the first time in history, to provide classroom access to the Internet in thousands of U.S. communities. 

Manville: Your funding programs have succeeded in wiring most of the classrooms in the United States, a major accomplishment by any measure. What do you see looking back?

Hundt: Internet in the classroom has turned out to be the fastest spreading innovation in the history of education. In 1.5 years, 90% of school districts in the U.S. have reached into their own pockets and found the local money to match national grants, and entered into contracts to bring Internet into the classroom. That’s the largest amount of money spent on any new education initiative in history.

The bottom line is we went from having no Internet in classrooms in 1996 to the Internet in 2/3 of all classrooms in the United States today. And we’re well on the way to being 100%.

Manville: You emphasize Internet in classrooms, not in schools?

Hundt: That’s right. Under Al Gore's original vision it was never about schools, but it was always about classrooms. Many schools have access to the Internet for administration purposes. Our goal was to get the keyboards to the fingers of teachers and students.

Manville: So the funding mechanism for this program is in place and working?

Hundt: Yes, and in a way that generally refutes all critics: people who said there wasn’t any need; people who said there wasn’t any interest; people who said that the government doesn’t know how to get things done; people who said it would take a long time and get bogged down in administrative detail. None of that has proved true.

Our program worked because we didn’t tell the schools what to buy. They’re not mandated to buy anything at all. We also didn’t tell them what kind of network to create; we didn’t tell them where they had to buy. Another competing idea was that we should order the telephone companies to provide networking for no cost to schools. We rejected it because we didn’t want to pick the provider, we didn’t want to pick the technology, and we didn’t want to force something for no cost onto someone who might not actually want it.

So we invented the idea that the core money had to be found at the local level, and then it would be matched with federal funds. They had to write the contract. They had to create a bidding process. They had to get bidders to help them design a network and decide what kind of network. That was why we had a 90% acceptance ratebecause local initiative would be rewarded.

Manville: In your book you describe a lot of the partisan fighting that you had to go through. Often segments of educators themselves are against innovations and changes. Did you run into any instances where you had to fight this kind of rear-guard action as well?

Hundt: To a startling degree, no. That was pleasantly surprising to me. I had been told that the education establishment was retrograde in attitude. I found the exact opposite to be the case.

It turns out that the education establishment, like many institutions, is much maligned on a variety of groundless bases. The 2 million teachers in the U.S. would love to have the Internet at their fingertips. They all said, “Give us the tools and we’ll try to do better.” Many said, “We may require a little bit of training.”

Both stances are perfectly appropriate and acceptable. We never found any sign anywhere that anyone was anti-technology or anti-innovation or change. In fact, everywhere I went, I had the warmest and most personally gratifying reception from teachers.

Most teachers were pleased that this was not a block grant of money for any and all purposes, which is what the Republicans wanted. This money, therefore, went to exactly what it was intended for, another reason our success rate has been so high.

Manville: Would you say that people were so enthusiastic about wiring the classroom that they were happy the money was earmarked only for that purpose?

Hundt: Al Gore told everyone this money was to spark a particular kind of revolutionthe online revolution. All curriculum, parents, teachers, and kids would be linked to each other and to infinite stores of knowledge. We viewed this revolution as specifically the right direction for the entire country.

Manville: Does this represent a fundamental national education philosophy?

Hundt: It does represent a national will expressed in law and regulation, certainly well debated in Washington.

It certainly does represent a philosophical view that there is a right approach for the whole country and that local control of education is about the substance, the curriculum, and the individuals who are involved in teaching. Local control of education is not about being able to opt out of programs like achieving certain standards or learning to use certain technologies, because to some degree we’re all in this together.

Manville: Let me go back to that point about training. There are legion examples of technology being rolled into classrooms and if the teachers haven’t been trained or had the opportunity to get the right kind of skills the technology either fails or is not applied properly. Did you worry about that at all?

Hundt: Our program is like building roads before everybody has cars. Some things simply have to come first. You have to have the Internet in the classroom before you can train a teacher to use it.

We spent a lot of time studying this, and here’s what we concluded. From all the research and experience-based knowledge we were able to gather, computers have historically had no effect on education. This is not because people were not trained (although that’s a problem) but because, in fact, computers historically were not interactive. Computers unconnected to networks are private affairs; they are like having private offices. And they’re really not appropriate for communication, which is fundamental to education. 

One way to understand this whole revolution is to say when everybody talks about computers in classrooms, substitute the word communications for computer. You get a different goal, a different result, and a different meaning. Schools have access to actually acquiring the networking material or the PCs through used computer programs and a variety of other devices. The question was how do you get the knowledge of the Internet into the classroom and then deal with the other issues after that.

Manville: You retired in 1997 and passed the baton to your successor. It could seem that the work the FCC has already done on this is all that’s needed. Point one, is that true? And point two, if not, what else has to happen to make this experiment really come true and flourish?

Hundt: First, it’s not done because we still have a third of the classrooms to connect to the Internet. And of course there are ongoing maintenance costs just like you have with any network, so in that sense it’s not done either.

But it is absolutely true that the Internet in the classrooms needs to be taken to another level. The $4 billion that’s spent every year needs to be spent not just maintaining networks. Under the next administration, the restrictions on the use of the money need to be relaxed so that the money can be devoted to teacher training about technology and curriculum development.

Manville: What do you see as the greatest challenge related to taking this to the next level?

Hundt: The great challenge of the Internet for anyone in private life, or in education, is to make sure that the infinite knowledge of the Internet can be manipulated in a useful manner. That means curriculum reform and teacher training.

That also means, in the future, the money should not only be spent maintaining the networks, but also to these particular purposes.

Manville: Should the FCC be the body that helps with curriculum renewal?

Hundt: No, the FCC is the intermediary that builds the mechanism that creates the funds.

I think that curriculum development can and should be done in the following manner. Because we’re all networked, all the world can participate in curriculum development. The local school districts, parents, and teachers will decide what they want to consume. Just like in the software world, applications are moving to the net; they’re drawn down on a rental basis by users. That’s the way education should be.

Manville: As you look ahead, what are some of your concerns about this program? In terms of the implementation, and trends in the education world and marketplace, what do you see if you had to predict some scenarios?

Hundt: People are worried about whether technology does or does not produce results in education. They’re continuously worried about whether networking teachers, students, and parents strips experts of their ability to manage the education enterprise.

There’s a revolutionary democratizing quality to networking these groups together. I predict, as the effects of that networking become more evident, many will be distressed about this.

What’s called into question is your fundamental philosophical view about educationdo you think you’re trying to empower parents and students and individual teachers? Alternatively, you might be trying to disempower administrators and experts, decentralizing education, and aiming for education much more by the people and for the people, and much less at the people. So there’s a very fundamental philosophical difference here.

For example, in Texas all the schoolbooks are bought at a centralized authority that decides what everyone should read. The Internet does the oppositeit makes everything available to everybody. And so, it is an anti-authority move. These are fundamentals that the networking of classrooms causes to come into much sharper relief.

If the Internet is going to revolutionize and challenge every old business, it will also revolutionize and challenge all the old ways in education.

Manville: Do I take from your answer that’s a good thing?

Hundt: I think it’s a good thing. In an information economy, you want kids to learn about and for and through technology.

Education is constantly changing: biology changes as new discoveries are made, history is rewritten, in every other area changes occursometimes sooner, sometimes later. The remarkable thing about Internet in the classroom is that it’s the first new innovation and new technology that’s been distributed from its inception instead of years later.

Manville: Any advice about people trying to watch and navigate this new world that you helped wire?

Hundt: Live long and prosper.

Since fulfilling his term as Chairman of the FCC, Reed Hundt has been a senior advisor on information industries to McKinsey & Company. He is a principal of Charles Ross Partners, LLC, providing consulting and investment advice on telecommunications. He is also a special advisor to Madison Dearborn Partners, a venture capital firm, and a venture partner at Benchmark Capital, a venture capital firm based in Menlo Park, CA, specializing in investments in high-tech companies. You can reach him at www.reedhundt.com.

Hundt recently authored a rollicking “there at the creation” memoir, You Say You Want a Revolution: A Story of Information Age Politics. Full of entertaining stories of his tenure at the FCC, it includes tales of political battles galore between such groups as existing industries and start-ups, Newt Gingrich and the Clinton White House, between inside-the-beltway lobbyists and the new grassroots advocacy of email, between the politics of money and the politics of ideas. The book provides a record of the transformation of the FCC from a quiet, predictable collection of regulatory bureaus to an agency with a major impact on commerce, education, social values, jobs, the economy, and the everyday lives of millions of people. It’s also a very entertaining account of politic life during the Clinton years. Brook Manville is Publisher of LiNE Zine and former partner at McKinsey & Company. Send him your thoughts on technology in the classroom at brook@linezine.com.

 

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