A prominent sector of the computer industry has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in material and training to help teachers and young students. The aim is traditional learning as well as digital-age proficiency. In large measure, the spending is based on a realization of the unstoppable march of technological progress.
Intel and Microsoft last week announced such a project. For those who can remember life long before the Internet, however, the above could have been written as news nearly 30 years ago. Depending on one's perspective, the earlier experience in computers in the classroom is either a cautionary tale or it helped lay the groundwork for today's initiatives.
In the early 1970s, Control Data Corp. launched Plato, a $900 million, computer-based education system. Control Data's founder and chairman, William C. Norris, a maverick businessman who sought to meld the worlds of for-profit business and philanthropic goals, drove the effort. His computer-in-the-classroom project was born out of a belief that solving social problems "was not a sideline to the company's business, it was the business," according to author Patricia O'Toole's "Money & Morals in America," a history of private wealth and public good. "Embedded in his philosophy was a belief that philanthropy and government had failed in the social arena largely because they spent wealth rather than created it."
Control Data originally was a computer hardware manufacturer--its first machine was sold to the Navy--that later expanded into computer services. It had built its plants in the Minneapolis suburbs, but the realities of the inner city of 1967 redirected Norris's orientation. In response to the urban convulsion brought on by what he believed was an increasing gulf of economic opportunity, Norris decided to build a plant in the poor, largely black north side of the city.
Control Data's basic training for undereducated workers at the new plant led ultimately to Plato, according to O'Toole. While Plato--12,000 hours of instructional software--proved popular with government and businesses, it "failed to enrapture public school teachers," she writes. Some were worried the technology would cost them their jobs.
Eventually, Wall Street looked unfavorably on the company, which ended up split into many parts. Some laid blame for the demise on Plato, which squeezed profit margins. But a revisionist understanding has taken shape that perhaps Norris was simply moving too quickly. Computers were alien to the classroom 20 years ago.(Plato, in fact, lives on. TRO Learning and Sylvan Learning Centers run a joint venture using Plato's basic skills courseware.)
Even in a more computer-savvy era, though, obstacles remain. "Unfortunately, only 20 percent of today's teachers feel very well prepared to use" state-of-the-art computer technology, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in conjunction with the Intel-Microsoft announcement. "We need qualified and well-trained teachers in every classroom, and technology can help those teachers and their students achieve at the highest levels."
To meet that goal, Intel plans to invest $100 million in cash, equipment, curriculum development and program management to train 400,000 teachers in 20 countries. Microsoft will give more than $300 million in software and program support.
Norris is 88 now and still puts in significant time at the William C. Norris Institute in Bloomington, Minn., according to the institute's president, Tony Potami. The institute's mission "is to utilize technology to transform and enhance education systems." Norris declined an invitation to discuss his as well as the Intel-Microsoft foray, but Potami said that in a recent conversation, Norris said his proudest accomplishment was "his work in education."
In the Washington area, Giant and Safeway have promoted computers in the schools since the 1980s. A portion of shoppers' purchases are credited toward the purchase of computers, software and other educational items. "We definitely plan to continue with the Apples program," said Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs at Giant. In 14 years, said Scher, Giant has distributed more than $50 million through the program.
NEW DISCLOSURE RULES: The Internal Revenue Service has issued amended regulations on how the country's more than 60,000 private foundations must disclose their financial information to the public.
A private foundation must have on hand for public inspection copies of its tax-exemption application and its three most recent annual information returns. It must also furnish the information on request by mail at appropriate cost; previously, a foundation had the right to require anyone seeking the information to show up in person. The requirements can be waived if the foundation makes the information "widely available," which would include posting on its Web site. In the past, foundations were required to publish notice of such availability in a general circulation local newspaper.
"The real crux of the change came from the private foundations. They were simply tired of the [earlier] requirements," said Michael B. Blumenfeld, an IRS lawyer and author of the amended regulation.
In addition, "this gets rid of the you've-got-to-show-up-on-the-doorstep" rules, said Matthew W. Hamill, vice president of public policy at Independent Sector, an advocate for the nonprofit world, which sought the revisions.
Kent Allen's e-mail address is email@example.com