A fiber-optic network linking Maryland high schools, colleges and community colleges has the potential to revolutionize education. By connecting schools with high-capacity wires, the network makes it possible for a rural or urban school to offer advanced courses to students. Community colleges can teach continuing education at multiple sites. Students throughout the state can be exposed to the best teachers or to live symphony concerts.
Similar tantalizing possibilities were touted when schools got television, and again when schools got computers. There is no doubt the fiber-optic network will make it possible for good things to happen. But for the network to come close to realizing its potential -- as television and computers have not in schools -- educators need to heed some lessons of past efforts. They should move aggressively to:
* Make sure rural and urban schools, which could benefit most, can afford it. While TV and computers were touted as able to bring resources to poor schools, wealthy schools bought the most.
* Give teachers support. Some experts say each dollar spent on hardware should be matched on training. And while schools have expended millions on snazzy equipment, they often don't allocate enough funds to maintain and repair it.
* Plan program offerings. Many schools bought computers or TVs without enough programs, or with programs which did not match curriculum.
* Coordinate schedules. Schools start at different times and have periods of different lengths. In Howard County, starting high schools 15 minutes earlier was a $360,000 budget item (each school bus can make an extra trip), so making schedules match is not a simple matter.
* Think about the students. Does interactive TV give them the attention a live teacher does? How do homework and tests get corrected promptly?
Under the plan by C&P; Telephone to develop the fiber-optic network, the initial investment for schools appears minimal. C&P; will pay for the wires and will equip participating schools with cameras, monitors and other needed equipment. Schools would pay $1,365 a month for the first three years and $2,730 a month thereafter.
Before signing on, resource-strapped schools need to ponder the wisdom of this investment. What other commitments stem from participation in the network: tying up a classroom, perhaps assigning staff to work on programming?
The fiber-optic network, the first of its kind in the nation, could give the state a boost -- but only with careful planning and coordination. Otherwise, it will be just another high-cost, high-tech effort with nowhere near the impact promised.