AOL's Steve Case: "It's Critical That No Kids Get Left Behind"
The online giant's chairman on how the Net, and his new AOL@School program, will make the classrooms better training grounds

As chairman of America Online, Steve Case has done as much as anyone to make the Internet more accessible to ordinary people. Now he's hoping to make the Internet more usable for schools through AOL@School, a free series of portals that link students and teachers to some of the best educational content on the Internet. In a recent interview with Business Week's William C. Symonds, Case discussed his vision of the role the Internet will play in education. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: How effectively is the Internet being used in schools today?
In the last century, there have been tremendous innovations that have had an impact on our society, from electricity to TV to PCs. Yet for most of the century, the process of educating our kids has remained reasonably the same. Today, people are beginning to recognize that we have moved beyond the curiosity phase, when we put PCs in the schools in the '80s or connected them to the Net in the '90s.

But now the question is: How do you integrate this new medium into the educational process? So far, it has been too much of a focus on preserving the status quo, and adding the Internet almost like adding salt and pepper to a dish, as opposed to fundamentally rethinking the process of education.

Q: What is the potential?
It is huge, more than people can probably imagine. And clearly, the trends are very positive. The cost of technology is falling, people can now be empowered in ways that weren't possible before...and all this can be embedded in the classroom as opposed to separate from school.

But the more fundamental ingredient is bold thinking about the possibilities in a more connected world. Kids need to emerge from school with an innate curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, and with more of a sense of lifelong learning. [School will have] less to do with the classes they took and the grades they got and more to do with the enthusiasm and skills [they acquired]...things that can be taken with you throughout life.

That is not to suggest that technology is a miracle cure.... But it can be integrated throughout everything that happens in the classroom and used to build bridges between teachers and parents, for instance. Yet so far, the Internet is still viewed as an add-on. It is odd and disappointing that millions of people have things like instant messaging, and people have their stockbrokers on their buddy list and yet don't have their kids' teachers on their buddy list. For most parents, [involvement in their children's classes] is still limited to a couple of teacher conferences a year.

Q: How does this compare to what's happened in the business world?
The schools are facing the same kind of challenge many companies have gone through. Companies have moved from a phase when they kind of aren't paying attention to the Net. Then they hear about it but are in a state of denial. Then they move into a phase where they feel they should dabble in R&D. But it is only when they internalize that there are fundamental changes happening, which potentially [impact] every aspect of their business, that the real meaningful change happens. The same will be true in education.

Q: How will the Net be used in schools going forward?
The initial phase was just about getting PCs into schools and then connecting these PCs to the Net. But ultimately, it has to be about what you are using the Net for. That will be a mix of providing training and tools for teachers, as well as giving students easy access to the best materials. There is a lot out there. The problem is that they don't really know where to start. So we have to make it easy for teachers [and students], so they don't have to reinvent the wheel. And that is what AOL@School is all about.

Q: Right now, there is still only one computer for about every five students, on average. How will that change?
Within 10 years, students will probably have ubiquitous access to the Net. Right now, there are some vexing issues, like the digital divide. It is critical that no kids get left behind. But within 10 years, there will be many different devices [to connect to the Net], not just PCs, but pocket devices, cell-phone devices, connected through many different wired and wireless networks. And people will start taking interactivity for granted and will have access anytime, anywhere.

Q: How will this change classrooms?
There will be more mobility. Students don't have to be tethered to a desk at all times. And there will be a lot more access to resources beyond what the school and school library can afford. Still, I do believe there is a lot to the socialization process that happens in class. The question will be: How do you provide this social interaction, but in a more enhanced kind of way?

Q: What role will government play in transforming education?
The focus right now is too much on incrementalism and not enough on bold, new thinking. I think change...may be driven by a parent's revolt, as more parents understand the possibilities of the Internet, combined with a growing frustration that their kids are not getting the full benefit of it. That will drive a bunch of forward-looking approaches at different schools, and that will jump-start a broader crusade.

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