It's not a library, it's a television

March 18, 1997|By Brian Hecht

BILL AND HILLARY Clinton are learning about the Internet the way many other American parents are: Information is trickling up from their children. Hillary recently told C-SPAN cameras that, before Chelsea goes away to college, she's ''going to teach us how to do e-mail.'' Meanwhile Bill, according to Dick Morris, cannot even type.

These glimpses into the techno-generation gap would be quaint if they were coming from a typical boomer dad. But they come from the first president in American history to actively promote an agenda for cyberspace. And, reflecting his own practical ignorance, Mr. Clinton's view of the Internet is optimistic, ambitious and naive.

In the early days of the Internet, when Vice President Gore popularized the phrase ''information superhighway,'' it was commonly viewed as a limitless information agora. If only schoolchildren could be connected to this vast expanse, they could access with ease the great troves of mankind's accumulated knowledge. Teachers and students would be able to virtually visit the Louvre, the Library of Congress and the local Chamber of Commerce.

But in the years since the Clinton administration earned its tech-savvy reputation, the Internet has changed radically. Once a text-only medium for the dissemination of no-frills information, the Internet has morphed into the World Wide Web, which can deliver graphics, sound and movies straight to your home computer.

Legitimate information has been subsumed by a deluge of vanity ''home pages,'' corporate marketing gimmicks and trashy infomercials. It is impossible to know where information comes from, who has paid for it, whether it is reliable and whether you will ever be able to find it again. A student looking for information about, say, World War II, cannot know whether a given ''page'' has been posted by a legitimate historian or by a Holocaust revisionist.

Hundreds of Web sites could be useful to schoolchildren, but merely wiring the classrooms does not guarantee that students, even when guided by teachers, will find their way through the clutter of Internet schlock. Following are a few critical lessons the Clinton administration needs to learn about the realities of the Internet: The Internet isn't a library. It's a television.

The administration's Internet education policy treats universal access as if it were the world's most powerful library card. In fact, it's a lot more like Channel One, the advertising-supported network that feeds kids nuggets of news and educational programming interspersed with commercial messages.

Channel One reaches homerooms in 40 percent of America's public schools; few now question its hybrid of education and commerce. But at least Channel One is controlled by a particular company (formerly Whittle Communications, now K-III) that can be held accountable for its contents. Having the Internet in the classroom would be like having a television that can be turned on at any time and tuned in to any of 100,000 unrestricted channels, only a tiny fraction of which are dedicated to educational programming (and even those have commercials).

The Internet isn't about education. It's about marketing.

For years corporations have sought to infiltrate the classroom by providing pseudo-educational materials to cash-strapped school districts. Horror stories abound of children learning about nutrition from materials provided courtesy of Hershey's or Prego.

The Internet makes it easier than ever to market ambiguously educational ''synergized'' products into the classroom. The educational publisher Scholastic recently announced the launch of two new marketing initiatives, both with a cyber twist. In December, more than 1.5 million pamphlets promoting the film release of ''Evita'' were released in high schools. Teachers were encouraged to use the student guide, ''The Making of Evita: A Behind the Scenes Look at Careers in the Movie Industry,'' and a companion teacher guide that includes -- surprise! -- ''a special two months FREE offer to The Microsoft Network'' for the class to use.

About the same time, 30,000 elementary-school teachers received a teacher's guide timed to coincide with '''The Adventures of Pinocchio's Home Video.'' Teachers are encouraged to refer to Scholastic Marketing Resources' site on the World Wide Web.

At least Scholastic's bid for classroom infiltration comes clearly labeled. The commercial motives of other ''resources'' are more difficult to discern. A search for educational resources on the Web yields a prominent reference to ''The Global Schoolhouse . . . Sponsored by Microsoft.'' The facade is convincing: a distinguished graphic of a compass tops the screen, and the site's background ''wallpaper'' invokes academic images. The user is invited to select from sub-categories with names like ''The Connected Classroom'' and ''The Connected Educator.''

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