Snake Oil or Diamond: Using the Internet in Education and Government

Seems a bit strange up here. Let's see, no blackboard, no chalk dust, no horizontal yellow lines across my backside. This is clearly an example of a mathematician being taken out of a natural habitat. So I hope you will bear with me as I acclimate myself to these alien surroundings.

My topic for today is the use of electronic transmission of data in education and government. The title I first wanted to use for the talk was ``What I did on my summer vacation.'' I felt it properly indicated my intention to give a tour of the work I have been doing for the past three years and what I think I have learned on that journey. Unfortunately that title also creates the mental image of being forced to listen to a friend rambling on about their vacation. I hope at the end of the talk you do not leave with the feeling that you have been forced to listen as someone endlessly shows out of focus pictures of headless people standing in front of indiscernible landmarks.

This talk will be broken into three parts: the tour, the ruminations on the tour, and finally an attempt to answer the implied question in the published title of this talk. Namely, is the use of the Internet in education and government snake oil or diamond? As an aside, my wife claims that I mixed my metaphors in this title. I will let you be the judge of that at the end of the talk.

So, we begin with the tour, where I will attempt to show my credentials on this topic of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Actually, no less of an authority than Tim Berners-Lee, the developer of the World Wide Web, said there are no experts in this field. No one really knows what is going to happen. My involvement with networks actually dates back to the 1980s when we installed the Apollo network. I remember asking Tony deLaubenfels, then Director of Academic Computing, for a small sum of money to buy software so that the Apollo lab and the VAX computer would communicate with each other. This became Cornell's first intranet, that is a collection of networks internal to one organization.

This was in 1990. Both Tony and I spent many hours arguing the rising importance of computer networks and why Cornell had to start immediately building a network infrastructure. With many faculty and students lacking adequate computing facilities, this was a hard sell to say the least. In 1991, I sent in the application for Cornell College's own internet domain name, cornellcollege.edu. With our own identity on the Internet, I established a dialup connection to the University of Iowa so Cornell could have a minimal Internet connection. That summer Bruce Cantrall set up Cornell's first 24 hour a day connection to the Internet. Hopefully within the next month, five and a half years after the first installation, a new higher speed connection will be installed. That's a T1 connection for those of you who like acronyms. From 1991 till 1993, I spent significant time trying to educate myself and promote the use of the Internet at Cornell. Considering the lack of network technology then, most people had trouble understanding what I was babbling about.

By Thanksgiving of 1993, I was very frustrated and considered giving up arguing for network infrastructure at Cornell. As the fable goes, it is impossible to describe an elephant to a blind person who has never seen a four legged creature. That Thanksgiving, I decided I would make one more attempt to present my case by developing an application that used network technology to help people visualize how networks could be used. I decided to install a World Wide Web server on my office computer and try to make a web site for Cornell. This site was later installed on a Cornell owned computer. The generally accepted date for the installation of Cornell's Web site is December 6, 1993. To the best of our knowledge it was the first educational institution- wide web site in Iowa.

Through the spring of 1994 I worked on documents like the catalogue and campus tour to gain experience with the new technology. Even with examples of the Web to show people, the lack of reliable connections meant that most people were not very interested in the work I was doing. Once again, the reaction was very understandable. Late that spring, I talked with my wife, then President of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, about using this same technology to inform citizens about their government. I had decided that if I couldn't interest people around me that it was time to find a new audience to try to impress.

With permission from the college, I established a web site for the League on my office machine. The Legislative Information Office, the nonpartisan "public relations" arm of the legislature in Des Moines, gave me permission to convert some of their paper documents to hypertext, so the documents could be distributed effectively over the web. On June 10, 1994, my wife and I demonstrated this site to interested staff members of the Iowa Legislature in Des Moines. This was the start of my lobbying for the use of web technology in both education and government. Since that time I have continued to develop documents for the web for both Cornell and the Iowa Legislature. I am very grateful to President Garner and Dean Moore for their support and encouragement in my efforts at windmill tilting.

Back on the Cornell front, one of the applications I developed was the electronic term table, the list of courses offered at Cornell. The work I did on that project resulted in using the program to create a photo ready version, which I gather saves the college hundreds of dollars each time a term table is printed. The experience with the term table convinced me that something similar could be done with bills and amendments at the Legislature.

I received permission to attempt to write a program to take the nightly dump of this information from the Legislature's mainframe and create a version of the data appropriate for the Web. After showing a prototype of the system in early summer of 1995, a staffing problem at the taxpayer supported, nonpartisan computer support bureau, known as the CSB, made me hesitant to continue working with the Legislature.

An employee of the CSB was fired. This employee had been working with me on the project and I respected his abilities and dedication. He sued the Legislature for wrongful dismissal under the whistleblower statute. One of the concerns expressed by this employee was the placement, by another employee of the CSB, of an advertisement for an adult bulletin board on a legislatively owned computer that was on the public side of the legislature's firewall. This computer was a test system and was being used to experiment with the web. While few people know of the existence of this test machine, I had serious reservations about the judgement shown by creating such a web page in the first place.

Due to these concerns and others, I seriously considered stopping the project. A conversation with Speaker of the House and Cornell alum Ron Corbett convinced me to continue with it. Late that summer and fall I worked on a program to take the mainframe version of the Iowa Code and format the data for the Web. Over Christmas vacation the CSB lent me a computer on which to install the software I had written. I had expected to find the software to create the searchable indices for the site to be installed on this computer and tested by CSB. By the time I got the system back to Cornell, this indexing software was no longer working. I finally found out that the temporary license obtained for the software had expired. This event and several others left me very frustrated. Due to the lack of support I felt I was receiving, I decided it was no longer reasonable to invest my time and the college's in this project. I decided it was time to give up and simply throw out the programs I had developed after months of volunteer work. I called the speaker's office and said that I was going to return the computer with no software loaded. Speaker Corbett asked me to complete the installation and gave permission for me to keep the computer until the installation was completed. I am grateful for the support Speaker Corbett has shown this project, particularly for his willingness to talk to me one day shortly after hurting his back. Someone else might have cancelled the meeting due to pain, but he sat on a wooden bench in obvious discomfort as I rambled on about my concerns about the support this project was receiving.

On the 14th of February, on behalf of Cornell College and the League of Women Voters of Iowa, I delivered to the Legislature a fully installed World Wide web site that contained bills and amendments, bill histories, journals, member information, calendars, the Iowa Code, and educational material. Most of the material on the site is updated nightly when the Legislature is in session. The system works as follows: the relevant information from the mainframe is dumped in text form and automatically transferred to the Web server where software I wrote breaks the information into the appropriate parts and adds all the necessary hyperlinks. The system was designed to be usable from any type of web browser, even text based browsers, so the overall design of the site is simple, or as some people have described it, boring. However most people report that the site is fairly intuitive to use and I have received very few complaints. To the best of my knowledge, the system has run without problems since it was delivered.

For those of you who have not seen the site, let me describe to you how it is set up. In the upcoming session there will probably be a renewed debate about reinstituting the death penalty in Iowa. Suppose you would like to read the bills and amendments being proposed on the death penalty. You would point your browser to the General Assembly Home page. The URL for the page is http://www.legis.state.ia.us/. Once at the site, choose the legislation link, and then pick the link for Legislation in the 77th General Assembly. To find the appropriate bill, you can enter the bill number directly into the system. For example, House bills are numbered like HF 201 while Senate bills are numbered like SF 112. For bills that receive as much coverage as the death penalty bill will receive, the bills numbers are usually printed in the newspaper. If you do not know the bill number, there is the option to search all bills on the system for the phrase ``death penalty,'' which will return all bills and amendments that relate to this topic.

Once you have pulled up the bill of interest, you have several other options. If you are interested in the status of this bill in the Legislature, every bill has a link to what is called its history. This document is a list of all actions taken on the bill. It lists things like a description of the bill, the sponsors of the bill, which committees the bill has been assigned to, actions taken by committee, all amendments which have been filed relating to this bill, results of votes taken on amendments to the bill and the bill itself, and action taken by the governor. Each item in a bill history is a link to the appropriate information. If a legislator's or committee name is used, there is a link to a file on that legislator or committee. These files contain links to files describing every bill or amendment sponsored by the legislator or committee. Thus you can easily go from the bill history, to the sponsor of the bill, to finding out how to contact the sponsor, and you can find out if that person has sponsored similar legislation. Also from the bill history, any vote has a link to the Journal for that chamber. In the Journal you will find the record of how each legislator voted on that action.

All references to amendments contain links to the text of the amendment. In addition, if there is a reference to a section of the the Iowa Code in a bill or amendment, you will find a link that will take you directly to that section of the Code so you can see exactly what is being changed. The site is tightly integrated so that the novice user can find the information they want with a minimal amount of effort.

I have been asked to assess the value of this system. I have to admit that I never kept careful track of the time I invested in the system. I do know that the unreimbursed out of pocket expenses for trips to Des Moines, phone calls etc. were significant. Some people have told me that they think an appropriate valuation of the system is anywhere from 25,000 to 75,000 dollars.

One final note on this system. The copyright for the software I wrote is owned by Cornell and the League, the two groups sponsoring my work. The software is used by the Legislature under a contract that grants them the right to use the software at no charge and to modify the software as long as the copyright of Cornell and the League is maintained. The contract specifies that the Legislature is solely responsible for the maintenance and management of the site. Neither the League or Cornell has any special influence on how the site is currently operated. One of the questions that is often asked is why the Legislature was not charged for the software. The most important reason is to ensure that no conflict of interest occurs. Particularly the League wants the ability to argue for greater citizen access to the legislative process. By having no financial interest, both organizations are free to argue for citizen access to their government without conflict. A second reason is that if there had been a charge, it would have been more difficult to get people to agree to the experiment. With no monetary investment required, it was easier to convince people to take a risk.

Now that I have described how I have spent my time for the last three years, I'll move on to what I think I have learned and some questions that I have.

First I would like to discuss the economics of electronic dissemination of information. The basic premise of this argument comes from a lecture by Professor Hal Varian. He argues that for companies to get a return on their investments on building and running the information super highway, applications like entertainment and shopping must be supported. These applications are oriented toward video rather than simple text. Video requires a very large data pipe to be installed for the user. In order to generate enough revenue, the cost of this pipe must be reasonable to the consumer. Applications that require simple text will use very little of this pipe, and hence the cost of using the pipe to transmit textual data will be very small or essentially nothing. Moving simple textual data will be very inexpensive in the future.

Businesses will use the network increasingly as their means of sharing information. I have seen this happen with both with legislative and Cornell projects. As an example, consider the Iowa Board of Regents. Regent institutions in Iowa receive a significant portion of the state budget and have a great interest in the activities of the Legislature. In past years, the central office of the regents would pay \$600 a year for an account on the Legislative mainframe so they could track bills that would affect member institutions. They would print out the bills and fax them to each institution for feedback. They track around 350 bills a session; that's a lot of faxes. This year all regent institutions are connected to the Internet. Electronic mail will now be used to request feedback on bills, with each institution using the system we provided to the Legislature to access the bills. No more faxes. They will still use the mainframe account to track actions on the bills of interest since the web site doesn't have the capability.

As I talk to people in government about the site, it is clear that one of the significant uses of the network is to be able to perform the business of government at less expense. The Judiciary will be using the legislative web site this year to follow the legislative process. They hope to have their state web site up by April, with information like Supreme and Appeals court opinions; rules governing criminal and civil procedures; and procedures for complaints against judges and lawyers. They feel the Web will provide significantly greater exposure, be cheaper, and easy to manage. Each district court has a number of employees that simply answer questions about items like submitting a complaint against a lawyer. By making the rules widely available, something that is impossible using just paper, they hope to decrease the amount of time these employees spend answering the initial inquiries.

The executive branch in Iowa is also moving forward with plans to use the network to do the business of government. Governor Branstad issued his plans for technology in early December. You can see the press release yourself if you go the the governor's home page off the official state www site, http://www.state.ia.us/. He proposes two main objectives. First, to provide economical access to every citizen of the state. The public libraries and the ICN are major components of achieving this goal. The governor desires that every citizen has access to the wealth of information on the Internet. Second, by the year 2000, the governor wants any citizen to be able to transact their business with the state electronically, if they so desire. To accomplish these goals, significant technology infrastructure investments must be made. To be successful, all three branches of government must work cooperatively, each providing the appropriate data in a reliable and timely fashion. The technology heads of each branch of government will be meeting next month to start to develop cooperative plans. The decisions made will have long term implications for Iowans. Now is the time for citizens interested in government to advocate that the information infrastructure built by Iowa be done economically, and that it ensures citizen access to all public information already paid for through taxes. This area is highly technical and for many people dull, but everyone will be affected in some way by the decisions made within the next year.

There are other examples of how the legislative system is being used by business to achieve efficiencies. For example the Cedar Rapids Gazette is running their own web site. On this site they have articles from the Gazette on a variety of topics. In the section on the legislature, they simply have hyperlinks to the biographies of the eastern Iowa legislators. This saves them the time and effort to maintain this information. If you look at the home page sponsored by The Gazette Company, http://www.fyiowa.com/, you will now see a link for the Iowa Legislature very prominently displayed on the page, below the weather, but above the Iowa Hawkeyes. If you read the Des Moines Register, you will now see, written in articles on the legislators, the URL of the member information page that I developed. They give the URL to encourage people to look up the e-mail address of their legislator. This site is also changing the way the news media covers the legislative process. For columnists who work out of their home, it has been used to look up legislation when something they have written has angered a legislator. Michael Gartner, publisher of the Ames Tribune, uses the site about 45 minutes every night when the legislature is in session to track both legislation and the activities of local legislators. He has called the site the "Reporter's best friend." The Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce also uses the site, although they would like a feature to track legislation added. I have not verified this scientifically, but I believe that many organizations who lobby are making significant use of the site. One advantage for people who lobby the legislature is that they no longer have to pay the costs of travelling to Des Moines to access the basic data. I was told that this was also important to newspapers in smaller Iowa communities who do not have the budget for frequent trips to Des Moines. It has saved time and money for individuals. The most dramatic case was the Iowa citizen working in Australia who wrote via e-mail to thank us for making information on their legislator available on the net.

In my discussions with people, it is clear that access to the specific piece of information they want is what makes the site so attractive. Traditional systems of paper distribution of data can not compete with the electronic system.

As I have talked to people around the state about this site, one thing has become very clear. While the information on the legislative site is appreciated, it is missing one significant document, the Administrative Code. The what, I hear you ask?

The Administrative Code is all the rules and regulations make by the executive branch departments. This document is administered by the Administrative Code Division of the Legislative Service Bureau of the Iowa General Assembly, quite a mouthful. New and proposed rules are printed in the Administrative Bulletin that is published every two weeks. Clearly these are documents that change very rapidly. No matter how esoteric the contents of these documents may be, they have a tremendous impact on every citizen and business in the state of Iowa. These publications are foreign to most citizens of the state, but significant nonetheless. For most citizens their only access to this information is the public library in paper form. Even with access to the documents, most people would have difficulty finding the information they needed in them. Even for those businesses and government agencies that can subscribe to the publications of the Administrative Code Division, keeping up with these rules and regulations is difficult and expensive.

Everyone agrees that having this information reliably available on the Internet with a good search engine to help the untrained user would be a tremendous asset for the State of Iowa. State government would achieve savings by having immediate and easy to use access to the information. I suspect that certain of the agencies would save money by not subscribing to the printed publications. Businesses would have a more cost effective method to conduct their business within the regulations set by the state. Probably most important, citizens would finally have much greater access to the rules and regulations governing their lives.

Why is there not an electronic version of the Administrative Code? I never had the opportunity to work with this document or talk to the people responsible for the Code. What I understand from rumor and gossip is that the Code does not exist in one common electronic format. Until this standardization is achieved, it will be impossible to get a valid version of the code to put on the Web. I do not know this for a fact, but I believe that standardizing on a single format has been in process for a significant length of time. Why the delays? I do not know. It does raise the issue of how efficient is the administration of our government.

Having worked with the legislature, I do have serious concerns. Before sharing those concerns, let my give two caveats to my comments. First, I do have a biased view of the internal running of the Iowa Legislature. I sort of forced myself on the staff of the legislature. Any outsider coming into a bureaucracy and being permitted to basically operate according to his own rules will generate a certain amount of hostility, some of which I suspect is justified. I also was exposed to only a portion of the problems that the support staff of the Legislature must deal with. Second, all my comments are meant to be nonpartisan and not directed at any individual or organization. My concerns are with the structure of government, not current members of that government.

As I stated earlier, I saw one employee sue the Legislature for wrongful dismissal under the whistleblower statute. I saw my tax dollars used to settle this suit in about three weeks, a remarkably fast response by any government body. It appeared to me that covering up problems before they were made public was a primary concern of the Legislature. While this is a common response of any organization, it is my tax money that is being used and/or misused. Therefore as a taxpayer of the state of Iowa, I have a right to be concerned how efficiently and fairly the Legislature is run.

Currently I have serious concerns about the commitment of the Legislature to its World Wide Web site. As I mentioned before, the Legislature is currently responsible for the management of the web site. Having designed the system I have a very good idea how hard certain management tasks are. As I prepared for this talk, I reviewed the site to see what sort of improvements have occurred since last February. Unfortunately, I have seen very little change in the site. Here are some examples. Information on the 1996 Interim, the period between sessions of the General Assembly, has been added to the site. However, you will find that the only items that the search engine can locate are from the 1995 Interim. The index used by the search engine has not been updated since I created it for the 1995 Interim. Updating this index is a very simple process and should take no more than ten minutes, including coffee break. Suppose you would like to know the proposed calendar for the first session of the 77th General Assembly, maybe even the date that the session starts. (It's January 13). Do not look on the General Assembly's web site. The only session timetable you will find is the one I installed for the second session of the 76th General Assembly. If you recall there was an election last November.

Suppose you would like to contact your legislator to respond to one of the stories the Des Moines Register is running on the next session. The Register's article gives you the information to access the Legislative web site. Only one problem. All you will find is the member information on the 76th General Assembly. In Mt. Vernon, we have a new person representing our district. He's not listed yet. In the two months since the election the CSB hasn't taken the time to make this information available to the public. In the newspaper you will have seen reports on proposed committee assignments for legislators. While these assignments are not official till the opening of session, the legislature itself has been announcing this information. Can you find this information on the web site? No. As I mentioned before, the public pre-filed bills have not been loaded on the site, a disadvantage to citizens. Is the 1997 Iowa Code available on the site or any indication when it will be available? No. When I turned over the site, I had the understanding that they would prepare help files and tutorials to assist citizens who are not familiar with the legislative process use the site effectively. This has also not been done. The only material I have found concerning the 77th General Assembly is a note that appeared around Christmas on the home page that material on the 77th General Assembly would begin to be loaded on January 6th. On January 7th I noticed that they had changed the date to January 13, the opening of the General Assembly.

If I sound frustrated, it is because I am. I know that Iowans are beginning to depend on the site. Legislative support personnel have had eleven months to decide how they were going to manage the site. If they had troubles with how I set up the site they could either have asked me for help or replaced the parts of my system they did not like with their own. Since March, I have received one e-mail message asking some questions on how the site was set up. I responded and offered to help as time permitted. So far I have heard nothing so I assume that the delay in making this information available is not due to my system.

There are many improvements to the site that would be nice to see. Examples would be:

Since I have spent time thinking about how to accomplish many of the tasks, it is frustrating to see no external evidence of work being done in this area. I would request that anyone interested in public access to the legislative process lobby their legislator on this issue.

Let's try to look at the situation from the perspective of the General Assembly. The Iowans have strongly indicated that they want a citizen, or part-time Legislature, something I personally support. The General Assembly is run by the Legislative Council, made up of legislators from both the House and Senate. These legislators are part-time and have minimal staff support. For most legislators their office space consists of two chairs, one for themselves and one for their secretary, and enough desk space to fit the two chairs. With the additional support of a common caucus staff, we expect these representatives to be knowledgeable on all the issues that might come before them. It is not surprising that managing the Legislature would not be very high priority for the legislators.

Hence, the staff of the legislature basically runs the place without being held accountable that often by their bosses. From the perspective of the staff, they may be subjected to the whims of legislators who could attempt to get the employee fired. In addition, there are no market forces that would penalize organizations that are not cost effective or efficiently run. Putting all these things together you have a structure that may not reward creativity, competence, or risk taking. I do not mean to apply that there are not very dedicated and talented individuals working for the Legislature. I know there are such people because I have worked with them. The issue I am concerned with is the structure of government, not the individuals in government service.

How can we have a more efficient legislative branch? One suggestion is privatization of many of the duties of the legislative staff. For example, the production of the Administrative and Iowa Code could be turned over to a private contractor. I do not support this approach for several reasons.

First, if oversight is difficult for part-time legislators, why would we assume that their oversight of a private contractor would be any better? Think of the Pentagon and the problems it has had with its contractors.

Second, the production of items like the Codes is really a complex process. Once a vendor gets the contract it will be very easy for that vendor to maintain that contract. So market competition is unlikely to be a force to insure quality. Legislators will still be responsible for doing so.

Finally, once a private concern gets control of public information like the Codes, they tend to protect their interests and investments in the information. They might argue that they have to charge for access or develop proprietary formats for the information that will restrict competition. I strongly believe that the public should have easy and reliable access to the information that they have paid to be produced. I have heard conversations where public employees have questioned the wisdom of making certain information electronically available because it might hurt the commercial interest of companies that are selling this public information. This is not right.

If privatization is not the answer, what is? I believe the answer is up to the citizens of Iowa. People tend to get the government that they deserve. I would strongly advocate that it was time for all of us to improve the discourse concerning government. Most politicians are basically good people who try to be good guardians of the public trust. I will never forget Speaker Corbett sitting on the wooden bench in pain as we discussed the legislative site I was developing. I believe that the Speaker gained little political benefit for supporting the web site. I believe he gave me his support simply because he thought it was the right thing to do. As a society we need to elevate the level of respect for people in government service.

We will get what we expect out of government. I do not want these comments to be interpreted as a 60's love it or leave attitude. I believe you can criticize government and hold its officials accountable without destroying respect for the institution. With civility and constant vigilance maybe we can have a better government to serve us.

Changing direction a bit, working on the legislative project has once again shown me the importance of preserving a legacy for our descendants. I admit that I get a feeling of awe every time I am at the statehouse in Des Moines. Remembering our place in history is important when working with electronic information. We understand how long acid free paper will last, but electronic technology changes so quickly that we tend to think mostly of the moment, not worrying about what we leave to future generations. This concerns me as we distribute information electronically. We have less than fifty years' experience in preserving electronic data. Is the Word Perfect file you create today going be as useful to you in 8 years, as your massive 8-track tape collection is to you today? Does anyone still have a functional 8-track tape player? The desire to leave a legacy has influenced the structure of the web sites I design. I tend never to delete files once they have been added to the system. You can still find every term table ever loaded on the Cornell Web site. I argued that the legislative site should be implemented as text or ASCII files. I believe that the simple ASCII file is the most likely format to maintain through time. This is important because if it is too expensive to convert historical data to the format currently used, the data will be deleted. How many of you have thrown out disks or deleted files because it was too hard convert to your new computer system? Just last block I wish I still had the program I had written in 1985, but had lost when I moved to the NeXT computer platform.

Another thing that I learned is the web is a very different paradigm from the printed page. Even at the emotional level, the experience is different. Cozying up to the hard screen of your laptop is a very different experience from the sensual pleasure of holding a beautifully bound book in your hand, smelling the leather binding and rifling your fingers through the pages. I get frustrated when I see web pages designed by people who only understand printing on the page. When you layout for paper, there is a fixed page size and everyone will see the same thing. With the web, this is not so. Every user may have a different type of output device. Why spend all your time using paradigms created for the fixed page when the technology is so much more flexible? Why can't you come up with designs that can be enjoyed by someone on a nice large color monitor or a blind person who uses a computer voice system? The real issue is that we are just at the beginning of understanding this new medium of the web. The situation is somewhat analogous to the astronauts who return from a prolonged period in zero gravity, only to wake up their first few mornings back on earth, head for the bathroom to shave, and drop the razor and shaving mug because they left them hanging in midair. It is very difficult to change paradigms.

This ability to take you directly to a specific bit of data is important to remember when preparing information for the web. Consider marketing a college, say Cornell. In the traditional marketing, the college prepares printed brochures. Its first function is to grab the student's attention as the brochure competes with thers from hundreds of schools. If your brochure is never picked up, the content is not that relevant. So there has been a tendency to push form over content. As we move to electronic marketing, things will change. For most prospective students, they will be making a conscious decision to visit our web space. This prospective student will be in search of some particular piece of information about the college, say student groups interested in the philosophy of the Pythagoreans. It will be terribly important that we structure our web site so that student can determine very quickly if a student group interested in Pythagorean philosophy exists. This will be a challenge for the college and for any staff member, faculty, or student that prepares material for the web. You are now a publisher for a world wide audience and you are responsible for making the material easy to use.

Moving to a more educational theme, this introduction of the individual as publisher is a new challenge to education. As educators, we must help our students master this paradigm. First, all students should know how to effectively be their own publishers of information. They must understand how to use the medium properly. It is not enough to simply put a document out on your personal home page. The student's work should include appropriate links to similar work so the student's work can be seen in the context of the larger discipline. The expectation should be that members of the community will always use the web to disseminate their work so long as doing so does not effect their ability to get the work published in refereed journals. I hope that most of the students making presentations for the student symposium will publish their work on the web and that the college preserves these electronic publications. This talk is available off my personal home page. You can find my home page off the link to personal home pages on the computer science network.

Colleges have two more responsibilities with respect to student's knowledge of the technology. The web is sort of like the New York Public Library if any person could bring in any material they like; they could put it any where in the library they like; and they could index it as they felt appropriate. Talk about personal freedom, but also talk about chaos. While there are efforts to bring order to the web, these efforts will never truly succeed. As a result, finding the information you want out on the Internet will always be part science and part art. Students graduating from Cornell must know how to find things on the networks. The second responsibility goes to the heart of Cornell as a liberal arts institution. Since anyone can set up a webserver, even the family dog, you can find almost anything out on the Internet. As many people like to point out, much of what is on the Internet is garbage. Some of these people use the excuse that since only 5\% of the information on the Internet is useful, why should they learn to use the tools to access the net. Considering the number of documents on the Internet today, 5\% useful documents is still a very large number. For most academics they use only a small portion of the library. For example, I haven't seen many of you in the 512s recently. People are not claiming we should get rid of the library since they only use a small portion of it. The issue is not that the Internet is full of junk. It is,rather, the need to instill in our students the analytical skills necessary to determine the difference between junk and substance in this new medium. The immediacy of the technology can be very intoxicating. Pierre Salinger should have known better than to stake his reputation on a report that had been wandering around the Internet for a month before landing on his desk.

It's time to answer the snake oil or diamond question. First, recall snake oil is defined to be "any of various substances or mixtures sold (as by a traveling medicine show) as medicine usu. without regard to their medical worth or properties." It is clear that the Internet and other networks like ICN are often sold like snake oil. Many people are trying to make money from technology, the uses of which are still unclear. As a result, the technology is hyped in inappropriate ways which we have all seen in the more traditional media. I believe that technology like the ICN has been oversold. While there is a need to use distance learning in certain situations, I passionately believe that nothing will ever replace that dedicated teacher who sees students daily both in and OUT of the classroom. Much of the discussion around the video aspects of the ICN reminds me of my childhood when television was young and was going to be the saviour of education. I remember the excitement as TV was introduced to the classroom. I also remember that in a few short years the TVs were gathering dust in the corners of the classroom. I believe that as the ICN is configured today, we basically have the 90s version of what I saw as a student in the 60s, although now it is interactive public TV in the classroom. While there are times when this technology will be a benefit, I believe it will be marginally beneficial until the network model is changed from central control and scheduling, like a TV station, to control in the hands of the teacher.

Snake oil has other properties also. It can be harmful or deadly to the person taking it. In the case of the Internet, I am sure you have heard about its dangerous side, whether it is pedophiles exchanging information and looking to ensnare children or the tendency for people to become consumed by the technology and remove themselves from human interaction. Clifford Stoll has made some of these arguments in his book on today's technology. I would warn people not to discount these concerns. With little effort you can find very objectionable material on the networks, from sexual material to information on bomb making. I admit to being surprised at the availability of this material, so I would stress that people should not underestimate this problem.

As a teacher I have seen students get so involved with the technology toys that they withdraw from other people. So this problem of fragmentation of the society is clearly a concern. However, I could make the argument that the phone is the root cause of the disintegration of the traditional family unit. Now children can leave home and maintain some contact with their parents. This leads to a more mobile society and smaller family units. With this comes the disintegration of the family, the destruction of community, and the decline of all civilization. I guess that I need a video smilie face to indicate that the last statement was extreme exaggeration. All technologies have negative aspects. Life has risks and we must learn to handle those new risks that technological advancements bring to us.

So if the technology is definitely snake oil, can it also simultaneously be a diamond? Clearly the answer is yes, but here I am thinking of a diamond not as a beautiful gem whose only contribution is putting a major hole in your wallet and pleasing your aesthetic senses, but of the diamond as a tool. Industrial diamonds, due to their properties, are a very important manufacturing tool. With diamond cutting blades, an individual can create objects that would be impossible otherwise. Diamond blades are not the only technology available to cut, lasers and water jets being other examples. Where appropriate, however, diamonds are terribly important tools. I believe this is true of today's networking technology. Where the technology empowers individuals it will be a tool for tremendous good. The technology will let individuals have access to information that was previously unavailable due to the cost of paper distribution. Like the printing press, this will result in a shift in power. When the printing press was first used, it was controlled by the ruling powers so they could control the information flow. With the ability of anyone publishing on the networks, this power is being distributed to more and more of the population. The companies that learn to leverage this empowerment of their employees will be those that will be most successful in the new paradigm. Government must make its information available to the citizens so they will participate more effectively in their government. In education we must learn how to use these new tools ourselves and educate our students on their use. Technology like the ICN will be very powerful if individual teachers can use the network to work with other teachers on cooperative projects, often of short duration. Instead of having to schedule semester long classes, teachers should easily be able to use the network for individual activities such as having two chemistry classes sharing the results of a water quality experiment done in two different rivers in the state. Or, an elementary class in Des Moines sharing their thoughts and experiences with a rural class. The key to using the technology is giving the power to the individual, not a central group.

To me the most important aspect of the information revolution is the ability of an individual to access the information they are interested in. Putting public information freely available on the Internet will not insure good government. What it will do is level the playing field. It will no longer matter if you a small farmer in southwest Iowa or a business tycoon in Des Moines. Both people will have access to the same information at the same time. It will still be up to the individual to decide what to do with that information. Making the information available electronically will not insure quality government. It will always be up to people to make sure the government is run for the people. The access to the information will give them another tool to hold their government accountable.


Cornell CollegeHome Page.


File generated on Wed Jan 8 21:28:04 CST 1997.
Comments:
jfreeman@cornellcollege.edu