Mouse in the House

Silicon Alley big Cheeses Guide Big Apple Kids

The freshly painted computer lab at Martin Luther King Jr. High School hums with fluorescent lights and intellectual energy. Instead of the usual madhouse, with students squabbling over sign-up sheets and reluctantly sharing resources, each person here is quietly bent over his or her own terminal—working on Web sites, researching on the Net, writing papers. A small group is studying online stock trading, totally oblivious to a knot of teachers in a corner of the room. One student stops working briefly and intones, "I don't know what my life would be like without technology."

But until two years ago the school, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, had almost no on-campus technology worth mentioning and nobody, least of all the students, imagined they would receive a setup like the one they have now. The 2800 MLK students had access to 70 word processors in the school's two computer labs, but there was no high-speed Internet access, CD-ROM capability, multimedia lab, or any of the other tools currently touted as necessary to the education process. But what was really holding the school back, according to MLK assistant principal Gregg Betheil, was the lack of informed personnel to help implement a usable computer system. "We were just one of many typical urban schools," explains Betheil. "We didn't have that much technology and our teachers really weren't using it."

In stepped MOUSE (Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools & Education), a Manhattan-based nonprofit originally intended to provide students with information technology (IT) mentors. Since its 1997 inception, MOUSE has expanded into a 1000-plus volunteer service that has wired 24 schools to date—putting over 40,000 teachers and students online and investing an estimated $1.5 million worth of technical expertise and support in the New York City education system. "We initially thought our volunteers would be collaborating with students who wanted to design Web sites, but when we got to the schools we found that they had no infrastructure," says Sarah Holloway, executive director of MOUSE. "We had to design networks, get equipment, crawl in ceilings, pull cables, install servers, set up machines."

MOUSE administrators first approached the New York Board of Education (NYBED) early in 1998 to discuss plans for their system-wide mentoring program—but quickly realized it was an overly ambitious goal. NYBED had just received $70 million in 1998 federal E-Rate discounts for computers, wiring, cabling, and phone lines, but had no technical implementation or development plan in place for their new equipment. MOUSE discovered that before they could mentor, they would have to build workable networks for the schools.

The problem that New York City currently faces—and that MOUSE wants to solve—is not how to fund the purchase of new equipment, but how to actually use it so that clear and tangible educational improvements are visible.

New York is not alone in this challenge, according to Andy Carvin, a senior associate at the Benton Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit group advocating public-interest uses of technology. "The E-Rate program has wired about half a million schools, and of that number, very few have actually been prepared to use technology in the classroom," he says.

Carvin also points out that while the benefits of technology on education are much lauded by tech enthusiasts, they are still very nebulous to many educators. "Nobody has figured out the right metric for measuring how the Internet, for example, affects education. Our education system is still very focused on standardized tests, and I would venture to guess that the Internet does little to improve that kind of learning—it's just drill and practice." Technology will only have a significant impact on the learning process if educators receive better training, he asserts.

Teachers may very well be willing to embrace new technology, but according to a 1998 report by the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, they are far from being able to do so. On average, says the report, teachers receive less than 13 hours of technology training per year, and 40 percent of all teachers have never received any kind of tech training at all.

While technocrats and teachers wrangle out the details of pedagogy for the 21st century, MOUSE continues to harvest volunteers from Manhattan's bottomless Internet start-up industry and send them out to hardwire the city's school districts. "It wasn't difficult to convince Silicon Alley to get involved," explains Sarah Holloway. "The CEOs of these new-media companies are savvy businesspeople. Students who can't use computers aren't going to buy their products. The companies that volunteer with MOUSE genuinely want to give something back, but it also makes good business sense for them to build a solid customer base."

An even bigger concern for most of these companies, some of which received tax breaks and energy discounts from Giuliani and Pataki in exchange for a promise not to leave the state for several years, is the current shortage of tech labor in the city. "It is incredibly obvious right now that there is a lack of skilled workers," says Bob Matsuoka, president of SohoNet, a company that builds Web site databases. "We need programmers, script writers, sales staff. In one sense we want to help the community, but in another sense we are being selfish. If the situation is bad now, where will we be in 10 years? We need trained people so we can grow our own businesses."

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