Opinion Article from Tribune Review


John E. Barry

Chief Information Officer

Pittsburgh School District

What would happen if we lived in a town where students had limited access to instructional resources such as libraries, textbooks, workbooks, newspapers, and periodicals? What would happen if teachers had limited access to resources such as professional journals, classroom materials, and professional development? What would happen if parents had limited access to job opportunities, educational resources, and health care information? It would soon become evident that our children would not be prepared to compete for jobs demanded by the current job market. Our teachers would not be aware of best instructional practices and latest educational research. The population would soon be made up of unskilled workers and our town would not have the necessary work force to attract companies and industries. Pittsburgh would soon become economically stagnant.

This may seem far-fetched. But the traditional methods of delivering instruction through textbooks, workbooks, and journals are being replaced throughout the country with WWW sites, information systems and instructional software. Communities and school districts lacking the infrastructure to take advantage of these resources will soon find themselves far behind both economically and educationally. Simply, all we need to receive these vital resources is an infrastructure consisting of wiring, cabling and electronics.

A partnership consisting of the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Carnegie Museums and Libraries, local health care providers, community organizations and local philanthropic foundations are coming together around an opportunity to improve Pittsburgh’s work force, education environment and community life. That opportunity is the creation of an Institutional Network (I-Net). The City has welcomed the concept of an Institutional Network and shares the school district’s excitement about the educational possibilities for our students and residents.

Fortunately, the City of Pittsburgh has the foresight to realize the importance of this infrastructure for the future of our city. The City has included the creation of the Pittsburgh Institutional Network (I-Net) as part of the cable franchise negotiations with AT&T Cable Services. The Pittsburgh I-Net would connect 140 city, school, library and museum buildings through a high-speed communications network. The I-Net will also be structured so it can extend to local health care providers and community organizations.

This high-speed Institutional Network would virtually revolutionize community life by connecting schools, libraries and health care providers with private homes and individuals. Pittsburgh residents could have round-the-clock access to information, health care, employment opportunities and on-line educational services and much, much more.

The city only has a brief window of opportunity to acquire an Institutional Network for its residents, since cable franchise agreements are only negotiated once in 10 to 20 years. The City and AT&T are currently negotiating the new Cable franchise agreement. The last franchise agreement, negotiated in the late 1970s, provided basic but attractive services to subscribers: clearer video reception and a multitude of new channels, including ones dedicated to "education," "health" and "public access". The stakes of the current negotiations are much higher because they focus on our residents having equitable access to information, health care, employment opportunities and educational services, thus providing the infrastructure to keep the City of Pittsburgh competitive economically.

Once the city enters into an agreement with AT&T, the company will begin to upgrade its cable infrastructure with electronics and fiber optic cabling. This means running miles of fiber cable on city-owned right of ways down city-maintained streets. Once the fiber is in place, AT&T will begin to upgrade services to subscribers, eventually offering a mix of phone, cable, and fast Internet services over the same fiber cable infrastructure.

We in the school district and all of our collaborators in the Pittsburgh I-Net partnership are asking that AT&T provide us with an Institutional Network. In practical terms, this means that AT&T workmen would install fiber to connect 140 city, school, library and museum buildings across the city for the I-Net while it was upgrading its cable system. Everyone in every Pittsburgh community would have high-speed access to information.

The foundations for this high-speed network are already in place. The Pittsburgh School District was one of the first K-12 school districts in the country to receive a National Science Foundation grant to link schools to the Internet. This project, Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh, paved the way for online student research and interaction with others around the world. A second project, Information Renaissance, provides similar Internet linkages for community agencies. A broader, community-wide network would enhance the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ efforts to fulfill our mission; that is to educate all of our students to become participants in the future work force and society.

Ideas for the new high-speed technologies are wide ranging, from homework hotlines, on-line mentoring, and on-line parent-teacher conferences to medical conferencing, job training and job placement. We would have unlimited access to databases such as the census, court rulings, newspapers and council meetings. We could provide Internet access in every city neighborhood, in schools, at community agencies and in libraries. We could employ students to support and maintain activities of the I-Net.

We believe that City Council and the Office of the Mayor understand that the I-Net would be the infrastructure to take our City into the next century and provide equitable access and opportunities for all. We hope the City will support this goal, and we hope AT&T will appreciate this spirit of collaboration and make the necessary investment. The payoff in publicity and good community relations generated by this project would be immediate and enduring.

This I-Net discussion augurs well for the future of the region. It has shown that government, schools and non-profits share a common mission that can be addressed through information technology. All of the collaborating organizations as well as individual residents will reap the benefits, if the City stands fast in its negotiations. Let’s take advantage of this rare opportunity to ensure that the City of Pittsburgh stays competitive and vital in the 21st Century!!

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This page last updated on 26 June, 2000