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Building A Green Space In Cyberspace

In my last column, I lamented about how many teachers lag students in tech savvy and concluded that the government ought to do something to help build a "green space in cyberspace" to foster and support learning. It turns out I'm not alone.

Digital Promise (, an organization run by former NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman, former FCC chairman Newton N. Minow and public policy consultant Anne Murphy, is thinking along the same lines, albeit a bit more ambitiously.

The New York group is calling for federal funding for a multibillion dollar "Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT)" which would be a non-profit, non-governmental agency "designed to meet the urgent need to transform learning in the 21st century."

The project certainly calls for increased teacher training, but it goes way beyond that. They're talking about a major initiative along the lines of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance that set aside land for public schools in every new state, the Morrill Act that led to the establishment of 105 land-grant colleges or the 1944 GI Bill that helped put 20 million World War II veterans through college.

Funding would come from revenue that the government earns from its auctions of the publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum, what the group calls "the 21st century equivalent of the nation's public lands of an earlier time." The auctions, initially estimated to yield about $18 billion, are now likely to bring in excess of $35 billion, according to Murphy.

The proposal is designed to do for learning what the National Science Foundation did for science. The group wants to "digitize the cultural DNA of our society" so the types of materials that are now housed in universities, libraries and museums can be made available for the enrichment and education of all. The task may be more complicated than it seems because there is a lack of standards and a lack of basic research and development on such issues of how to create digital replicas of 3-D objects such as sculptures.

Murphy and her colleagues want to encourage the creation of rich learning and teaching tools as well as the basic software necessary to make things interoperable not only across existing platforms but platforms that are yet to be developed. Such projects could cost billions, Murphy says.

Aside from financial issues, one of the challenges would be to either circumvent or modify the Digital Millennium Copyright Act so that the rights of our collective works are not so tightly bound to private rights holders that they are locked away from public view, in some cases, up to 120 years after their creation. While "fair use" provisions of the copyright law allow some leeway for schools and universities, there are still hurdles for providing public access to some materials as part of a national lifelong learning campaign.

Like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, the Trust would have the funds and authority to contract with individuals, consortia, schools, libraries and companies to develop and provide broad access to art, literature and cultural materials.

What I like about this concept is that it could serve as a venture capital fund for the type of projects that are just too risky or too expensive for the private sector. At a time when private companies are increasingly (and justifiably) cautious, there remains a need for experimentation. Just as we can't rely on drug companies for all of our health research, we can't expect the private sector to solve all of our educational problems, especially when many companies are focused more on survival than expanding their horizons.

This isn't a make work program, the proponents say.

Murphy cringes at any comparison with the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and other Roosevelt-era projects that put millions to work while at the same time helping build our physical and cultural national infrastructure. Her group's goal is to create great learning resources, not solve our economic problems. Yet, if this trust were to do its job, it would require the talents of thousands of programmers, engineers and perhaps writers, artists, filmmakers and other creative people.

The proposal for a Digital Opportunity Investment Trust has friends in Congress. The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust Act (S2603), co-sponsored by Christopher Dodd, D-CT, and James Jeffords, I-VT, would allocate 50 percent of the proceeds from future spectrum auctions to the fund. A similar House bill has been introduced by Rep. Edward Markey, D-MA.

While the specifics of the two bills deserve scrutiny, the general idea of such a trust is necessary, affordable (given the anticipated revenue from the auctions) and prudent. The risk of not going forward on a proposal like this is too great.

It's important to remember that the Internet itself was a creation of federal research projects. Like federal highways, our skies -- and indeed the radio spectrum the FCC is auctioning off -- it belongs to all of us, not the private companies that seek to capitalize on it. I'm all for encouraging businesses to invest in educational resources, but if we leave it to the private sector, the only resources we'll get are those that serve the relatively short-term needs of the companies that sponsor them.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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