Last update at : Thu Apr 27 7:33:09 1995

The National School Network Testbed

Internetworking and Educational Reform:
The National School Network Testbed

Beverly Hunter <>


This paper describes the educational reform agendas of the 100 organizations and 150 schools currently participating in the National School Network Testbed. The paper identifies the purpose of the Testbed, characterizes the participating institutions and the challenges they are addressing, and identifies some of the research and development activities of the Testbed.


  1. Introduction
  2. Testbed Purposes and Institutions
  3. Reform Agendas of Testbed Organizations
  4. Next Challenges
  5. Summary
  6. References
  7. Author Information

1. Introduction

This paper describes the educational reform agendas of the educational institutions participating in the National School Network Testbed (NSNT), and the ways in which these institutions expect Internetworking to support those reforms.

The NSNT was organized by the Educational Technologies group at BBN and funded by the National Science Foundation of the U.S. Phase I of the Testbed, conducted over 18 months in 1992 through the spring of 1994, resulted in an understanding of ways in which schools and other educational institutions could take advantage of Internetworking to build their own local information infrastructure in support of desired reforms in education. [6, 7, 8, 9]. The purpose of Phase II of the Testbed is to build an understanding of the costs and benefits of organizing and managing the information infrastructure at the local level in such a way that everyone in the community participates in its construction. Currently, approximately 250 institutions are participating in the Testbed, including 150 individual schools across the United States (with one in Canada and one in Australia).

Information about Testbed members is provided at:

2. Testbed Purpose and Institutions

A basic premise underlying the NSNT is that all members of a learning community -- in or out of schools -- should be able to participate in the construction of their local information infrastructure, connected to the worldwide Internet, in such a way as to meet the changing needs for learning by all members of that community. This premise is fundamentally grounded in the belief that people learn in the process of actively constructing knowledge, both alone and in collaboration with others. [1,2, 3]. Adoption of this premise requires that all participants have full Internet connectivity and the ability to contribute to a local server.

However, considerable investment is required to create the technical and organizational infrastructure to support such broad scale participation. The purpose of the Testbed is to collect, organize, and share information on what those costs are, and what are the benefits perceived by the learning communities. Such an empirical base of knowledge is urgently needed in order to make sound policy decisions about investment on the part of local, state, and national governments and taxpayers. [4]

2.1 Testbed Institutions

In March and April, 1994, 121 organizations responded to our call for participation in the National School Networking Testbed, and a few more have joined since then. About a third of the participant organizations have a national scope. Eleven have a statewide scope of operations. Eleven are regional within a state. Thirty-two are local: individual schools, museums, school districts, or towns. A few are international or multi-state in scope. Currently, the member institutions are identifying one or more of their affiliated schools to participate and data is being gathered now from 225 schools.

These organizations are on the forefront of both educational reform and the creation of local and national information infrastructure. They are an important resource to their local communities and to the nation's agenda for reform. They are creating new models of learning and teaching for the information age. They are pro-actively seeking to assist schools and other places of learning and teaching to benefit from information infrastructure. Many of the organizations and projects are specifically addressing needs and resources of particular groups such as minorities, women, Native Americans, bilingual teachers, physics teachers, urban schools, rural areas, etc. The Testbed promises to be a place to facilitate synergy among these organizations, resulting in a major national resource for experimentation, innovation, and policy formation. A typical testbed organization is in the process of moving from a host-terminal mode of internet access to a full IP connectivity and client/server mode. Many participating schools already have local area networks and are just now connecting these to the Internet. Some of the schools now have dial-up Internet access and are moving to a dedicated line. Half of the organizations either have or are planning to install a server that will enable user construction of services. Although many are just beginning to build their local infrastructure, over half have published URLs which you can view from the Testbed home page.

2.2 User-Construction and Reform

Our theme of user-constructible networking went to the heart of educational reform groups who are looking for a new generation of school technology that better maps onto their constructivist ideas about learning and a project-based curriculum. Over half of our Testbed partners identified curriculum reform as a purpose for educational networking. Over half of the respondents identified curriculum reform as a purpose for educational networking. Science and mathematics are a particular focus in most of these cases, but several are working on interdisciplinary curricula and several are emphasizing critical thinking. Bilingualism, vocational/technical education, and adult literacy are areas of new emphasis for some of the participants. At least a third of the participants are creating digital libraries and making them accessible to others via Internet for learning and teaching. Usually, they are creating these from their own local resources, thus adding value to existing material.

3 Reform Agendas of Testbed Organizations

Collectively, the Testbed organizations represent the full spectrum of educational reform agendas found in the U.S. This fact is important to the purpose of the Testbed, because we believe the cost of infrastructure will need to be amortized across a wide range of benefits. Further, we hope to foster synergies within and across the various reform efforts.

The following are a sampling of the reform agendas of Testbed institutions:

3.1 School Restructuring

A substantial proportion (17) of the Testbed organizations are involved in school restructuring. Associated with restructuring are applications to support changes in educational administration. A typical comment is, "Our network connectivity will help us in our efforts to decentralize and share decision-making in our district. We will have fewer policy-driven mandates and will increase our sensitivity to individual needs...we are installing digital phone systems with a phone in each classroom as part of our restructuring efforts." The Stevens Institute of Technology Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education is working with administrators in 20 school systems in New Jersey in long term professional development programs. They emphasize the need for superintendents, supervisors, principals and department heads to be involved in planning and support of technology implementation in classroom instruction.

Several of the organizations are addressing the needs of policymakers in education, for increased understanding of the relationship of technology and systemic reform. For instance, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is completing a major national needs assessment and recommendations on using the National Information Infrastructure to achieve the National Education Goals. CCSSO is sponsoring the State Leadership Technology Conference which will convene all of the state education agency technology representatives, and is developing leadership programs to support implementation of Goals 2000: Educate America Act. CCSSO intends to use electronic networking as much as possible to disseminate information, promote collaboration, and develop online databases.

3.2 Implementing New Standards

Increasingly, Testbed organizations are seeking uses of networking to help schools implement new standards for learning and state frameworks for curriculum and teaching. For example, the Allegheny/Schools Partnership includes Allegheny College and eight school districts in Western Pennsylvania. They are using the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics as a guide. Teams of change agents from each district identify bottlenect concepts that block students' understanding of critical mathematics concepts and develop instructional solutiosn to help students grasp these concepts. The Partnership is also an "electronic community" using Internet for collaboration, resource sharing, and access to the international community of math educators.

3.3 New Assessment Methods

A number of NSNT participants are implementing new methods of assessing student learning, such as portfolio assessment, as a supplement to or substitute for traditional norm-referenced multiple-choice tests. For example, one of the Testbed organizations is the Coalition of Essential Schools. The 150 member schools of the Coalition have been devising standards for assessing students' digital portfolios. David Niguidula of the Coalition staff says, "With theproper telecommunications tools, we believe we can help schools share this work with each other in an organized fashion. The resulting conversation among schools can focus on standards established at the school level. These local conversations can then become the beginning of a new accountability framework, where standards are established locally, validated within a cluster of schools, and facilitated and verified by the state."

3.4 Project-based Learning

At least 27 Testbed members talked about using networks to support project-based learning, which is a major change from traditional schooling in curriculum and pedagogy. Project-based learning is organized around challenging problems or themes that provide a realistic and motivating context for learning basic concepts, skills, and subject matters. In project-based learning, students usually work in teams, and the teams often include people of different ages and backgrounds. Because project-based learning often leads learners into new subject areas, it is important to have a wide range of human and information resources available. The Internet is important for both the collaboration among team members and for accessing resources. Bill Attea, Superintendent of Glenview Public Schools, Glenview Illinois, says, "Glenview is currently in the process of a major systemic reform movement that is both grassroots and district supported. We plan to examine ways that networked technology can support the move toward authentic project-based education. Of particular interest is the use of networked tools which allow collaboration and knowledge building, both on the parts of teachers and students..." Eighteen respondents talked about their use of networking to support changes in methods of teaching. Several specifically mentioned collaborative learning; several talked about a transition from teacher-centered or content-centered instruction to learner-centered instruction.

3.5 Breaking Down Walls

Networking is employed by most of the Testbed organizations to help forge new linkages between schools and people outside of schools: in the local community (15), parents and homes(12), places of informal learning such as museums and science centers (20), libraries (5), scientists and other working professionals (6), universities (22) and people in other countries or cultures (6). For instance, the Buddy System project is a home/school technology program with 5,100 Indiana families and 300 educators at 51 schools in 23 districts. To get support from state funds, participating schools must demonstrate commitment to effectively extending learning beyond the classroom and into the home. Similarly, Craig Lyndes of Champlain Valley Union High School in Vermont says, "Eventually we want to allow the students to access all of the school's resources from home. This is part of our long range goal to blow the walls off the school, bring the world into the school, and put the school out in the world."

3.6 Economic Development

Some of our participating schools are taking leadership roles within their communities to employ networks for economic development. For instance, Ken Matheson of Mendocino Unified School District in California said, "We plan to develop our node as a community resource which will help to revitalize our economically depressed area." Similarly, Jim Rogers of Sweetwater County in Green River Wyoming says, "Overall, we hope our goal of establishing and maintaining a community network with students will be scalable to other rural communities and that we (the testbed community) can begin to develop a "virtual community" of student network managers capable of providing network services to rural America."

3.7 Professional Development

NSNT organizations are using networking to support their professional development agendas. Twelve are devising innovations in the preparation of new teachers, often in collaborations between colleges and school districts. For example, undergraduate teachers-in-preparation at California State Long Beach use TeacherNet, (developed by their professor Jean Casey) throughout their student teaching experience to do such things as obtain evaluations of educational materials and lesson plans, share their problems and reflections with student teachers around the country, locate job and grant opportunities, and interact with more experienced classroom teachers. Hispanic student teachers have opportunity to collaborate with other bilingual and Spanish-speaking teachers both in the U.S. and Mexico.

Teacher enhancement and staff development are an integral component of the network activities of Testbed institutions, and support for these efforts is receiving high priority on the Testbed agenda. At Mendocino School District in California, teachers are learning to use Internet resources and are integrating these capabilities into a series of curriculum units which will be disseminated by NASA via the Internet. Similarly, middle school teachers in Poway School District, California are developing knowledge and skills to author thematic cross-curricular middle school units with an emphasis on student problem solving, discovery, and authentic experiences. The interdisciplinary teams in science, math, language arts, and social studies are using a variety of communications technologies (telephone, local cable and school-wide CATV, and computer networks) to support this work.

3.8 Global Collaborations

A substantial proportion of Testbed members are fostering international collaborations for their teachers and students. For many of them, preparing students to work in a global economy is a motivation. Others are implementing new standards that call for such things as understanding global perspectives. Others are simply interested in their students being able to take advantage of global resources for learning. Many of these schools are taking advantage of international educational projects such as global rivers investigations.

3.9 Constructing Digital Libraries

At least a third of the participants are creating digital libraries and making them accessible to others via Internet for learning and teaching. Usually, they are creating these from their own local resources, thus adding value to existing material. For example, high school students in the Earth System Science Community are creating libraries of their project work and earth system simulations on a World Wide Web server, to share with students and teachers in other schools. Earthwatch is building a Global Information Network, including digitization of all print documents, photographs, maps, video resources, and expedition logistics from their worldwide scientific expeditions. Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is working with six other science museums and their collaborating teachers, to create a virtual museum, accessible to Internet users and particularly designed for elementary and middle school teachers.

Development of multi-media materials in network-accessible form was cited by 14 organizations as a major application. For example, OCM Regional BOCES is creating a multimedia training center, which will be used to develop, archive, and deliver curricular-based materials with and for K-12 teachers, available on Internet via a WWW server. They are taking advantage of primary source documentation and pictures and sounds from archives of the Erie Canal Museum and the New York State Historical Society.

4 Next Challenges

In January 1995, Testbed organizations responded to a questionnaire, providing an update on their situations. Their responses to an open-ended question ("Any other issues?") provide a rough indicator of some next challenges faced by educators once they have made a commitment to Internet participation by their school communities. The following are some areas of concern, which will drive the agenda for the Testbed over the next several months.

4.1 Professional Development Challenges

All organizations in the Testbed are placing a high priority on professional development, especially for teachers but also for families, administrators, local business and government staff, and general citizenry. They are confronting a number of challenges in doing this. They are attempting to move more in the direction of providing technology-related training in the context of educational reforms, curriculum development, and new standards, rather than teaching about the tools and resources of the Internet in isolation from the educational reform agendas. They foresee increased need for skills in information management as the volume of email and other information increases. They have devised a rich array of strategies for the continuing learning of all staff, including providing for teacher access from home, creating online forums for ongoing support and collaboration, providing individualized support for innovators, encouraging student leadership, providing mentors and team teaching, encouraging a spirit of creativity and fun, establishing skill standards in information handling, and providing more user-friendly and functional tools. The Testbed is establishing a Support Desk to facilitate the sharing of professional development resources and know-how among member organizations.

4.2 Local Interface to Cyberspace

A central challenge of all Testbed organizations is the creation of the Local Information Infrastructure in a manner that enables local users to have efficient, productive interface with the larger Internet community and resources. This is critical not only for locating and accessing remote resources, but also for publishing and disseminating the work of teachers and students to others, finding appropriate collaborators, and sustaining productive collaborations. Members are looking to the Testbed for assistance, collaboration, and models for doing this. Some are looking to better navigation tools and search agents; standards and conventions for organizing resources; cyberspace models that can be tailored to local use; building communities of interest. A number of Testbed organizations are specifically devoted to advancing the state of art in these areas. The Eisenhower National Clearinghouse is developing mechanisms and services for access to distributed databases and tools, as is the Center for Networked Information Discovery and Retrieval which is creating tools and methods based on Z39.50 standards. BBN, organizer of the Testbed, is working on several aspects of this challenge, such as development of tools for managing the local information infrastructure. Some Testbed organizations are advancing the state of art and understanding of how to form and sustain productive online communities and collaborations. We expect to take advantage of that expertise to model productive collaborations across the Testbed community.

4.3 Technical Management & Support

Testbed schools and school districts are facing challenges in devising models for managing the evolution and maintenance of their local araea networks, technical infrastructure and providing technical support to users. Most are depending on rapid growth in user skills, particularly students', to help solve this problem. Others are looking for more user-friendly tools to help reduce the need for user support.

4.4 Evaluation

Testbed schools, districts, and states are accountable to the taxpayers and other funders of the infrastructure they are building. They face challenges in evaluating and communicating the impact, value, and benefits of their applications of technology to learning. They are concerned about the costs of connectivity, and want a way to assess the differential value of various connectivity levels. They want ways to determine what curriculum and instruction models are taking best advantage of wide area resources, and assess the scalability of the applictions as more and more users begin to participate. They seek ways to better evaluate and ensure quality of resources used and developed. The Testbed is supporting these evaluation efforts in a number of ways, including the development of survey instruments, gathering of baseline data, facilitation of an Evaluation Exchange Desk.

4.4 Use Policies

A relatively small number of Testbed members are intensely concerned about policies and mechanisms to ensure appropriate use of Internet resources, especially by students. They are concerned to resolve issues of student access to inappropriate materials, and building an understanding of appropriately protecting intellectual property rights.

4.5 Testbed Research and Development Activities

Over the next two and a half years, the NSNT member organizations will be evolving their own local information infrastructure in support of the educational reforms that are a priority of their own institutions. At the same time, the NSNT as a collective will be inventing new mechanisms for helping the members share what they are constructing and learning. Testbed Exchange Desks will serve as an organizing framework for the accumulation of knowledge across the member institutions, and for dissemination to the larger educational and policy communities. The organizations in the Testbed will serve for each other as testing ground for innovations in tools, software, standards, and ways of organizing the information and human infrastructure. They will be sharing data on costs and benefits of their infrastructure and applications. The NSNT is conducting formal data collection activities to monitor the progress and changes in the participating schools.

5 Summary

The institutions participating in the National School Network Testbed are attempting to build their own local information infrastructure in such a manner as to advance their educational reform agendas. They are attempting to engage the participation of all members of their school or broader learning communities. They are trying to take advantage of Internetworking in ways that are beneficial to reform and feasible for their users. The possibility exists for these institutions to learn from each other and thus advance not only their individual communities but the larger state of the art as well. The challenge for the Testbed as a whole is to organize and facilitate productive exchange of tools, resources, know-how and data among its members, to invent and test ways of accomplishing this, and then to share the collective learning with the broader audience of other educational institutions and local communities as they join the Internet community.


[1] B. Hunter, "Learning and Teaching on the Internet: Contributing to Educational Reform," Chapter in J. Keller [ed] Public Access to the Internet, MIT Press, 1995.

[2] B. Hunter, "Linking for Learning: Computer-and-Communications Network Support for Nation-wide Innovation in Education". J. Science Education and Technology, Vol. 1 No. 1 pp 23-33.

[3] B. Hunter, "Internetworking: Coordinating tech-nology for systemic reform," Communications of the ACM. May 1993, pp. 42-46.

[4] B. Hunter, "NSF's Networked Testbeds Inform Innovation in Science Education," T.H.E. Journal October 1993.

[5] B. Hunter, "Collaborative Inquiry in Networked Communities," Hands On! 16(2). Cambridge, MA: TERC Fall 1993.

[6] D. Newman, "School networks: Delivery or access," Communications of the ACM. x, pp. 42-46, May 1993.

[7] D. Newman, "Getting the NII to school: A roadmap to universal access," BBN Position Paper. Cambridge: Bolt Beranek & Newman Inc. 1993

[8] D. Newman, P. Reese, and A. Huggins, "The Ralph Bunche Computer Mini-School: A Design for individual and community work," Chapter in Hawkins & Collins (eds) Design experiments: Restructuring through technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[9] D. Newman, “Preliminary Report on Phase I of the National School Netwokr Testbed,” BBN Technical Report, Cambridge MA, July 1994.

Author Information

Beverly Hunter is Senior Staff Scientist at BBN in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the staff of the National School Network Testbed. She serves on Advisory Boards of several educational networking projects nationally, and is involved in projects to conduct research on educational technologies. Formerly she was Program Manager for Applications of Advanced Technologies at the National Science Foundation where she initiated programs of support for Internetworking in education. She is author of 25 books and 100 articles on computer and communications technologies in learning and teaching.

Beverly Hunter

Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc.
Educational Technologies
150 Cambridgepark Drive
Cambridge, MA 02140

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