In Silicon Valley, the digital elite's latest cause celebre is education. Across the continent, in Flemington, New Jersey, with very little fanfare and very little money, Ray Farley, superintendent of Hunterdon Central Regional High School, has launched his own education revolution. He's made wired schools and education reform a reality - and in the process, he's instituted a kind of virtual busing between his well-appointed, mostly white rural school and four under-resourced, mostly black urban schools.
What you see at Hunterdon Central is not all that remarkable at first glance: a standard classroom with desks arranged in a square, a computer on each desk, and two or three kids eagerly working at each computer. But look closer.
"See those video cameras?" Farley asks. "They're linked via ISDN lines to Asbury Park [High School] students. The kids here are not only working on a poetry magazine - they're producing it in real time, with their peers at Asbury Park. With just a mouse click, the teacher can 'drop in' and see the teamwork going on."
In fact, Farley's education revolution not only links the 1,893 students who attend his school to the 775 students at Asbury Park; it also connects Hunterdon Central to three other inner-city New Jersey schools and with a high school in Tokyo. But the suburban-urban connection is just one piece of Farley's plan. Behind the technology is a larger mission. "Kids today live in a nanosecond world," he says. "We have to change our educational models to prepare them for that world."
To do that, Farley has been willing to overthrow the old practices and the conventional wisdom that have locked much of public education in a straightjacket of by-the-textbook curricula and desks-all-in-a-row classrooms. At the heart of his vision is the conviction that kids should be responsible for their own learning. "You have to make available all the technology you can get your hands on," Farley explains. "And then you have to do one more thing - you have to trust them." At Hunterdon, kids already prepare their own lesson plans. What's more, Farley expects to see extensive at-home schooling within two years. "You have to decentralize learning," he says. "It doesn't all take place in the classroom. Our technology makes that possible. Then you have to think through what that means for the school buildings. Even more important, you have to think through what that means for the school community."
Farley's approach to schooling for the future is an ingenious mix of high- and low-tech. The Hunterdon Central (www.hcrhs.hunterdon.k12.nj.us) team has figured out how to outfit the school with PCs, video facilities, ISDN lines, fiber-optic cables - the works - for $40,000 per classroom. The rooms are linked to the school's central nervous system: its library, which offers access to some 50 CD-ROMs, to the Internet, and to a host of other databases. Through dial-up access, those resources are available from any computer with a modem, so kids can get the information they need 24 hours a day.
Along with its 700 networked computer stations, the school has a student-run FM radio station, a television studio, a telephone in every classroom, and a state-of-the-art instructional-media center.
When they enroll at Hunterdon, students get their own email accounts. They can access homeroom news, including homework assignments, on a computer. Teachers are also more accessible than ever before: Email, voice-mail, and electronic-bulletin-board systems allow students to connect with them at any time.
And the low-tech part? "We're working to create an environment where teachers are facilitators," Farley says. "We expect students to be actively involved in their own lesson-planning and to learn to work within the strictures of group decision making." One simple innovation: Teachers have offices in their classrooms. As a result, says Farley, "They don't have to wander from classroom to lounge and back again. They spend more time with kids, and they don't want to leave at the end of the day. We also have fewer labor-management problems."
Like most revolutions, Farley's required change at the top - so he toppled himself. "I gave up some of the traditional power of a superintendent," Farley says, "and turned it over to teams of students, teachers, and parents. Now they decide what needs to be taught, who gets hired, and what the school day looks like. Once you put people in charge of their own destiny and say, 'Here's where you need to go if you want to be ready for the future,' the rest just happens."
Farley's revolution is getting results. At Hunterdon Central, student attendance is up; teacher attendance is up; and so are the number of students making it onto the honor roll and the number of graduates going on to college. The results at Asbury Park are also good. "One year ago, we had two computers hooked up to the Internet," says Dan Murphy, Asbury Park's principal. "Right now, technicians are setting up 200 computers, providing them all with access to the Internet. At any given time, we have 8 to 10 projects going with Hunterdon students. And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. It's unbelievable."
Nicholas Morgan firstname.lastname@example.org is a Business Writer and playwright based in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.