Web Exclusive: Making Connections

When it’s time for middle school students in Eminence, Ky., to get their homework assignments, they don’t need to copy down notes from the chalkboard, take handouts from the teacher, or print out a computer file.

With a click of a button on a personal digital assistant (PDA), the teacher transmits infrared rays that download the information to students’ PDAs. The tiny computers also allow students to enter class notes, work math problems, maintain calendars and schedules, and download more programs and information from the Internet.

The students are using the PDAs as part of a pilot project to help children of migrant workers maintain some continuity in their education as their parents seek work and they bounce from school to school.

“The PDAs have multiple functions,” says Mike Abell, coordinator of the Kentucky Migrant Technology Project. “It’s kind of a Swiss-army knife approach. These PDAs are affordable and easy to use.”

Whether it’s students pecking out assignments on pocket computers, creating movies with digital cameras, enrolling in virtual courses offered on the World Wide Web or e-mailing pen pals on the other side of the world, the message is clear: Technology has become an integral part of education.

But as schools continue to upgrade their technology and acquire the fastest and most powerful computers, administrators must make sure that acquiring equipment isn’t an end in itself. Schools must transform that equipment into effective tools for enhancing student learning.

“The continued success and quality of American public education depends on our collective ability to close the gap between technology’s mere presence and its effective integration into the curriculum to enhance student performance,” says a report on School Technology and Readiness from the CEO Forum on Education and Technology.

GETTING THE GOODS

Several years ago, the most pressing technology question facing schools was “How can we get some?” In the 1990s, schools answered that question. By increasing their own technology budgets and taking advantage of federal programs such as the E-rate, schools have dramatically increased the presence of computers in classrooms.

Numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics confirm the transformation. As of 1999, 95 percent of U.S. public schools had access to the Internet, compared with only 35 percent five years earlier. And 63 percent of the nation’s classrooms were connected to the Internet, compared with 3 percent in 1994.

Schools’ connections to the Internet are becoming more sophisticated—63 percent of schools have a dedicated line such as a T1 or T3 line, and 23 percent have connections such as cable modems, wireless links or ISDN lines. Only 14 percent of schools relied on a dial-up connection.

So now the pivotal question regarding school technology is “Are we using it wisely?”

A TOOL FOR LEARNING

The types of educational activities that an online connection can enhance are almost as varied as the thousands of schools that are connected to the Internet.

Students routinely use computers to take virtual field trips to museums, simulate dissections or other science experiments, swap information with students across the country or on the other side of the world, publish poetry or short stories, produce digital video programs, research term papers and interview experts.

More than 100 high schools across the nation take part in a program called “The Virtual High School,” which offers a variety of online courses to students, often attending in small and remote buildings that don’t offer a wide range of subjects.

When used effectively, technology has not just opened up academic paths for some students; it also has changed their attitudes about school.

“Having access to the PDAs has really helped their self-esteem,” says Abell of the students involved in the Kentucky Migrant Technology Project (www.migrant.org). “They think these machines are really cool and helpful.”

Regardless of how much or what kind of technology schools acquire, it’s ultimately up to educators to bring out the machines’ educational potential.

“A new way of thinking has to be infused into our schools,” says Abell. “It takes people who understand not only the technology, but also the instruction itself.”

WISE DECISIONS

While schools have accelerated their acquisition of computers and other technology, some education observers have yet to be convinced that technology is truly improving education.

“The unfortunate truth is that schools are driven by a shopping-cart mentality,” says William L. Rukeyser, coordinator of Learning in the Real World, based in Woodland, Calif. The organization advocates thorough research the educational benefits of technology before schools purchase equipment.

“There is a tendency in school districts to equate acquisition with achievement,” says Rukeyser. “We’re long on enthusiasm and short on research on where this works and where it doesn’t.”

The Web-Based Commission’s report, while supportive of the need for technology, also is critical of the lack of research. It states that in 1999, the United States spent about $313 billion on public K-12 education, but spent less than 0.1 percent of that “to determine what educational techniques actually work and to find ways to improve them.”

Alliance for Childhood, a partnership of educators, health professionals, parents and other child advocates based in Baltimore, has similar reservations about computers.

“Common sense suggests that we consider the potential harm, as well as the potential benefits,” the Alliance says in its report, “Fools Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood.”

The report argues that no solid evidence has been gathered to show computer-based instruction improves student performance. It contends that computers pose health risks to children, can limit creative thinking and isolate children from real-world experiences.

“Those who place their faith in technology to solve the problems of education should look more deeply into the needs of children,” the report states. “The renewal of education requires personal attention to students from good teachers and active parents, strongly supported by their communities.”

The study contends that technology has lured people into believing it is a panacea for the problems schools face.

“Why are we, as a nation, so enamored of computers in childhood?” the report states. “This one-size-fits-all fix for elementary schools does seem to meet a lot of adult needs. It makes politicians and school administrators appear decisive and progressive. It tempts overworked parents and teachers with a convenient, mesmerizing electronic babysitter.”

Instead of spending billions on technology, the Alliance says educators should look at improving schools by lowering class sizes, raising teachers’ salaries, expanding Head Start programs and repairing or replacing school facilities that are deteriorating and dangerous.

More critical to children’s lives than access to computers, the Alliance asserts, are health and safety. Money allocated to technology could be spent on eliminating lead poisoning from the nation’s building stock, increasing the availability of child nutrition programs, making child care and health care more available and affordable.

TEACHING THE TEACHERS

As schools shelled out big bucks to acquire enough computers and related technology for their students and staff, they often found that not enough money remained to provide training that would help teachers and administrators use the equipment most effectively.

For technology to achieve the educational potential that most people believe it offers, schools and universities must make training and support a priority.

“The training teachers do receive is usually too little, too basic and too generic to help them develop real facility in teaching with technology,” says “The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving from Promise to Practice,” a report from the Web-Based Education Commission. The commission is a bipartisan group established by the U.S. Congress.

“Teachers need more than a quick course in basic computer operations,” the report says. “They need guidance in using the best tools in the best ways to support the best kinds of instruction. And they need something more. They need time.”

The commission urges schools to provide educators and administrators with continuous and relevant training and support so they can use technology effectively.

The U.S. Department of Education recommends similar improvements in technology training for teachers. In a report, “e-Learning: Putting a World-Class Education at the Fingertips of All Children,” the department says schools should:

--Improve the preparation of new teachers, including their knowledge of how to use technology for effective teaching and learning.

--Increase the quantity, quality and coherence of technology-focused activities aimed at the professional development of teachers.

--Improve real-time instructional support available to teachers who use technology.

Sidebar: Computing on campus

More college instructors are integrating use of the Internet into their courses, according to an annual survey of colleges and universities.

The 2000 National Survey of Information Technology in U.S. Higher Education, conducted by the Campus Computing Project, found that in 1999, more than 30 percent of courses had a web page, compared with 9.2 percent in 1996. E-mail was being used in nearly 60 percent of courses.

In addition, the survey found that more schools have placed their course catalog on the Internet and are offering online undergraduate applications. More than 55 percent of the 469 colleges taking part in the survey say they offered at least one course online on the Internet in 1999, compared with 46.5 percent the previous year.

Kenneth C. Green, a visiting scholar at the Center for Educational Studies of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., founded the Campus Computing Project and conducts the annual survey.

In his report, Green notes that for colleges and universities, finding capable people to operate and support campus technology was more critical than equipment or infrastructure needs.

“The exploding demand for technical talent means that campus IT personnel can often walk across the street and easily increase their income by 30 or 50 percent or more,” says Green. “The education community—both higher education and K-12—is at great risk of losing its technology talent to the corporate sector.”

Sidebar: New century, new goals

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Education released an educational technology plan that established goals for preparing students for the 21st century. Now that the new century is upon us, the department has released a new plan and unveiled new national goals for technology in education.

“Given the tremendous progress made in integrating technology into teaching and learning, and the continued advances in the affordability and capabilities of technology, the need to move beyond the 1996 goals became evident,” says the department’s “e-Learning” report.

--Goal 1

: All students and teachers will have access to information technology in their classrooms, schools, communities and homes. “Universal access to the Internet will help end the isolation of teachers; exponentially expand the resources for teaching and learning in schools and classrooms; provde more challenging, authentic and higher-order learning experiences for students; and make schools and teachers more accountable to parents and communities,” says the report.

--Goal 2

: All teachers will use technology effectively to help students achieve high academic standards. “We should improve the preparation of new teachers, including their knowledge of how to use technology for effective teaching and learning,” says the report.

--Goal 3

: All students will have technology and information literacy skills. “Even for those students who do not pursue technology careers, ensuring technology and information skills will provide a number of benefits,” the report states.

--Goal 4

: Research and evaluation will improve the next generation of technology applications for teaching and learning. “The need for an expanded ongoing national research and evaluation program to improve the next generation of technology applications for teaching and learning is profound,” the report says.

--Goal 5

: Digital content and networked applications will transform teaching and learning. “Digital content and networked applications must be independently judged to be of high quality, well-documented, comprehensive and available for all grades and subject areas, and have the power to inspire or motivate students,” says the report.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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