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Equity Emerges as Major Issue in Schools' Use of Computers

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New York--The distribution of classroom computers in schools across the country could split the nation's students into classes of "haves" and "have-nots" unless educators push to intervene, warned several speakers at a recent conference at Columbia University's Teachers College.

The conference, "The Future of Electronic Learning," was sponsored by the education school's Electronic Learning Laboratory. It attracted educators, administrators, researchers, publishers, and computer programmers from around the country "to explore electronic learning and its critical implications for education and psychology," according to Mary Alice White, director of the laboratory.

"The most pressing problem concerning computer literacy is the whole notion of access to the technology and its use," said Linda Roberts, a senior associate with the Department of Education's office of libraries and learning technologies.

"At the heart of the equity issue," said Ms. Roberts, "is who is going to benefit from the technology and who is not? We must ensure that all students become knowledgeable about a variety of electronic learning devices and their multiple uses."

Just as it would be hard to imagine a literature course taught without books, said Ms. Roberts, it is difficult to think about achieving computer literacy without giving each student the opportunity to work in the classroom using a computer. But, she asked, how many school districts are going to be able to buy computers?

Ms. Roberts, who has spent two years visiting 12 schools in five states while gathering data for a federal study, "Information Technology, The Information Society and Education," noted that a lack of funds to purchase hardware, maintain equipment, train teachers, and offer necessary support services could seriously hamper the introduction of electronic learning into all the nation's 15,834 school districts.

Some districts have already found ways around the funding shortage, she said, by forming partnerships with parents, industries, university faculties, or concerned citizens who have an interest in computers. In some cases, parents are advising on ways to obtain materials, supplying equipment themselves, and providing general expertise.

"Because the technology is still expensive," observed Sam Gibbon, executive director of the project in Science and Mathematics Education at the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan, "we run the risk of empowering some learners and disenfranchising others.

"We must find ways of enabling children in poorer school districts to have access to the electronic learning environment in addition to students in well-to-do areas," he added.

Equal access to the technology for all students, however, does not necessarily guarantee varied use of it, warned Joyce Hakansson, a computer consultant and former coordinator of computer education at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, Calif.

"The exclusive concentration on the computer for drill and practice in a subject is a particular problem for students in non-affluent schools where computers are present," said Ms. Hakansson. Studies have shown that in these settings schools tend to control the learning environment by limiting the use of the hardware to remedial instruction.

"These children are not being given the opportunity to use computers as creative tools to test their intellectual powers or to stretch their imaginations," she cautioned.

'Discovery Learning'

One obstacle to the creative use of computers, she suggested, is the fear of some educators that "discovery learning" may erode the traditional authority of the teacher. Some teachers do not want to compete with computers for the attention of their students; others are used to being the providers of information, Ms. Hakansson said.

In other cases, she said, teachers may sense that problem-solving through the use of the computer may require changes in established relationships in the classroom, with teachers becoming learners alongside their students.

Speakers agreed that in order to expand the use of computers beyond the present preoccupation with "drill and practice," new expectations of students should be encouraged, new roles for the teacher examined, and new relationships in the classroom explored.

To obtain a copy of "Information Technology, The Information Society and Education," write to: Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C. 20510. Copies will be available in August.

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