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Congressional Report Assesses Uses of Technology

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Washington--The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) last week released the final version of "Informational Technology and Its Impact on American Education." The document is intended to provide Congressional policymakers with a comprehensive overview of the potential uses of technology in education.

The technology office released a brief summary of the full report's findings at a meeting of two House subcommittees in September. (See Education Week, Sept. 22, 1982.)

Report Contents

The final 259-page report includes: a more detailed discussion of the United States as an information society, with a look at the future; projections of possible shifts in the composition of the workforce caused by the "information revolution," and their implications for education and training; effects the emerging technologies could have on the "provision of education"; the state of research and development in educational technology; conditions that may affect the further application of technology in education; case studies of established programs in several settings, including public-school systems, libraries, and museums; and a discussion of the federal role in the development of technology for education.

The report includes information on cable-television systems, satellite communication, digital telephone networks for linkages between computer terminals, direct broadcast and low-power broadcast developments, computers, video technology (including videodisks), and information services that integrate several of these in one system.

"Whether or not the new information technologies fulfill their educational potential will depend, in part," the report states, "on the kinds of actions that the Federal Government takes to assure that these technologies are used effectively and made accessible to all."

Arguments for Federal Action

The report lists arguments for and against federal action. Among the arguments for federal involvement, the report notes:

The anticipated "information society" will create new demands for education and training. Computer-based automation in the manufacturing and service sectors will create a need for workers who can be continually retrained as changes occur and new technologies are developed. There will also be a growing demand for scientific and technical experts.

The report notes that "even in the current economy, the information industry is growing at a rate of over 20 percent per year."

It also cites a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that says there will be a need for nearly one million new professionals trained in compu-ter skills during the next decade.

Information technology could help schools overcome many problems they face today, but without an active federal role some schools could be left behind or could choose not to use technology for lack of funds, information, motivation, or direction.

The report suggests that educational use of technologies will not reach its full potential without a coordinated effort, possibly one led by the federal government.

Among the arguments against extensive federal involvement, the report states, are: that the private sector is the place for development of educational technology; that extensive federal involvement is politically unlikely during times of general budgetary constraint; and that too little is known about the long-term effects of the new technologies on learning.

Other Potential Barriers

The report lists other potential barriers to applying the new developments to education, including the shortage of properly-trained teachers, the lack of adequate software, and the cost.

Although the cost of computer hardware and communications services is dropping, the report states, investment in technology is still a substantial financial commitment for schools.

The OTA discusses several Congressional options:

Subsidize hardware. Congress could increase direct funding to schools to allow them to purchase hardware. The OTA case studies show that many of the most successful schools now employing computers used federal funds as seed money for their programs.

Congress could also pass legislation that would give computer companies tax writeoffs for hardware donated to public schools. One such bill (the "Apple Bill"), was passed by the House of Representatives this fall and is pending in the Senate.

Subsidize software. The report says that many software producers are wary of embarking on expensive development projects for the highly uncertain education market.

In addition, the report noted, there is much to learn about how best to use the new technologies in education.

The government could speed up the process, the report suggests, by providing either full or partial funding for the development of some major curriculum packages.

Such a policy would allow the government to set priorities on curriculum packages for which a clear need exists, such as in mathematics and science.

Another method of support would be to provide educational institutions with the funds to purchase their own choice of software.

Assume a leadership role. "Few teachers or administrators are trained in the instructional use of computers or other electronic media," the report states, and "unsound decisions in implementing technology and selecting curriculum packages could be extremely costly to schools.''

While a bad initial experience with technology could lead teachers to become disillusioned, the OTA case studies show that there is a great deal of interest and motivation. "This motivation, if properly informed and guided, could be an important driving force for the implementation of educational technology."

Federal policy could address the well-documented shortage of qualified mathematics and science teachers and the drain of personnel caused by competition from the private sector.

The government could help improve the supply of qualified teachers by making contractual agreements with teachers who attend government-funded training programs to assure their return to teaching and by using pay differentials to encourage teachers "with more marketable skills'' to stay in education.

The report also suggests the creation of demonstration and development centers and information clearinghouses.

Incorporate technology initiatives in general education policy. For example, policymakers in the field of vocational education must take into account the new skills required by high-technology industry, and those in special education will need to consider the potential of information technology to improve the access of handicapped students to "the information stream of U.S. society," the report states.

The report also says the government should consider three general areas of the potential impact on society of the new technologies:

Implicit choices. The OTA concludes that information technology could be a powerful tool for lowering the cost of instruction and increasing the quality and variety of education. "If so," the report states, ''those institutions that are able to adapt to its use most quickly will have a significant competitive advantage over those that cannot."

Depending on the needs of specific institutions once these changes begin, Congress could influence the competitive balance, the report says.

"For example," the report states, "if it were determined that the public schools' lack of access to educational technology put their students in a severely disadvantaged position, Congress could ... focus policy on public schools in order to strengthen them institutionally."

Potential equity impacts. "OTA found concern among some experts that the widespread imple-mentation of educational technology could create issues of equity," says the report. "The cost of education may increase beyond the economic means of some." However, technology could also improve access of some groups (such as the "homebound") to instruction.

Long-term educational impacts. "... a major societal dependence on information technology could have significant educational and psychological effects on the U.S. population," the report states, but very little is known about what these effects might be. So far, little is known about the subtle effects of technology on learning the consequences of extensive long-term use of technological devices in school or at work.

The report concludes: "Congress could take a number of specific ac-tions to affect the development, educational application, and distribution of information technologies.

"But such an approach would address only a single aspect of the problem and may generate undesirable and unexpected side effects. If this is to be avoided, a broad approach, which takes into account the changing needs for education and training, considerations of equity, and changing institutional roles, will be required."

The report was released at a press conference held by the Subcommittee on Select Education of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Copies of the report are available for $8 from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C. 20402. The GPO stock number is 052-003-00888-2.

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