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'Equal' Access to Computers in Education Could Become Major Issue, Experts Warn

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Access to computers, both sides of a 20-year-old desegregation controversy in San Francisco agreed in a recent voluntary settlement, is becoming an integral part of elementary and secondary education—and one in which poorer students are usually left behind.

The December agreement of the two sides and the judge presiding over the case to create a special school for computer training underscored the position of a growing number of educators that access to computers and computer training is further separating education's "haves" from its "have-nots." And some note that the widespread use of the new technology is such a profound development that the inequities could threaten the basic value of free access to public education.

"We're training an elite set of people," said Carolyn Marvin, assistant professor of communication at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "Power is the information available to you. A whole array of information is not available [to those denied computer literacy]."

Although the San Francisco settlement marks the first time that access to computers has been part of a legal move to redress inequities in education, some educators said that, given the inequities of computer use in schools, the legal attention was inevitable and is likely to increase in the years ahead.

Survey Results

Surveys show that in the number of computers available and the way they are used, students in less affluent schools receive less sophisticated instruction than students in more affluent schools.

Forty-four percent of the schools in which fewer than 5 percent of the students came from families below the poverty level have computers, an October 1982 survey by Market Data Retrieval found. Only 18.3 percent of the schools with more than 25 percent of students from lower-income families had computers.

Another survey, conducted last year by California's education department, showed that students in the poorer districts who do use computers are still not exposed to the "higher order" skills that will be necessary to compete in an increasingly service-oriented economy.

The state classified schoolchildren by their parents' occupations, with professional occupations given a rating of 3, skilled workers, 2, and unskilled workers, 1.

The average occupational rating for the parents of students in computer-assisted programs was 2.19. The rating for students learning "computer literacy" was 2.32.

The same trend appeared in breakdowns of subjects studied with the computer. The ratings for students using computers for simulation and games, programming, and creative applications were 2.28, 2.35, and 2.40, respectively. The ratings for reading, vocabulary, and mathematics drills were 2.08, 2.12, and 2.16, respectively.

'Probably' Same Nationwide

Arthur Luehrmann, a partner with Computer Literacy Inc., a research firm, said that those figures are "probably"the same nationwide.

A survey for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has found that schools in the Southeast offer significantly fewer classes involving computers. For example, 23 percent of a national sample of 13-year-olds said they had used a computer in school, compared with 12 percent in the southeast.

The 1981-82 NAEP survey, which will be released this April, found fewer disparities in computer use by race and sex.

If the gap is not narrowed, Ms. Marvin of the Annenberg School suggested, students from low-income backgrounds will be powerless to move beyond the unskilled computer jobs. "They're going to end up being the airline reservationists," she said. "That's not very powerful."

Home computers are widening the gap, educators point out. "Access has come primarily through home computers," said Joyce Hakannson, the president of Joyce Hakannson Associates, a software manufacturing company. "That threatens to create a much larger gap" between those whose families have home computers and those whose families do not.

Although there are no nationwide statistics correlating income with home-computer purchases, market analysts say the professional groups tend to buy machines sooner than others—and use them for more educational purposes.

Training Is a Top Concern

Even when computers are available, ensuring that they will be used "wisely" is a difficult problem, according to computer experts and educators. And the problem is apparently a human rather than a technical one.

"The equipment problem is diminishing, because the price of computers is going down 50 percent every two years," said Mr. Luehrmann of Computer Literacy. "The cost of a computer lab for each school would add one-half of one percent to the school budget over five years."

Marc S. Tucker, a former National Institute of Education policy director who is conducting a 20-month study of computers in education for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, added that computers that sell for as little as $100 might be appropriate for some school uses.

But without proper teacher training, the computers will do little to prepare students for many of the jobs that will be available in coming decades, he said.

Joan F. Targ, the president of Interactive Sciences Inc., a private computer-training firm, said that only a nationwide effort would give the poorer schools the teachers they need to use computers wisely.

"The poor schools will have a tough time getting at a small pool [of qualified teachers]," Ms. Targ said. Most of them "are using the drill-and-practice programs—going in for 10 minutes a day for what they're having problems with."

"The aide in there doesn't know anything about computers except how to load a floppy disk into the machine."

Such a situation is common, Ms. Targ said, suggesting another problem: the possibility that many poorer schools will use the computer as much to cut costs as to improve instruction.

"It's a way of economizing," she said. "By hiring an aide to run the computer center, you don't have to have as many teachers."

An "extreme" example, she said, is a San Jose high school's use of video games during lunch periods—which serves as an incentive for students to attend school and thereby increases state aid.

Training Proposed

Government-subsidized programs, most educators said, are necessary to ensure that teachers from all levels can be reached with the training needed to narrow the gap.

One teacher for every school building can be trained relatively inexpensively, suggested Ms. Targ. "One person from every school could be trained for a total of $1.5 million in California," she said. "If districts, especially the poorer ones, could be given scholarships for this, it would go a long way."

"If you can find a teacher who ... can believe that for the students to qualify for jobs they need a real knowledge of computers," agreed Mr. Luehrmann of Computer Literacy, "that will be a good start."

Computertown U.S.A., a California computer education firm, has set up 200 "libraries" nationwide to give everyday computer access to less affluent areas. It is, said one official at the firm, "simply a place where people can go to find out more."

Unequal School Funding

Whatever government training programs are enacted, contended Ms. Marvin of the Annenberg School, will not be enough until the larger problem of unequal school funding is addressed.

"There's already a large group out there that can't read or write, and you have to deal with that first," she said.

"You can't simply superimpose the computer and not deal with problems like teacher quality, physical plant, and the academic programs."

Affluent and disadvantaged students need equal access to computers, educators say.

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