Third of Students, Fourth of Teachers Have Access to Computers
A significant number of U.S. schools have entered the "second phase of their computer history," with enough machines for effective classroom instruction and teachers more willing to use them for more than programming or basic-skills tutoring, according to a new national survey.
Henry Jay Becker, director of the "Second National Survey of Instructional Uses of School Computers" and a sociologist with the Center for Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University, said a preliminary analysis of survey data indicates that one-third of the nation's students and one-fourth of its teachers now have access to a total of some one million school computers.
Moreover, said Mr. Becker, teachers' views on the usefulness of computers have begun to change.
"A majority of elementary schools still see the tutoring of basic skills, or drill-and-practice, as the best way to use computers," Mr. Becker said, "and a majority of secondary schools see learning about computers, or computer literacy and programming, as the best use of school computers."
But the findings suggest, he added, that as teachers gain more classroom experience with the computer, their perception of its role in instruction broadens. Since the first national survey two years ago, he said, there has been a tripling in the number of teachers who report that their familiarity with the machine has made them view it as "most useful" for applications such as word-processing and the storage, organization, and manipulation of information.
According to the survey, conducted this year from January to June, slightly more than half of the nation's elementary schools now have five or more computers and 12 percent have 15 or more. Half of the secondary schools have 15 or more computers.
In 1983, when the first survey of computer use in schools was conducted, the median number of computers in U.S. schools was four.
In all, Mr. Becker concluded, "24,000, or one-quarter of the U.S. schools, have enough computers to serve between a half and one full classroom of students at one time."
While acknowledging that "serving one classroom of students in a school that has several hundred students may not seem like much of an accomplishment," Mr. Becker said that "two years ago countless schools were trying to figure out how to serve a classroom--or even an entire school--with a single microcomputer."
Only 6 percent of U.S. schools now find themselves in that predicament, he said. Another 12 percent, however, have no computers at all.
For the majority of U.S. schools, where computer acquisition is on the rise, more machines has meant expanding possibilities for effective use.
Having 15 computers available, said Mr. Becker, "means that a typical classroom can have half the kids working independently at a computer and half getting instruction by the teacher or all working in pairs at the computers."
"It now makes organizational sense for schools to work with microcomputers," he concluded.
The reported findings are based on a preliminary analysis of data drawn from two-thirds of the schools selected for the survey, which was funded by the National Institute of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics.
The survey data, Mr. Becker said, are based on a representative sample of 2,336 public and nonpublic schools. Data were collected from principals and up to six teachers at each school, including one teacher designated by the principal as the primary computer-using teacher, four other teachers who use computers, and one who does not.
Mr. Becker presented initial findings from the survey this summer at the World Conference on Computers in Education in Norfolk, Va. A more detailed analysis of the results, he said, will be issued in several reports throughout the next year.
"The large part of me that loves computers is overjoyed at the tremendous increase in computer-related activity in schools in the past two years," Mr. Becker said. "But the part of me concerned with the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of providing instruction to millions of young people is still somewhat skeptical about the meaning and consequence of all this activity."
More important than future studies on the numbers and uses of school computers, he told the Norfolk gathering, will be scientific experiments to determine their effectiveness.
In presenting his preliminary findings, Mr. Becker reiterated a concern noted in his first survey on microcomputer uses: that the effort going into obtaining computers, training teachers to use them, and providing access to them is outstripping the search for "an intellectual and empirical consensus for how computers are best used in formal group-instructional settings."
According to Mr. Becker, a preliminary analysis of the data from the second national survey shows that:
There are now a million computers in American elementary and secondary schools, being used by 15- million students and 500,000 teachers.
At the secondary level, the instructional uses of computers have broadened since 1983, and teachers in subject areas other than mathematics and computer programming have begun using computer technology at a more frequent rate.
Use is "clearly increasing" in business education and English for word processing, and in vocational education for drafting, electronics, and calculating programs.
Two-thirds of the secondary schools have at least three teachers regularly using computers; one-third have at least six. The figures are about the same at the elementary-school level.
The position of "computer coordinator" is still rare, "probably in use in well under 1 out of 10, or perhaps 1 out of 20 schools."
Teachers reported that the main obstacles to effective computer use, in order of significance, were: not enough computers; not enough time to develop computer-based activities; a lack of interest on the part of teachers in learning about computers; software too costly in the quantity needed; and not enough money for teacher training.
If they could position 15 computers within their school, teachers said they would prefer to put them in one laboratory as opposed to rotating them from room to room, dispersing them to as many classrooms as possible, or splitting them between a laboratory and several classrooms.
About 8 percent of the schools--or 1 out of 12--reported that large-scale, illegal copying of software had occurred "several times" or "often."
Most secondary schools that have computers have three or more printers. Eighty-one percent of the elementary schools with computers have only one printer; 15 percent have three or more.
The use of computers in telecommunications "hasn't gotten too far yet," said Mr. Becker, noting that it involves only "a quarter of the secondary schools and around 5 percent of the elementary schools."
About half of the survey respondents, he noted, reported an increase over the previous year in the number of days the machines were used and about half said idle days occurred infrequently or "never."
Only about 5 percent of the schools reported an increase in the number of days the computers were not in use.