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Survey Finds Gaps in U.S. Schools' Computer Use

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Although U.S. schools made early use of computers and continue to invest heavily in educational technology, the existing stock of machines is now largely outmoded and the use of computers as instructional tools "has not advanced very far across the curriculum,'' according to a new international assessment of precollegiate computer use.

While 99 percent of elementary and secondary schools in the United States report having access to computers--and more than 3.5 million machines have been installed in U.S. schools--the report concludes that "many of the 47 million students in American schools remain largely unaffected by the existing infrastructure.''

Moreover, the report says, "many teachers and students do not touch a computer more than once or twice a year, so the benefit of having access to them is inevitably minimal.''

Still, American public schools have a higher overall density of computers than the other four industrialized countries studied-- an overall ratio of one machine for every 13 students--and have achieved virtually race- and gender-neutral access to computers.

The report, "Computers in American Schools 1992: An Overview,'' compares computer availability and applications in the United States, Austria, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands.

While it points out some critical shortcomings in the effective use of technology by U.S. schools, the report also acknowledges that the task of keeping up with technological advances is daunting.

"The schools have never had such a demanding challenge before,'' the report says. "Never have they had to design curricula and train teachers for something that becomes obsolete so quickly.''

A Call for Standards

The report was scheduled to be released here this week by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The council is the U.S. representative in the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement, which coordinated the study.

A companion report, "Schools, Teachers, Students, and Computers: A Cross-National Perspective,'' was scheduled to be released simultaneously in The Hague.

That report discusses an international assessment that tested 69,000 students in grades 5, 8, and 11 in 2,500 schools on practical computer knowledge.

The American sample included 11,284 students and 573 schools.

In a statement, Tjeerd Plomp, a co-author of that report, cautioned that while it contains good examples of effective practices, its findings should not be used to make broad international comparisons.

He pointed out, for example, that comparing the student-tocomputer ratio in a country like Austria--which has a population of 7.5 million, roughly the size of New York City--with ratios in the United States and Japan would be extremely misleading.

Ronald E. Anderson, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of the U.S. study, said in an interview that there are, however, lessons to be learned by American educators from experiences abroad.

He noted, for example, that many European countries offer, and in some cases require, a course in basic computer skills.

In the United States, he said, "it's left up to the teachers in individual classes,'' which frequently means that students never progress beyond rote drills.

He suggested that developing national standards for computer skills could reverse that trend.

For information on obtaining "Computers in American Schools 1992,'' write or call the I.E.A. Computers in Education Study, 909 Social Sciences Building, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. 55455; (612) 624-3824.

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