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Many Governors Touting Technology As a Magic Bullet

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Technology fever is sweeping state capitals, and many governors seem to believe nothing is impossible in a classroom that has access to the Internet.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Gov. Tom Ridge has asked legislators to spend $121 million over the next three years to launch a distance-learning project called "Link to Learn" for every school in the state.

During his budget address to the legislature in February, Mr. Ridge quoted 5th-grader Erin O'Brien, who sent the governor an e-mail message saying that with access to the Internet "we could see things that otherwise would be impossible to bring into our classroom."

"I want Erin and her fellow students to see the impossible," Mr. Ridge said.

Some say that may be an impossible dream.

Collectively, the nation's governors have requested hundreds of millions of dollars in their budgets this year for initiatives to buy computers or install telecommunications networks in schools. The idea is that the use of such technology will almost surely lead to improved student achievement.

But observers of the education-technology scene believe that few of these requests are based on realistic plans for making technology useful in the classroom.

What is by and large missing from the governors' equations is money for providing long-range and ongoing professional development for teachers, buying and developing quality software, and ensuring technical support. Unless states are willing to invest in these areas, experts say, the latest binge-spending on computers and wiring will simply repeat the poorly planned experiments in educational computing in the 1980's.

"It seems to be a lot easier to buy 'stuff' than to support teachers," said Kathleen Fulton, who directed an authoritative study of teaching and technology for the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment. "I think that's true across the board in education. But the point is that, with technology, the whole concept of teacher professional development is a different one."

Later this month, the governors and top corporate executives will meet in Palisades, N.Y., for a high-powered discussion of what ails the nation's schools. They will focus on setting rigorous academic standards for public schools and on the promise of technology to help students meet those standards. (See Education Week, Feb. 14 and March 6, 1996.)

They would do well to reflect on Ms. Fulton's observation.

Pragmatism vs. Rhetoric

Organized by Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corp. in Armonk, N.Y., and Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, the March 26-27 summit is expected to take a hard-nosed look at best practices for applying technology to teaching and learning, issues of staff development, the use of technology to link school and home, and the ways that technology can streamline educational administration.

The technology programs on display will have been screened by an independent philanthropic organization to emphasize educational effectiveness.

But in contrast to the summit's pragmatic approach, observers say, the governors' recent speeches suggest that technology has become a kind of magic bullet for faltering schools. Political leaders seem eager to sell the public on the wonders of technology.

  • In Iowa, Gov. Terry E. Branstad is proposing to spend $150 million over four years to expand the educational use of a state-built fiber-optic communications network.
  • In South Carolina, Gov. David M. Beasley has asked for $20 million to pay for the development of computer networks for schools.
  • In Virginia, Gov. George F. Allen Jr. is proposing to spend $55 million to put an additional 10 computers in each of the state's schools.
  • In Minnesota, Gov. Arne Carlson has asked for $22 million to buy computers and other technologies.

At the national level, President Clinton has proposed spending $2 billion over the next five years on a matching-grant program that would help states pay for technology. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.) At the same time, the Republican majority in Congress, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a technology advocate, is bent on cutting federal education spending by as much as $3 billion.

"Technology is hot, that's all there is to it," said Geoffrey Fletcher, the associate education commissioner for curriculum and assessment in Texas. "And I do think it is a relatively easy sell. I think it is an easier sell, for example, than raising teacher salaries."

Not 'Either-Or'

But framing the debate over technology spending in terms of buying computers vs. raising teacher salaries--which is happening in Pennsylvania and perhaps other states--may be simplistic.

"With roughly $300 billion being spent on K-12 education nationally, and about 1.3 percent of that being spent on technology, it would be hard to come to the conclusion that that's where the support for education spending is," said Stanley Litow, the chairman of the IBM Foundation, which supports technology-related reform projects.

Teachers' unions, Mr. Fletcher suggested, should take advantage of the current legislative love affair with technology. They should make the case to lawmakers that if they believe in the value of technology to help students learn, they should ensure that money and time are available for teachers to learn how to use it effectively.

"If they can pitch it that way, 'Give us some technology, but give us some time to understand how to integrate it throughout the classroom,"' he added, "I think the public would be much more open to that."

What Research Shows

Complicating the issue of how much states should spend on technology is the fact that little is known about the effects of technology in the classroom.

Computers have only been in widespread use in schools for about 10 years. The few long-range studies have concluded that simply placing computers in a classroom may produce short-term academic gains, but little long-term improvement. Computers, the research suggests, are merely tools and, by themselves, are no more capable than pencils or overhead projectors of producing outstanding scholarship.

Moreover, a number of studies by independent researchers and technology companies--including a recent effort by the Washington-based Software Publishers Association to analyze a host of existing research--have shown that effective use of technology is inseparable from other factors that make for successful learning. Hardware and software are no substitute for good instructional design, the studies show.

Apple Computer Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., has extensively studied its decade-long Classrooms of Tomorrow project. One important finding of that research, said Cheryl Williams of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., is how long it takes for teachers to learn how to use technology to its fullest.

"Even with teachers who are highly motivated and who have access to state-of-the-art equipment, it still took five to six years to change their teaching behaviors," she said. "The issues are people issues."

An Ongoing Debate

One argument for heavy investment in classroom technology is that students should be exposed to technologies that are a growing part of modern life.

Mr. Litow of IBM, for example, said that students should be using tools in the classroom--from word processors to CD-ROM-based reference works to the global Internet computer network--that they will encounter after graduation.

"Education is probably the only industry that is still debating whether technology is a good idea," he said.

Yet, even technology advocates like Ms. Williams, who directs the NSBA's technology programs, concede that there is too little discussion of what technologies are expected to achieve, how to make them as user-friendly and reliable for teachers as possible, and which ones are most effective in addressing which problems.

Many teachers are likely to talk about telephones, photocopiers, and voice-mail, for example, when asked which technologies would most benefit them.

It's also true, Ms. Williams said, that some politicians and technology companies, as well as some educators, oversold the promise of technology, generating cynicism that is not justified. She recently argued with a journalist who asked her if computers had failed to live up to their promise.

"Well, what is the promise of computers?" Ms. Williams replied. "Computers are just tools to help teachers teach. In that case, would you say that textbooks have not lived up to their promise?"

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