Published Online: February 23, 2000
Published in Print: February 23, 2000, as Is Spending Money on Technology Worth It?

Commentary

Is Spending Money on Technology Worth It?

The need for "technological literacy" has become a myth that hides one unvarnished fact: To get a high-paying job in today's economy one needs a college degree.

Count the reasons for continuing investments of money in building a "hard" infrastructure of wiring, servers, and new multimedia machines and a "soft" infrastructure of technical support and professional development. Each reason for spending money has so little evidence to support the investment that it is like buying dot-com stocks that lose money year after year. It is, as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan once said about the stock market, "an irrational exuberance." What are the reasons for investing in technology in schools? Let's review.

Reason: Making computers available to teachers and students will lead to the integration of technology with curriculum and instruction.

Evidence: Most teachers at all levels remain occasional users or nonusers. Those who are regular users seldom integrate the machines with core curricular or instructional tasks.

Reason: Students using computers will improve their academic achievement.

Evidence: Certain computer-assisted instructional software for particular basic skills, applied to narrowly prescribed tasks, can raise test scores over a period of time. Beyond such narrowly conceived uses, there is no clear, commanding body of evidence that students' sustained use of multimedia machines, word processing, spreadsheets, and other popular applications has any impact on academic achievement.

The record is, in fact, slim in justifying major expenditures for both "hard" and "soft" infrastructures. But there is yet another major reason that U.S. presidents, governors, and corporate leaders offer for buying more machines, software, technical support, and professional development. It is that reason, largely unexamined, to which I now turn.

"Plenty of jobs to fill, too few skilled workers" is the way one newspaper headline put it. To get a high-paying job, a graduate of high school or college must be "technologically literate." Although parents, educators, and corporate executives are united in this belief, few ever pin down exactly what the phrase means. The need for "technological literacy" has become a myth that hides one unvarnished fact: To get a high-paying job in today's economy one needs a college degree.

What parents and educators have to provide children is the wherewithal to acquire the necessary credentials.

The myth masks three unadvertised truths that dominate the job market across the country. First, few employers of nontechnical staffs demand that applicants be equipped with computer-related skills. A quick scan of newspaper help-wanted ads reveals that some ads do, indeed, ask for specific expertise in computer applications, but the overwhelming majority do not.

Listen to what employers do ask of educators and parents in what they say they want in new hires for entry-level jobs. They say, again and again, that what they look for in recent high school and college graduates are employees who can be trusted, who care about the work they do, who finish tasks, are self-starters, show initiative, can define problems, are able to write and think clearly, and who work cooperatively in teams. Not a word here about how to use databases, manage spread sheets, or do Power Point presentations. Employers know that skills in using particular software have little to do with these generic traits and skills.

A second unadvertised truth is that most high-paying jobs are now white-collar or in the so-called "office economy." Engineers, managers, marketing personnel, administrative assistants, sales representatives, insurance agents, teachers, police officers, realtors, accountants, and similar positions now dominate the U.S. economy. Such jobs employ 41 percent of all workers, pay high salaries, and are growing the fastest. They employ over one-half of all college graduates and pay 50 percent of all earnings. What gets graduates a crack at these jobs is not experience with Windows or Microsoft Office but a college degree.

What high school graduates need is not more time in front of a computer screen, but another degree at a community college or university. It is the credential that has cash value, not technological expertise. The high school diploma and college degree signal employers that job-seekers have minimum broad-based traits and skills necessary to do the work.

The final truth, known to employers, is that anyone who wants to learn how to operate computers and the most recent business applications—I do not refer to programming or similar advanced specialties—can acquire those skills on the job or in a few weeks at most. Many employers run their own, in-house quickie courses for employees to gain essential and advanced expertise. School districts, community colleges, and for-profit companies offer daylong or weeklong sessions to teach software applications.

So what parents and educators have to provide children is the wherewithal to acquire the necessary credentials. These are the tickets that need to be punched for high- paying jobs.


If employers really want generic skills, and if most skills in maneuvering software applications can be quickly picked up by adults, why spend so much money on wiring schools and buying hardware and software? With so little evidence that major expenditures for equipment and networking have a payoff in higher test scores, better teaching, or faster learning, the question should be a wake-up pinch for cheerleading corporate executives and parents. What should pain educators whose scarce dollars are being allocated for technology is the stark reality that the hardware and software schools currently use is already obsolete in most businesses.

What high school graduates need is not more time in front of a computer screen, but another degree at a community college or university. It is the credential that has cash value, not technological expertise.

Perhaps a better question to ask is this: What will help children, especially those who are labeled "at risk" in schools, gain the necessary skills and knowledge to earn those highly important credentials? When this question is asked, a coalition of researchers, corporate leaders, and public officials already has a list of answers. Major investments must be made over a sustained period of time on expanding preschool and adult-literacy education, reducing class size, and securing a certified, well-paid teaching corps. Not only do these investments have strong evidence that they produce more high school graduates who continue their education, they also help those children vulnerable to academic failure.

Spending billions of dollars to equip children with obsolete software applications may be momentarily popular with educators, anxious parents, and eager vendors, but it has precious little to do with helping children get that highly desired edge in future job markets or, as graduates, to contribute to their communities.

Given the reasons for current expenditures in technology and the paltry evidence supporting these reasons, it is time to ask again whether the dollars spent are worth it. And, if not, we should spend the money on policies that do matter in the lives of children.


Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

Vol. 19, Issue 24, Page 42

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