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Published Online: March 22, 2007
Published in Print: March 29, 2007, as A Digital Decade

A Digital Decade

Technology Counts looks back, and ahead, after 10 eventful years.

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In introducing the inaugural Technology Counts report 10 years ago, the editors explained why the need for special reporting on the state of school technology was more important than ever.

“Billions of dollars are being spent each year in an effort to prepare schools and students for tomorrow’s technological demands and challenges,” we wrote. “And the fast-changing landscape of educational technology only complicates the task for policymakers and administrators who seek to make ‘smart’ decisions about how to proceed.”

A decade later, the task of making sense of that fast-changing landscape remains just as complicated. We hope that by stepping back to take stock of how the terrain has changed—and how it is likely to do so in the future—Technology Counts 2007 can help make the challenge a little less daunting.

When this annual report began, a major focus of policymaking was equipping schools for access to what was still being called “the information superhighway.” Use of the World Wide Web was taking off, and grassroots “electronic barn raisings” to wire schools for the Internet were being held around the country.

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But fears ran high that America’s schools—particularly disadvantaged ones on the wrong side of the “digital divide”—were being left behind. Partly in response, the federal government had just created the “education rate,” or E-rate, a program of telecommunications discounts that provided more aid to disadvantaged schools and furnished billions of dollars to help get schools of all stripes up to speed.

In the first Technology Counts, we reported that fewer than two-thirds of U.S. public schools had Internet access, and just 14 percent of those schools had connections on computers located in classrooms. Today, nearly all schools can get online, and the percentage of instructional computers with high-speed access hovers around 95 percent.

Interactive Timeline

As that access has exploded, the use that students and educators are making of digital technology has moved in new directions.

Students are taking more tests on computers. And educators are making ever-greater use of digital data on student achievement—principally standardized-test scores, but also other student work organized in digital portfolios—to make decisions about instruction. Much of that data analysis is being driven by test-based accountability, but not all.

Internet Access in Schools

Internet access in classrooms across the country has increased dramatically over the past decade. High-income schools, or those in which fewer than 35 percent of students are eligible for federally subsidized meals, got off to a faster start than low-income schools, in which three-quarters or more of the students are eligible. But the gap has narrowed greatly in recent years.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Digital cameras and videorecorders, coupled with photo-sharing and moviemaking software, are putting new, easier-to-use means of expression into students’ and educators’ hands.

Interactive software applications such as blogs, podcasts, and social-networking sites are letting students and teachers easily post their own writings and multimedia presentations on the Web. Digital whiteboards and liquid-crystal-display projectors are giving some classrooms a high-tech feel once reserved for corporate boardrooms.

Virtual education, in its infancy a decade ago, is going mainstream. Hundreds of thousands of students go online for some or all of their courses—a trend that is opening up opportunities, such as Advanced Placement classes, that would otherwise be unavailable. Teachers, for their part, are turning to the Web for professional development.

From Connectivity to Creativity

Yet for all the advances, much evidence suggests that schools are a long way from leveraging technology’s potential.

In its annual survey of the states for Technology Counts, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center now finds that, unlike 10 years ago, most states have technology standards for students and educators, for example. But few states test to see if those standards are being met, so the degree to which schools are reaching them is unknown.

Anecdotal evidence and research suggest that teachers’ integration of digital tools into instruction is sporadic. Many young people’s reliance on digital technology in their outside lives stands in sharp contrast to their limited use of it in school.

Large gaps, though, have emerged in students’ use of computers at home based on their demographic backgrounds. So while disadvantaged students now have nearly as broad access to computers in schools as their more advantaged peers, at home they typically have much less.

Research on technology’s effectiveness, meanwhile, remains a thin gruel for educators in the trenches. The support for research into innovative means of using technology to promote learning is decried by some experts as insufficient, too.

Amid fears that U.S. prospects in the global economy may be dimming, the mathematical, scientific, and technological skills of young Americans have become a leading concern of policy leaders nationally.

For many educators, 21st-century digital literacy must hinge not on the superficial fluency with technology that many students exhibit in their off hours, but on proficiency in such skills as effectively sifting through a glut of electronic information and producing creative work that will be valued highly in the global marketplace.

Whether schools are on the right track in equipping students with those more sophisticated skills remains an open question.

Technology Counts has chronicled changes in educational technology policy and practice during a time of enormous upheaval in the telecommunications landscape, marked most notably by the explosion of the Web.

Fittingly, then, we have come to rely more on the Web to disseminate this report.

This year, for the second time, the state-by-state technology reports that once made up roughly half the print Technology Counts are being published exclusively online.

—THE EDITORS

Vol. 26, Issue 30, Pages 8-9

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