Some states are taking more aggressive steps than others to improve technology use in schools.
From the prairie lands of the east to the black hills of the west, technology is the great equalizer among schools in South Dakota. spThanks to a multiyear initiative to use technology to help surmount the challenges often faced by the state’s small, rural schools, Advanced Placement courses were offered for the first time this spring—via the Internet—in 26 districts. An astonishing 110,000 Internet connections are available to a school population of only 130,000 students. And each summer, teachers throughout the state are invited to attend an intensive, monthlong program designed to help them integrate the state’s new high- tech tools into their lesson plans.
Many of South Dakota’s efforts to wire schools, establish online programming, and train teachers are similar to approaches that various other states have taken as they try to narrow the digital divide that separates the haves from the have-nots in educational technology. Still, when viewed collectively, state-by-state approaches to equalizing access to technological resources—and the results gained from those efforts—are far from uniform.
“We’ve made a lot of strides nationally in narrowing that gap,” says Norris E. Dickard, a senior associate at the Washington-based Benton Foundation, which tracks issues of equity in access to technology.
But, he adds, “the bottom line is that states are all over the board.”
States such as Delaware, Maine, Mississippi, and South Dakota have all made big commitments to the universal deployment of educational technology, says Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, based in Washington.
“It’s almost an inverse logic,” Krueger says. “Data show that some of the rural states are leaders in connectivity, and some of the bigger states are surprising in their absence” of Internet connections in schools.
According to Mississippi officials, for example, all of the state’s schools are now linked to the Internet and to one another through a statewide network that also connects them to state agencies, community colleges, and universities. The final school to be linked to the network was hooked up in December of last year.
“Rural states recognize how important [connecting to the Internet] is,” says Helen Soulé, the director of technology support and training in the Mississippi Department of Education. “It can be a lifeline for a community.”
States Vary on Access and Content
Of course, setting up the necessary infrastructure is only a part of the equation that enables students to have equitable in-school access to technology. Ensuring that schools have affordable access to telecommunications services, including the Internet, is another.
To that end, the states have played a more aggressive role in coordinating the federal E-rate program, says Arthur D. Sheekey, the coordinator of learning technologies for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.
“I’ve seen a direct correlation,” Sheekey says. “The states that have assumed a leadership role seem to have a higher participation in the E- rate program.”
In Mississippi, Soulé says, state efforts to negotiate uniform rates for all districts through the state’s primary telecommunications provider, BellSouth, has meant that rural districts are paying less than $500 a month for T1 lines that would otherwise likely cost between $1,200 and $2, 000 a month. Such lines allow for faster Internet service than telephone connections. “A T1 in Jackson and a T1 in Coffeeville cost the same amount ,” Soulé says. “So school districts are not punished for being farther away from the larger cities.”
As states report increasingly smaller student-to-computer ratios, many are also turning their attention to creating or offering computer- delivered academic programs or materials. Perhaps not coincidentally, says Sheekey, that development has dovetailed with the trend in states toward more high-stakes testing of students.
“You really have to extend that learning beyond school, because there often isn’t enough time during school hours,” he says. “It begins to raise implications for states’ seeing to it that the learning goes beyond the schools.”
In Florida, for example, the state has spent more than $16 million over the past three years to develop the Florida Online High School, an accredited diploma-granting institution that offers 56 courses. Roughly 5, 000 students—including some who are being schooled at home—are now taking at least one class through the high school; many come from rural areas and wouldn’t otherwise have access to Advanced Placement or other specialized courses the school provides online. “One of their major motivations for doing this was equity in access,” says William R. Thomas, the director of educational technology for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.
Thomas says he knows of very few states that aren’t working to provide students and schools with some form of computer-based academic programming, but that none has made a commitment on the scale of Florida’s.
“There’s Florida, and then there are 49 states,” Thomas says. Still, he notes, “the vast majority of states are in the process of addressing digital-divide issues, and this is one way they’re going about it.”
In Search of After-School Equity
As states strive to make online, anytime learning opportunities available to more students, many states have also had to consider that the digital divide they have worked to close during school hours is suddenly thrown open again when students go home.
According to a survey conducted in 1997 by the U.S. Department of Education, 80 percent of high school students from families with annual household incomes of at least $75,000 reported using a computer at home. For students from families with annual household incomes in the $10,000-to-$ 15,000 range, only 18 percent of students reported using a computer at home.
Ultimately, “we have almost bridged the digital divide in schools in terms of buildings and classrooms connected to the Internet,” says Dickard of the Benton Foundation. “The big divide comes when [students] walk out school doors.”
To that end, states are adopting a variety of approaches to try to give students more equal access to computers in the after-school hours. Lawmakers in Maine, for example, were considering this spring a proposal by Gov. Angus S. King Jr. to provide school-owned laptop computers to all 7th and 8th graders in the state. Other states, including Florida, Illinois, and Virginia, have committed resources to the development of after-school community computer labs that students can use if they don’t have computers at home.
The Illinois board of education, for example, has partnered with Powerup—a McLean, Va.-based organization devoted to bridging the digital divide—and a consortium of high-poverty school districts just south of Chicago to establish after-school computing centers in 45 schools. The state committed $1 million to the program this fiscal year.
“If we’re going to resolve this achievement gap between students of color and white students, and high-poverty and low-poverty students, we have to give them access to the same educational opportunities,” says Lugene Finley Jr., the chief technology officer for the Illinois state board. “ And technology does that. It can be an equalizer when you provide the tools.”
Michigan legislators, meanwhile, have made teachers the focus of some of their efforts to bridge the digital divide, committing $110 million last year to furnish each of the state’s roughly 90,000 full-time teachers with his or her own laptop or desktop computer. School districts themselves will either lease or own the computers and provide them to teachers as long-term loans.
Teachers and districts have to go through a basic application process to qualify for the program. The 176,000-student Detroit school system, for example, recently applied for—and will likely receive—computers for more than 6,000 of its teachers.
“The educators we’ve spoken to were at first in disbelief,” says Jamey T. Fitzpatrick, the vice president of development and education policy for the Michigan Virtual University, a nonprofit organization coordinating the computer-distribution program for the state. “For a number of them, this is giving them an opportunity to have something they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Across the Nation