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Special Report

North America

By Sean Cavanagh — May 06, 2004 8 min read
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Faced with a divergent set of economic and geographic circumstances and academic goals, North American countries are at fundamentally different stages in their efforts to improve their education systems through technology.

On a continent encompassing sprawling urban school systems and others reachable only by plane, some government initiatives—particularly in Mexico and Canada— have focused on closing the vast distance between communities, which bedevil administrators’ efforts to provide students with basic coursework and services.

Yet in an age when many students can shift effortlessly between handheld wireless devices and instant-messaging systems, other education officials, in the United States particularly, are searching for better ways to judge the effectiveness of their wide array of resources.

Those contrasting goals reflect the educational needs of those countries.

In Mexico, for instance, officials estimate that only 10 percent of the nation’s primary schools have computers. That picture could change dramatically in the years to come. Mexico’s Ministry of Education is launching a $1 billion, nationwide effort known as Enciclomedia to bring computers with education software to every primary school classroom by 2005.

“We’ve never had as big an investment in education as Enciclomedia,” says Lorenzo Gomez-Morin Fuentes, the vice minister of basic and normal education for the Ministry of Education. “This will close the gap for everyone . . . to access technology in an orderly manner.”

In Canada, where provincial governments set their own education policies, several large-scale efforts to link schools across vast distances have been completed or are underway. One such project is Alberta’s SuperNet, an ongoing initiative to connect all schools, government offices, libraries, hospitals and other facilities through fiber-optic and wireless links.

In the United States, where state and local elected officials assume most of the responsibility for technology decisions, much of the computer and Internet boom took place in the 1990s. In 1994, 3 percent of the nation’s public school classrooms were connected to the Web; today, 92 percent are, according to federal statistics.

Many educators and policymakers in the United States now see a re-examination of technology’s place, with public demands for proof of computer systems’ cost-effectiveness and ability to drive academic improvements.

“I get calls all the time from people who say, ‘Can you help me prove our technology is effective?’” says Saul Rockman, who leads a San Francisco-based technology consulting firm that works with public and private entities.

Educators in the United States, he says, should allow for flexibility in exploring technology resources. Too often, he says, “we keep looking for a silver bullet.”

U.S. Focuses on Impact

In the United States, the emphasis on judging technology programs’ effectiveness has evolved over time, but it has gained new momentum under the current Bush administration, many observers say.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, best known for setting mandates for school improvement and teacher-quality standards, establishes a goal that all 8th graders will be technology-proficient by 2005.

The law also calls for a revision of the national technology plan, the third such rewriting of that document since 1996. The plan is intended to set a nationwide strategic direction for technology’s place in schools, and administration officials—who are gathering input from K-12 and college educators, business officials, students, and others before revising that blueprint—predict the new strategy will underscore the goals of the federal education law.

“We’ve invested quite a bit of funding as a nation in education [on] technology,” says Susan D. Patrick, the U.S. Department of Education’s technology director. “We need to start asking questions: For the investment we’ve made, where are the examples of student achievement?”

Others say the No Child Left Behind law’s overall emphasis on testing could hamper the way schools think about technology. “I fear [the technology standard] will become yet another test that’s very narrow in scope,” says Linda Roberts, who served as the department’s director of education technology in the Clinton administration. “Technology is a skill that grows over time.”

Others say that economic troubles, coupled with the pressure states face under the No Child Left Behind Act’s academic mandates, have undermined some technology efforts in recent years.

“Four or five years ago, [technology] was near the top” of priorities, says Don Knezek, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit organization based in Washington and Eugene, Ore., that advocates for school improvements through technology. “It’s fallen since then.”

At the same time, experts say the potential of technology to help states and districts meet federal mandates, particularly in teacher quality and academic progress, could prompt school leaders to seek it out. “All of those things scream for technology,” Knezek argues.

Mexico’s Plans, Central America’s Status

By most standards, Mexico lags behind the United States and Canada in access to basic technology. But Mexican and international observers predict the nation is likely to see a vast expansion of technological resources in its schools in the years ahead.

For years, the primary tool of technology in Mexican schools was television, through the Telesecundaria program. Launched more than three decades ago, Telesecundaria allowed students in schools across the country, particularly in isolated regions, to get access to education programs and other services via satellite broadcasts.

“Telesecundaria solved the problem of getting that material to schools without [having to hire] new teachers,” says Gustavo Flores, the coordinator for special projects and technology for the Latin American Educational Communications Institute in Tlalpan, Mexico.

Enciclomedia represents a fundamental shift in Mexico’s strategy, Flores says. National officials seek to install a computer in every classroom in all of the nation’s primary schools—more than 100,000 in all—by 2005. Those computers will be equipped with education programs, with some lessons available with video and audio. Teachers can build lesson plans around those programs.

The project will cost an estimated $1 billion in U.S. dollars, and installations will begin later this year, GomezMorin Fuentes of the Ministry of Education, says. For now, there are no definite plans to install the Internet in all those classrooms (only about 5 percent of all Mexican schools have Web access now, he notes), though that is a long-term goal.

In Central America, there was heavy reliance for decades on radio as a cost-effective educational tool for reaching remote, impoverished areas. In recent years, international governmental entities and non-governmental organizations have launched projects to help rural and indigenous populations use technology. Central American governments, meanwhile, have tended to focus technology efforts more on secondary than primary grades.

A notable exception is Costa Rica, long regarded as a pioneer in Central America in technology development. In the late 1980s, the nation began far-reaching efforts to introduce computer labs in rural and poor schools, focusing on younger students first. That effort was driven by the San Jose, Costa Rica-based Omar Dengo Foundation, an influential nonprofit educational and economic development organization, along with the national government.

Today, that national effort also gives teachers training on innovative ways to use technology and plan lessons for students. About 1.5 million Costa Rican students, teachers, and others have participated to date, the foundation says.

“When we began, everybody thought we were halfcrazed—it was very ambitious,” says Clotilde Fonseca, the foundation’s executive director. “But it ended up being successful ... we were able to generate learning environments.”

Canada: ‘A Fast Way’

Canadian schools have been coping with daunting geographic distances, and using technology to overcome those obstacles, for years.

In Alberta, about 80 percent of the province’s 3 million residents live in Calgary and Edmonton. Provincial leaders hope the SuperNet will help them reach the other 20 percent, scattered over 250,000 square miles.

The SuperNet is a partnership between Alberta’s government, which is investing $193 million Canadian in the project, and private entities to connect schools with a vast range of government offices and services, through highspeed Internet access.

Provincial leaders say the project will allow teachers and students in all schools, even remote ones, to have near-instant access to a vast pool of coursework, curricular materials, and research. The Alberta government will pay all basic installation costs, though school districts must pay for enhanced services. Fiber-optic construction has already been completed between some remote communities, and between Edmonton and Calgary.

“You have to give the same opportunities to all communities, whether it’s a rural area or urban community,” says Lyle Oberg, Alberta’s minister of learning. “The SuperNet is just a conduit, a fast way to get the things that you need.”

Elsewhere in Canada, the New Brunswick province and the Yukon Territory already have established Internet programs spanning their entire school systems. New Brunswick offers 35 online courses to high school students, as well as Internet-based training for teachers, with some programs in English, and others in French.

In 2001, Yukon officials completed Connect Yukon, a $13.9 million (in U.S. dollars) project to install fiber-optic wiring. Those connections now reach all 28 territorial schools. Previously, schools located a day’s drive from the capital of Whitehorse had only dial-up connections; officials across the 5,500-student system had to put up with long waits to tap into the Internet.

With the technology in place, “we want to stop talking about boxes and wires,” says JoAnn C. Davidson, Yukon’s coordinator of technology-assisted learning, “and start talking about content and learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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