Special Report

Raising the Bar On School Technology

By Craig D. Jerald & Greg F. Orlofsky — September 23, 1999 10 min read

Americans continue to invest heavily in technology for schools. And with more and more research showing that technology can pay dividends in student learning, the investment would seem to be a good one.

But the most recent data on school technology shows that the payoff will not be automatic. In fact, much remains to be done if schools are to become places where computers are integrated into the curriculum and used in sophisticated ways.

The numbers show that, too often, schools must rely on technology that is out of date and inequitably distributed. Too many teachers still lack the training and confidence to infuse computers into their teaching. And some teachers who are using technology may not use it to its fullest advantage.

Out With the Old

By the time America’s children began their summer vacations this year, the number of students for every instructional computer in U.S. schools had dipped below six for the first time. And the proportion of classrooms wired to the Internet had climbed above half, with the federal government confidently predicting that virtually all classrooms will be wired by next year.

Yet, these benchmarks are greeted with little fanfare among advocates of education technology.

“The goal of having a ratio of four to five students per computer is fine,” says Lewis Solmon, a senior vice president and scholar at the Milken Family Foundation, which underwrites Technology Counts ‘99. “But we have to be more specific about the types of computers we want kids to use. We need to look at whether they have access to multimedia computers that are connected to the Internet.”

The latest data suggest that schools are heeding the call for more powerful, versatile computers. According to Market Data Retrieval, a Shelton, Conn.-based research firm, the number of students per multimedia computer dropped from 21.2 in 1997 to 9.8 this year. And the number of students per Internet-connected computer dropped from 19.7 last year to 13.6 in 1999.

“We see it in the inventory numbers,” says Kathleen Brantley, MDR’s K-12 school specialist. “When you look at brand share and at processor types, the older machines are going by the wayside, and the new machines making up more of the base.”

She adds that schools are feeling pressure to wire classrooms to the Internet: “That also puts pressure on schools to get rid of out-of-date machines.”

Even so, many schools have a long way to go if they are to provide something akin to the kind of technology found in America’s office buildings. Nineteen percent of instructional computers in schools are models that were new when the decade began, such as Apple lIs and PCs with 386 or slower processors. At the same time, computers using the newest technologies, including Power Macs and PC models with Pentium processors, represent fewer than half of instructional computers in public schools.

And while about half the nation’s Internet-connected schools now report having powerful T1 lines or cable modems, about a third still rely on slower and more cumbersome dial-up connections.

But those numbers can also vary widely from state to state. For example, while 94 percent of Delaware’s schools have a T1 connection to the Internet, only 18 percent of Rhode Island’s schools have such a pipeline.

The equity picture has also become more complicated. Remarkably, the number of students per instructional computer is now just as low in poor schools as in more affluent ones.

But when it comes to computers that are connected to the Internet, inequities reappear. The poorest of schools have an average of one Internet-connected computer for every 17 students, while the wealthiest provide one for every 10 students.

The digital divide is even more pronounced in students’ homes. Only 20 percent of students whose households earn less than $30,000 a year use a computer at home, compared with 80 percent of students whose households earn $75,000 or more.

So how much technology should schools provide to teachers and students? No one seems to agree on a single goal at this point. And with advances in technology occurring at a faster clip than ever, such a goal would never stay put for very long anyway.

Most experts do agree that access to technology still creates barriers for too many schools.

According to Linda G. Roberts, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of technology: “We have to finish what we started in providing access to technology. Nobody would ever think to share a single textbook among 30 students, and we still have classrooms where we’re lucky if there’s more than a single computer in the classroom.”

Below Full Capacity

Only 20 percent of teachers feel “very well prepared” to integrate technology into their teaching, according to a survey conducted by the Department of Education last year. In fact, teachers feel less prepared to integrate technology into their teaching than to handle many other professional demands, such as incorporating new academic standards or assessment techniques.

That could spell trouble for school officials who hope to use technology to boost achievement.

Indeed, last year’s Technology Counts reported that training had a major impact on whether teachers used computers in ways that helped to increase students’ math performance.

And a new survey conducted by Education Week this past spring shows that teachers who received more technology training over the past year are more likely to use software and Web sites for instruction. In addition, they feel more prepared to integrate such “digital content” into their classroom lessons and rely on it to a greater extent.

Increasingly, policymakers are focusing more attention on issues related to teacher training and support. But is there enough training? And is it the right kind?

According to the Education Week survey, teachers are more likely to feel better prepared to use technology in their classrooms if they receive curriculum-integration training than if they receive basic-skills training. And the biggest benefits have come to teachers who had both kinds of training last year, among whom 37 percent report feeling “much better prepared” and 54 percent report feeling “somewhat better prepared” than they did a year ago.

The good news? Education Week’s survey shows that the majority of teachers (57 percent) received both kinds of technology training. In fact, fewer than a quarter of teachers received no training at all in technology last year.

The bad news? Only 42 percent of teachers had more than five hours of training in basic technology skills last year, and only 29 percent had that much technology training focused on curriculum integration.

As the updates beginning on page 70 make clear, state policymakers are struggling to make sure teachers have enough of the right kind of training.

Tim Best, the director of programs for the Ohio SchoolNet Commission, thinks states need to target different kinds of training to teachers at different skill levels, and to provide that training using a variety of methods. “The key is to have a common framework for competency,” he says. “In Ohio, we have developed a four-part matrix that identifies the skills and the capacities you need, from novice to expert.”

But even the most competent teacher cannot tackle the technology challenge alone. As businesses discovered long ago, workers trained in technology need expert support to help them over the rough patches. And new data suggest the nation’s schools have yet to take that lesson to heart.

The proportion of schools with a full-time technology coordinator increased only one percentage point from 1996 to 1998, to 30 percent. An additional 10 percent have part-time coordinators. The rest rely on teachers or other volunteers, district staff, or outside consultants.

The level of support is actually getting worse in poor schools. Only 19 percent of schools where more than 70 percent of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program reported having a full-time coordinator, down seven percentage points from two years ago.

A Lack of Sophistication?

According to Market Data Retrieval, the percentage of teachers using technology on the job grew by an astounding amount last year. For example, the percentage of schools where the majority of teachers have school-based e-mail grew from 39 percent to 65 percent.

The percentage of schools where the majority of teachers use the Internet for instruction grew from 33 percent to 54 percent, and the proportion of schools where the majority make daily use of computers for planning or teaching grew from 47 percent to 69 percent.

However, new data from a national study known as Teaching, Learning, and Computing suggest that teachers might not be using classroom computers to their fullest advantage.

Even in secondary science classes, the numbers suggest that teachers are using computers more often for writing than for “doing science.” For example. 41 percent of secondary science teachers used word-processing software in at least three lessons in one year. But only 22 percent used software related to “simulations/exploratory environments” that many times. And just 17 percent incorporated spread sheet or database software that often.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine and the University of Minnesota, also found that teachers are more likely to cite “finding out about ideas and information” and “expressing in writing” as goals for student computer use than to cite more ambitious objectives such as “mastering skills” and “analyzing information.”

Such numbers cause some experts to worry that teacher are using computers as little more than digital typewriters and encyclopedias.

Larry Cuban. a professor of education at Stanford University, writes in a recent commentary published in Education Week: “When the type of classroom use is examined, we find that these powerful technologies end up being used most often for word processing and low-end applications. And this is after a decade of increases in access to computers, Internet capability, and purchases of software.”

But other experts disagree that the picture is that bleak. In fact, Henry J. Becker, a professor at UC-Irvine and a co-director of the Teaching, Learning, and Computing study, cautions that his statistics don’t paint as simple a picture as they might first suggest. “There’s a glass-half-empty-and-half-full issue here,” Becker says.

For instance, Becker believes that word processing, which now rivals or exceeds the use of computers for drill-and-practice exercises in many grades, cannot automatically be considered a low-level use of computers. “Word processing can be an incredible tool for focusing thought,” he adds. “The fact that word-processing software allows students to rewrite and edit as they go should cause it to be considered a higher-order activity” in some cases.

Becker also believes the opposite can sometimes be said for applications many observers automatically think of as intellectually sophisticated. “It is possible for teachers who don’t have a sophisticated view of what kids can accomplish using simulation software to use it as a reward or diversion for students,” he notes.

Roberts of the Education Department thinks the issue has more to do with whether the technology is integrated into the curriculum. “I think the real challenge now is to connect technology more substantively to the content itself, to the very concept in particular area of the curriculum.”

For that to happen, Robert says, “content experts have to become key players in whether or not teachers deepen and broaden their use of technology in teaching.”

In the end, all of these issues--whether students and teachers have adequate access to technology, whether schools have the capacity to use it well, and whether they are making good use of it-present big obstacles for schools that want to use technology effectively. Which issue is the biggest, and which should be addressed first? Even these questions have no easy answers.

For instance, in a new study by the Education Department, the answer depends on whether you ask teachers or school administrators. Teachers were most likely to cite an “insufficient number of computers” as a barrier to effective use of technology.

Principals, on the other hand, were most likely to cite “insufficient teacher understanding of ways to integrate technology into the curriculum,” followed closely by “lack of software that is integrated with the school’s curriculum.”

The best answer seems to be that no one area can be ignored. As Maureen Hance, who monitors school technology statistics for MDR, puts it, “It all has to work in concert, or it’s not going to fly.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1999 edition of Education Week