Special Report

Student Survey Says:

By Kathryn M. Doherty — May 10, 2001 9 min read
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It seems educators may be making more progress in providing access to technology than in figuring out how to use it as a learning tool. At least that’s what middle and high school students are saying, according to a new Education Week/Market Data Retrieval/Harris Interactive poll.

Recent data from Market Data Retrieval show very high rates of technology penetration into the nation’s schools. School spending on technology reach ed almost $5.7 billion in 2000, and the student-to-computer ratio in U.S. schools is now under 5-to-1. But are computers being used to help youngsters learn?

For this year’s Technology Counts report, Education Week, in collaboration with Harris Interactive and Market Data Retrieval, conducted a poll of 500 students in grades 7-12 attending schools that participated in mdr’s 2000 national survey of school technology.

Survey responses and school data were linked to examine students’ opinions in the context of whether they attended schools categorized by mdr as high- or low-tech. The findings suggest that all of the nation’s schools—whether rich or poor in technological resources—need to focus more attention on how to use their existing technology effectively in the classroom.

For instance, the survey found that 92 percent of students said having good computer skills improves the quality of people’s lives “a great deal” or “somewhat,” but only 40 percent said that knowing about computers is “ extremely” or “very” important to how well they do in school.

Christy Judd, a 10th grader from Iverness, Fla., who responded to the survey, said in a follow-up interview that the tasks teachers ask students to do on computers aren’t that important and often don’t focus on what students are doing in class. Computers are simply used to cover “the basics,” she says. “They don’t really help us learn.”

The survey results, based on the opinions of students, most of whom have access to computers at school and home, also reveal that most of what students say they’ve learned about computers has occurred at home rather than at school. While that’s not necessarily a surprising finding, it’s one that raises concerns about whether students are using computers to learn or mostly just to send e-mail to friends, play computer games, or scan the Web for entertaining material.

What’s more, although educational technology researchers say computers are best placed in classrooms—rather than in special technology labs or libraries—the classroom is where students are least likely to report computer use, according to the survey.

Beyond that, the survey found, it seems that computers are not often used as tools to help students better understand sophisticated concepts or visualize something in a new or different way.

Some teachers, for example, may use 3-D graphics to help students visualize molecular structures or computer simulations to help them understand the physics of motion. Based on the perceptions of students in the survey, however, such teaching tactics appear relatively uncommon.

These findings wouldn’t come as a surprise to Larry Cuban, author of the forthcoming book, Oversold and Underused: Reforming Schools Through Technology 1980-2000. He argues that the use of computers for academic learning occupies less than 10 percent of teachers’ instructional time. And he suggests that only about 5 percent of teachers use computers imaginatively in their classrooms on a regular basis.

When it comes to providing students with access to technology, students in this survey gave their schools relatively good grades. Forty-four percent of the students gave their schools a grade of A for how available computers are in school, and 39 percent awarded B’s.

Overall, 94 percent of students reported that “all” or “most” of their school computers were in good working order, and 90 percent of the respondents reported that it is “always” or “usually” easy to find an available computer.

But while access to technology in schools has improved for American students overall, some experts have expressed concern that schools are giving high-achieving students more access to computers than other students.

Generally, though, students in the survey didn’t perceive favoritism or bias in who gets to use computers in their schools—87 percent said all students in their schools get equal chances to use computers. Only 12 percent of students felt as if certain groups or types of students—based on characteristics such as race, age, or ability—have more access.

However, 35 percent of students with access to computers in school said that teachers “often” or “sometimes” let students use computers as a reward for good behavior in class.

The survey also explored the issue of access to school computers after school hours. National data from mdr show that 93 percent of schools make computer equipment available to students outside normal school hours. However, the Education Week survey found that 69 percent of students said their schools allow them to use computers after school.

Only 4 percent of students said their schools would let students borrow computers to take home to do schoolwork.

Teacher Technology Use

Beyond access to computers is a more significant question for educators: How are computers used to support learning?

Norris Dickard, a senior associate with the Benton Foundation, a Washington-based organization working to bridge the so-called digital divide, explains: “We have blasted ahead in computer penetration in the last few years. The real challenge now that we’ve focused on infrastructure is using that infrastructure to maximize impact.”

Data from mdr’s Technology in Education report for 2000 suggest that technology use in the classroom is on the rise. Virtually all schools now report that they have at least some computers in classrooms— 98 percent in 2000, compared with 73 percent in 1998. Roughly half of school computers, 52 percent, are found in classrooms. And, according to mdr, in three- quarters of the nation’s schools, a majority of teachers are using computers for planning or teaching.

Yet the Education Week/mdr/Harris Interactive poll results suggest that schools have much work to do to maximize the impact of technology.

Generally, the survey found, students believe technology is important for learning and their future success in the working world. For example, 66 percent of students said computers help them learn, and 88 percent believe they are “extremely” or “very” important for career success.

Students also tend to give their teachers relatively good grades on how they infuse technology into teaching. For instance, 20 percent of the students surveyed gave their teachers a grade of A, and 45 percent a B, when evaluating how well their teachers use technology to help students learn. Twenty-four percent gave their teachers a C; 10 percent handed out D’s and F’s.

But when students’ experiences were probed a little deeper, some of the survey findings show there could be some problems that need to be ironed out in how schools are using computers.

For example, students reported that most of their school computer use occurs in technology labs and libraries, not classrooms. Thirty-nine percent of students reported that most of their computer use takes place in computer labs, and 35 percent said they most often use them in libraries, while only 24 percent reported they most often use school computers in the classroom. Many technology experts argue that classroom use is important because it allows students to use computers more regularly and seamlessly—rather than just for typically short, disjointed experiences in computer labs.

What’s more, based on the survey findings, it appears that computer use in academic classes varies across subject areas. Sixty-one percent of students with access to computers at school reported using computers in English classes, 55 percent in social studies, and about 50 percent for science. But only 26 percent of students said they use computers in math classes.

According to the survey, 86 percent of students said their teachers have demonstrated how to use computers to write papers; 71 percent said their teachers have showed them how to use an Internet search engine. But much smaller percentages reported that teachers used computers to develop innovative approaches to help them learn. About half of the students surveyed reported that a teacher had used a computer to help them better visualize a concept. And only 29 percent of students reported that when they have trouble understanding something in school, their teachers use computers in ways that help them look at a problem in a different way.

Evan White, an 11th grader from Watertown, N.Y., who responded to the survey, said in a later interview that he has had only one class in high school in which a teacher used a computer to show how to solve a problem. When asked how teachers might better use computers to help him learn, White said he wouldn’t know: “I never actually experienced teachers teaching hands-on with computers, so I’m not sure how it could help me learn.”

His experiences and those of others who responded to the survey might explain, in part, why 32 percent of students reported that computers either make no difference to how much they learn in school, or actually distract them from learning.

Home and School

Students have better access than ever before to computers at school, but most of the students in the survey said most of their computer use occurs at home.

On average, the survey found, students spend a little under three hours a week on computers at school. And roughly 50 percent of students with access to computers in school reported spending one hour or less per week on school computers.

In contrast, students reported logging about seven hours a week on home computers.

Even among students attending “high-tech” schools that have more sophisticated computers than schools in general, 43 percent of students spend either no time or an hour or less using school computers each week.

As a result, it is not surprising that students say they’ve learned most of what they know about technology at home. More than half the students surveyed (56 percent) said they have learned most of what they know about computers at home, while 39 percent said most of what they have learned occurred at school.

Such findings may be partly affected by differences in the quality of computers available at home and school. When asked to rate the quality of their school computers against those of their home computers, 61 percent of students with access in both places said their computers at home were better. Only 36 percent said their school computers were better than their home computers. Two percent reported no difference in quality.

Are Schools Doing Enough?

Overall, students who participated in the survey feel pretty confident about their computer abilities. Sixty-five percent of middle and high school students believe they know as much about computers as other youngsters their age, and 30 percent think they know even more than their peers.

Even so, the survey reveals that schools may not be taking the lead in making sure that students have the technological skills and abilities they need for the future. For instance, as already noted, 88 percent of students consider knowledge about computers to be “very” or “extremely” important for career success. But only 40 percent believe that knowing about computers is “very” or “extremely” important to how well they perform in school.

Because nearly all the students in this survey had access to computers, what they said about computer use might be a prelude of the challenges ahead for schools. More than anything, the survey results showed a wide gulf between technology’s promise and the reality of how it is used in schools.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Student Survey Says:


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