Tech Update

September 20, 2000 5 min read
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Effectiveness of Computers
Still Open to Question

As computers continue to become an increasingly big part of today’s classrooms, many questions still remain about the best ways to use them.

For More Information

“Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood,” is available at; “Teachers’ Tools for the 21st Century: A Report on Teachers’ Use of Technology,” is available at;“E-Rate and the Digital Divide: A Preliminary Analysis From the Integrated Studies of Educational Technology,” is available from the Department of Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader), and “2000 Report on the Effectiveness of Technology in Schools” is available online at for SIIA members.

Some critics, meanwhile, take issue with the assumption that they should be used in classrooms at all.

“Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood,” a report released last week by the College Park, Md.-based Alliance for Childhood, calls for a nationwide halt to the introduction of computers in elementary classrooms and in early childhood programs—with the exception of computers to aid children with learning disabilities.

Among the group’s other recommendations: Educators should offer children experiences and a curriculum that is based in the natural and physical world; conduct research on the full physical, emotional, and developmental effects of computers on children; and halt commercial “hyping of harmful or useless technology for children.”

The recommendations have been endorsed by 82 experts in various fields, including Diane Ravitch, an education historian and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education in the Bush administration; Larry Cuban, an education professor at Stanford University; Jane Goodall, the renowned researcher on primates; and Jane M. Healy, the author of the 1998 book Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—for Better and Worse.

Colleen Cordes, one of the editors of “Fool’s Gold,” said most reports on education technology accept uncritically the notion that computers make good educational tools.

“We started by asking, ‘What does research indicate that is necessary for healthy child development?’ and, only then, asking how the computer fits into the picture,” she said.

Ms. Cordes said the group concluded that healthy development grows out of children’s “hands-on experiences, face-to-face conversation with adults, strong bonds with caring, reliable, consistently available adults, and spending lots of time in personal interaction.” All of that can be done, and done better, without the interposition of a computer, she said.

In special cases, children with certain learning disabilities might benefit from the sound and visual capabilities offered by computers, the group argues.

But Linda G. Roberts, the director of educational technology in the U.S. Department of Education, said the report misrepresents the way most schools use computers.

“The picture that’s presented—suggesting there is no thought being given to the conditions under which technology is appropriate and the conditions under which it is used—is not true,” Ms. Roberts contended.

“Take the assumption that little kids are using computers all day long,” she added. “I’ve been in hundreds of elementary classrooms, and I’ve seen kids using computers—but in every classroom, there is a mixture of educational technology. They use manipulatives, lots of hands-on materials, paints, and crayons.

“The computers are tools in the classroom, they are not the classroom.”

Ms. Cordes replied that “at the Department of Education it has been policy for decades of taking technology and trying to use it for younger-age children. We wanted to start with what we know about healthy child development and then say if computers fit or not fit.”

Teacher Use: The same week that the Alliance for Childhood’s report was released, the Education Department held its annual conference on technology in Alexandria, Va. Department officials showcased dozens of examples of successful school technology programs and released two reports of their own.

The first, written for the department by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan group in Washington that researches issues relating to poverty, was a study of the E- rate, the federal subsidy that helps schools and libraries acquire telecommunications technologies.

Based on an analysis of E-rate administrative records and other national school data covering the first two years of the program, “E-Rate and the Digital Divide” concludes that the education-rate program has been successful in assisting most schools—and especially those serving low-income populations—in gaining access to the Internet and other communications technologies. The very poorest schools, however, seem to be missing out on the E-rate because of inadequate resources and facilities. (See the pullout report in this issue, “Global Connections, Local Static: Gauging the E-rate’s Impact,” for more details.)

The other report, from the department’s National Center for Education Statistics, offers a detailed analysis of a survey of public school teachers conducted last fall.

About half the surveyed teachers who had computers or the Internet available in their schools used those resources for classroom instruction, according to the report, “Teachers’ Tools for the 21st Century: A Report on Teachers’ Use of Technology.” Only one-third of surveyed teachers said they felt “well prepared” or “very well prepared” to use computers and the Internet for classroom instruction. The NCES report concludes that teachers’ ability to use technology effectively in instruction is often hampered by the age and limited capacity of much of their current technology, the limited amount of time they have to learn and apply the technology to learning, a lack of technical assistance, and deficient leadership from school principals."We need to make sure that every teacher—of all ages, in every school—that they’re all comfortable with the new technologies that students need in the 21st century,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a Sept. 11 speech at the conference.

Training Is Key: A report released last month by the Washington-based Software and Information Industry Association attempts to synthesize all the recent evidence on classroom technology.

The 135- page “2000 Report on the Effectiveness of Technology in Schools,” the latest version of the SIIA’s annual review of research literature, concludes that the effectiveness of education technology varies depending on how it is used with different student populations, the software design, the role of the educators, student grouping, educator training, and the level of students’ access to technology.

“The leading variable is educator training, as students of teachers with more than 10 hours of training significantly outperform students of teachers with five or fewer training hours,” the report says.

—Andrew Trotter


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