U.S. Study Urges Comprehensive Plan For Schools' Use of New Technology

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Washington--Piecemeal government initiatives and market forces will not be enough to develop the full educational potential of the technologies that are revolutionizing the nature of work and communication, putting new pressures on schools and colleges to adapt to the changes.

That is a principal finding of a major government study of the electronic communications systems that are affecting, or could affect, the nature of educational institutions and programs across the country.

Realizing the educational potential of information technology, according to a summary of the two-year research project released last week, will require a comprehensive national effort by government, industry, and education, working with the full range of available educational ap-proaches and technological systems. But, the summary cautions, significant barriers now exist that could hamper the development of the grand strategy the report envisions.

Despite growing interest in the technologies as educational tools in this country, there is no comprehensive strategy for government involvement comparable to that in France, Great Britain, and Germany, according to experts in the field.

This new assessment--described as the most comprehensive of its kind ever conducted--is designed to help Congress decide what the federal role should be in the field of educational technology. Officials of the Office of Technology Assessment (ota)--the agency that conducted the study--outlined its findings last week before two House subcommittees concerned with education; a 200-page report on the study will be released within a month.

Among other conclusions of the study noted in the summary:

The growing use of information technology is creating new demands for education and training in the country and is "increasing the economic and social penalty" for not responding to those demands.

The information industry is becoming a major part of the U.S. economy.

(One analysis cited in the ota study estimates that this new sector, "broadly defined," already accounts for over 60 percent of the nation's economic activity.)

U.S. industry will continue to adopt computer-based automation and manufacturing techniques. This, coupled with similar automation in business offices, will require a much higher level of technological literacy among workers during the next decade.

At the very least, the summary report states, computers will be ubiquitous by the next century, and the rudiments of using them effectively will constitute a "basic skill" for many and perhaps most jobs.

This "information society" will create a great demand for skilled graduates in computer engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, fields already experiencing shortages of skilled workers.

Information technologies are most effective when they are developed and introduced into the classroom with the full cooperation and participation of the teachers who will be using them. This observation, according to the summary, is based on several pilot programs examined during the study.

Educational technology is a feasible way to "supplement teacher capability," and it can create educational opportunities outside the school, allowing people to learn at different times and places.

Much remains to be learned about the educational and psychological effects of technological instruction. Not enough is known about the most beneficial uses of the technology in education, and educators remain skeptical about the long-term benefits to learners of substituting technology for traditional teaching methods.

Barriers to Effective Use

The report notes that several barriers exist to effective use of the new technologies in education. For example, some adaptation--which may be resisted--in curricula, schedules, and classroom organization, could be necessary. The report also concludes:

Teachers must be trained both in the use of the technology and in the production of good curriculum materials. Too few are prepared at present and there is little evidence that colleges of education are ready for the task of doing the training.

Software currently is inadequate, partly because it is expensive to produce and because some firms are skeptical about the stability of the education market. And even though costs are dropping, investment in educational technology still represents a substantial commitment for financially pressed schools.

Thus, the ota study suggests, a "social, economic, and political gap" could develop between those who can and cannot afford the new information systems.

"Since public institutions may find it more difficult than profit-making institutions to overcome these barriers," John H. Gibbons, director of ota, said during last week's hearing, "federal action may be required to assure that the benefits of educational technologies are accessible to them."

New Technology Systems

The ota summary also outlined several issues that Congress will eventually have to consider in relation to the various new technology systems, including:

Direct intervention in the form of tax breaks for companies that donate computers to schools (such a bill is now before Congress); subsidies for software development; funds for hardware and software acquisition by schools; or assumption of a leadership role in which the government supports demonstration projects, teacher-training institutions, and information networks.

Federal support for research and development in the field, including research leading to more effective educational software.

Range of Products

The study examines the full range of new information products, including direct broadcast satellites, two-way interactive cable systems, low-power broadcasting, computers (including personal and hand-held computers), and television (including videodiscs and video tape cassettes).

The ota conducted case studies of established programs in seven public-school systems, three industries, libraries, museums, the military, special education, and homes.

The study was conducted chiefly by Fred W. Weingarten, Prudence S. Adler, and Dorothy Linda Garcia, members of the ota staff.

To obtain a free summary of the report, write: ota Publishing Office, United States Congress, Washington, D.C. 20510. (202) 224-8996. The full report can be obtained from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20420. Request #052-003-00888-2.

Vol. 02, Issue 03

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