March of School Technologies Proceeding--but Slowly

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There is mounting evidence that, for public schools, the computer age has become a permanent classroom reality.

But surveys showing the active role many states are taking to promote educational technology may belie the problems that still confront the field, experts say. A hesitancy to innovate, coupled with inadequate research, has kept schools from tapping the new technologies' full potential to radically advance the instructional process, they say.

"We've moved beyond the fad stage, but we're not anywhere close to full implementation," says Frank B. Withrow, a coordinator of technology-application projects for the U.S. Education Department.

James A. Mecklenburger, director of the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, says educators have "crossed the first foothill, and still think it might be useful to climb the mountain."

"But what the real world is doing with these technologies," Mr. Mecklenburger adds, "is miles ahead of what the education enterprise is doing with them."

According to the first progress report from the National Governors' Association's five-year education initiative, the adoption of technology in the schools has been "characterized by adaptation and gradual growth, rather than dramatic invention or innovation." As Mr. Withrow puts it, the schools are still at the stage of "putting new wine in old skins."

One year ago, in "Time for Results," the nga recommended that states make extensive use of the available technologies to help bring about the broad-based improvements it said were needed in the schools.

This past summer, however, the governors were forced to conclude that, while the level of support for such endeavors had increased, "we do not have evidence that states now rely on technology in efforts to restructure their schools."

Nevertheless, the evidence that states are continuing to expand their investments in educational technology is growing.

Educational-technology directors in 40 states estimate that school districts in their state will increase or maintain their spending on computer hardware this year, according to Electronic Learning magazine's seventh annual survey of the states, published in its October issue.

Spending on software, according to the survey, will increase in 28 states and stay the same in 17.

"The breadth of activity suggests that the total involvement is very large," says David Moursund, executive director of the International Council for Computers in Education. "But where the movement is leading to is not very clear."

Progress 'Not Spectacular'

Former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, who now serves as chairman of an advisory panel on educational technology for the nsba, concurs with that assessment. "There is some progress," he says, "but it surely is not very spectacular."

"I don't want to belittle what is being done, but it seems to me that it is piecemeal," he says. "The efforts are so badly splintered, there's so much duplication and overlap, that what we really need is some direction and coordination of efforts."

"That, of course, is what we'd like to see the Education Department provide," says the former Secretary. "It's a concern that crosses over state lines."

The lack of sufficient research exploring the ways that technology can aid the educational process continues to be cited frequently by educators as the greatest obstacle to implementation.

In every state, says Joe Nathan, author of a survey on state re8sponses to the recommendations in "Time for Results," "there are people who are really excited about the potential of educational technology, and people who are really leery, because they've seen millions of dollars spent in this area with relatively little payoff."

"One thing I heard many times," he says, "is that there's a very cautious approach to see what's working and what's not."

Policymakers, Mr. Nathan maintains, "want to know if technology can really reduce dropout rates, help alienated kids learn, or play a significant role in helping teachers make better use of their time, talent, and energy."

"They need demonstrable evidence," he concludes, "and it just isn't there."

Other experts point out that, while more research is needed on using technology as an instructional aid, the benefits of its use in school administration--and in solving the problems of access--are already well documented.

The Electronic Learning survey found that 21 states and the District of Columbia have funded the operation of electronic systems to gather administrative data from schools state- and district-wide, and that an additional 19 states are exploring the development of such networks.

The survey also found that 32 states now operate electronic bulletin boards that allow teachers throughout the state to communicate with one another via modems.

A growing number of states are using various electronic media to offer classes in subjects such as foreign languages and advanced science and mathematics in schools and districts that are too small to offer such courses.

Such "distance learning" projects typically feature a teacher in one location connected by visual and audio links to classrooms in widely scattered sites, usually with two-way communications capabilities to allow students in the remote locations to participate in discussions and ask questions of the teacher.

These are currently being operated or developed in 35 states, according to the Electronic Learning survey.

'Archaic' Legal Roadblocks

But the growth of information technologies available for educational use is being accompanied by new concerns for many: that use of the technologies may be inhibited by state and federal policies that are sometimes unrelated to eduation.

For instance, telecommunciation projects between states are frequently inhibited, says Peter F. Stoll, assistant director of New York State's center for learning technolgies, by "archaic" laws governing rights-of-way.

In addition, he says, "the entire range of policies, regulations, and laws that undergird education and culture need to be looked at" to assess the changes that technology has made possible.

"If a student drops out of school to become the sole source of support for his family," Mr. Stoll explains, "why not use the technology to deliver education into the worksite?"

But that would be, he says, "extremely difficult under our current delivery system."

"If you talk to people active in this area in the states, whether large or small, all have faced the frustration of encountering policies that impede their work," Mr. Stoll continues. "I have a feeling that the results of even the best initiatives currently under way will be contingent on a review of policies and legislation."

Gilbert Valdez, manager of curriculum and technology in the Minnesota department of education, agrees that technological innovation is putting pressure on states to change traditional educational policies.

"Our biggest block in the use of technology is changing the current format of education to get away from the textbook-based lecture format," he says. "It doesn't allow us to individualize."

While states such as Minnesota and New York, which have played a pioneering role in the use of educational technologies, are grappling with the issues surrounding the next generation of computer uses, other states have drawn criticism from experts in the field for failing to develop or encourage long-range planning for the technology already prevalent in their school districts.

Some states have addressed this problem by requiring that districts adopt formal plans as a condition for receiving state aid.

"In some states, statewide planning is reasonable," says Mr. Moursund, "but in others it's merely a superficial thing that makes it sound like they're doing something."

"School districts can meet the requirement with $100 worth of someone's time," he says. "Effective plans often require thousands of hours of work, and they must include input from all constituencies, from parents and teachers through the superintendent and board members."

Maximizing the Impact

States generally receive higher marks from technology experts in some of the other areas important to development that have been commonly cited in recent national studies.

Many states, for example, have acted to reduce the cost of technology purchases, particularly for small school districts, by allowing them to pool their purchases or negotiate volume discounts.

A survey published in July by the nga's Center for Policy Research found that 33 states "either have negotiated agreements with hard4ware-producing companies on behalf of schools, or allow schools to buy from bid agreements which supply the state government with computers."

California, Minnesota, and Tennessee are among the states that have purchased equipment or software that way and distributed them directly to schools throughout the state, according to the nga survey.

States are also working to meet the need for teacher training and staff development. The Electronic Learning survey found that 25 states spent more than $25 million in this area last year, compared with $10 million in 21 states the previous year.

A total of 13 states and the District of Columbia now require prospective teachers to take a course on computers, the survey reported.

The progress by states in this area, Mr. Moursund says, is "probably more solid" than in other areas. In addition, he notes, many colleges of education are considering how best to prepare teachers to integrate technology into their daily work.

In Minnesota, a state whose early efforts to promote educational technology have since been replicated by other states, staff development is "focusing less and less on teaching how to use the technology, and more on how you change the instructional setting to maximize the impact of technology on student outcomes," says Mr. Valdez.

Under Gov. John Sununu's New Hampshire initiative for excellence in education, more than 1,200 teachers have received personal computers, in a competitive grants program the initiative's director says is designed "to help teachers manage their workload."

The state provides two-thirds of the funding for the program, with school districts providing the balance. Computers and printers purchased with the grants must be assigned to specific teachers for three years, and the teachers are free to use them at school or at home.

"We're not buying the computers for students to use, we're buying them for the teacher," says Robert L. Brunelle, who was chosen to lead the Governor's educational initiative after serving as state commisioner of education for 10 years. "If teachers don't understand the technology, how in God's name can they use it as an educational tool?"

Vol. 07, Issue 06

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