Study Says Government Must Lead In Advancing School Technologies

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Washington--The federal government must take "principal responsibility" for developing educational technologies if precollegiate students are to reap the benefits of technical advances, a report released this week by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment argues.

Basing its conclusions on two years of field studies conducted in schools and research centers nationwide, "Power On!: New Tools for Teaching and Learning" says that the resources available to states and school districts will offer students only "spotty access" to technology in the foreseeable future.

The scope of the financial and research investment needed to put satellite dishes, computers, television, videocassette recorders, and other devices to work effectively in school classrooms "will be adequately sup6ported only as a national undertaking," according to the report, which was made public at a press conference here.

The 246-page document, commissioned by the House Committee on Education and Labor, cites the "positive and dramatic" results that have occurred in the past when federal research and development funding for education has been focused and consistent. It recommends several possible courses of action to enhance the access to and uses of technology at the precollegiate level. They include:

The establishment of an independent agency to oversee a decade-long, $10-billion, interagency technology-research effort. The program could be similar in scope to that mounted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's "Project Apollo," to land a manned craft on the moon.

The development of cooperative alliances with other nations also embarked on efforts to improve technology for education.

Congressional intervention to foster cooperation among federal agencies and states that have taken the lead in implementing technologies.

The channeling of additional funds into existing federal programs that encourage the purchase of computers, and

The expansion of federal research-and-development programs to encourage the spread of applications among government agencies.

In particular, the report cites a lack of cooperation between civilian branches of government and the Defense Department, which spends $208 million annually to develop educational technologies for military personnel. That expenditure, it says, exceeds the technology-research budgets of such civilian agencies as the National Science Foundation, the Education Department, and nasa by a margin of almost 7 to 1.

Ota also sets as national priorities: improving student access to technology; training teachers to use machines effectively; improving instructional software; supporting research into the benefits of educational technology; and developing new ways to integrate technology into the curriculum.

"The broad experimentation of the past decade has generated a knowledge base for schools and policymakers," the report states. "The nation is now poised to decide on the next level of commitment."

Research 'Fragmented'

Integrating such rapidly developing technological applications as intelligent tutoring systems and multi-media learning systems into curricula, as well as providing answers to such questions as how technology affects teaching and the social structure of schools, will require much additional investigation, the report contends.

But it also argues that the time is ripe for that work. "Research in cognitive science, allied with developments in computer-based technology in the schools and teachers willing to experiment, create today's 'window of opportunity' for improving education," the report states.

On the federal level, it notes, advances have thus far been slowed by a "fragmented" approach to research funding, across such varied agencies as nasa, the Labor Department, and the National Institutes of Health.

Ota suggests that the Congress require agencies to focus their research efforts on educational technologies; adopt policies that encourage technology transfer; and increase interagency funding of research.

The Congress could assume an oversight role in the funding process, it suggests, reviewing existing research and recommending avenues for cooperation.

The report also recommends that the government establish centers for interactive technology and education, at a cost of $5 million to $10 million annually, where research and applications could be examined side by side.

The federal goverment also could assist the states in establishing long-term demonstration sites for new technologies, it says.

'Natural Experiment'

During the past decade, the study notes, states have been "key players" in a "natural experiment" to improve educational technology. State and local efforts produced an "exploratory atmosphere in which students' learning styles, teachers' pedagogical methods, and various approaches to software design could be tried," it says.

But most states cannot afford to expand their use of technologies, the ota researchers found.

"There is much that could be learned from various state efforts in teacher training, software evaluation and development, and model projects and demonstration efforts," they write. "Federal funds could expand state, local, and private-sector effort."

The number of public schools with computers has grown by an average of 11 percent annually since 1981, according to the ota, and schools have rapidly been acquiring videocassette recorders and other technological devices as well. But "the vast majority of schools still do not have enough of them to make the computer a central element of instruction," the report states, noting that the average ratio of students to computers is approximately 30 to 1.

Moreover, access to computers remains more limited in large urban schools, the researchers found.

Scenarios for Improving Access

The report presents two scenarios for improving student access to computers.

The first, a design to lower the student-to-machine ratio to 6 to 1 over six years, would put a computer laboratory with 30 work stations and five additional machines in each of 20 classrooms in every school, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars per school.

Such a program would cost a school district such as Chicago, with 600 schools, a total of $130 million, according to the report.

The more ambitious scenario would require a national investment of $4.2 billion in each of six years to increase the country's inventory of computers to an installed base of 13 million machines, lowering the student-to-computer ratio to 3 to 1.

While the amount is a small fraction of the $137 billion currently spent on public education, the report notes, it would represent 30 percent of the $13 billion currently spent annually on instructional materials.

Software-Development Stressed

The ota's researchers concur with computer experts that formidable barriers now inhibit the development of the kinds of software for the machines that would advance their educational usefulness far above present levels.

Unauthorized duplication of programs by teachers, difficulties with copyright laws, incompatible operating systems, and the tendency of customers to buy products with which they are familiar all have restrained innovation in the $200 million-a-year software market, the report says.

The federal government could minimize manufacturers' risks, it suggests, by underwriting research. And it could also spur advances by backing research designed to enhance the compatibility of machines and by helping forge agreements among software developers, states, and districts on software copyrights.

Teacher Training Lacking

But even with improved software and superior computers, the report contends, "training in the use of technology will have to be a part of the preparation of every entry-level teacher" if students are to benefit from the new tools.

Although that training is available to teachers at the collegiate level and in some inservice programs and manufacturer workshops, "the vast majority of teachers have had little or no training on how to apply computers in teaching," the researchers say.

"A national need is being handled as 16,000 local problems," they write.

Favorable Reaction

Although the report was made public on Sept. 6, some draft copies had been circulated earlier to educators. One who had seen the document, James A. Mecklenburger, director of the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, pronounced the report "terrific" and said that the itte plans to disseminate copies to its members.

"The whole question about the economics of the [software] industry is terribly important," he said. "Also, the 'role of the teacher' question is terribly important and tends to get sloughed off."

Although the report was an original piece of work, some of its themes were also sounded in "Transforming American Education: Reducing the Risk to the Nation," a report issued in 1986 by the National Task Force on Educational Technology.

That report was commissioned in 1984 by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. But it was released late and with no fanfare by his successor, William J. Bennett, who has expressed none of Mr. Bell's enthusiasm for educational technology.

Mr. Mecklenburger speculated that the o.t.a. document may stir renewed interest in the older work when the new Administration is installed in January.

Copies of "Power On!: New Tools for Teaching and Learning," are available, at a cost of $11 each, from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Washington D.C. 20402. Summaries may be obtained free of charge from the Congressional and Public Affairs Office, Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C. 20510.

Vol. 08, Issue 01

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