U.S. Near Top in 20-Nation Survey of Computer Use

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Chicago--Students in the United States have had greater access to computers--for a longer period of time--than schoolchildren in many other countries, preliminary data from a 20-nation study of computers in schools suggest.

According to the study, 96 percent of all elementary schools nationwide had one or more computers in 1989. Similarly, 95 percent of all junior high schools and middle schools and 98 percent of all high schools surveyed in the United States that year had computers.

Those proportions were higher than they were for a number of other countries and territories--including, perhaps surprisingly, Japan. At the elementary-school level, for example, only the Canadian province of British Columbia had a greater proportion of schools with computers.

"This is a historic moment," quipped Richard M. Wolf, a member of the international steering committee of the study for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. 'This may be the first presentation of an international education study in which you see the United States at the high end of the scales."

The data, presented for the first time at a meeting here of the American Educational Research Association on April 3-7, represent findings from the first stage of a worldwide study on computer use in schools.

For the study, researchers from 20 participating nations surveyed teachers, principals, and computer coordinators in thousands of schools in the spring of 1989.

To track countries' progress over time, the researchers will replicate their efforts next year and, in addition, will begin testing students on how competent they are in using computers.

When the first formal report on the study is published in July, it will include an overall ranking of countries' computer use in schools, Mr. Wolf said.

However, Henry Jay Becker, director of the U.S. portion of the survey and principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, advised caution in interpreting such rankings.

He noted that the comparisons may not be fully accurate, because different teams of researchers conducted the surveys in each country.

Moreover, he said, the Canadian national survey included only one province. The French study does not include private schools, which enroll 15 percent of all schoolchildren in that country.

And Britain, which has been noted internationally for its strong efforts to encourage computer use in schools, declined to take part in the study.

The 20 countries that volunteered to participate represent a wide range of nations, from third-world countries such as India, where only 17 percent of all high schools have computers, to New Zealand, which has put one or more computers in every high school and lower secondary school, to highly industrialized Western nations.

'A Rich Nation'

According to the study, the United States began putting computers in schools in 1981 and 1982--about two to five years before Japan. Only a handful of nations or territories, including British Columbia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, had computers in their schools at about the same time.

At the junior-high-school and middle-school levels, the United States ranked fifth in the percentage of schools with one or more computers. The four nations or territories with higher proportions of schools with computers were France, Luxembourg, New Zealand, and, again, British Columbia. Only 33 percent of Japanese lower secondary schools had computers, according to the study.

At the high-school level, four nations or regions--Hungary, Germany, New Zealand, and British Columbia--had a higher proportion of schools with computers.

The concentration of those computers was also somewhat higher in U.S. schools. The survey found, for example, that U.S. schools had an average of 32.3 computers for every 300 students in high schools that had computers. That ratio was the highest of any participating nation. In elementary schools with computers, there were 16.6 computers for every 300 students.

"We're a rich country and we can afford it," Mr. Wolf, who is also a professor of psychology in education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said in an interview last week. "You take countries like India, where a lot of the schools don't even have electricity--you're not going to find a lot of computers there."

"Whether it's faddistic or representative of something much deeper is difficult to say," he added.

Japan a 'Latecomer'
The researchers said that Japan's relatively late acceptance of the international trend in school computer use may be due to its rigid national curriculum, which, until recently, specified no computer-education courses. The number of computers in Japanese schools is expected to have increased by next year, when the researchers undertake the second part of the study.

"When a country decides to make [computer use] an activity, then it diffuses very rapidly," Mr. Becker said.

In this country, for example, Mr. Becker said, schools were acquiring computers at the rate of 300,000 to 400,000 a year from 1985 to 1989.

For the most part, American educators are using the equipment to teach computer-programming activities and, at the elementary-school level, for computer games, drills, and other computer-aided instruction activities. In recent years, however, computers increasingly have been used in classrooms in this country for word processing, Mr. Becker said.

In every country surveyed, educators said that the greatest obstacle they faced in making greater use of computers in classrooms was a lack of equipment. That problem outranked other possible barriers to expanded usage, such as inadequate teacher training and apprehension about using the equipment.

"It appears that there are not many computers sitting around idle," Mr. Becker said.

Vol. 10, Issue 30, Page 13

Published in Print: April 17, 1991, as U.S. Near Top in 20-Nation Survey of Computer Use
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