A Question of Effectiveness

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Twenty years and billions of dollars since the first personal computers were plugged into the nation's schools, policymakers and the public are finally starting to demand evidence that their investments in education technology have been worthwhile.

In particular, they want to know: Is it effective?

The question comes at an awkward time for educators. While parents keep clamoring for more technology in schools, experts lack a consensus about whether it is measurably improving education.

Meanwhile, criticism of technology has been flourishing in the media; and on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are considering cutting, or even scrapping, the federal "E-rate" discount program for telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

"There is potential for a public backlash [against school technology]. I see bits and pieces of it now. Whether it grows into something that has the power to influence public officials, I don't know," says Gordon B. "Spud" Van de Water, who manages the technology initiative of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

State policymakers are getting restive. "I see questions about what are we getting for our investments, how much does it cost, can we expect test scores to improve?" Van de Water says.

These questions expose a flaw in the policy discussions about technology in schools, says Cheryl Lemke, the executive director of the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that is underwriting Technology Counts '98.

"There's something of a disconnect between why policymakers invest money in technology in public schools and what they expect from it once it's there," Lemke says.

Many policymakers see the primary benefit of school technology as preparing students to live and work in the Digital Age, she notes. "But when the By Andrew Trotter public says, 'You invest in this, and why don't our scores go up?' they are put on the defensive."

No one knows if, or when, the debate over technology's effectiveness would force policymakers to scale back funding. But make no mistake, society eventually draws up a balance sheet on its major investments, as it has with spending on defense, health care, and welfare. And school technology is no exception.

That may be why enthusiasts of education technology have been on alert; why conferences on school technology this year have featured worried sessions on effectiveness; and why the U.S. Department of Education has been rallying educators and researchers to marshal evidence that shows that students benefit from a high-tech environment.

It also may help explain why advocates are so anxious to avoid a thumbs-up or thumbs-down analysis of technology.

"They've put out myths such as, 'The great thing about the World Wide Web is it contains all the information stored in the world's great libraries.' But all that's available are catalogs, not to mention problems with copyrights," says William L. Rukeyser, the president of Learning in the Real World, a small, nonprofit clearinghouse on school technology in Woodland, Calif.

A more-nuanced discussion of classroom technology--one that emphasizes the circumstances under which it is most effective--is long overdue, skeptics and supporters agree. But the answers, which are explored throughout this report, are not completely clear.

One difficulty in determining the effectiveness of education technology is that there is so little consensus about its purpose.

Polls show that many parents and business leaders see technology mainly as a tool to p"For someone to hire into our company, at entry level, if they really don't have good computer skills and understand it pretty well, they are likely not to prepare students for the workplace.

"For someone to hire into our company, at entry level, if they really don't have good computer skills and understand it pretty well, they are likely not to get a job," says Earnest W. Deavenport Jr., the chairman and CEO of Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn. Deavenport steps down this month as the chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers and is a former member of Tennessee's board of education.

Vol. 18, Issue 05, Pages 6-9

Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as A Question of Effectiveness
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