First-in-Technology Boasts Are Debatable

By Rhea R. Borja — June 11, 2003 6 min read

Is it Mississippi or Delaware?

South Dakota or Tennessee?

In the race to showcase their states as up to date, some governors and education leaders have claimed to be first to make the Internet standard equipment in their public schools.

Both Mississippi and Delaware say that they crossed the finish line first in putting an Internet-connected computer in every classroom. South Dakota and Tennessee, meanwhile, say they gave all of their school buildings Internet access years ago. Arizona and Virginia are among the states that can also boast pushing the technology envelope.

So which one was really first?

That’s hard to say with complete certainty, observers of school technology say.

While a handful of states have done more with educational technology than others, all have installed high-speed computers in most of their schools and connected the vast majority of them to the Internet over the past five years.

The race to claim a first seems to be motivated by political interests as well as state pride, one expert suggests.

“It’s political marketing [by] the states and governors. They’re able to tout that they’re focusing on education,” said Emily Trask, an analyst and senior editor at Eduventures Inc., a Boston- based research firm that tracks the K-12 technology market.

“Who’s first doesn’t really matter,” she continued, “but what does is that now all states have a commitment towards 100 percent connectivity [to the Internet] in schools.”

More important than the number of computers, she and others point out, is the successful integration of technology into the classroom to expand teaching and learning.

“Otherwise, there’s no value, as far as I’m concerned,” Ms. Trask said.

Sticking to Its Claim

Delaware’s Wayne Hartschuh witnessed the state’s technology metamorphosis firsthand.

As the director of the state’s center for educational technology, he’s tracked the First State from being one of the last in educational access to technology to, well, perhaps being the first.

In 1995, then-Gov. Thomas R. Carper—a Democrat who has since gone on to the U.S. Senate—saw that Delaware’s schools lagged behind in technology compared with those of other states, Mr. Hartschuh said. So the state spent $24 million to wire close to 200 schools and another $20 million to install computers in its classrooms over several years.

By last October, there was at least one high-speed Internet-connected computer in “virtually 100 percent” of Delaware’s 6,959 public school classrooms, said Mr. Hartschuh. The student to computer ratio, 3.1 to 1, is one of the lowest in the country.

The handful of classrooms that are not so equipped, he said, are ones such as woodshop or automotive shop, where dust and other possible irritants could damage a computer.

“We’re the first state to be wired to the Internet,” Mr. Hartschuh declared. “And we’ll stick by that claim.”

Mississippi Rising

The Magnolia State’s Gov. Ronnie Musgrove caused a media stir earlier this year when he announced in his State of the State Address: “Mississippi is the first state in the nation to place an Internet-accessible computer in every kindergarten through 12th grade public school classroom.”

It was a bold statement. Except it may not have been quite right.

Subsequent inquiries by Education Week in January and April found that while Mississippi has come far in technology access, a number of schools still lacked Internet-connected computers in all of their classrooms. (“Mississippi Touts a First in Internet Access,” Jan. 15, 2003.)

There are now, said John Sewell, a spokesman for Gov. Musgrove. Not only is there a Net- connected computer in every classroom, he said last week, but there are now also extra computers for the schools who need them.

The state partnered with the Raleigh, N.C.-based nonprofit group, ExplorNet, to provide about 6,000 new computers for public schools. The initiative is part of the Democratic governor’s aggressive agenda to improve the state’s public schools.

About 32,000 computers have been installed in the state’s 32,354 public school classrooms over the past few years in the governor’s Computers to Classrooms initiative, according to Mr. Sewell.

About 62 percent of Mississippi’s $3.6 billion budget for fiscal 2004 is earmarked for education.

Mr. Musgrove’s office stated that the first-in-the-nation announcement was based on district- by-district surveys last fall. The governor’s office also sought research help from the Washington-based National Governors Association.

Liam Goldrick, a senior policy analyst at the NGA, said that in concluding that Mississippi was the first, he looked at technology data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Education Week‘s Technology Counts2002 report, and a 2001 “State of the States” survey of state educational technology by the Tustin, Calif.-based magazine T.H.E. Journal.

A review of those data, though, shows that Mississippi did not have an Internet- connected computer in every classroom.

According to Technology Counts 2002, which surveyed states in the 2000-01 school year, 80 percent of classrooms in Mississippi had at least one Internet-connected computer. Delaware topped the list at 98 percent, while South Dakota was at 95 percent, and Idaho and Wyoming were at 94 percent.

The most recent Technology Counts data, which surveyed states in 2001-02 for the 2003 edition of that report, showed that Mississippi by then had at least one Internet-connected computer in 86 percent of its classrooms. The proportion for South Dakota and Wyoming rose to 97 percent.

“We’re certainly not aware of the situation on the ground in Mississippi schools,” Mr. Goldrick said. “The best we can do here is speak to the ‘macro’ policy level and gauge where states are based on data that’s not the most recent.”

Dakota Digital Network

Seven years ago in South Dakota, then-Gov. William J. Janklow—a Republican who is now in the U.S. House of Representatives—jump-started a statewide, $15 million technology initiative. The sparsely populated state’s declining student enrollment and its difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers helped prompt the governor’s plan to wire its 176 school districts not just to the Internet, but also to one another.

In the 1990s, teams of low-security prison inmates laid 11.5 million feet of Cat V wiring and 208,000 feet of fiber- optic cable throughout the state’s 76,000 square miles to build the Digital Dakota Network, a powerful technology infrastructure. Truckloads of computers came to schools soon after, and the state held training sessions so teachers could integrate the technology into the curriculum.

Now, students whose schools are too small to hire Spanish or calculus teachers, for example, can take classes in those subjects through interactive videoconferencing, something not possible before the DDN, as the state’s infrastructure is called, was built. The student to computer ratio in this state is 2.4 to one, the lowest in the nation.

“I can’t respond to who’s first and who’s second [in wiring all schools],” said Tom Hawley, the interim secretary of the South Dakota education department. “But everyone that’s come to this state has expressed disbelief by how far advanced we are and how we’re on the cutting edge of learning.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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