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Examining 25 Years of Technology in U.S. Education

The potential of technology has not been realized in primary and secondary classrooms. What conditions aren't being met, and what must be done.
  1. Introduction
  2. Computer Use and the Internet
  3. Why Is Use So Low?
  4. Access Still the Problem
  5. What Next?
  6. References
  7. Authors
  8. Tables

Contrary to some highly vocal nay-sayers, there is ample empirical data from the past 25 years that when certain conditions are met, computing technology has a positive effect on learning and teaching in the primary and secondary grades (children from the ages 5 to 18) in the U.S. school system. In fact, there is a range of effects—increased time on task, higher test scores, lower cost, and increased motivation. Based on our reading of the literature, the conditions that must be met are:

  • Sufficient access to technology;
  • Adequate teacher preparation;
  • Effective curriculum;
  • Relevant assessment;
  • Supportive school/district administration; and
  • Supportive family/community

There are no surprises here. These conditions are needed for any educational innovation to be successful.

But while the literature points to the potential for change, the reality is sobering: to a first-order approximation, the effect of computing technology over the past 25 years on primary and secondary education has been zero. Sure, we can point to specific classrooms or even schools where computing technologies have had an effect. But, overall, looking across the landscape of schools in the U.S., there are precious few lasting footprints left by the technology. By and large, classrooms and schools go about their daily business ignorant of the profound changes caused by computing technologies in many other areas of everyday life, from new manufacturing practices to new science research methods, from new business practices to new methods for creating art and music.

What happened in primary and secondary education in the U.S.? Why aren’t our children and their teachers benefiting from technology? We know technology can, in principle, affect education. So what enabling condition or conditions are not being met?

In order to understand why the potential of technology has not been realized in education, we have conducted “snapshot surveys” with U.S. educators over the past five years. A snapshot survey contains about 25 questions. After a few demographic questions, we ask educators about their uses of computing technology, their beliefs about technology, and their needs for using technology in their classrooms and schools.

While we started administering the survey on paper, we have moved to online administration. We have collected data on over 10,000 educators. The following is an analysis of the responses from over 4,000 teachers from four surveys conducted during the 2000–2001 school year:

  • Nebraska (entire state): 1,200 out 23,000 educators responded.
  • New York (4 educational regions): 3,000 out of 9,000 educators responded.
  • Florida (1 school district): 1,200 out of 6,000 educators responded.
  • California (1 school district): 250 out of 650 educators responded.

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Computer Use and the Internet

Unlike other surveys, we specifically asked educators to estimate the number of minutes per week students in their classrooms used the technology. Here are two key findings:

  • 42% of teachers report their students use computers less than 15 minutes per week.
  • 65% of teachers report their students use the Internet less than 15 minutes per week.

Some comments to keep in mind: these are self-reports, and it is well-known in surveying that respondents tend to report numbers that might be more on the favorable side; and, since the survey was administered online, only those teachers who have some modicum of comfort with technology would be responding. Thus, the actual numbers (42% and 65%) might even be lower.

Fifteen minutes a week? That isn’t enough time-on-task for students to do anything that will have any actual effect on learning. It’s barely enough time to boot up the machines.

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Why Is Use So Low?

Time to whip out the favorite and easy target: teachers. It must be a group of teachers who refuse to use the computers, say, the older teachers, since they are, of course, uncomfortable with technology. Not this time. In looking at the demographic information we collected, there was not a group (or groups) of teachers that stood out.

The following findings, however, are more informative:

  • 60% of teachers have one or less computers in their classrooms.
  • 65% of teachers have either no access, seldom (less than once a week), or once-a-week access to a computer lab.

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) provides statistics complementing ours. NCES reports the ratio of students to computers in primary and secondary schools in the U.S. is five students to one computer [1]. After the billions of dollars spent on technology in U.S. schools, access, or rather, lack of it, is still the reason why there is such little use of technology in primary and secondary grades.

From the snapshot survey data, we find access and use go hand in hand. In Table 1, as the number of computers available in the classroom increases, so does the use of the computers. Indeed, only 3% of teachers who have more than 10 computers in their classroom report they don’t use them with students for 90 minutes or more a week. If a teacher has computers in his or her room, students use them; if not, they don’t.

The digital divide continues to put a significant segment of U.S. children at considerable risk.

And who are the teachers who have more than 10 computers in their rooms? As one might expect, it is the teachers who teach computer education/programming and teachers who teach business courses dealing with computer-based productivity tools (for instance, word processors, spreadsheets, and databases). The conditions are met in these classes—access, teacher expertise, curriculum, and mandate.

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Access Still the Problem

Literally on the day this column was due, we completed a snapshot survey of a school district in Colorado. Of the 500 educators in the district, over 400 responded to the survey. Thus, unlike the previous surveys, the Colorado survey was more a canvas than a sample; no need to extrapolate from a few—the whole responded (see Table 2).

The reason there hasn’t been a positive effect of computing technologies on teaching and learning in the primary and secondary grades in the U.S. is this: computing technologies haven’t been and aren’t being used for teaching and learning because there hasn’t been and isn’t now sufficient access.

We rest our case.

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What Next?

  • “Many experts consider [a ratio of five students to one computer] … a reasonable level for the effective use of computers within the schools.”
    —President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1997.

Hogwash! In science, in manufacturing, in accounting, among others. the increase in productivity/effectiveness comes when access is ready-at-hand. Who among you would be willing to settle for four others sharing your computer during the workday? We must recommit ourselves to 1:1 student to computer access in schools.

Indeed, access to computers and the Internet in schools is important for those who do not have access at home. In the NCES study, the authors point out that in urban schools, the ratio of students to computers is 9:1 for an Internet-connected computer and 7:1 for a stand-alone computer. Furthermore, consider this statement from the report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration [2]:

  • ” … If current trends continue, we expect more than half of all U.S. households will be connected to the Internet by the end of 2000, and more than half of all individuals will be using the Internet by the middle of 2001. We are approaching the point where not having access to these tools is likely to put an individual at a competitive disadvantage and in a position of being a less-than-full participant in the digital economy. Most groups, regardless of income, education, race or ethnicity, location, age, or gender are making dramatic gains. Nevertheless, some large divides still exist and groups are going online at different rates. … Substantial disparities have continued to widen, both when comparing Blacks and Hispanics against the national average and when comparing them against Whites…”
    —Levy, 2000

The digital divide continues to put a significant segment of U.S. children at considerable risk.

How are we going to get a 1:1 ratio? Continuing with our current model of buying Pentium-level desktop/laptop computers is certainly not going to get us there anytime soon. There are approximately 50 million primary and secondary school children in the U.S. With the cost of a laptop at about $1,000, this ratio is not going to occur within the next five years. There simply isn’t enough money in the public coffers. Let’s face it, the PC is not the personal computer for primary and secondary education.

But there are options. For the younger set (ages 6–12), handheld game computers are almost now 1:1, given that approximately 12 million Game Boys were sold just last year in the U.S. In the U.K., approximately 70% of teenagers already have mobile phones. While limited in functionality today, the trajectory for handheld technologies is clear. Schools can indeed move to a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio by leveraging the emerging types of low-cost, palm-sized computers. 50 million times $100—the cost of an amply functional palm-sized computer—is within reach.

Remember the late 1950s? When paperback books became available? English teachers were overjoyed; each child could have his or her own copy of Beowulf. Education changed when the ratio of books to children was 1:1. It’s a safe bet education will change again, once each and every child has his or her own palm-sized computer.

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T1 Table 1. Correlation of access and use.

T2 Table 2. Snapshot survey of Colorado school district.

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    1. Cattagni, A., Farris, E., Westat. Internet access in U.S. public schools and classrooms, 1994–2000. National Center for Educational Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, 2001; nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/internetaccess/3.asp.

    2. Levy, K.K., et al. Falling through the Net: Toward digital inclusion. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000; www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn00/falling.htm#1.

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