Improving Our Nation’s Schools Through Computers & Connectivity

In the name of improving the nation’s schools and closing the digital divide, the federal government has embarked on a massive program to connect every school to the Internet. School districts too are spending vast sums on computers, software, and technical support. Yet many of America’s teachers are unprepared to use computers in their classrooms. According to a 1999 study, about 1.3 million of the nation’s 3 million elementary and secondary teachers feel only “somewhat” or inadequately prepared to integrate educational technology into their teaching.

Using Computers in Schools

The billions of public dollars devoted to wiring the nation’s schools will, in theory, stimulate learning in three ways. At bottom, computers can serve as electronic workbooks, delivering instruction at a pace individualized for each student. On a more sophisticated level, they can simulate real-world experiences. They can also be productivity tools, enabling students to gather and learn from information more efficiently.

So far, the computer revolution has borne most fruit in the classroom as a glorified workbook. Electronic workbooks do indeed improve students’ basic skills, enabling them to participate in higher levels of education. And the workbooks require no teacher expertise. Even teachers and administrators who are barely computer literate are attracted to the promise of prepackaged, networked computer-based learning systems—such as CompassLearning (formerly Jostens), Computer Curriculum Corporation, or Skills Bank—that enable them to track student progress on basic skills or assign specific tasks to particular students. These systems are especially appealing to inner-city or underperforming schools because they require almost no changes in school structures or major investment in teacher training; indeed, it is possible to install and run a computer lab using one of these systems with only one trained teacher, who takes each class of students in turn, giving the regular classroom teacher a “prep period” and requiring absolutely no new skills or knowledge. And because all the computers in the lab are generally identical and similarly configured, maintenance is usually easy and handled with a simple contract between the vendor and the school.

But electronic workbooks do almost nothing to address higher-order thinking skills. And although they may improve students’ performance on standardized tests (because the tasks in the preprogrammed curriculum are so similar to the tasks found on multiple-choice tests), they don’t address the deficits of many inner-city students in analytical or systematic thinking, nor do they prepare students to use computers for performing real-world tasks.

Using computers at a higher level—to provide the virtual reality of journeying west across the plains on a Conestoga wagon, investing funds in a stock portfolio, or dissecting a frog—requires much more of teachers. They must have ready access to computers in the classrooms—requiring not only more computers, but also more complex technical support—as well as increased familiarity with the computer and software. Teachers must also alter their curricula, so that the simulation is not just an “add-on” but a complement to their larger instructional goals. While intelligent and motivated teachers can master these programs, it is nearly impossible to push reluctant or hidebound teachers to use simulations effectively.

Realizing a vision of computers as productivity-enhancing mindtools is more difficult still. It requires transforming classrooms into information-rich workrooms, in which students use the Internet as a huge repository of real-world data, images, text, and other resources. They gather resources that are relevant to real problems, manipulate these resources to find patterns of similarity and difference, and compare their hypotheses or tentative findings with those of other students around the world. Their progress is assessed through tasks embedded in the learning process itself: through some “performance” or “product,” rather than a paper-and-pencil test. Their teachers become problem-posers, creating their own curricula to address their students’ interests and needs in the light of educational standards and learning continually, both about their subject matter and about how computers can facilitate inquiry in each field.

This dream is not impossible. For the past 10 years, the Union City, New Jersey, school district has been retraining teachers and building a full K-12 curriculum based on the use of technology. The effort has paid off—students’ educational attainment has risen in proportion to increases in spending. But that district is relatively small; it has both corporate and state support for technology purchases; and it has a visionary director of curriculum who is committed to make long-term changes in the district’s teaching and learning. Replicating that success widely would be difficult indeed.

Needed: Teacher Training

While many teachers have the necessary intelligence and disposition to succeed in a wired classroom, the teaching profession as a whole is rife with people who prefer delivering prepackaged curricula, using traditional tools, and assessing student progress in traditional ways.

Over the next decade more than 2 million new teachers will be hired. If these new teachers are more technologically oriented or more enthusiastic about new modes of teaching and learning, perhaps computers can begin to realize their educational potential. But according to a 1999 Education Week study, teachers in their first five years of service are no more likely to integrate technology into their teaching than are 20-year veterans. Even though younger teachers tend to be more astute in their own use of computers, the skills don’t carry over to their teaching. Perhaps certain barriers to technology integration are inherent in the nature of teaching and learning; if so, the barriers are not well understood.

Meanwhile, many teacher training institutions fail to use computers effectively to train teachers. (Teacher educators as a group are even more technologically inept than are elementary and secondary teachers.) And schools of education continue to attract the least intelligent group of students of any field of higher education. Even new teachers, especially in traditionally underserved areas such as the inner city and rural districts, serve only passably in their traditional roles as deliverers of prepackaged curriculum, using textbooks and worksheets. Even if these tools become computerized (which is expensive and often less efficient than paper and pencil), most teachers will be unable to integrate technology into the curriculum in educationally significant ways.

So where does this leave us as a nation, trying to improve our nation’s schools while creating a more equitable society? Ironically, today’s investment in computing for schools is unlikely to close the widening gap between those in our society who have access to, and know how to use, information technologies and those who do not. Indeed, placing the computer at the center of school routines will only increase the educational advantage of students for whom computers are just a fact of daily life. Putting computers in the classrooms of such students may increase their opportunities to learn (provided that their teachers know what to do with the computers). But for students without such a comfort level, the demands of the computer will be a distraction from reading and writing and figuring or will become just a very expensive version of a textbook or workbook.

Rather than simply providing money to connect classrooms to the Internet, we need a massive effort at teacher training—not one—shot in-service workshops, but comprehensive professional development that makes possible the kinds of changes in instruction that improve student performance on higher-level thinking tasks.

What we don’t need is a mindless pursuit of educational technology for its own sake, without regard for the opportunity costs (what we would spend the money on if we didn’t have to pay for computers and access), the educational effects (enhancing basic skills as against improving higher-order thinking skills), or the substantial changes in schooling that may be necessary to use technology effectively. Unfortunately, it may be several decades before we understand these issues well enough to make good choices on a national level. By then, economic forces, rather than educational ones, will probably have already determined how computers will change society—and our schools.