High Tech, Low Priority?

Not Everyone Is Sold on Computers in Schools

illustration by Jason Stout

Second grade teacher Anne Vergburg had always been a little curious about using computers in her Hill Elementary School classroom, but frankly, she didn't want to give up the space a mini computer lab would require. Well, more than that, Verburg was afraid her seven- and eight-year-olds would just use the machines to play around on, not learn. And how to integrate the use of the computers into her lessons? It just seemed more trouble than it was worth.

That was before she became one of 125 teachers in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to receive four new desktop computers and a laptop for her use. Verburg, a member of AISD's District Technology Leadership Team, a core group of teachers meant to cut the path for the district's $50 million-plus plan for technology, said the computer lab has really changed what takes place in her classroom. In the past, for example, she had taught about Mayan culture from books and showed photos from her own personal visits to Mayan ruins.

But then she subscribed to MayaQuest, a six-week, online, scientific expedition into Mexico and Central America. A group of scientists uploaded a report in digitized video every week, explaining its research to students all over the U.S.; children were invited to e-mail questions to individual members of the team and submit their ideas about which sites the scientists should visit next. It worked. For the first time, the teacher saw her students truly engaged in social studies.

"It was a virtual field trip," said Verburg. "The kids felt like they knew these people, although they had never met them."

Verburg's testimony to the power of classroom technology, to the idea that computers can and should mean more to kids' education than just an easier way to type things, is what AISD officials hope the public will savor, as taxpayers chew on the bill for a technology initiative that includes voice, data, and video capabilities. But does everyone -- even those who use technology themselves -- share the same understanding about what we should expect from implementing it in the classroom? After all, district officials and community boosters made several claims about what classroom technology can reasonably be expected to do for teachers and students when the plan was first proposed, as part of an April 1996 bond issue. Chief among them is that students just do better in school when they use computers because the lessons seem more relevant and "real-world." Another is that children won't be able to participate in what the 21st century will offer if we don't furnish them with technology. Closely connected to this notion is the idea that if opportunities in education are linked to family economic status, splintered into the "haves" and "have-nots," lack of technology will only exacerbate this situation. And finally, another assumption is that business and industry demands that students be ready to use technology in the workplace. Still, whether AISD is putting these assumptions into perspective and acting accordingly is still an open question.

Technology Is a Tool

"I will not tell you that technology is the way to teach," said Verburg. "It's just another way to get across to kids, and let them express themselves." Verburg saw her students working together and helping each other more when they started using computers. She said she also noticed that they were more inclined to experiment with ideas and use their creativity.

Critics across the country say that far too much of the evidence supporting the heavy use of instructional technology falls into this subjective category: Teachers insist that students are demonstrating that they are learning more, and these teachers then record this observation. (This is particularly true when the students in question have been identified as learning disabled; computer-based instruction appears to unblock the disability; the child sits still longer, produces some work, etc.) Some research even purports that students "developed a positive self-image" after they began using technology in their classwork. But a preponderance of the research seems to show that almost none of the traditional indicators -- test scores, graduation rates, college admission rates, and the like -- have been affected one way or another by computers. In other words, there are no hard figures to back up what teachers are reporting.

That shouldn't be too surprising, supporters say, since technology is a tool, and only a tool, for learning. And the tool means nothing if it isn't in the hands of a good, strong teacher, said Stephanie Hamilton, AISD's director of technology services and a former math and English teacher. She believes that the power of technology for some learners can't be overrated; in many cases, it helps teachers discover how powerful kids' minds really are. Contrary to popular belief, though, technology doesn't make teaching easier, or diminish the role of the teacher in the classroom. "You don't plug the kids into the computer and let the computer do the teaching," she said.

That is the prevailing wisdom these days, but it's born of many past mistakes. The history of deploying technology in schools has been "one of overoptimism," said Peter Lewis, formerly a science and technology reporter for The New York Times. Big companies moved in on schools in the Eighties, set up computer labs, and waited for schools to crow about higher academic achievement -- which failed to appear when technology was used as an electronic babysitter. Many methods of teaching can make an impression on kids, Lewis argues, whether technology is deployed or not.

Hamilton agrees that schools made plenty of mistakes in the past. Isolating computers in a computer lab probably had the effect of shutting down, instead of opening up, some young minds. But it's up to AISD to reverse that now. "Now we want those minds back, and that model of `mindlessness' is not acceptable," she said.

We Can't Deny Children

An oft-heard argument for deploying as much technology as possible in the school setting is that students will be confronted with this technology on the job one day soon -- or with something similar to it. Children will be at an unimaginable disadvantage if we don't get the ball rolling on their education in technology. We owe this to them, to let them get familiar with machines they will be expected to use in their adult lives.

But Neil Postman, a professor of culture and communication at New York University and a critic of technology, writes in The End of Education (1995) that engaging students in a campaign of technology education is "a trivial thing to do..." For one thing, Postman argues, 35 million people have already managed to teach themselves how to use a computer, and this will continue even if schools don't step in.

The challenge of shifting away from "Now, kids, we're going to learn on the computer," to "Now, kids, let's use what we know about desktop publishing to get your science reports in shape," is not lost on AISD's technology director Hamilton. The idea that technology must be integrated into the curriculum, not viewed as a separate discipline, entirely drives the district's professional development initiative in technology, she said. "We're trying to get teachers to understand that the computer is not the lesson," said Hamilton.

Apparently many AISD teachers have begun to take this message to heart, as nearly half -- some 2,500 -- employees have already gone through the district's staff development program in technology and demonstrated competency in several proficiencies -- such as word processing, graphics, spreadsheets, and telecomputing. That's outside the contract day, on their own time, and without extra pay. Even as many have taken this initiative on their own, others worry that their technology skills, not their instructional skills, are what will continue to make them employable in AISD. "Teachers are concerned that their contract is being tied to computer training they receive, not to how well they teach," said Ruben Valdez, president of the Austin Association of Teachers.

And at least for the moment, it's teachers who suffer from the lack of access to technology. "Teachers do welcome the training, but they also need the technology in their rooms," said Valdez. Only 1,125 computers were put into classrooms in 1996-97; another 2,500 will arrive in the district's 5,000 classrooms in 1997-98. AISD lacks the infrastructure right now to put any more machines than that before its massive $42 million wiring project is complete in December 1998.

Technology Equalizes

Again, referring to technology critic Postman: "It is often asserted that new technologies will equalize learning opportunities for the rich and poor. It is devoutly to be wished, but I doubt it." The reason, he asserted, is that "technological change always produces winners and losers." And children, especially poor ones, face troubles far more complex than cheerleaders of technology often take into account, Postman said, and what those children need are caring human beings around them who also know this.

Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds do suffer from much more than just a lack of computers, concurs Gary Chapman, coordinator of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. It is true that kids do better in school when money is spent on them, so to some extent, equity can be resolved when computers are introduced in a poor school's classroom, "but computers alone aren't going to solve the problem," said Chapman. Extremely poor schools, for example, are often the generous target of a university or business project, often receiving a lot of volunteer help along with machines. But schools in lower-middle class neighborhoods in deprived areas may be ignored for years, Chapman said. Even rich schools may be loaded with computers, and use them badly.

No, computers alone definitely don't solve the problem -- especially if low expectations for poor children is still the order of the day. Journalist Leon Lynn, writing in the journal Rethinking Schools, reported in 1995 that a Macworld magazine study revealed that up to 60% of poor schools use computers to drill or teach keyboarding skills. "While students in some wealthier schools learn to surf the Internet... students in some poorer schools are being prepared for data-entry jobs," Leon wrote.

AISD's staff training, and districtwide assignment of computers, is meant to overcome inherent fears about low-income children being left out of the technology surge. What district officials have not addressed, however, is that staff turnover in AISD is rather high -- between 10-15%. Teachers often "do" their first couple of years of teaching in AISD, then look to move on somewhere else, taking their experience with them. In the future, this would presumably include teachers' training and experience in technology. The district then is going to have to spend money on training recruits to AISD if those new employees can't demonstrate a competency with computers.

Business Demands It

Another claim often made about educational technology -- and one that is most heavily disputed -- is that business and industry demand that new workers already be "fluent" in technology. What it is, said AISD's Hamilton, is that businesses need employees who can work in teams, and the opportunity to develop those skills should come from the classroom, and can be enhanced with technology.

Chapman, the LBJ School professor, disagrees. "What business wants are people who are adaptable," he said. "Computers don't add to that skill." He believes that using a wider variety of activities -- including participation in the arts and in sports -- "would be far more effective" than computers in fostering that adaptability.

People are always more important than the technology they use, according to tech writer Lewis. Kids who leave school without technology skills will be at a disadvantage, perhaps, "but less so than kids who haven't learned how to learn," he said.

But Hamilton emphasizes that "training" students isn't the point. "I don't think we should teach particular technologies to kids," she said. "We need to make them comfortable with change, changes that are inevitable."

There's truth to both notions -- "already trained" and "trainable" -- about what business needs in prospective employees, said Glenn West, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. He believes that classroom technology can help enrich education, a quality desperately needed right now. And although familiarity with technology may indeed make a person more employable, West said, "I wouldn't say that having the fanciest technology guarantees you're going to provide the best education."

Chapman, the LBJ school professor and technology researcher, said that when it comes to technology, school systems like AISD may simply be overanxious. "Public schools are trying to leap into this technology on the same level as universities -- and universities have had the Internet for 30 years," he said. Schools all over the U.S. are rapidly deploying technology in their buildings and hoping for almost instant integration into curriculum and instruction, and that's not reasonable, said Chapman. "I think the expectations are way out of whack," he said.

But for teachers like Verburg, perhaps no expectation of technology is too high, when it comes to children and their education. "I've just seen how powerful it can be for kids," she said.

Editor's Note: Next week Roseana Auten will explore AISD's $50 million technology plan.

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