Philanthropy Magazine

High Tech Hopes…

…and low-tech realities

by Howard Fienberg
November / December 2001

If anything has become orthodoxy in American schools, it’s the notion that Internet-wired computers are indispensable aids to learning. According to a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 94 percent of kids aged 12-17 with Internet access claim to use it for school research and 78 percent think it helps them with schoolwork. Eighty-seven percent of parents agree.

This belief has spurred policy-makers to act. Last fall, then Education Secretary Richard Riley announced that in “some of our nation’s poorest communities, technology is bringing better education to more and more students.” Indeed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 98 percent of American public schools have Internet access for students and 77 percent of instructional classrooms have some sort of Internet access.

But are wired classrooms and computer-educated children really the secret to turning around America’s failing schools? In his new book, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, Stanford University professor Larry Cuban investigates the matter, zooming in on the tech center of Silicon Valley. There, he hopes to find out how the information technology (IT) investment in schools is or is not being put to use. Perhaps the most contentious arena for computer usage is in pre-schools and kindergartens. Experts are divided on the subject. Tech companies and their associated boosters claim that the earlier children are exposed to computers, the better they will manage the technology, but that assertion ignores technology’s effect on children’s overall development. Educational psychologist Jane Healy told Cuban that, for children under 7, computer work “not only subtracts from important developmental tasks but may also entrench bad learning habits, leading to poor motivation and even symptoms of a learning disability.”

Unfortunately, Cuban does not properly address the Internet in his book. Most people automatically assume that the Internet is educationally useful, in that it provides simple and swift access to an endless stream of information. But early childhood practitioners usually recommend limiting information access and simplifying what is offered. Besides encouraging information overload, Internet content lacks authority. Children have difficulty sorting the reliable from the nonsensical and the anarchic nature of the web can sometimes render the scribbling of a madman as authoritative as a daily newspaper.

Cuban’s examination of high school does not seem as thorough as his look at kindergarten because he only investigates two schools. But his findings are similar: teachers adapt innovative technologies to fit their regular teaching methods rather than trying to “revolutionize” those methods in synch with the new technology. They continue to teach mostly as they used to, tacking on a few extra bells and whistles.

To kick off his look at IT in university, Cuban revisits an experimental high-tech lecture hall at Stanford. Millions of dollars in federal funding in the 1960's brought the university the Stanford Center for Research, Development and Teaching, which included a fancy TV studio and an “interactive” lecture hall. The lecture hall combines stadium seating with student push-button pads and a display screen for the studio. The pads were supposed to serve a similar function as taking a show of hands, but be more orderly. By the time Cuban arrived as a graduate student in 1972, the seat technology was simply a student toy and the fancy pull-down screens were for overhead displays. By 2001, the thoroughly useless “archeological slice of a technological past” was “in use as a regular lecture hall.”

The story nicely sums up the computer experience in higher learning: you can’t traverse a university campus without tripping over computers and wires. But while professors make extensive use of computers and the Internet for their research work, they neither use IT in class nor change how they teach because of it.

Many studies have looked for links between IT investment and student achievement, generally offering more anecdotes than scientific data. They tend to lack proper controls and often ignore factors other than technology, especially teaching methods. Effects found in the most rigorous studies are ambiguous at best, negative at worst. Cuban’s case studies similarly found “no clear and substantial evidence of students increasing their academic achievement as a result of” increased IT investment.

Tech marvels all seem to follow the same cycle “of high expectations... rich promotional rhetoric, and new policies that encouraged broad availability,” and as Cuban demonstrates, result “in limited classroom use.”

So the widespread faith in technology as an aid to learning has become just that: faith, not science. It definitely has real world results, few of them good. Computers have become a financial sinkhole for schools, turning them into high-tech addicts. The cost of technological integration over the long term is enormous, since both hardware and software are normally obsolete by the time they are available for purchase or donation. Combined with maintenance and continued training of instructors, it all adds up to cost far more than the initial outlays. So schools must soon either beg for more money locally, hunt for foundation or government grants, seek freebies from computer companies, or all but give up the wired enterprise. And what school administrator would do that as long as policy-makers and parents consider a “good” school synonymous with a technologically equipped one?

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, told Wired magazine in 1996 that he had “probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody on the planet.” But in the end, “what’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology.”

- Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonprofit nonpartisan research organization.

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