From textbooks to technology
By Michael Kanellos and Courtney Macavinta
October 16, 1997, 6:00 a.m. PT
special report Now that the personal computer has become a fixture in many schools, companies that provide them and the educators who use them are trying to figure out exactly what to do with the technology.
While executives agree that computers can enhance learning when used wisely, many say that the introduction of PCs to the classroom has, thus far, been a dud.
"A lot of places are using the computer as a recess additive," said Bob Waller, chief executive officer at Education Access, one of the largest education resellers in the country. "At this point in time, it's predominantly for kids to play with and they are now just starting to use computers for the curriculum."
But because of such factors as political popularity and society's wish for a quick fix to the country's myriad problems in public education, money has been poured into technology in schools. The education technology market has grown an estimated 15 to 25 percent per year and it shows no signs of slowing down. Spending in the 1997-98 school year is expected to reach $5.2 billion, up from $4.3 billion in the 1996-97 school year, according to a study by the research firm QED.
Those vast sums of money have raised yet another question: Does it make sense to spend so many resources on computers when some schools are still lacking such basic needs such as books?
Half of California's teachers say there aren't enough textbooks for students to bring home to complete assignments, according to a study by the National Education Association and the Association of American Publishers. In 1994, only 18 percent of the nation's teachers said they used computer software to help teach reading, whereas 83 percent said they used books, according to the Education Department's National Assessment of Educational Progress.
At East Palo Alto's César Chávez Academy, the computer lab is filled with new Pentium PCs that soon will be networked together and put online. About five bookshelves line the back wall of the lab. This is the school's small library where many books are well out of the students' reach.
In a nearby office, jumbled musical instruments are stored in a cardboard box next to rolls of computer cable. Although it doesn't have a librarian, the school's administrators are negotiating to get a portable building for the library. A band teacher was also hired this year. But the goal to put five computers in every classroom seems to be a more pressing priority.
"I have to set up field trips to go to the East Palo Alto Public Library up the road," said Michelle Williams, a third-grade teacher at César Chávez. "It would be nice to have a library on campus."
Still, federal policy-makers have been undeterred in their quest to integrate computers in the country's schools, and their agenda has been underscored by projects such as NetDay. "Technology is a part of the world that we are living in," said Linda Roberts, director of education technology for the Education Department. "Teaching technology and the basic goal of reading can be achieved at the same time."
Computer companies are well aware of skepticism over today's rush toward technology in education, and they are rethinking their products and support strategies to better tailor the needs of classrooms.
Compaq's Presario ES series, for example, comes with 11 different software bundles, depending upon the desired use. The target market spans K-12 education and universities. While similar to other Compaq computers, the education models contain features to contend with smaller desk surface areas, constant use, and other factors that might be encountered in schools.
Such adjustments are important to Sue Collins, director of education at Compaq, who sees a clear divide between plans to integrate technology into learning and what has happened in practice. She cites studies showing that 65 percent of all schools are connected to the Internet but that only 14 percent have put classrooms online.
In most schools, she says simply, the technology situation "is not very good."
The sense of imbalance in education technology is seemingly enhanced by the decline of Apple Computer, once the dominant technological force in American education. In recent years, the company's influence and market share have continued to slide with the decline of its overall fortunes.
Now the education market is perceived as something of a technology free-for-all--with students and teachers hanging in the balance. For example, nontraditional PC makers such as network computer manufacturers and refurbished-product companies are trying to take over this market, claiming they can provide schools with adequate technology at a far lower cost.
Education Access's Waller and others see the network computer--a stripped-down box with limited computing capabilities--as a prime example of an industry sector pushing a product that schools don't need.
"You've got to have a big pipe, and you've got to pay for that pipe," he said of the Internet connections for NCs. While the Internet holds significance for libraries and research projects, he said, most computer-based education can take place on a local area network.
"Until you get to the point where there is a computer for every kid, it is impractical," he said.
Those on all sides of the issue agree that the goals of a wired classroom can be achieved only with the proper training and support. As a result, cash-strapped school districts are turning increasingly to technology companies to provide that help along with the computers and software they sell.
Some companies have answered that call, seeing schools and students as prospective wellsprings of new business.
Compaq and network software company Novell are on a 50-city tour to explain their education offerings to resellers and customers. While Compaq does not yet train teachers or provide direct support, "it's a reasonable expectation that Compaq may have staff development [teacher training] as part of its solution in the future," said Compaq's Sue Collins.
In the meantime, a small cottage industry of trainers is stepping in to fill part of this void.
Computer resellers such as Education Access, based in the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale, subcontracts teachers to develop lesson plans around popular applications, such as those from Broderbund. The company also conducts extensive teacher training, especially seminars with teachers. In the first quarter of next year, for instance, it will kick off an educational effort around IBM's SchoolVista program, a student tracking and administrative application.
But in most cases, a survey last fall showed, school districts must fend for themselves as the main source of teacher training, technical assistance, and network access. Industry came in fourth, providing 5 percent for training and 4 percent of the total funds for network support for schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"Schools need what I call 'the cheerleader.' This person has to be a school board member because they are the ones who can provide ongoing budget support of line items for technical support and training," said Selma Sax of California's Education Council for Technology in Learning. "Year after year these school boards will have to take the pledge."