As freshmen descend on U.S. colleges this fall, they are discovering that their academic lives revolve around computer networks. At nearly every institution, course descriptions and schedules are available online. Many classes have their own Web sites, where students can find problem sets and solutions, supplementary course materials, even lecture notes. There may be a chat room, where students can meet in virtual study groups, and work may be submitted and returned by e-mail.
By comparison, U.S. high schools, not to mention the elementary grades, are practically technology-free zones. There are computers around, an average of a bit more than two per "instructional room," according to Education Dept. statistics for 2000. But many computers are concentrated in labs or classrooms used to teach computer skills, leaving regular classrooms bereft. More important, all those computers have made little difference in how schools operate or communicate with students and their families. "To a first-order approximation, the effect of computing technology over the past 25 years on primary and secondary education has been zero," wrote University of North Texas researchers Cathleen Norris and Terry Sullivan and University of Michigan researcher Elliot Soloway in a recent report.
Class Web pages would seem to be a perfect way to satisfy the parental clamor for more information on what's going on in kids' schools. Just giving mom or dad a means to find out about that big science project earlier than the night before it's due would be progress. But few school systems encourage such efforts. My informal survey shows that the relatively small number of K-12 teachers who offer Web sites generally do so at their own initiative and often their own expense.
Moreover, teachers often cannot count on students and parents to be online. "Higher education can assume that students have access to computers," says Wendy Hawkins, director of education for chipmaker Intel Corp. "In K-12, there's limited access for most kids, and by no means can you assume access for parents. And once teachers have to go in two directions, they say, `I'll just send a note home and forget about the computer."'
But the problems go well beyond access. Teachers are reluctant users of information technology because "it isn't part of their culture," says Soloway. "Colleges were willing to take the risk of saying that technology is relevant to education. K-12 doesn't believe it."
Another problem is the almost complete disconnect between those concerned with instruction and those in the information-technology department in schools. Their lack of communication hinders effective use of technology. Making it simple for teachers to run class Web sites, for example, is a complex job that requires cooperation.
Still more difficulty comes from the short attention span of the education Establishment, which seems to demand gratification as quickly as a first grader. "Schools don't give it enough time," says Norris. "The decision has been made that this technology has failed us." Today, the way to wrest dollars from tight school budgets is to talk about research in brain science on the neurological basis of learning--2002's fad--or to promise improved scores on standardized tests.
Eventually, the technology that has become so pervasive elsewhere will filter into schools. One factor that could well bring change is the massive turnover hitting teaching ranks as baby-boomer instructors retire and younger, more tech-savvy teachers replace them. Intel is trying to speed the process with a program called Teach to the Future, designed to train individual teachers in the skills needed to use computers effectively in instruction. By the end of the year, about 100,000 U.S. teachers will have participated. "We work from the teachers out," says Hawkins. "The evidence is that if you train a cadre of teachers in how to use technology effectively, there can be rapid change."
In the first rush to school computers, many hoped for miracles and were disappointed. But that's no reason for abandoning technology that has dramatically boosted productivity in much of the economy. Schools need to improve communications with parents and increase efficiency. Information technology can help them do both.