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Wiring Up Classrooms Can Help to Get Students’ Future On-Line

LEWIS C. SOLMON <i> is the president of the Milken Institute for Job & Capital Formation and former dean, UCLA Graduate School of Education</i>

Michael Schrage’s criticisms of the idea that every classroom in the country should be wired to the Internet (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8) are wrong and potentially destructive to education improvement efforts in America.

Schrage compares the networking of our schools to past technological advances. No one would advocate a telephone on every student’s desk, now or in 1910; but ask any teacher how helpful one telephone in her classroom would be today.

Television was tried in some schools, and most experiments with TV failed. This was because these efforts were imposed upon teachers rather than demanded by them, the software was inadequate and the inflexible organization of schools precluded efficient use of TV. Indeed, contrary to Schrage’s implication, had cable hookups and VCRs been put into schools in the 1980s, some of the problems involved in trying to use regular, live TV might have been avoided.

Schrage trivializes all technological advances in schools by implying that such advances are no different than putting a telephone on every desk, and then by arguing that anyone who believes that such technology would improve K-12 education is actually saying that the quality of education depends solely or primarily on the technological endowment of the schools. He goes on to say that if one believes technology matters, one must believe it is more important than good teachers.

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Research at the Milken Institute concludes that educational technology works and offers great promise. It will facilitate many of the promising reforms we know can help students learn and enhance teacher professionalism as well. Computers are an ideal data management tool, freeing teachers from time-consuming organizational and classroom management task. Everything from grades and attendance to correspondence and resource management to evaluation of student portfolios can be aided through the use of network technology.

Through technology, teachers have a partner for locating information and for transmitting it to students and for the representation of multiple points of view. In this way, technology has the potential to move the teacher from dispenser of knowledge to facilitator of learning. It allows him or her to teach concepts and thinking skills rather than spend the majority of time teaching specific factual information. No longer is the curriculum or subject matter determined by the textbook, and therefore stagnant from year to year. Access to on-line libraries, museums, universities and so on provides the teacher with extraordinary resources.

Network technology allows for professional development--either through on-line, in-service training courses or contact with professionals in other fields. “Burnout” is an all-too-common problem for teachers--the job is demanding emotionally but often offers little intellectual challenge--and technology offers a means for infusing some excitement into the profession. Further, technology requires new skills to be learned and allows for the re-conceptualizing of professional activities.

Through networking, e-mail and other means, teachers, students and their families can also make connections between home and school. It increases the flexibility of teacher’s hours by allowing them to gain access to work from their home; it provides parents greater access to their children’s teachers and schoolwork, and it extends students’ access to school so they can continue to learn at home, even when school is closed.

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Technology and networking can enrich and broaden children’s learning experiences by bringing in sources, information, opinions, points of view and individuals to which the students might otherwise never be exposed. It enables students to communicate with fellow students around the world and with experts working on problems related to real-life events.

Because technology gives teachers the means to individualize instruction, students can take part in curriculum driven by their own interests and abilities. Technology offers flexibility about topics they study and about how they approach their study.

Computer and video technology is present in the everyday lives of children perhaps to a greater extent than in the lives of many adults. Education that utilizes technology systems is more easily perceived as relevant and meaningful by the students and thus more likely to capture their attention and imagination.

But we advocate only four to six computers a classroom, along with the Internet connection, not one on every desk. Teachers must be adequately trained to use the technology and to integrate it into the curriculum. And this effort cannot be imposed on teachers; rather, teachers must be convinced that technology will help them do their jobs better, and then they must become advocates for it.

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The opportunity to learn and use technology may even be an incentive for people to enter the teaching profession. It is hard to imagine that any educational improvement will not be helped by the presence of technology. Contrary to Schrage’s implication, schools and their leaders know what they want their educational system to do--and more of them are coming to believe that technology will help them get there.

Technology for all schools will be expensive: We estimate the cost nationwide to be more than $30 billion. But we also calculate the return in terms of increased future labor market productivity of current K-12 students will be more than 400%. We should be grateful that many in the public and private sector are supporting the effort to wire the schools.


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