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Lost in Cyberspace

Last month, Vice President Al Gore swung by Pacoima Elementary School to inaugurate a federal grant program that will give a school up to $9 for every $1 it spends to connect its classrooms to the Internet. Joining hands with a boy in front of a computer terminal, Gore clicked a mouse button to send a grant application over the Internet and then exchanged high fives with the boy to celebrate.

Classroom access to libraries, museums and inter-school projects on the Internet is indeed something to celebrate. But the vice president’s media event made it seem all too easy. The truth is that Pacoima Elementary and most other schools in less affluent areas often do not have staff members with enough free time and computer savvy even to fill out the applications, much less make plans to use the Internet in an educationally useful way.

In their grant applications, schools must assess their need for highly technical components, draft a plan for “evolving technologically” and choose ways of assessing whether the equipment is actually fostering learning. And oh, yes, the applications are due by April 15.

Schools need help to make that deadline and they’re not getting it from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bumbling instructional technology division. So give the job to Deputy Supt. Ron Prescott, the only top school official with the requisite experience in curriculum, facilities and government relations. Prescott should arrange workshops to teach delegates from all city schools how to fill out the applications. The schools could at the same time write separate applications to get computer hardware from other government programs, like Gov. Pete Wilson’s “Digital High School” initiative.

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Prescott should solicit help from L.A. city schools with successful programs, private experts, the state’s new Educational Technology Office and the technology department of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which has won national recognition for its innovative new-media learning programs.

Even though the federal government notified districts about the computer wiring grants in December, LAUSD officials took no steps to help schools qualify for them. Their sluggishness led critics to say schools should bypass the district altogether, filling out the applications with the help of private consultants instead.

But schools have lost millions of dollars in recent years because consultants sold teachers and administrators on computer software and hardware that they lacked the expertise to assess or even use properly. Moreover, the present gaping inequities between schools have stemmed precisely from an “every school for itself” approach that benefits schools with high parent involvement and wealthy computer equipment donors. Schools lacking such resources urgently need advice about how to tap existing but hard-to-find state and city resources to underwrite computer purchases.

The district’s work should not end at the April 15 application deadline. To prevent mad scrambles in the future, it should remove oversight of computer-assisted learning programs from its instructional technology division, whose staff knows a lot about the district’s mainframe computers but nothing about training teachers or meeting other challenges of computer-assisted learning. Classroom computers are only as useful as they advance learning, so the LAUSD’s division of instruction, which oversees curriculum and teacher training, could be a logical new home for such a program.

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