A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Using Technology to Support Education Reform -- September 1993

Availability of Instructional Technologies

The past decade has brought an explosive growth in both the number and the variety of applications of computers and other technologies used in schools. Although much of the available survey data has focused on the numbers and percentages of various technologies in the schools, some data are available on the ways in which technologies (especially computers) are used. Reviewed below are pertinent data on the availability of computers, modems and networks, VCRs and educational videos, CD-ROM and videodisc technologies, and satellite telecommunications links

. The Johns Hopkins University s Center for Social Organization of Schools has conducted three extensive surveys of U.S. school computer use over the last decade: in 1983 (see Becker 1985), in 1985 (see Becker & Sterling 1987), and, as part of the 1989 International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) Computers in Education Survey, in the spring of 1989 (see Becker 1990). Other survey information has been reported by two marketing research firms that specialize in educational technology: Quality Education Data, Inc., (QED) and Market Data Retrieval, Inc.


Numbers of Computers-- Becker (1990) chronicled the rapid growth of computers in public schools from fewer than 50,000 in 1983 to approximately 2.6 million in 1990. More recent estimates (Mageau 1991a) place the number of computers installed in U.S. schools (public and nonpublic) at 3.5 million. In percentage terms, in 1981 only about 18 percent of U.S. public schools had one or more computers for instruction; by 1987 that percentage had grown to 95 percent (Office of Technology Assessment 1988) and in 1990 it reached 97 percent (Becker 1990). Current estimates put the percentage of public schools with at least one computer at 98 percent (Mageau 1991a). In other words, nearly every school has at least one computer. The more pertinent question becomes the number of computers per school and per student.

The median number of computers in computer-using K-6 elementary schools rose from about 3 in 1985 to about 18 in 1989. In high schools the median number of computers rose from about 16 in 1985 to about 39 in 1989 (Becker 1990). The average number of computers per 30 students nearly tripled between 1984 and 1990, rising from 0.60 to 1.53 (Mageau 1991a). Although the numbers of computers per school and per student have increased dramatically from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, student access to computers must still be considered limited. In 1987, students averaged only 1 hour each week on a computer (Office of Technology Assessment 1988). Even the recent computer:student ratio of 1.53:30 conjures up images of classes of students jockeying for time on a limited number of machines. The most common arrangement is a computer lab of 20 to 30 machines into which whole classes are scheduled for small amounts of time. Most schools do not have enough computers for them to be used frequently by all or most students.

How Computers Are Being Used-- In 1983, computers were used primarily for three tasks: to teach students about computers (i.e., computer literacy classes), to teach programming, and for rote learning through drill-and- practice programs (Becker 1985). In 1985, teachers reported using computers primarily for enrichment and variety, or for teaching students about computers, and rarely to provide students with instruction in core academic subjects (Becker 1990). This reported pattern of use supports the argument that technology is used at the margins but not as an integral part of schooling.

A more recent trend noted by Becker (1990) is increasing use of computers as tools and less emphasis on teaching about computers per se than in 1985. At the same time, use of computers to teach basic skills continues to be the dominant practice in elementary schools and is increasing in high schools.

Integrated learning systems (ILSs) represent an increasingly common application of computers to basic skills instruction. Approximately 10,000 ILSs are currently in use, funded primarily with Chapter 1 monies (Mageau 1990). QED survey results (cited in Becker 1990) indicate that, as of 1990 1.4 percent of public schools had integrated learning systems. ILSs, then, represent a small niche in the educational applications of computers, but given their funding from programs for disadvantaged students, they represent a significant use of technology for this group.

Modems and Networks

Networks are systems that connect two or more computers to each other. These computers can be at distant sites, allowing students or teachers to communicate with peers or with each other districtwide, statewide, nationally, or even internationally. Networks can also be local. Locally networked computers have numerous advantages (Becker 1990): they do not require software programs on multiple copies of floppy disks; they give students access to databases; they allow several computers to share a single printer; and they promote collaborative writing. In spite of these advantages, only 24 percent of high schools and only 7 percent of elementary schools had networked computers in 1989 (Becker 1990). Networks represent an area ripe for rapid growth.

Modems allow for communication between computers at remote sites. In the 1988-1989 school year, approximately 25 percent of schools had modems; during the 1991-1992 school year, this percentage was expected to double to 50 percent (Mageau 1991a). Modems can be used to connect schools to network services, such as Prodigy or CompuServe, or to access other institutions participating in a wide area network (WAN). Many teachers use Internet, a system developed by the National Science Foundation to connect universities, government, and research centers.

Newman (1992b) notes that most local area networks (LANs) within schools are used to deliver tutorial instruction as part of an integrated learning system. In 1990 only a small minority of schools had both LANs and access to wide area networks. Even when they did, the computers on the LAN were seldom connected to the WAN, and hence the networks were not being used to provide large numbers of students with data and communication from the outside world. Despite lots of talk about telecommunications tearing down the school walls, neither the basic technology infrastructure nor the understanding of how best to capitalize on it is common at present. The potential is there, however. Plans are being developed for a National Research and Education Network (NREN), which would connect schools to major research and information centers, providing students and their teachers with access to information, databases, and special instruments, such as supercomputers, telescopes, or particle accelerators (Hunter 1992).

VCRs and Educational Video

Chen (1991) has noted that the best national data on instructional television use are the 7-year-old estimates from the School Utilization Study funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. According to this study, 54 percent of the nation's teachers used instructional television, one-third of them using at least two television series.

QED data indicate that between 1982 and 1989 the number of schools using videotapes more than tripled, from 31 percent to 99--percent near total saturation (Chen 1991). During these same years, the number of VCRs increased threefold from 26,000 to 81,000 (Chen 1991). Reports indicate that 91 percent to 96 percent of schools own at least one VCR (Becker 1990; Mageau 1991a). VCRs have taken their place in schools as a basic technology for education.

CD-ROM and Videodiscs

A recent QED survey found that, of approximately 15,000 school districts in the United States, 1,377 had CD-ROM drives, representing an increase of 70 percent over the previous year (Yoder 1991). Videodisc players were in use in 1,273 districts, a figure up 38 percent from the previous year (Yoder 1991). CD-ROM players, then, were in use in about 9 percent of the school districts and videodisc players in about 8.5 percent of the districts. QED predicted that both CD-ROM and videodisc use in schools would more than double during the 1991- 1992 school year. Thus, although CD-ROM and videodisc technologies are available in only a small percentage of schools and school districts currently, with expected decreases in cost, they will become increasingly common.

Satellite Technologies

Distance-learning programs are currently supported in nearly every state. Many of these programs focus on using satellite technologies to instruct children in isolated communities. An estimated one-third of all rural schools have telecommunications links; about one-third of these receive funding through the U.S. Department of Education's Star Schools program. Data suggest that 15 percent to 16 percent of public schools have satellite dishes (Becker 1990; Mageau 1991a).

Projections for the Future

After 1981, the number of public schools with computers increased around 11 percent annually (Office of Technology Assessment 1988). Approximately 300,000 to 400,000 computers have been added each year to U.S. schools (Becker 1990). Given the current number of computers in U.S. schools (about 2.6 million), if the number of computers added annually remains constant, we can anticipate about 4.2 million computers in public schools by 1995 and 6 million by the turn of the century. This projection is only slightly more conservative than the projection of 4.8 million computers in 1994 for public and private schools combined offered by LINK Resources (Mageau 1991a). If current trends continue, the median number of computers per school will rise from today's 33 to about 51 in 1995 and 74 in the year 2000. These average figures will mask large differences among schools, however, with some schools, districts, and states providing near universal access to computers, while others offer very little.

Equity Issues

Even with an anticipated major increase in computers and other technologies overall, there is concern that subgroups of students may have unequal access to these resources. Schools serving high socioeconomic status students report higher computer-to-student ratios than do schools with low socioeconomic status students (Becker 1983; Becker & Sterling 1987). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 1985-1986 survey found that white students were more likely to have used a computer than were African- American or Hispanic students, although this difference diminished at the high school level (Sutton 1991).

The problem is exacerbated by large differences in access to computers in the home. The NAEP survey found that nearly one-third of white high school students owned computers, compared with a little over one-fifth of African- American and Hispanic students (Sutton 1991). In 1985, African-American students were less likely to attend elementary schools with computers and, at both the elementary and secondary levels, tended to attend schools with fewer computer-using teachers than did white students (Becker & Sterling 1987). Higher socioeconomic status and white students, then, are more likely to have access to computers for education than are lower socioeconomic status and minority students.

Although smaller than socioeconomic and ethnicity differences, there is also a gender difference in access to computers in the schools, with boys having more access than girls (Sutton 1991). In addition, families of male students are more likely to own computers than are families of female students, and boys are more likely than girls to attend summer computer camps (Sutton 1991). Finally, academically more able students tend to use computers more than less able students (Becker & Sterling 1987).

Even when access to computers is equivalent, there may be important differences among groups in the way computers are used. Students in low-ability classes tend to use computers for drill and practice, while higher-ability students tend to use them more broadly, in ways that are more congruent with education reform goals (Becker & Sterling 1987; DeVillar & Faltis 1991).

In summary, research indicates that higher socioeconomic status students, white students, male students, and higher-ability students tend to use computers more than lower socioeconomic status students, minority students, female students, and lower-ability students. Comparable data are not available on other technologies, but similar patterns are likely to be common to many of them. If we consider access to the kind of collaborative, student-centered learning of advanced skills we have described above, inequalities are almost certainly even greater. Convincing those who develop instructional programs for disadvantaged students and those who purchase equipment and software with Chapter 1 funds of the appropriateness of challenging, technology-based projects for their students is one step in confronting the inequality. Even so, policymakers will need to address the issue of the proper state and federal roles in addressing the fundamental problem of large differences in the funds available for technology purchase and implementation.

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This page was last updated December 18, 2001 (jca)