By Evan Hansen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
November 12, 2003, 4:00AM PT
Since the pioneering public school opened last year, however, a bit of youthful reality has confounded the technology evangelists and educational theorists behind the Evergreen program. Teenagers, it seems, often break things.
"They treated the laptops more like their own personal computer instead of school property," said Dennis Barbata, the principal at Evergreen Valley's School of Science and Technology, which recently banned students from taking the machines home. "I'm not convinced that the laptop is the interface device at this point for a 24/7 computer access program for students."
The controversy has acquired new urgency as the nation's schools face unprecedented budget cuts that have led educators and parents to challenge the justification for computers when districts have less money for basic needs ranging from broken toilets to staff salaries. Complicating matters further are concerns over the influence of companies that donate computing equipment and then benefit from lucrative school contracts, tax breaks, brand awareness and product testing on campus.
Few suggest that schools should invest nothing on classroom computers. But concerns have been raised about blind faith in technology as an educational panacea, especially in the absence of sufficient research by objective parties into what does and does not work.
Technology spending is only a small percentage of most school budgets and is among the first items cut when cash is scarce. Nevertheless, some aggressive technology programs continue to win special funding either through grants or public budgets even as teachers receive pink slips.
Ambitious programs have mushroomed across the country. Maine is entering the second year of a $50 million program that has already armed all of the 7th and 8th graders in the state's 240 public schools with Apple Computer's iBook. Michigan, meanwhile, has earmarked $38 million to bring technology to public school 6th graders, a plan that includes purchasing 130,000 laptops.
"People are not waiting around for the research to tell them the right thing to do," said Ray McNulty, president of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a nonprofit group that promotes effective education. "You lose a whole generation if you wait."
Effective teaching tools?
That may be so, but it is still a gamble. For all the rhetoric behind the high-tech revolution, relatively little evidence backs the idea that computers improve learning in readily measurable ways, such as producing higher grades.
To that end, Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia in September announced a partnership to build a state-of-the-art high school that incorporates technology throughout its operations as part of what educators called a "long-term relationship" with the company. Under the project, which will cost an estimated $46 million in taxpayer money, Microsoft will donate software, services and support staff to the school.
Yet even these comprehensive efforts cannot guarantee success when the value of technology in the classroom remains a subject of dispute.
A controversial report that claims to offer the first side-by-side comparison of the effects of computer-assisted instruction (CAI) on test scores was published in a British academic review, The Economic Journal, in October 2002. The report found that Israeli 8th graders did slightly worse in mathematics when course material was taught partly on PCs in the classroom relative to others who studied the same material the old-fashioned way.
Such conclusions are still preliminary and have not persuaded policy-makers to lower the priority of technology in favor of other needs. In fact, the lack of compelling evidence that technology works in the classroom is sometimes used as a justification to push the envelope further. If computers haven't proven effective as a teaching tool, the argument goes, it must be because not enough has been done to make them indispensable.
The influences feeding such circular thinking are complex, spanning such diverse interests as politicians courting voters with school-age children, technology companies vying for contracts, and cash-strapped districts happy to accept any kind of handout. The result, critics say, is a situation that allows for questionable corporate relationships.
"Companies give large donations to help out with technology purchases or build buildings and then try to use that as a leverage point to sell their products throughout a school district," said Mike Lorion, vice president of education at handheld computer maker Palm, which has donated equipment to schools in the past.
Former Evergreen Valley High School plant manager Mike Welch bristled recently when asked what Applied Materials expects in return for its donations. "There're always strings," he said, noting that company representatives have played a role in certain hiring decisions. "You pay special attention when the person who's offering another $1 million is talking."
But Welch doesn't think Applied has a hidden agenda. "They're interested in being good corporate citizens, in being part of something that really makes a difference," he said.
Something's better than nothing
Welch is one of those who subscribe to the theory that any money is better than no money. He and other Evergreen administrators have raised more than $5 million in state, federal and private grants for a program that aims to give every student a portable computer with wireless Internet access. The goal was to test the full potential of technology in the classroom through a schoolwide program, rather than piecemeal experiments.
"The money is there," he said. "You just have to fill out the grant applications."
A typical in-class technology evaluation took place in 2001 featuring Palm handheld computers, funded by the company and administered by nonprofit research organization SRI International. The $2.3 million study provided the devices to 86 classes, including Shakespeare students seeking to improve "communications between teachers and students."
SRI reported that 96 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that handheld computers "are an effective instructional tool for teachers." Researchers also found that 73 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that handheld computers "are more easily used in the flow of classroom activity than desktop computers."
Palm's Lorion confirmed that his company picked up the full tab for the study but denied that the close relationship with SRI undermined the independence of the research. "Part of what we wanted was to learn how to make our products better. That's why we handed the project off to SRI," he said.
Since the study, school spending on handheld devices for classroom use has spiked. According to Framingham, Mass.-based technology research company IDC, spending on handhelds in public schools from kindergartens through high schools will reach about $40 million in the 2003 to 2004 school year, $175 million in 2004 to 2005, and nearly $300 million by 2005 to 2006.
"Very seldom do you see companies give solely out of the goodness of their hearts," said Don Knezek, chief executive of International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates guidelines for technology training and curriculum in schools. "They put out grants to promote an agenda, prove a point, or encourage risk taking."
Many educators and administrators are hoping for a more independent assessment of technology's role in education, resulting from new legislation known as the No Child Left Behind Act, which sets new benchmarks for accountability beginning in 2005. Signed into law last year, the law mandates a $15 million, five-year research evaluation of the use of instructional computers in the nation's classrooms.
But conflicts could well erupt over the government's benchmarks, which include measuring the impact of technology on test scores. Other factors that will be considered include the effects of in-class technology on attendance and drop-out rates, as well as teacher productivity.
That could bode well for state-sponsored programs such as Maine's Learning Technology Initiative, which has already identified several benefits after an independent evaluation, according to project manager Tony Sprague. "Attendance was up, and disciplinary incidents were down," he said. "The students appear to have responded with greater engagement and interest in their work."
Can PCs make the grade?
While such reports are promising, few education experts expect computer instruction to translate directly into better grades--a factor that could pose problems for federal funding of technology programs down the road, depending on how heavily the Education Department's evaluation program relies on test scores.
"No one will say, 'Give me technology and I'll guarantee test scores will go up in two years,'" said Saul Rockman, founder of San Francisco-based technology education consulting firm Rockman Et Al and former head of education research at Apple. "The feds are saying, 'Prove that it makes a difference.' The fact is, technology programs don't have the weight to raise test scores."
At Evergreen Valley, it's still too early to judge the influence of laptops in terms of grade performance. But at least some students and educators already count them alongside pens and books as classroom staples.
Smita Mohan, a sophomore at the school during the first year of the experiment, remembered her reaction to getting a school-issued laptop in the same way others remember their first bike.
Like many students, Smita first checked out the games that came bundled on the machine. After that, she and her friends sent instant messages to each other. Then she began to use the computer as it was intended: to research projects, collaborate with other students on lessons, and learn basic high school curriculum in a whole new way. Now she can easily retrieve information about ionic bonds, make flash movies, and sum up school reports in a PowerPoint presentation.
"The future is going to be about technology," Smita said during a recent chemistry class, as she and her fellow students huddled around IBM ThinkPads to research the octet rule and Lewis Dot Structure on sites approved by their teacher. "If you don't have experience with computers, you're in trouble."
In some ways, however, Evergreen's laptop program was hampered by its own ambitions. Principal Barbata said offering students 24-hour access to the computers quickly became a logistical nightmare as enrollment soared from 850 students last year to about 1,500 this fall.
A typical Silicon Valley company running 1,500 laptops might have 10 to 15 full-time support staff, Barbata said, well beyond the resources of a public school. Then the school's insurers decided to raise the deductible on damage and loss of off-campus computers. Lastly, the school found it had little control over the kinds of activities that students would conduct on the laptops.
"It's been something of a knee-jerk reaction that laptops are the way to go," Barbata said. "Maybe handhelds will be the devices that students carry with them everywhere."
Consultants such as Rockman offer a more cynical view. He said many school programs often are little more than research and marketing tools for the computing industry.
"Salesmen have always sold snake oil," he said. "Education initiatives in many cases simply mean making school kids beta testers for Microsoft."
CNET News.com's Lisa Bowman contributed to this report.
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