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This School Bytes!

Retired Stanford Professor Larry Cuban and a group of graduate students went on the road to study technology in the classroom and found that computers have not made the grade.

By Allie Gottlieb

WE'RE IN the future. Yippee! Except for the jet packs and hovercraft that we should have by now (but don't--dammit!), all the signs are here. Take Big Brother, for example, who, post-9/11, shamelessly watches us from intersections, parking garages, overpasses and drugstore doorways. But the ultimate Jetsons Age gauge should be schools. After all, they're the ones that teach the next generation to take over, right? That means they're a logical yardstick for the relevance of innovation.

So, class, let's review: The numbers show that after many years our schools are still high on the fumes of the mighty technology revolution. California schools average about one computer for every six students, according to the California Department of Education's latest Education Technology Survey, reported last September.

It's still raining money for education technology around here. And the Ed Department is wading through the results from its 2002 survey--which it considers a potential prelude to more federal funds. Schools had to return their completed surveys by April 1, and the department's report is imminent.

Because of all the computers in schools, students are learning more, better, faster. Right? Not according to the latest research.

Failing Grades

"I define failure [as] access to machines and minimal or no use of them in schools," retired Stanford professor Larry Cuban tells Metro during an interview at a Palo Alto cafe a few weeks ago. Cuban is the author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Harvard University Press), a book about how the intense school-wiring push of the last two decades has proven itself to be a giant bomb.

Basically, Cuban says the computer industry promised too much and American society expected too much from the introduction of computers into schools. He adds that teaching is too hard a job to burden further with a whole new electronic system that comes without sufficient training and incentives. But while computers are gathering dust, and at least some school officials know it, pressure to wire the kids, at any price, continues.

"The issue here in Silicon Valley," Cuban says, "is that no school can afford to say publicly that they are not using [computers] very much in classrooms, because computers are so pervasive in the workplace, and the expectation is that they are being used in classrooms."

As Cuban tells it, technology hype started with "techno-enthusiasts" who built up the magic of computers. In the last decade, folks like former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, IBM's Louis Gerstner, and Apple co-creator Steve Wozniak pushed a seemingly faith-based Field of Dreams theory of hooking schools up to the inevitable world of computers.

"The school classroom is the last bastion of ignorance in the use of technology," Gerstner groused to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995. "It's as if school systems went to sleep 50 years ago."

Hammer made a similar complaint to the San Jose Mercury News in 1996: "Twenty-first century technology is everywhere ... everywhere, until recently, but in our schools. San Jose was woefully ill-equipped to give students skills they need for jobs in our own backyard."

School districts took these complaints seriously. They went on a technology binge and continue to spend billions to chase technological advancements. Ultimately, however, even though Silicon Valley built the educational computer infrastructure, probably in part to appease political and industry lobbying, the machines often go unused.

This revelation prompted one national parent-led group based in Maryland, with offices in Los Angeles, to demand a moratorium on school-computer buying for the younger grades a few years back. It also sparked a study and series of discussions held in February by San Francisco-based nonprofit educational group WestEd RTEC (Regional Technology in Education Consortium) called "The Learning Return on Our Technology Investment."

Cuban says that even the original boosters of school computers point out that computers aren't used enough in schools. "So they complain," he says. "But they usually blame the schools. I'm trying to give a more sophisticated kind of response that these people really don't understand what the daily life of teachers is and the complexities of teaching and learning in schools."

Glitch Gulch

"It is a logistical problem," Cuban says. "A whole bunch of logistic issues just create more complications for teachers in an already complicated workday."

Cuban and his team of Stanford grad students visited classes in 11 undisclosed schools, from preschool to college, between San Jose and San Francisco, starting in 1998. For two years, they tagged along with students and teachers, interviewed and surveyed them.

Cuban's crusade hit Silicon Valley because this is where "technology cheerleaders and resources are abundant, and schools offer a best case for exploring whether reformers' assumptions have materialized as predicted," he explains in his book. The book, which came out in September, sells about 500 copies a month, according to Cuban.

Cuban sums up what he found in a chapter on "Unexpected Findings." He reports that students and teachers aren't technophobic; they use computers at home. But, he notes, "Less than 10 percent of teachers who used computers in their classrooms were serious users ... Well over half of the teachers were nonusers."

He also found that fewer than 5 percent of students had "tech-heavy" experiences (if they had heavy computer use it was mostly off-campus), and fewer than 5 percent of teachers routinely taught with a computer. Ultimately, Cuban wrote, "we found no clear and substantial evidence of students increasing their academic achievement as a result of using information technologies."

Larry Cuban Retired Stanford Professor Larry Cuban


Photos by L.A. Cicero / Stanford University News Service



Broken Promises

Cuban's conclusion that computers are underused given their hype and financial support seems to ring true to various local school district insiders. School officials and teachers charge from different angles. But they back Cuban's claims nonetheless.

For instance, the California Department of Education's 2001 report shows that while the ratio of computers to students is rising in every category, problems with use persist. Statewide, 91 percent of schools lack staff certified to make sure that computers are kept in good working order. Also problematic, only 13 percent of teachers felt that they were proficient in computer use. Fewer than one in 100 students considered themselves proficient.

Barry Inoue, who has taught for 15 years, says not all teachers are agile enough with computers to use them for teaching. Inoue, a fifth-grade teacher at San Jose's Christopher Elementary School, says he's comfortable using computers himself but hasn't worked them into his curriculum. He laments that the computers at school aren't always dependable and no one's nearby to fix them if they break.

"We have this beautiful computer lab," he says. "But we're not willing to pay somebody to stick around and make sure the computers work."

The bottom line for Inoue, however, is not money. "If I don't have a computer in my room, I'm still going to be able to teach," he says. "We still have books and paper and pencils. So that's what we're working with."

Kevin Gordon, of the California Association of Chief Business Officials, calls Cuban's criticism fair. He says, "If we don't have even a telephone for every teacher in our schools, it's a stretch to think that we should have a modem line."

Techno Freaks

Why bother with computers, when teachers already use books and paper and pencils?

"Doubtless it is our irrational obsession with hi-tech solutions that makes us such willing victims of advertising that promises to make kids smarter faster and to cure education problems," Jane Healy wrote in her 1998 book, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds--For Better and Worse.

Or perhaps huge bags of money from the tech lobby have something to do with our unconditional love for computers. In just over a decade, computer and Internet companies have coughed up more than $74 million for political campaigns, according to January's Federal Election Commission data, courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics. IBM paid $6.1 million and hired three firms to do its bidding in 1999 alone. San Jose's own Intel chipped in $1.3 million and hired five lobbying firms to push its agenda.

Intel also contributes heavily to technology in education. In 2000, Intel poured roughly $107 million in cash and equipment into schools. The company donated computers, taught teaching with computers and sponsored a tech talent search and a science camp.

"Intel benefits by having our future workforce more technologically literate," says Intel California Education manager Julie Dunkle.

Dunkle talks up her company's Teach to the Future program, which tries to fill the gaps between teachers having computers and using them. "It's really the teachers that are where the talent lies," she says. But not using computers "is a missed opportunity" and using them, a timesaver, she says. "Productivity is increased."

Cashing In

Author Healy shares with readers the striking fact that U.S. schools spent $4.34 billion in the 1996-97 school year to wire kiddies to the information highway and the rest of techland. Two years later, Cuban reports in his book, that amount jumped to $5.5 billion. A November article in the Boston Globe puts the yearly federal spending on technology in education at nearly $8 billion.

Attacks on the overhype of computer power notwithstanding, education spenders continue to throw cash at the high-teching of schools. Some money goes toward figuring out "the best uses of technology," according to San Jose Unified School District spokesperson Bill Erlendson.

He says the district received a grant for that purpose a few years ago and learned some lessons before that money ran out. (Namely, they found that teachers must overhaul their technique to make curricula computer-friendly.) Such wisdom aside, this year California's K-12 schools received about $515 million in federal and state grants and discounts for technology. Actual technology spending could exceed that amount, since districts can also dip into their general funds for computer-related stuff, according to a consultant with California's Ed Tech Department.

Back to the future, the upcoming 2002 Education Technology Survey report could help continue this money trend, according to Susan Lange, deputy superintendent for the state Education Department's Finance, Technology and Administration.

"It is quite possible that this data will document the need for more funding to provide students with adequate access to technology," Lange wrote in a Jan. 22 letter asking principals to complete the survey. "It is our plan to use the data to support California's application for federal education technology funding." Lange notes that last year's survey inspired the federal government to up its share of cash for technology in schools by $30 million plus.

Cuban, who personally enjoys using computers and owns three, envisions only more of the same in Silicon Valley (and all) schools.

"Because schools are seen as an instrument of the economy, one of their jobs is to prepare people for the workplace," he says. "I don't think schools can avoid computers or technology or anything like that. It's inexorable. Schools have to have computers."


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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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