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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

A Response to Douglas Noble / We're In This Together

Along with technology's promise come inevitable problems. But educators can't afford to leave the solutions to others, nor to pretend that this revolution is not happening.

In "Mad Rushes into the Future: The Overselling of Educational Technology" (p. 18), Douglas Noble offers a sharp critique of a young industry and new market; but he reveals old themes: avarice, hyperbole, insensitivity, and egomania. In the light of the dawning millennium, these ignoble behaviors sadly but stubbornly persist among us. Noble's words sound an always useful buyer-beware alarm, but his message projects a bunker mentality an ill-advised us-against-them way of thinking.
We are experiencing one of the great transitions in human history. With all the uncertainty it engenders, a global community is emerging, born largely of digital communications and jet-powered transportation. The optimism around new social and economic possibilities stands in stark contrast to the realities we face today. Browsing the World Wide Web recently (one of those globe-shrinking technologies), my wife encountered a poignant illustration of our global plight. The anonymous author asked us to imagine that the world had been distilled down to a village of just 100 people. In that village, half of all material goods would be in the hands of 6 people. Each of those people would be U.S. citizens. Eighty members of the community would live in substandard housing, 50 would be malnourished, 70 would be unable to read, and only 1 would have enjoyed a college education.
If we considered all U.S. citizens and focused on education, we'd encounter a real-life version of this scenario. We would see that 74 percent of adults over 25 years of age have completed high school, and 19 percent have completed college (Cremin 1990). Laudable facts. But at the same time, more than 3,000 children in the United States drop out every school day, according to the Children's Defense Fund (1996). And half the children between the ages of 10 and 17 engage in behaviors that place them at a serious risk of alienation from their society or even of death (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development 1989). In short, we have a long way to go to forge a more humane and equitable world, and we are all in this together.

Mounting Evidence of Gains

Many of us in both the U.S. and other global villages ardently believe that schools and their communities have a significant role to play in building a better future. In the crucible of experimentation and debate, educators, researchers, parents, policymakers, and corporate partners who believe in this vision have sought to create more productive and engaging learning environments for our children. Part of the debate has been about technology and schools; and today, we know a great deal about the role computers can play and the difficulties that universal deployment of technology entails.
Beyond the self-evident fascination children display toward technology, significant and mounting evidence shows that technology improves students' mastery of basic skills, test scores, writing, and engagement in school. With these gains come decreases in the dropout rate and decreases in attendance and discipline problems. The acquisition of 21st century work skills communication, collaboration, technology use, and problem solving—have been demonstrated, as well (Tierney 1996).
Are these improvements entirely the result of adding computers to classrooms? Certainly not. Technology adds value to schools when it is an integral part of a comprehensive plan for instructional improvement and when teachers are adequately prepared to use the technology as one more tool in their arsenal. Along with staff development, of course, relevant software is required, as well as enough technology to give students routine access.

A Quiet Revolution

While evidence is slowly mounting about technology's positive impact in schools, it is already clear that digital technologies are well on the way to becoming a permanent part of the educational arena at all levels and in countries all around the world. President Clinton last February issued a challenge to schools to ensure technological literacy for all children. Inherent in the challenge was the provision of appropriate training for teachers, modern multimedia computers in classrooms, connections to the Internet, and effective software and online learning resources. The expectation is that by the year 2000, there will be a three-student-to-one computer ratio in our schools.
Throughout the Pacific Rim, many countries have robust plans for integrating technology in schools. Among the leaders are Singapore, South Korea, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Mexico. Howard Mehlinger (1996) describes this growing use of technology in schools as a quiet revolution, unlike any other he has seen in education. He characterizes the revolution as slow and steady; eclectic and largely devoid of ideology; and sparked, not by business interests or policymakers, but by teachers and principals who are simply trying to make their schools better.
Other pressures lend a sense of inevitability to this revolution. Our schools have been, and always will be, microcosms of their societies. They evolve over time to reflect values and processes. Our society has undergone a technological revolution in the past 5 to 10 years. Digital technologies now underlie the way we communicate, the way we conduct business, industry, and science, and even the way we entertain ourselves. Further, parents are well aware of the pace of technological change and how it has affected their work places. They want their children to master the knowledge and skills that rewarding work will require in the new millennium.

Problems and Promise

The promise of technology is that it will greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our institutions and evolve as an avenue for lifelong learning and universal communication. But along with that promise come inevitable problems: How will schools keep up with the pace of change? How will we ensure equitable access to everyone? How will we deal with information complexity and quantity? What about standards for quality? And what about privacy? How do we protect the intellectual work of our writers, artists, scientists, and engineers? Where in our curriculum do we help children navigate this new world? How do we make the minimum number of mistakes that we will surely make as we open school doors to this exotic future?
Noble expounds on the villainy and blundering of business leaders, policymakers, and technologists, and frets over their conspiracy to "use" schools. He concludes that educators should leave the experiments to the "technophiles among us." He recommends that the rest of us "unashamedly and with renewed integrity follow our own sense of what is sound educational practice."
I conclude differently. The serious questions about the use of technology in schools must be answered with care and forethought. In many instances they will only be answered through trial and error—we have not traveled this path before. But above all, they must be answered by all stakeholders in our children's futures, working in concert. Educators cannot leave these questions to others; they must be the salient voices, the designers of experiments, the risk takers, and the critics of results.
Technology, whether we like it or not, is changing the face of the planet. It is changing our notion of who we are as citizens of that planet. We can pretend that this is not happening and hold onto the past for as long as we can. Or we can grab this opportunity to build a world of peace, prosperity, and understanding.

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989). Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Children's Defense Fund. (1996). Facts and Figures: Every Day in America. World Wide Web: http://www.childrensdefense.org.

Cremin, L. (1990). Popular Education and Its Discontents. New York: HarperCollins.

Mehlinger, H.D. (1996). "School Reform in the Information Age," Phi Delta Kappan 77, 6:400 408.

Tierney, R. (1996). "Redefining Computer Appropriation: A Five-year Study Of ACOT Students." In Education & Technology: Reflections on Computing in Classrooms, edited by C. Fisher, D. Dwyer, and K. Yocam. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass and Apple Press.

End Notes

1 I traced this work to Cornell University, but lost the digital trail there.

2 These results are found in a number of studies: For example, in his meta-analysis studies, James Kulik of the University of Michigan's Center for Research on Teaching and Learning found trends indicating that when children studied basic skills using technology, their achievement scores rose 10 15 percent and their productivity, 30 percent. See also Barbara Means, (1993), Using Technology to Support Education Reform, (Menlo Park, California: SRI International); Alice W. Ryan, (May 1991), "Meta-Analysis of Achievement: Effects of Microcomputer Applications in Elementary Schools," Educational Administration Quarterly 27, 2: 161 184; Joan Herman, (1994), OTA-Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions, (Los Angeles: National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing); J. Sivin-Kachala and Ellen Bialo, (1994), Report on the Effectiveness of Technology in Schools, 1990 1994, (New York: Interactive Educational Systems Design, Inc.). Also, the work of J. Dexter Fletcher of the Institute of Defense Analysis, Arlington, Virginia, and John Pisapia and Stephen Perlman of the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.

3 Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge (U.S. Department of Education 1996) provides research-based and experience-based plans for developing technology resources in schools and school districts. It is an excellent compendium of case studies and state and federal initiatives.

David Dwyer has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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