Teachers are getting more computers in their classrooms, but they’re having a hard time finding software to meet their students’ needs, according to a survey of the nation’s teachers and state education departments by the newspaper Education Week.
While government officials declare school technology a national mission and pledge to connect every classroom to the internet, they are not investing enough time and money in educational software, the survey concludes.
“Politicians wire the classrooms and think they are done,” said publisher Virginia Edwards. “But that’s not the case at all.”
According to the survey, called “Technology Counts,” 59 percent of teachers who use software for instruction said it is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to find software to meet their needs in the classroom.
Many teachers reported that the available learning software does not match state or school district standardized tests, cannot run on underpowered classroom computers, consumes too much instructional time, or costs too much.
“I wouldn’t give many of the [software] titles a 9 or a 10,” said Ed Adshead, a network resource teacher who helps colleagues with computers at Patrick Henry Elementary School in suburban Washington. “We have to hunt for it, and then we find it isn’t nearly as good as it looked like or what it was described as.”
Overall, 71 percent of the nation’s 86,000 schools can reach the internet from at least one classroom. On average, the report said, nearly six studentsthere are 53.2 million nationwidematch up for every one “instructional computer,” which includes older models without extras such as sound cards and video.
Cost is a problem in effectively using computers, 80 percent of the teachers surveyed said. Among those teachers who use software for instruction, 47 percent said there are software titles they would like to use, but cannot because their school computers are not powerful enough.
At Patrick Henry, which has a $4,000 annual computer software budget, teachers buy software products with their own money and enlist the Parent-Teacher Association’s help in fund-raising. Recently, they hauled 250 donated computers in their cars.
“We are at a distinct advantage when you look at what we do have,” says fifth-grade teacher Melinda Jones. “We all attended the workshops, but it’s all about taking time to find what we need and getting the support to do it really consistently.”
But cost and time aren’t the only problems. According to the survey, 46 percent of teachers who use software for instruction say that how it matches with their state or district curriculum is a “big” or “moderate” problemparticularly as state standardized tests have become the focal point of school curricula.
Software problems are not insurmountable, according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED).
“The whole landscape has changed,” said Linda Roberts, ED’s director of technology. “Publishers are very serious about developing content for the schools. The challenge is in developing high quality content, and that takes money and knowledge about how students learnand it takes very clear signals from the buyers.”
Recognizing a need on the part of teachers, some software publishers already have begun to tie software to state standards of learning. The California-based company Knowledge Adventure, for example, recently developed special versions of its Classworks Gold software aligned to state standards in Texas and Florida, and other states’ versions are in the works, the company said.
Other resources are cropping up to help teachers and curriculum directors find software to meet their needs. For instance, a free web site from MediaSeek Technologies, called ExploraSource, identifies learning resources from more than 120 well-known publishers of educational materialsincluding books, web sites, software, and video tapesthat match the curriculum topics, grade levels, and state or national standards indicated by users.
More key findings:
• Teachers who have been in the classroom five years or less are no more likely to use digital content than those who have been teaching for more than 20 years, suggesting that training is the biggest factor in the use of instructional technology.
• Teachers in grades K-5 are more likely to use software than web sites for instruction, while teachers in grades 6-12 are more likely to use web sites than software.
• Science teachers report the greatest difficulty in finding software, followed by English, math, and social studies teachers.
• Teachers who have more influence in selecting software tend to rely on it more.
• Twenty-three states have group-purchasing plans for schools to buy classroom software, which can cost $600 to $1,000 per title.
• Four states developed some software lessons to match the standards they have set for learning goals by grades. Eight states put such content on web sites.
“Technology Counts” was based on 1,407 responses from a representative sample of 15,000 K-12 teachers, Education Week said. The reported margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The third annual report tracking state policies and funding of school technology was underwritten by The Milken Family Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif.
“Technology Counts ’99” report
U.S. Department of Education
Milken Family Foundation