The plain truth is this: The impact of computing on K-12 education in the United States has been essentially zero. Yes, one can point to specific classrooms, or even schools, that have benefited from computer technologies. However, if one looks at K-12 education as a whole, one sees no real change. Why? Here is our analysis:

Impact requires use.

From our Snapshot Survey (see link below) of more than 4,000 educators in 2001 from New York, Nebraska, Florida, and California, 42 percent reported that they have their students use a computer less than 15 minutes a week, while 65 percent reported that they have their students use the internet less than 15 minutes a week.

Similarly, Becker (2001) reports that 70 percent of the teachers in his nationwide survey have their students use computers zero, one, or two times a week.

Ah, so it’s the teachers’ fault! It’s those older teachers, for example, who don’t feel comfortable with technologies and who aren’t using the computers with their students.

Not so. From our Snapshot Survey data, we were not able to discern any evidence that would point to teachers per se being the cause of low use.

Use requires access.

From our Snapshot Survey data, 60 percent of teachers report that they have either one or no computers in their classroom. And, 65 percent report that they and their students have either no access to a computer lab, access to a computer lab less than once a week, or access at most once a week.

The ratio of students to computers has dropped over the past 25 years from 20 to 1 to below 10 to 1, but currently still stands at approximately 6 to 1 nationwide. Arizona, to pick one state, is trying to get to its state-mandated ratio of 8 to 1.

Educational technology naysayers claim that computational technologies have not impacted K-12 education. They are right, but for the wrong reason. It’s not that computers are inappropriate for supporting children in learning; it’s that children haven’t had a real opportunity to use computers for learning.

Indeed, a substantial body of empirical evidence developed over the past 25 years clearly demonstrates that computers do impact learning positively when a few basic conditions are met:

• Adequate access. “Time on task” is still a major factor in learning. Using a computer for 15 minutes a week is simply not enough time to have any meaningful impact on learning.

• Appropriate curriculum. Teachers need specific curriculum to guide them in the use of technology, and these materials need to leverage the value technology adds—e.g., learning in context, collaboration, information seeking, document development.

• Appropriate assessment. Tests that assess the impact of technology use need to examine the knowledge and skills acquired through the use of the technology.

• Adequate professional development. Teachers need to be prepared in how to use the technology effectively, and they need to be supported in the classroom as they use the technology.

• Supportive school culture. Creating a school culture where technology is viewed as a necessary component of learning and teaching, and where instructional risk-taking is a healthy strategy, is a major task for school administrators.

• Supportive community. Parents and community organizations must be supportive of schools as they explore—with the inevitable ups and downs—the use of technology in the classroom.

Access is an enabling condition for the other factors. Today’s ratio of 6 to 1 is nowhere near enough to support substantial minds-on engagement. Frankly, at a total cost of ownership of $6,500 for a personal computer, America’s schools are simply not going to reduce that ratio of students to computers to 1 to 1 in the near future.

But an opportunity has arisen, in the form of low-cost, handheld computers, that might well enable each of the 50 million school children in the United States to have one of their own to use on a routine, daily, personal basis. It is conceivable that, at $100 per unit, or approximately the cost of a pair of tennis shoes, a family could purchase a palm-sized device, or a school that already supplies graphing calculators could provide its students with the devices.

While a palm-sized computer does not have the functionality of a desktop or laptop computer, access is more important than functionality. Indeed, there are functionalities that palm-sized devices afford—and desktop or laptop computers do not afford—that are particularly suited to the K-12 context. For example:

• Palm-sized devices, being truly ready at hand, more conveniently support cycles of document construction and revision, and they support the immediate sharing with classmates of artifacts through “beaming” from one device to another.

• Palm-sized devices are instant-on and, most importantly from a teacher’s perspective, instant-off.

• These same palm-sized devices can be used to keep track of important due dates and take advantage of other productivity features.

For the first 20 years or so, computers had no appreciable impact on productivity in American industry. However, during the past six years, with computers pervasive in the workplace and with a real commitment to training, industry has figured out how to extract significant productivity gains from computational technologies.

Now, it’s K-12’s turn. Public education, America’s greatest industry, needs revitalizing. Technology can be the instrument leading the charge. Just as technology outside the classroom pervades the lives of our children, we need to incorporate it into learning and teaching inside the classroom.

Scientific evidence shows that technology use can lead to gains in learning, but lack of access to technology prevents our schools from reaping these benefits. The emergence of low-cost, handheld devices is providing us with a unique opportunity to solve the access problem—now. The solution is literally in the palms of our hands; we must have the will to grasp it.

Cathleen Norris is a professor of technology and cognition at the University of North Texas College of Education. She is also president of the National Educational Computing Association. Elliot Soloway is a professor of electrical engineering, education, and computer science at the University of Michigan and is founder of the Center for Highly-Interactive Computing in Education. Both are members of eSchool News’ advisory board.

Related links:
Snapshot Survey data