Despite shrinking budgets and the slowed economy, American public schools have managed to increase their hardware inventory with roughly the same spending as last year, according to a new study from research firm Market Data Retrieval (MDR). The company cited declining technology costs as a key reason for the expansion.

“Technology in Education 2002,” the latest installment in MDR’s annual series of reports on the state of technology in the nation’s schools, provides information on the use of laptops, wireless networks, and digital video disc (DVD) drives, as well as instructional computers by brand of choice, internet connectivity, handheld devices, and distance education programs.

The report, which is expected to be released next week, paints a fairly rosy picture of school technology use overall. Newer technologies—such as laptops, handhelds, and wireless internet connections—are making inroads into schools, and schools appear to be stepping up their professional development efforts to enhance teachers’ technological abilities.

But only 40 percent of school computers have high-end processors, defined as Pentium II or higher, Power Macintosh, or iMac. The remaining 60 percent of machines are slower. What’s worse, students in schools with higher percentages of minority students still don’t enjoy the same access to computers as their peers in more affluent schools.

One encouraging finding is the presence of newer technologies in schools. Forty percent of schools reported using laptop computers, 30 percent have DVD drives installed on at least some computers, 15 percent have wireless networks, and 7 percent provide handheld computers to teachers. High schools are more likely to own laptops than middle or elementary schools, according to the report.

“The old observation that ‘change in schools takes 30 years’ is no longer true, and particularly not with eLearning—a still-gathering revolution that has been accomplished in a third that time,” said Dale Mann, managing director of consulting firm Interactive Inc.

Computers and technology continue to penetrate into the classroom, the study says. More than half (54 percent) of the installed base of school computers are found in classrooms, and 90 percent of schools reported having internet access in at least some classrooms.

The ratio of students per instructional computer has improved from 7 to 1 in 1997 to slightly less than 4 to 1 in 2002. However, this ratio still counts some older computers that cannot support the needs of today’s multimedia-rich computing environment. Multimedia computers make up only 62 percent of the installed base of instructional-use computers in schools, according to the report.

On average, almost six students share every internet-connected computer and six students share every multimedia computer.

Overall, U.S. public schools reported having 12.7 million instructional computers in 2002, up 12 percent from 11.3 million in 2001. Of those machines, 58 percent are PCs, 35 percent are Macintosh, and 7 percent are Apple IIs.

Chris Mahoney, director of technology for the Lake Hamilton School District in Arkansas, said the report’s findings reflect his own district’s experience.

“Our technology budgets did stay pretty much the same if not less than last year,” Mahoney said. “However, we were able to stretch the funds further because of the lower cost of computers and equipment.”

Of the schools that indicated a specific brand of choice, 31 percent said Macintosh and 28 percent reported Dell, followed by Compaq (14 percent), IBM (13 percent), Gateway (11 percent), and Hewlett-Packard (3 percent).

Since 1996, the report says, internet access in public schools has tripled from 32 percent to 94 percent. More than three-quarters of schools now have high-speed internet access through a T1 or T3 line, cable modem, or digital satellite. Seventy-two percent of school computers are connected to a local or wide area network, and 64 percent are connected to the internet.

Eighty percent of schools said the majority of their teachers use computers on a daily basis, and 73 percent said the majority use the internet for instructional purposes.

One-quarter of schools reported that the majority of their teachers are beginners, meaning they are still mastering computer basics. Slightly more than half of the schools surveyed said the majority of their teachers have intermediate skills and can use computer applications such as word processors and interactive encyclopedias. Only 11 percent of schools said their teachers are advanced computer users.

Students in schools with high percentages of minority students still have less access to computers, the report says. Schools with minority enrollments of 50 percent or more average 6.6 students per multimedia computer, compared with 4.9 students per multimedia computer for schools with minority enrollments of less than 5 percent.

The gap in access to internet-connected computers is even wider. Schools with minority enrollments of 50 percent or more average 6.7 students per internet-connected computer, compared with 4.6 students per internet-connected computer for schools with minority enrollments of less than 5 percent.

Teachers from schools with high minority enrollments and from schools serving poor children also use technology less frequently than other teachers.

However, despite limited resources and smaller enrollments, rural schools reported the highest percentage of teachers who use technology. More than 77 percent of rural schools said the majority of their teachers use the internet for instruction, and 85 percent said the majority of their teachers use computers daily.

This finding is particularly encouraging, said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas.

“Many state and federal grant programs over the last six years have targeted rural schools and teachers,” Hirsch said. “From the statistics [MDR] quoted, it appears these initiatives have been successful in enabling greater access [to] and use [of technology].”

Schools with high enrollments of poor or minority students might benefit by applying these same practices and strategies used by rural schools to integrate technology, he noted.

MDR’s report is based on surveys from 25,585, or 29 percent, of the nation’s K-12 public schools about their technology use during the 2001-02 school year. The surveys were conducted over the telephone and online, and all 87,100 U.S. public schools were contacted. ____________________________

Managing Editor Dennis Pierce contributed to this report.

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