Issues in Science and Technology, Online A Publication of National Academy of Sciences National Academy of Engineering Institute of Medicine University of Texas at Dallas
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Editor's Journal


Let Them Eat Pixels

The digital divide is real, but it's not nearly as important as many other inequities.

President Clinton says, "Our big goal should be to make connection to the Internet as common as connection to telephones is today . . . We want to join with the private sector to bring more computers and Internet access into the homes of low-income people." He would provide $2 billion in tax incentives to encourage corporate donations to community technology centers, $150 million to train all new teachers to use computers effectively, $50 million for a public/private partnership to expand home access to computers and the Internet for low-income people, and much more. The Department of Commerce (Why that agency?) has even created a special Web site ( devoted completely to the topic of how to ensure that low-income people, rural dwellers, and minorities, particularly students, have increased access to computers and the Internet. Considering the school dropout rate, the crumbling condition of school buildings, the lack of teacher training in critical subjects such as science and math, and the shortage of textbooks, not to mention a host of nonschool problems that interfere with learning, why in the world are we getting exercised about the need for computers and Internet access? Is that anywhere near the top of the list of needs for the disadvantaged? Is it even on the first page!

Yes, it's true that the poor and some other groups do have less access to computers and the Net, but access is spreading so rapidly that this problem might disappear before we can create a presidential commission to study it. The percentage of schools with an Internet connection has grown from 35 percent in 1994 to 95 percent in 1999. Almost two out of three public school instructional rooms had Internet access in 1999, up from 3 percent in 1994. Home access is increasing also, growing at a healthy, albeit somewhat slower, pace. In one aspect of computer use, black students are actually ahead of the curve. The 1998 Reading Report Card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) included survey data that indicated that black students are more likely than white students to use a computer in doing their homework.

On the other hand, researchers have found that compared to white and affluent students, poor and minority students are more likely to use computers for drill and practice exercises and less likely to use them for higher-order intellectual tasks. Similarly, poor schools are likely to have slower Internet connections than their more affluent counterparts. And since teachers in low-income schools are likely to be less well trained, it's likely that they make less effective use of computers in the classroom.

But is this a national crisis? These students who have less access to computers and the Net also have less access to everything else. Why among all their deprivations should we focus on their lack of computers? Is this what separates the underclass from the upwardly mobile? Hardly. In fact, when I join other Washington policy wonks and opinion shapers on the sidelines for our kids' soccer games, the conversation often turns to how to keep kids off their computers and into their books. We understand very well that books are still the best technology for teaching kids how to acquire information, understand the human psyche, and argue a point of view. We also know that when kids get online, they spend most of their time exchanging instant messages, hanging out in chat rooms, playing games, or downloading music files. Never mind the other things that we don't want to even think about. Yes, they also do some research and word processing, but we know that the most important part of their education does not occur in front of a screen.

If I had to guess how well a student was doing in school on the basis of a single piece of home information, I'd be looking at bookcases, not computers. Of course, we don't know nearly as much about books in the home, but the 1998 NAEP study found that about a quarter of the homes of U.S. black and Hispanic fourth graders have fewer than 25 books. And that's not even close to what I think would be necessary to stimulate a child's imagination. Other findings from the NAEP study suggest that those concerned with low student achievement would do well to look at factors other than computers. For example, only 26 percent of 12th graders study more than a hour a day, whereas 37 percent watch 3 or more hours of TV per day.

The Clinton administration wants every new teacher to be trained in how to use computers effectively in the classroom. That would be fine if we knew what to tell them. As William L. Rukeyser, the coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a Woodland, California-based organization that awards grants to researchers studying the costs and benefits of classroom computers, told the National Journal, "Most people are of the opinion that there are areas where it's going to be worthwhile and cost effective [to use computers in schools], but we don't have the evidence yet to determine what those areas are." This spring, the Department of Education plans to launch a comprehensive study on the effectiveness of classroom technology. Wouldn't it make sense to learn a little more about what works before inflicting the technology on students and teachers?

We know quite a bit about what works in chalk-and-blackboard science and math education, and we know that only 11 percent of middle school math teachers and 21 percent of middle school science teachers majored in math, science, or math/science education. Isn't that a more pressing problem? Likewise, there are undoubtedly numerous teachers who could be trained to be more effective writing teachers and librarians who could do a better job of giving students the skills to locate, evaluate, and use information. These could be the beginning of a long list of skills that could be imparted to teachers with a $150-million teacher-training budget. We are constantly hearing how important computer skills are becoming in the workplace. Sure, but the computers that today's elementary school students use at work will be completely different from what they might use now in a classroom. And ask any employer if they would prefer to have to teach new hires computer skills or basic writing and math.

There is a divide in this country, but it's not digital. It's in basic academic skills and in high-quality schools. The educated upper middle class is not choosing schools on the basis of how many computers they have or how fast their Internet connection is. They are looking at the qualifications of the teachers and the rigor of the curriculum. Operating a computer is simple compared to designing a scientific experiment, solving a challenging math problem, or writing a forceful and coherent paragraph. For young people who have these skills, the computer is a useful tool. For those who don't, the computer is a diversion, an entertainment device, perhaps an alternative to TV. It's better than TV, but it's not nearly good enough. At this stage in the development of educational technology, the computer and Net are a condiment or a dessert on the educational menu. If we want to help disadvantaged students, we should be providing more nourishing help: the bread of well-trained teachers and a rigorous curriculum.