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Back to school: PC or not PC?
San Francisco Chronicle


August 17, 2005

As students get ready to go back to school, with the tools of technology stuffed in their backpacks alongside paper and pencils, a growing number of critics are urging caution in the rush to computerize.

Schools that place too much emphasis on technology, particularly in the early grades, risk diverting resources from other critical aspects of education, such as art and physical activity, critics say.

"As we talk to people in the computer industry, we're hearing that young people don't have the same degree of creativity that earlier generations had. And they don't have the same social capacities," said Joan Almon, coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit group that has posted two reports questioning the emphasis on technology at its Web site, "The screen is really consuming childhood."

Even some supporters of technology in the schools acknowledge that, for the most part, computers have not been properly incorporated in classrooms and are not being used to their greatest potential or in ways that could enhance learning.

"It has not transformed the classroom in any fundamental way," said Mike Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and former president of the California state Board of Education. "The computer is supplementary or extraneous to the way of teaching in most classrooms. ... Teachers stand in the front, with chairs all around the room, and four or five computers jammed into a corner. It's hard to incorporate them into any work."

Yet technology is clearly making its move into the educational arena. According to a survey of 1,000 teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade conducted by the online computer retailer CDW, 93 percent of respondents said computers were either very useful or somewhat useful as a teaching tool. CDW's government division sells products to schools.

Keith Krueger, chief executive of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit group representing chief technology officers from school districts around the country, said that in 1997, only 10 percent of classrooms and one- third of schools had an Internet connection. Today, 100 percent of schools and 92 percent of classrooms are online.

And the students filling those classrooms are increasingly computer-savvy. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, in a study released last month, found that 87 percent of children between ages 12 and 17 use the Internet, up from 73 percent in 2000. More than half go online every day.

"Kids are arriving at school doors expecting that their educational environment is as interesting as the rest of their life," Krueger said. "They live in a very stimulated multimedia world, and they arrive on the doorstep of schools where they're not using technology. We ought to be engaging kids."

Some school districts are taking the challenge seriously. In the Reed Union School District in Tiburon, Calif., all middle-school students will get laptops this year.

In neighboring Mill Valley, a technology commission meets to develop a vision and a plan for the district, which has also embraced computers. The Marin Independent Journal reported that the district parted ways with its popular superintendent, Barbara Young, earlier this year, in part because trustees felt she was lagging in implementing the board's technology goals, but board President Paula Reynolds said that Young was a great supporter of technology and that issue had nothing to do with her departure. Reynolds would not expand on the reason for the dismissal.

Monib Khademi, a member of the Mill Valley district's Board of Trustees, has seen some of the great things technology can produce in schools. "The quality of the papers my daughter has done in middle school, contentwise, is much better than what I wrote at MIT in the 1960s," he said.

Khademi told the story of students using iMovies, a technology from Apple Computer, to make movies for the anti-drug D.A.R.E. program. "Kids were so interested in using the equipment for making movies rather than a written presentation," he said, that they used two years' worth of storage in two months. Rather than the students sitting passively while someone lectured them, the technology allowed them to be more actively engaged.

"The challenge," Khademi said, "is how do you use it properly. It's not a panacea."

Some educators are looking to technology to rescue students who are foundering in subpar schools.

Some schools are turning to technology to help boost their test scores, particularly as the federal No Child Left Behind Act puts strict sanctions on schools that fail to meet rising standards.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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