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Education in the United States is vaulting into the digital era. Students today can use Facebook to create book report-related author pages, while teachers can Skype in experts for in-class science lessons.
But with disparities in funding and allocation of resources, the rush to inject more technology into classrooms is leaving many behind.
“I saw maybe one or two very old computers in the Atlanta preschools [I visited],” said Pilar Carmina Gonzalez, a researcher for the Education Development Center (EDC), a global non-profit that works to enhance education through the use of technology. Gonzalez recently visited schools in Atlanta and Florida, and says some schools still struggle with even just email access.
“If the teachers aren’t able to access the web, they aren’t able to access as many high quality lessons,” she said.
Racing ahead, falling behind
By 2022, the federal government expects 1 million more tech jobs than workers available to fill them. Yet, only one-fifth of its $4.3 billion annual budget for the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—is allocated for pre-bachelor's education.
The result is an education infrastructure unable to meet the needs of our increasingly tech-centric society.
Evan Marwell, CEO and founder of EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit backed by Bill Gates (of Microsoft) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that aims to upgrade every public school in the United States to a high-speed Internet connection, says bandwidth demand is growing from 30-50 percent a year, in part because more schools are using online resources.
Yet as of 2013, the average American school had roughly the same bandwidth as the average American home, but that bandwidth was shared between hundreds of students.
Nationally, only 20 percent of students in the United States currently have access to high-speed Internet in the classroom. And using SchoolSpeedTest data, one finds that only around 30 percent of schools meet the basic Internet speed standard set by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA).
According to SEDTA, classrooms now need 100 kilobytes per student. By 2017, they expect that to increase to one megabyte per student in order to prepare them for college and 21st century careers.
New standards, more tech
For schools in low-income areas that have fewer resources at their disposal the picture is even more troubling. Students in these schools typically access the Internet less often than students in wealthier areas, while nearly two-thirds of teachers working in low-income schools said they wanted more technology in the classroom.
Common Core may help deliver just that
The Common Core is a set of new education standards designed to revamp the way schools instruct and assess students. Many states are already using Common Core. Now many districts are preparing to begin the related computer-based assessments — and for that they are buying new devices and increasing their online connectivity. Where before schools had one computer for every 10 children, now they are moving toward one computer for five to seven children.
This is in line with the National Education Technology Plan, which calls for adding “state-of-the art technology into learning to enable, motivate and inspire all students,” and with ConnectED, a technology initiative aiming to add high-speed digital connections in schools by 2018.
According to a 2010 study, young people now spend more time on the Internet than they do in school; it is the leading activity for children and teenagers other than sleeping. Still, most of the time young people spend online is used for things like gaming and social activities like messaging and checking Facebook. Not for doing homework.
Hadi Partovi is the co-founder of Code.org. He says the focus in schools should be on teaching computer science and coding skills, to transform young people from consumers of technology into creators. According to Code.org, which provides various online resources and documents that can be downloaded and used offline, 90 percent of schools don't even teach basic computer science skills.
And while advocates say increasing technology in the classroom will help make learning more engaging and interactive, there is little research available on what programs, lessons or methods work best.
In 2009, the Education Department found little scientific evidence for the effectiveness of online courses, while much of the learning software then being developed was seen as “not an improvement over textbooks.” And as for the rising popularity of online college courses, known as MOOCs, only 6.8 percent of all registered students were found to have actually finished their course.
“Good results are arrived [at] not from the number of devices or the tech speed (though they are important),” said the EDC’s Gonzalez, “but from the combination of the technology upgrades and the related teacher development and buy-in. If teachers aren’t comfortable with the technology, they are going to have a hard time.”
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