Nearly all U.S. public schools are Net-ready

Nearly all U.S. public schools are Net-ready

Digital divide narrowing

A recent national study found that 98 percent of U.S. public schools have Internet access.


Source: U.S. Education Department

Here's one less thing to worry about: The digital divide in U.S. classrooms is narrowing to a crack.

Ninety-eight percent of all public schools are connected to the Internet, according to a May U.S. Education Department report, Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2000. Whether the school was in a rural area or city, a poor community or a wealthy one, the percentages do not vary significantly, said Bernie Greene, project officer with Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

A survey of technology officials at school districts from Alaska's tundra to 123rd Street in New York City bears out the trend.

Alaska's Bering Straits School District's 15 schools are connected to the Internet via 15 satellite dishes and wireless modems, said David Fair, information systems manager for the school district. The schools are connected to each other through bridges from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif. General Communications Inc. of Anchorage, Alaska, provided the Internet connections, Fair said.

The district's student-to-computer ratio is three students to one, well below the national average of five students to one PC.

The district uses mostly Apple Macintoshes, including higher-end G4 systems, Fair said. The district won grants from the federal government in the past four years: an e-Rate grant from Education and grants from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The computers in the classroom have definitely made a difference in students' attitudes, Fair said. 'We've got students now wanting to get into school over the summer to check their e-mail.'

Henrico County School District near Richmond, Va., will be awash in Apple iBooks this fall, when Apple will deliver 23,000 iBooks. Every middle-school student and high-school student will have access to a portable computer, creating a 1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio for the upper grades, said Lloyd Brown, assistant director of technology. Before the $18 million iBook shipment, the ratio was eight students to one computer.

Each iBook will have an identifying serial number, Brown said. The iBooks also will have security tags that can be removed only with 800 pounds of pressure, and once removed will leave a mark etched on the unit that reads 'This is stolen property.'

Students can only access the school's LAN wirelessly from inside the school. They will also receive 56-Kbps modems so they can use the iBooks at home.

Before they chose the iBook, Henrico County officials had to answer a few questions, Brown said. Would iBooks fit in a locker? Are they rugged enough to withstand use by a high school student? Are they light enough to carry in a backpack?

County officials tested iBooks in the classroom. At 4.9 pounds, the district officials decided the iBook was light enough, and its rubber-mounted 10G disk drive tolerated bumps well enough to be stuffed into an overloaded backpack and slung onto a school bus.

Community School District 5 near 123rd Street in New York City has half Dell PCs, half Macintoshes, said Elizabeth Ballard, district technology coordinator. A few schools have fiber-optic connections to the Internet. All the district's schools can access the Internet through the New York City Board of Education network, which uses I-Gear Internet filtering software from Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif.

Ballard said computer distribution throughout the school district was uneven. Pockets of schools have fewer computers, Ballard said. In a few schools, every student has a computer. In other schools, each classroom has four computers, she said.

Ballard has no doubts about the value of computers in the classroom. 'Schools that use computers as part of the learning process have consistently improved learning,' she said. 'It's getting teachers the professional development to use them that is the key.'

No more pencils?

But Arnold Goldstein, project officer for Education's National Assessment of Education Program, warned against making quick judgments about the value of computers in the learning process. The department did a study on the correlation between computers in classrooms and scores on standardized math tests in 1996. Education officials will issue an update to the report this month.

'If a computer was used strictly for math drill and practice, students scored 270 out of a possible 500,' Goldstein said. 'But if a computer is used in a classroom for teaching new material, the average score was 281. That's definitely significant.'

Goldstein cautioned against making the assumption that the way the teacher used the computer affected the scores. 'It may be that the drill-and-practice classes were at a lower level to start with.' Goldstein's final evaluation was that there was no big gain in student performance when schools used computers to teach math.

Education officials assert that computers will be as much a part of the classroom as pencils and chalk. But, they add, the verdict is still out on whether computers are a solid boost to learning or an expensive version of the audio-visual room of old.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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