Picture students working together in a school science class studying local rainfall and flooding, and collecting information on the Internet from local weather stations.
Next door, another class is discussing Native American history via satellite hookup with an expert on the East Coast. In yet another classroom, inexperienced teachers are participating in a video conference on teaching phonics, which is being taught by a master teacher in a school hundreds of miles away.
Technology has the power to teach, to motivate, to captivate, and to transform an ordinary classroom into a training ground for the next generation of artists, entrepreneurs and leaders.
Yet, California schools rank 45th out of 50 states in student access to computers. California has the reputation as the high-technology capital of the world, yet today there is just one computer capable of linking to a wide-area network per 73 students in California schools.
As a result, as students in this state make their way from the classroom to the workplace, they are less prepared than most other students in the nation to meet the demands of the Information Age.
How can we let this happen when by the year 2000, 60 percent of all jobs in the United States will require a working knowledge of information technologies?
We can’t. And policy-makers are beginning to realize this. In early January, Gov. Wilson proposed a four-year, $1 billion “Digital High School Initiative” to bring as many as one million computers to California’s high school classrooms.
The governor’s long-term goal approaches State Superintendent Delaine Eastin’s California Education Technology Task Force’s recent recommendation: Make at least one computer available for every four students in California public schools.
Experts across the nation agree that bringing technology into the classroom improves overall student achievement throughout a child’s academic career. A 1995 survey of more than 100 recent academic studies indicated that technology-based instruction had significantly improved student performance in English, math, history, social science, and natural science.
And we need to bring technology to children as early as possible. Most literacy research shows that children who don’t learn to read in the first grade almost invariably remain poor readers, and therefore poor academic achievers, throughout school.
A few California schools have managed to leverage enough grant money and donations from the business community to purchase computers, and even equip themselves with fiber, satellite, or cable communications to train teachers and administrators.
This is especially critical now, with the state’s new emphasis on class size reduction. Thousands of new teachers, many of whom have little or no classroom experience, will be needed to staff additional classrooms.
With technology, individual schools can begin to explore the potential of distance learning and advance telecommunications as a way to teach students and train teachers.
School districts across the U.S. are using technology to bring both stimulating multi-media lessons to children and live training and staff development to teachers via satellite television and networked computers.
Each year that goes by that California fails to embrace the need to provide all students with access to technology, our children lag behind students in 44 other American states as well as students worldwide.
It’s a race against the future, and California is late getting into the starting blocks.
Building the bridge between where we are now and where we want to be will take a commitment from everyone concerned about the continued viability of public instruction: Students, who need to discover both how to learn and what to learn; businesses, which require a constant stream of smart employees; and communities, which consume the goods and services manufactured and provided by graduates of the state’s schools.
More than any thing we can do, telecommunications technology and trained teachers teaching relevant and vital content will bolster California’s continuing efforts to right what’s wrong with our public schools.
Barbara O’Connor is the director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento, and was appointed by State Superintendent Delaine Eastin to Co-Chair the statewide Education Technology Task Force.