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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Who's Wired and Who's Not: Children's Access to and Use of Computer Technology
Henry Jay Becker

School Computers and How They Are Used

Next to families, schools are the institutions most responsible for instilling in children the knowledge and skills believed to lead to productive lives and cultural continuity. Schools play a critical role in ensuring equal opportunity for less-advantaged children by providing access to a wide range of enriching experiences, including exposure to computer technology. Indeed, for many children, school provides the greatest opportunity to use computers. According to parents' estimates from the CPS 1997 supplement, more than half of school-age children use computers at school several times per week—nearly twice the number of children who use computers that often at home (see Figure 1).

Nevertheless, schools must struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of technological and cultural change. Survey data indicate that, although classroom access to computers is increasing rapidly, the most frequent and creative uses of computer technology are not yet linked to curricula, and many factors influence the use of computers in schools. Substantial progress is needed if schools are to play an effective role in ensuring equal opportunity for less advantaged children to access and use computers.

Access to School Computers

Since the early 1980s, the number of computers in American schools has increased steadily, from only 250,000 in 1983 to 8.6 million in 1998 (see Figure 2). In 1983, almost half of the nation's schools had no computers at all; by 1998, all schools were equipped with at least one computer, as were nearly half of all classrooms. The typical school in 1985 averaged 40 students for each computer; by 1998, this average had shrunk to 6 or 7 students per computer.3 These numbers indicate that students' access to school computers has increased significantly. For computers to become an integral tool for learning, however, further improvements are needed in both the quantity and quality of computers available in classrooms.

One obstacle to effective computer use is outdated technology. As schools have been building their computer inventories, technology has been developing at a rapid pace. For many years, while commercial, university, and home users were migrating to new, more sophisticated models, schools seemed to be increasingly saddled with outdated, stand-alone computers. As of 1992, only 22% of school computers were considered contemporary for the period.3 A 1997 White House Panel on Educational Technology concluded that a large share of the school computer inventory was "obsolete and of very limited utility."4 In the mid-1990s, however, schools began to replace their older machines. By 1998, some 45% of school computers were models such as Pentiums or Power Macintoshes, which were introduced within the previous five years.3 In addition, access to the newest mass-market computer technology—the Internet and the World Wide Web—spread rapidly among schools. The percentage of instructional rooms with one or more Internet connections increased from only 3% in 1994 to 63% in 1999.5

Despite this flurry of technology infrastructure-building, most schools could not yet be described as well-equipped because they did not permit routine integration of computer technology into the learning activities of most classes. As an indication of how well-equipped schools are nationwide, data from the national survey, TLC-1998, were analyzed based on eight benchmarks related to the density and type of computer technologies available in schools (see Table 1). A majority of schools surveyed met only one of the eight benchmarks: connection of at least 50% of their computers to a local area network. Averaged across all school levels, only 15% met five or more benchmarks overall. In general, middle and high schools were more likely to meet the benchmarks than were elementary schools.

The analysis of TLC-1998 data also found differences in computer access based on a school's socioeconomic status (SES). These differences were not reflected in numbers of computers so much as in type of Internet access. Across all SES groups, schools were about equally likely to have at least one computer per four students; however, significant differences were found with respect to connections to the Internet. As of 1998, low-SES schools were only about half as likely as high-SES schools to have high-speed Internet access, to have at least one computer with Internet access for every 12 students, or to have half of their classrooms connected to the Internet.6

Although few schools at any SES level were meeting most of these benchmarks in 1998, an increasing number of schools are meeting more of the benchmarks each year. Thus, the disadvantages between high-SES and low-SES schools can be thought of in terms of the number of years required for lower-SES schools to meet the same benchmarks as the higher-SES schools. From this perspective, schools with the most students from low-income families are about one to two years behind schools with students primarily from average-income families, and another one to two years behind schools with students mostly from high-income families.

Across all SES levels, several more years of progress will be required before most schools acquire a sufficient Internet-connected computer infrastructure to enable technology to become an integral learning tool in most classrooms. Meanwhile, what is considered an essential technological infrastructure is constantly changing, so that just as schools meet one set of benchmarks, new ones emerge. As a result, most schools will continue to be technologically challenged well into the future.

Most Frequent and Creative Uses Not Yet Linked to Curricula

Because schools are so large and composed of so many discrete parts, the amount of technology present in a school building gives only a rough indication of its likely impact on individual students. The same number of computers may be spread among classrooms or concentrated in a computer lab. A computer with Internet access may be in the library or in the principal's office. A better indicator of students' exposure to technology is the fraction of students with frequent access to current hardware and software in their different classes. According to the TLC-1998 national survey of teachers, the most frequent and creative uses of computers are found in computer classes and other specialized classes, rather than in core academic classes such as English, science, math, and social studies.

Over the course of a school year, most students are exposed to substantial computer experience in at least one of their courses. Data from the TLC-1998 survey indicate that, on average, at least one or two of the classes students take each year in middle and high school are "frequent computer-use classes"—that is, classes in which students use computers more than 20 times per year.7 Besides computer classes, in which computers are the subject matter, high school and middle school classes most likely to use computers frequently are in applied areas such as business and vocational education.8 Among core academic subjects, English teachers are more likely than others to use computers frequently during class time (see Figure 3). In the TLC-1998 sample, high school students were most likely to use computers in core academic subjects when participating in specialized classes that allow more curricular flexibility, such as those designed specifically for honors students or for students bridging vocational and academic work. Aside from such specialized classes, most core academic courses provided limited opportunity to use computers.

Interestingly, teachers in economically disadvantaged schools are as likely to report that their students use computers on a weekly basis as are teachers in more advantaged schools. In fact, among teachers in three of the four main academic subjects covered in the TLC-1998 survey, those working in low-SES schools reported more frequent computer use than did teachers from any other SES group (see Figure 4).9 Only in science did teachers from the top SES group of schools report more frequent weekly computer use by students than teachers from the lowest SES group, and even for that subject, the difference was small. Whether this exposure to computer technology is enhancing learning in the same way across the various SES levels, however, depends on how teachers have their students use computers.

In addition to frequency of use, the nature of use—as indicated by the type of software or application—is an important consideration in determining how the presence of computers in schools might affect student learning. A wide range of software is now available—from word processing and information retrieval applications to more sophisticated analytic programs for understanding patterns in data, developing spreadsheet models, creating presentations, and constructing interactive multimedia environments. Although an increasing number of teachers are beginning to incorporate computer use into the curricula, data from the TLC-1998 survey indicate that children's opportunities to experience the more analytic and creative software programs are still most likely found in computer classes, rather than linked to course work in core academic subjects.10

Even in academic classes, however, current use of software involves more complex computer applications than the basic skill games and computer literacy activities that previously dominated classroom computer use. For example, word processing is the most common computer activity for students in academic classes. By 1998, not only English, but also science, social studies, and elementary school teachers were more likely to have their students use the computer for word processing than any other type of activity. In the TLC-1998 survey, 60% of all English teachers, and about 40% of both science and social studies teachers, had their students use computers for word processing during class time (see Table 2).11 Among those who made word processing assignments, most made such assignments quite frequently—at least 10 times during the year.

After word processing, the next most common computer activity linked to the curriculum is information acquisition—that is, using CD-ROM reference titles and Web search tools for research. Elementary schoolchildren tend to use the more controlled information bases such as encyclopedias on CD-ROMs, whereas secondary school students tend to use the Web at least as often as CD-ROMs in subjects such as English, social studies, and, most intensively, science. By 1998, only four years after its initial public distribution, teachers were assigning students work involving use of World Wide Web browser software more often than any other type of software except word processors and CD-ROMs.12 However, the greatest use of the Web by far was in computer education classes.

In addition to word processing and information retrieval, many other computer applications using analytic or product-oriented software could be linked to academic use, but survey results indicate that they are used much less often. For example, some science classes use analytic software such as a "simulation modeling program" to study ecological systems, which enables students to explore how different factors in a particular situation lead to a stable population or to disequilibrium of various species. Some math classes use spreadsheet programs to explore numerical relationships to help students gain intuitive appreciation for mathematical equations. (See the article by Roschelle and colleagues in this journal issue for more detailed descriptions of these applications.) Relatively few teachers have adopted such approaches in their curricula, however.

Overall, the TLC-1998 data indicate that only 22% of science teachers and 12% of social studies teachers had their students use simulation software even occasionally, and only 13% of math classes used spreadsheets more than once or twice during the year. Of course, students' use of electronic technologies such as graphing calculators is quite high in many math classes. But the data show that using general-purpose computers for more sophisticated applications—such as spreadsheet calculations, analysis of large amounts of "real data," or library research into real-world applications of quantitative procedures—has not yet become part of the curricula in most middle and high school mathematics classrooms.

Similarly, product-oriented software—such as that used for creating presentations and multimedia projects—could be linked to academic curricula in situations where teachers have students communicate their understanding of content by demonstrating their work. Applications are available for making and printing brochures, designing presentations for a live audience, or creating multimedia projects incorporating related text, pictures, video, music, voiced commentary, and even puzzles or games. In particular, the interactive, "nonlinear" structure of multimedia projects engages class interest by providing group decision points for exploring alternative aspects of the topic. Although increasing numbers of teachers have students prepare computer-assisted presentations and multimedia documents, the numbers are still small in every subject and level. Only 11% of English teachers in the TLC- 1998 survey had students use relatively simple presentation software, and only 11% of social studies teachers and 8% of science teachers had students even occasionally use multimedia authoring.

As shown in Table 2, it is mostly in elective classes—such as computer, business, and vocational education—that students are provided opportunities to explore the newer, more sophisticated and creative, analytic, and product-oriented software.13 The data suggest that only about 1 in 10 secondary teachers of core academic classes could be considered an active user of analytic or product-oriented software in their teaching. Thus, although most students use a computer frequently in at least one of their classes, most often such exposure is not in an academic subject and does not involve the more sophisticated or creative software applications. Expanded use of the more complex and intellectually powerful applications has many challenges to overcome before becoming integral learning tools linked with academic curricula.14

Factors Affecting Use of School Computers

Students' opportunities to use computers vary according to the subjects they take, and also within the same subject. Survey data point to six important factors affecting how students experience computers in school: (1) availability of computers in the classroom, (2) teacher computer expertise, (3) teacher philosophy and objectives for computer use, (4) teacher collaboration and leadership, (5) teacher judgments of class ability, and (6) school SES level.

Availability of Computers in the Classroom

How frequently a student uses computers at school, and for what, depends greatly on how many computers are available and whether they are located within the classroom or elsewhere. Especially in high school academic classrooms—with their extensive curricular demands and 50-minute period structure—a shortage of individual computer stations in the classroom has long restricted more frequent, systematic, and well-integrated use of technology. The TLC-1998 survey found that only 14% of English teachers, 12% of math teachers, 7% of science teachers, and 2% of social studies teachers taught in classrooms with a ratio of at least one computer for every four students enrolled.15

Further analysis of the TLC-1998 data indicated that, among teachers of the same subject, frequent computer use is closely associated with having computers accessible in their own classroom. For example, among science and social studies teachers who assigned computer work, 53% of those with at least one computer in the classroom for every four students assigned computer work frequently, compared with 21% of those limited to access in a computer lab. Differences were found to be just as dramatic for math teachers. Across all secondary school academic classes, students with five to eight computers in their own classroom were more than twice as likely to use computers frequently during class time compared with students using computer labs—even though the labs had more than three times as many computers.16

Accessibility in the classroom also influences the type of software used. Science and math teachers with at least five computers in the classroom were much more likely to have their students use spreadsheet or database programs on a regular basis than were teachers whose classes used computers in a lab.17 Similarly, English and science classes used presentation and graphical printing software, simulations, Web browsing, and multimedia software more frequently when computers were in the classroom.18 Even using skill games in secondary academic subjects was more common when computers were in the classroom.

In addition, frequent use of the Web depends on having a sufficient number of classroom computers connected to the Internet. Although schools and classrooms have been connecting to the Internet rapidly in the past several years, as of 1998, only 3% of all secondary academic classrooms had both an Internet connection and four or more computers. The TLC-1998 data confirm that Internet resources such as the Web were twice as likely to be used frequently when a classroom had at least four simultaneous Internet connections than when it had a single Internet-connected computer.19

Of course, teachers who are prepared to use computers tend to demand greater access, so the correlation between having classroom access to computers linked to the Internet, and using those computers more extensively, is not surprising. However, the computer's greatest value in academic classes is not generally for concentrated whole-class use on a scheduled basis, but instead as a resource for particular groups of students to find, analyze, or communicate information as the need arises on a more spontaneous basis. Thus, the presence of resources in the classroom is at least a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for integrating use of computers more effectively into the curricula. Other important conditions, including various teacher-related factors and the SES level of the school, are discussed below.

Teacher Computer Expertise

How likely students are to experience computers in intellectually powerful ways depends greatly on their teacher's expertise with computers. To use computers effectively in their classrooms, teachers must have certain levels of expertise in basic computer operations. Teachers have had to operate equipment such as movie projectors, slide projectors, and VCRs for decades, but the skills required to successfully operate computers—with all their varied functions—are much more complex and far removed from most other competencies required of teachers. Data from the TLC-1998 survey indicate that teachers' expertise with computers ranged from 75% who said they could display a disk's directory to only 18% who said they could develop a multimedia document. 20 And those teachers with the broadest expertise in using computers were the most likely to use applications on the leading edge of computer use in their subject. For example, computer-savvy teachers were more likely to use spreadsheets and presentation software in science classes, Web browsers in social studies classes, and e-mail in foreign language classes.

Teacher Philosophy and Objectives for Computer Use

Beyond simply acquiring expertise in specific applications, however, teachers must also value the use of that application for enhancing the learning of important skills and content. Teachers are not likely to integrate a software application into the curriculum unless it is compatible with their instructional goals. As the data show, particular types of software were used more often when the applications were consistent with the teacher's philosophy and objectives for use of technology.21 For example, the two types of software most commonly used by students under their teachers' direction were word processing and reference materials on CD-ROM. These applications paralleled the two objectives that teachers most frequently selected as most important for student computer use: "expressing themselves in writing" and "finding out about ideas and information." Similarly, teachers who assigned the use of presentation software were those who most valued computers for their role in helping students learn how to present information to an audience.

In addition, teachers were three times more likely to have their students use the Internet if they held more constructivist beliefs about teaching in general—that is, they believed in devoting attention to student interest rather than curriculum coverage, focusing on critical thinking and real-world applications, and using complex problem solving in small groups to help students learn—compared with teachers with more traditional beliefs and practices.22

Teacher Collaboration and Leadership

The data suggest further that those teachers oriented toward collaboration with each other and toward taking a leadership role in their profession are also the strongest users of technology. In nearly every subject, teachers who were "professionally engaged"— interacting with their peers on instructional and subject-matter issues and mentoring and teaching workshops for other teachers—were more likely to have their students use computers regularly during class, and with more types of software, than "private practice" teachers whose sole focus was on their own classroom.

The most significant differences were found in the use of software for communicating with others and creating products for an audience—activities closely associated with constructivist beliefs. That is, professionally engaged teachers were much more likely than private practice teachers to use email, multimedia authoring, and presentation software. Differences were even greater when the analysis considered the teacher's own professional use of and expertise in computer technology, as well as their use of software. The most professionally engaged teachers (that is, the 3% of all teachers who are also sometimes termed "teacher leaders") were 10 times more likely to be highly active computer users than were comparably skilled private practice teachers (40% versus 4%). Teachers in the latter group were more likely to emphasize curriculum coverage and direct instruction of facts and skills and simply did not find computers relevant to their concept of teaching.23

Teacher Judgments of Class Ability

In addition, the data indicate that students' use of computers varied according to their teachers' judgments about class ability levels. For example, across all subjects, classes categorized as low achieving used substantially more drill-and-practice exercises, whereas classes categorized as high achieving used more spreadsheet/database and e-mail software. Among teachers of the same subject, English teachers used word processing software much more often with high-achieving classes; computer and social studies teachers used presentation software more frequently with high-achieving classes; and social studies teachers used Web browsers more with high-achieving classes.24 In general, the more salient a type of software was to a given subject, the more likely the teacher was to favor high-achieving classes for frequent use of that software.

The differential opportunity for higher-achieving students to use more intellectually complex software is the result of many factors, among them a teacher's expectations and beliefs about how different groups of students can use computers successfully.25 Teachers of low-achieving classes may have found it difficult to use complex types of software with their students. If low-achieving classes are to experience more opportunities to work with complex software applications, teachers will need time and practice to develop methods for using such software successfully; otherwise, low-achieving classes are likely to continue using computers primarily for more narrowly focused drill-and-practice exercises.

School SES Level

Finally, the data show that students' use of computers in the classroom varied depending on the SES level of the community surrounding the school.26 In particular, the ways in which students used computers were quite different in schools having mostly students from wealthier families compared with schools having mostly students from poorer families.

As discussed earlier, overall, a greater percentage of teachers reported weekly use of computers in low-SES schools than in high-SES schools. However, the data indicate that computer use in low-SES schools often involved traditional practices and beliefs about student learning, whereas computer use in high-SES schools often reflected more constructivist and innovative teaching strategies. For example, teachers in low-SES schools were more likely than those in high-SES schools to use computers for "remediation of skills" and "mastering skills just taught" and to view computers as valuable for teaching students to work independently. In contrast, teachers in high-SES schools were more likely to use computers to teach students skills such as written expression, making presentations to an audience, and analyzing information.27

In addition, middle and high school students in low-SES schools are more likely to experience frequent computer use in different subjects than are students in high-SES schools. For example, students in low-SES schools were much more likely than students in high-SES schools to experience frequent computer use in a math class. Math classes account for 24% of all high-frequency computer experiences in the lowest SES-level schools, compared with only 6% of high-frequency experiences in other schools. In contrast, students in high-SES schools were most likely to experience high-frequency computer use in science and computer classes. These courses account for more than 40% of all high-frequency computer experiences in high-SES schools, compared with only 12% in low-SES schools.

In sum, schools could play a critical role in helping to ensure equal access to computers for less-advantaged children. Although low-SES schools are beginning to catch up to high-SES schools in some benchmarks of access, the more sophisticated and creative uses of computers are not yet well linked with the curricula in core academic subjects, especially in poorer schools. For use of these more innovative software applications to become more widespread, greater numbers of computers must be accessible in academic subject classrooms—and greater numbers of teachers must be trained in and value the skills and experiences these applications have to offer.