By all accounts, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s Computers in the Classroom initiative has been wildly successful. The goal of having a wired computer in each of the state’s 32,354 public classrooms was met on schedule by the end of 2002.
And becoming the first state in the U.S. to mark such an impressive milestone has garnered national accolades. (Delaware, which has nearly one-fourth the population of Mississippi, is the state closest to achieving the same goal.) “It’s wonderful to tell companies that are going to have a presence in this state that we have this program,” said Mississippi Development Authority spokesperson Sherry Vance.
Even though it’s an incredible feat, how far will it really go toward helping students understand how to think and function in a global economy? What are the downfalls associated with the $71- million IT plan, which is already outdated? How much does it really help to have a computer in every classroom when school districts are struggling with fewer supplies, hungry students, dated textbooks and an overall budget crunch? And now that computers are in place, how will school districts pay for maintenance, upgrades, Internet connectivity and teacher training? How will teachers effectively and efficiently incorporate computers into the curriculum? And will the program force computer unsavvy, retirement-eligible teachers into retirement and compound the states’ teacher shortage problem?
“In education, a computer is just a tool,” said Dr. Steve Yuen, professor of technology education and 2002 Mississippi Technical Educator of the Year. “It’s not a panacea. It’s not perfect. It has its own inherent problems.”
Clifford Stoll wrote about potential problems in CIO magazine:
“Whenever I point out the dubious value of computers in schools, I hear the comment, ‘Look, computers are everywhere, so we have to bring them into the classroom.’ Well, automobiles are everywhere, too. They play a damned important part in our society, and it’s hard to get to a job if you can’t drive. But we don’t teach ‘automobile literacy.’ Nor do we make cars a central part of the curriculum-indeed, many schools are now dropping driver’s ed, recognizing that teenagers can learn to drive without intensive schooling.”
Of course, the Computer in the Classroom program features many positive attributes.
“Technology can bring some of the material alive,” said Yuen. “Seeing and listening to Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s speech is much easier to learn than reading it. I remember when I was a young student, I had a very difficult time with biology and molecular structures. Now we can use simulations on the computer to see how molecules are formed and joined together to help us understand how they are created.”
The challenge for school districts will be to come up with money required to keep the computers humming, said Yuen.
“The hardware, software and infrastructure is not going to last forever,” he said. “Computers usually need replacing every three to five years. When you upgrade hardware, you need to upgrade software. It’s expensive. Many administrators don’t understand why they spent $2 million and will need $300,000 the next year for the systems. It’s just like the support we have to give to the infrastructure of our roads and bridges.”
How will cash-starved school districts keep pace with affluent ones? The National Center for Education Statistics recently reported that wealthy schools were two times more likely to have Internet access in classrooms than poor schools — 36% versus 14%. And schools with high-minority enrollment were almost three times less likely to have Internet access in classrooms than predominantly white schools — 13% versus 37%.
“Most districts already have the infrastructure to finalize the connection to the Internet,” said Steve Williams, senior assistant to the state department of education superintendent. “There is a statewide backbone (T-1 lines) called the K-12 network handled by (DOE) that provides connectivity.”
Even though the connection cost is minimal, school districts are responsible, said Williams.
“However, the E-Rate program of the U.S. Department of Education helps defray those costs,” he said.
Lee Ann Mayo, spokesperson for the governor, said Musgrove is looking for ways to finance upgrades, upkeep and teacher training.
“It won’t be from one single source,” she said. “And obviously, we recognize that some districts can afford more for technology than others. It takes a large public-private effort to keep the momentum going.”
The program will continue to be coordinated through the governor’s office, the state department of education, and ExplorNet, said Mayo.
Helping teachers integrate computers into the curriculum is another matter, said Yuen.
“We in Mississippi are proud to be the first state with computers and Internet access in every classroom, but what does that mean? It means nothing if the teacher doesn’t know how to use it,” he said.
ExplorNet program manager Diane Washington said a professional development model will soon be introduced to the state “which centers around curriculum first and technology second.”
Even though many teachers are excited about bringing technology into the curriculum, others aren’t, said Yuen.
“Some teachers still use typewriters and letters,” he said. “They didn’t get involved in the technical revolution and don’t have training. They already work long hours with grading papers, lesson plans, parent conferences, plus they have families to take care of. We have to give them incentives to sacrifice their meager free time to learn the technologies.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org</a.