Two major new reports were issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics earlier this year. The reports are of special interest because they are based on well-designed national survey methods and thus can be presumed to be pretty accurate. In addition, since NCES has carried out similar studies over the years, they allow comparison of trends.
Educational Technology inPublic Schools: Fall 2008 was released in April 2010. Teachers Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools: 2009 was released in May 2010. The former focuses on the presence of technology in schools. The latter adds information about technology that is accessible by individual teachers and how teachers use the technology. Both provide breakdowns by the demographics of the schools involved (such as number of low-income students), which is especially interesting.
Here are a few of the most interesting findings.
(1) The overall ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access in U.S. public schools as of fall 2008 was 3.1. That number fell from 3.8 the last time it was measured in 2005. The ratio was 4.8 in 2002, and 12.1 in 1998. These numbers only include desktop or laptop computers and do not include any handheld devices. The numbers suggest that the U.S. is on an inexorable march toward having a computing device available for all students. I expect that the trend in this direction has probably slowed down since fall 2008 due to the recession, but with computer prices continuing to fall and new kinds of mobile devices available, it will probably pick up soon.
(2) There is, not surprisingly, a growing trend toward use of laptop computers. 58% of schools had laptop carts as of fall 2008; the number is certainly higher now. According to the fall 2009 data, a teacher typically has one computer for every 5.3 students in the classroom, but can lower that ratio submstantially by making use of laptops from school laptop carts.
(3) Inequities in terms of school access to computers by the socioeconomic status or demographic characteristics of the school continue to fall. Schools that have 75% or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a rough measure of low-income students) have a 3.2 student to computer ratio. In schools that have less than 35% students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the ratio is 3.1, nearly identical. The difference by enrollment of non-white students is slightly larger, but still, the schools with the highest number of minorities students also have a 3.2 student to computer ratio, just slightly higher than the national average. Differences in these regards have thus narrowed substantially over the years.
(4) There are still important differences in how computers are used in classrooms. In low-income schools (with 75% or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), 83% of teachers report that their students use technology sometimes or often to “learn or practice basic skills.” In high-income schools (with less than 35% of students eligilbe for free or reduced-price lunch), only 63% of teachers report that. However, in high-income schools, students are more likely to prepare written text; conduct research; correspond with others; create or use graphics or visual displays; develop and present multimedia presentations; create art, music, movies, or webcasts; or design and produce a product.
In considering these data, it is useful to keep in mind an earlier national study by Dynarski et al. that found that reading and math tutorial programs have no positive impact, a well as a book by Wenglinsky that found that, all other things being equal, time spent on rich and creative uses of technology is correlated with higher test scores, while time spent on drills and tutorials is correlated with falling test scores.
In summary, a “digital divide” based on unequal access to computers in school has largely been erased, but there is still work to do to see that all students have opportunities to use school technology in rich and productive ways. Though greater amounts of technology are needed for this, the principal need is for development of the right goals, curricula, pedagogy, assessment, and overall educational vision. We discuss some of these topics in more length in our research review on technology and equity published earlier this year, and they will also be addressed in a new book I’m writing for Teachers College Press.