January 25, 1996

President's Computer Idea Gets Mixed Response


It seemed like motherhood and apple pie for the Microsoft era: a proposal to put a computer linked to the Internet in every American classroom by the year 2000.

But educators on Wednesday had sharply disparate views on the wisdom, utility and feasibility of President Clinton's proposal in his State of the Union Message on Tuesday to bring every American classroom into the computer age.

Proponents said it was a visionary, affordable call for equalizing access to technologies that have the ability to either narrow or broadly expand the gaps between haves and have nots. Skeptics said it was a shallow attempt to find a technological cure-all rather than addressing the real needs of the nation's schools.

And there were immediate questions about where the money would come from at a time of tightening budget constraints and whether the plan could be carried out for the $10 billion preliminary cost estimate being used on Wednesday by Department of Education officials.

The proposal, which calls for each classroom to have a computer for every four or five students, was one of the boldest proposals in a speech that featured few major new initiatives.

"Every classroom in America must be connected to the information superhighway, with computers, good software and well-trained teachers," Clinton said in the speech. "We are working with the telecommunications industry, educators and parents to connect 20 percent of the classrooms in California by this spring, and every classroom and library in America by the year 2000."

Under Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said Clinton would announce the details of the proposal in about three weeks. But Smith said the basic plan was to have corporations agree to wire schools around the country for access to the Internet. That is already happening in California, he said.

Smith estimated that the costs, including those for computers and software and training teachers, would come to about $10 billion. He said federal money, perhaps $2 billion, would augment about four times as much raised by the states or school districts.

But a study completed last summer by the McKinsey & Co. accounting firm for the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council estimated that the cost of providing computers for all the nation's classrooms would range from $11 billion for a computer laboratory used by several classes to $47 billion for the kind of system in Clinton's plan. It also cited a need for $4 billion in annual operation and maintenance for the lab plan and $14 billion for the more ambitious plan.

Smith said he was aware of the report and attributed the difference in the two cost estimates to falling computer prices, not having to finance the wiring and Internet connections under the Clinton plan and other different assumptions. A spokesman for McKinsey said he could not evaluate the administration's plan without seeing its specifics.

"We think we have numbers that will work, but these numbers could be reworked in the next three weeks," Smith said. "I don't see this as new, grandiose spending by any means. This is an important priority for education, and it's worth trying to figure out where the money can come from."

Many education experts hailed the proposal, even if most were skeptical about whether the goal of hooking all classrooms to the Internet by 2000 would be met.

Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, said such a move was critical, adding, "I would not have said that a few years ago."

"What's happening in this country is that the wealthiest school districts in the country are getting the technology and the poorest are not, and they're falling further and further behind," he said. "Technology like this can open an incredible array of opportunities to these kids."

With computer technology the schools with the poorest library and resources can have access to the same educational resources as the richest, he said. Without it, the gaps between rich and poor are certain to grow.

At the other extreme of opinion was Edward Miller, editor of the Harvard Education Letter.

"It struck me as an overly simplistic idea," he said. "Of all the things one could wish for American education, I would place this very far down the list. Unfortunately, the evidence from research on the usefulness of technology is not very encouraging. The idea that you put computers in classrooms and kids learn better is just not the case."

He said that traditional teaching mattered much more than technology and that that was where resources should go.

Indeed, even those more positive about the value of computers in classrooms stressed that unless they were part of an overall learning strategy, their impact would be limited.

"One of the enduring difficulties about technology and education is that a lot of people think about the technology first and the education later, if at all," said Stone Wiske, co-director of the Educational Technology Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

"I do think it's a very good idea to get computers in classrooms but only if we've started with a clear set of educational priorities and then make a selection of technologies to advance that clearly defined purpose."

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