- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2001

The Internet and other computer technology continue to gain ground in classrooms across the country, but even more so locally.The average number of computers in schools nationwide is one per five students. Ninety-eight percent of all schools were hooked up to the Internet in 2000, compared to 35 percent in 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That number is even higher in some local schools. Fairfax County, for example, has a ratio of one computer per three students.

"We have computers in every classroom," says Marybeth Luftglass, chief technology officer for Fairfax County public schools. "This is a high-tech area with high expectations."

New technology enters the school system all the time, Mrs. Luftglass says. As of this school year, all 25,000 employees of the Fairfax County school system have e-mail accounts that parents and students can use to send and receive mail at any time of day. At some schools, students are able to take some of their elective course work online.

Also, teachers are using an Internet site called Blackboard.com to post assignments and course curricula. The program is being piloted and paid for by the Fairfax County school system.

While some teachers, parents and students applaud the new technology, some education specialists across the nation — such as Larry Cuban, author of "Oversold and Underused" — say computers are used merely as modernized typewriters and that teachers are not trained to use the technology efficiently. Mr. Cuban was unavailable for comment for this story.

Luther Fennel, principal at Edison High School in Franconia, acknowledges that if teachers aren't trained properly, computers may become nothing more than glorified typewriters. To avoid that, he says, instruction is provided by the county school system, and he also encourages teachers to explore technology on their own.

To further assist teachers and other employees at the 1,700-student school, Mr. Fennel has three full-time employees assigned exclusively to technology duties. He says he has received no criticism from parents or students concerning the new technology.

"Technology should be part of teaching and learning," he says, "and it's important that we move beyond the idea of using the computer as a word processor."


In one classroom at Edison on a recent morning, psychology teacher Andy Neal was using technology called a Smart Board to teach a class.

He jotted down several sentences on a wide white board, which had a computer screen projected on it. As if by magic, Mr. Neal's scribbles were converted into more legible printed text when he hit a command. The students looked on wide-eyed and asked questions about the computer's ability to convert handwriting into typed letters.

"See, they get pretty excited," says Jay Pearson, technology integration specialist at the school. Mr. Pearson's full-time job is to instruct teachers in how to integrate technology into their lesson plans. He agrees with Mr. Fennel that it's high time for schools to "kick it up a notch" and that students should learn enough computer technology to be proficient in the workplace once they leave school.

"Students have to be competent [computer] users when they graduate," Mr. Pearson says.

Another advantage to using computers in teaching is that everything the teacher writes, in this case in the Smart Board program, can be saved and posted on a Web site. That means that a student who is absent from a particular class should be able to catch up on the course work by logging on to an Internet tool such as Blackboard.com and accessing a particular teacher's site.

At Edison High School, technology is paid for by public and private money. The Fairfax County school system has paid for the computer labs and stationary computers at the school as well as the software, Mr. Fennel says, but the laptops and wireless infrastructure, which cost up to $400,000 to put in place, were paid for by a private foundation.

Mr. Fennel says that in addition to county and private money, some schools apply for federal grants to upgrade their technology systems.

Some of the students say the new technology, such as Blackboard.com, helps them stay in touch with course work.

"It's good. If you're absent you can just go online," says senior Miguel Cervoni, 17. "You don't have to go and ask the teacher all the time. You can find out on your own."

Edison High School has about 70 laptops that can be used wireless, and the idea is one day to go completely wireless — for all students to have either laptops or hand-held computers, Mr. Fennel says.

"We're wedded to mobile technology and I have to believe that it will happen quickly," Mr. Fennel says. "With mobile technology, you don't always have to sit in a structured classroom. You could go outside. You could be at home, and that's remarkable."

Another technological tool available in the Fairfax schools system is a Web-based library. Parents and students can go online to see what is available in the schools. They also can checkout books online.

Online courses are offeredin elective subjects such as creative writing at some schools. In these classes, most of the course work is done online, via e-mail and chat rooms. The students meet with the teacher just a few times during the school year.

"One of the nice things we can do with the online courses is reach homebound students," Mrs. Luftglass says. "Really, having these online classes, you have that 'anytime, anywhere learning.' We have been talking about it for so long, and we're actually doing it now, and that's very exciting."

Though software that is capable of tailoring itself to a student's specific need is used successfully to teach subjects such as algebra, one type of computer technology reigns supreme in its classroom success, Mrs. Luftglass says.

"The most successful computer technology in schools is the Internet — all aspects of the Internet," she says.

The future is bound to present more technology along the lines that Fairfax County schools are piloting.

Christopher Dede, a professor in learning technologies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, says the Internet will play an increasingly important role in education but predicts it will be replaced by Internet2 in the near future. Internet2, the next stage of the Internet as we now know it, holds the promise of being faster and more reliable.

Hand-held devices, which have been introduced in some schools but still are not commonplace, probably will become as common as backpacks, Mr. Dede says.

Hand-held devices of the future will enable students to do much of their learning outside the classroom, he says. Students could, for example, go to a stream to collect water, and the hand-held computer could give them such information as the pH level of the water.

The hand-held device would collect the raw information, leaving the student to interpret and analyze the information, Mr. Dede says.

Technology is not just a tool to research and gain knowledge in certain subjects, he says. It also helps students prepare for life in a complicated, technologically savvy world.

It teaches them to take the information they get from the Internet with a grain of salt, Mr. Dede says. It teaches them to communicate and work with diverse teams of people whether face to face or via the Internet.

"The fundamental change I would like to see is from people learning about technology, to using technology to empower human interaction," Mr. Dede says.


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