Enter a third-grade classroom and sweet nostalgia instantly transports you to the magical days of your youth. The miniature flip-top desks and hard-as-nails wooden chairs remind you of a time when life really was all good–when you were more concerned with cartoons than car payments and a gold star was a badge of honor.
At first glance, Michelle Williams’ third grade class at Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, California, is much like the classroom you remember. Pre-pubescent artwork adorns the walls along with the upper- and lower-case alphabet, and small potted plants vie for the attention of nine-year-old wunderkinds. These are the standard tools of the trade–employed to teach children the basics such as reading and writing, as well as concepts such as creativity and the evolution of life.
In the past decade, there has been an important addition to this tool kit. Look to the far corner of this particular classroom and you’ll notice seven computers and a printer quietly staking their claim in the children’s earning experience. That’s when it nits you–this is not the third-grade classroom you remember. It’s a training ground for the leaders of the Digital Age. “You use technology to get children excited about learning, to lower the costs of providing a quality education and to prepare them for the world they’ll be living in,” says Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
Computers and Internet access are not only making their way into the public consciousness but also into the classroom–and not a moment too soon. Yet it hasn’t been a smooth transition, and for some schools– especially those in predominantly urban and rural districts–it has not happened at all. A 1996 study conducted by Quality Education Data, a Denver education research firm, found that the 4,200 U.S. schools with African American populations of 75% or more had a student-to-computer ratio of 11.3 to one. That’s more than double the five-to-one ratio recommended by the U.S. Department of Education, and 13% below the national average.
It would take an estimated $8-$20 billion per year over the next five years for all U.S. schools to meet the Department of Education’s recommendation. President Clinton may have spurred the national consciousness regarding education and technology, but the reality is, taxpayers’ pockets aren’t deep enough to meet such a task. Initiatives from government agencies and the Federal Communication Commissions Universal Service Fund, with its $2.25 billion yearly allocation to schools and libraries, still leave much to be desired. Instituted this year, the fund discounts telecommunications services, including wiring and Internet access, up to 90% for schools and libraries.
Thus, cash-strapped schools are struggling to find additional means of funding our children’s transformation into the “knowledge workers” needed to compete in tomorrow’s workforce. Savvy school administrators have turned to information technology companies such as Hewlett Packard, IBM, Novell and Microsoft for a helping hand–either in the form of technical assistance, product donations or hard cash. Schools have also formed partnerships with