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Bridging the grade-school technology gap

Published on: June 01, 2006

If Les Foltos had left it up to chance, his two children could have spent seven years at Lynnwood's Martha Lake Elementary School without any real technology-based instruction. Instead, Foltos sought out teachers who were actively using computers in their classroom and asked that his children be placed in those classes.

Foltos says his youngest child, now 10, is well-prepared for the digital world, thanks to teachers who used technologically integrated lesson plans. His experience points to a type of "digital divide" disparity that can exist in education depending on a range of factors, from whether a teacher is tech savvy to whether an individual school or school district has the financial resources to invest in computer hardware and software.

In the early 1990s, the buzz about the digital divide was significant among education professionals. The term was coined to describe is the socio-economic difference between communities in their ability to access computers and the Internet. Even though strides are being made nationwide to bring technology into the elementary classroom, Steven Kerr, associate dean with the University of Washington College of Education, says the digital divide is still significant among U.S. children.

"It is less critical now, but still very real," he says.

Foltos, former director of instructional technology for the Seattle School District, says that during the mid-1990s about 45 percent of school-aged children in Seattle public schools had no access to computers or other technology at home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2001 only 31 percent of low-income U.S. children had access to a home computer, while 89 percent of their middle- to upper-class peers had a computer at home.

In schools nationwide, imbedding technology in curriculum has become a necessity.

Karen Peterson, executive director for the Bothell-based Puget Sound Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, says that kids "look at information differently than we did as children. Technology is a part of their life -- leaving it out of the classroom is not an option."

Having the equipment available is essential, but having teachers comfortable with using digital tools is critical, Foltos says. "Many kids in Edmonds and other schools around here only have access at school," he adds. "If the teachers don't know how to use technology with their instruction, then these kids don't have any access."

Thanks to passage of a $20 million technology levy this year, all teachers in the Edmonds School District will soon have access to technology equipment and training. Kim Mathey, the district's instructional technology manager, says the typical elementary classroom has two older networked computers and each school probably has a computer lab. During the next six years, all classrooms will be outfitted with new computers, projectors and document cameras, Mathey adds.

In the past, schools with strong Parent Teacher Associations have raised money for improved classroom technology, while less-affluent schools have often gone without, Mathey says, adding that "this technology overhaul should make a significant difference in the inequity issue." Schools in greatest need will be the first to receive new computers and teachers will undergo significant training to increase proficiency with digital tools. In Edmonds, the ratio of students to computers is about 5-to-1, but that will increase to about 4-to-1 with the upgrade, she notes.

In the Seattle School District, where technology comprises 10 percent of the district's budget, scheduled technology improvements should improve the student-to-computer access ratio from 5-to-1 to 3-to-1, says Ramona Pierson, director of district education, technology and evaluation. Schools failing to make adequate yearly progress -- some of the neediest schools in Seattle -- are at the top of the list for new networks, computers, projectors and microphones, Pierson adds.

While bridging the technology gap in the classroom is part of the process, providing students with home access is equally important. For example, the Seattle School District retrofits 500 outdated computers each year and provides them to the neediest families in the district, while local Internet providers offer free Internet access.

Maria Muzzo, a sixth-grade teacher at Meadowdale Elementary in Lynnwood, says children in her class without home computer access often are lacking in technology skills and require more class time to catch up to other students.

According to Muzzo, students communicate with her via email to ask questions about homework assignments. Students without home computers often spend more time at school or the library to complete assignments or miss deadlines because of access issues. "By the fifth grade, students must have a computer at home," Muzzo says. "Technology is very integrated into life here."

Sarah Kahne is a freelance journalist and mother of a 5-year-old boy.

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