In 1445, when Johann Gutenberg introduced the printing press to medieval Europe, education and information were enjoyed only by the ruling class. The technological leap the printing press signified, however, was the beginning of a radical transformation. Information would no longer be disseminated only to the elite.

For the first time, the common man could access vast stores of knowledge as books became widely available.

Now, more than half a millennium later, many educational institutions still rely on little more than the printed word to educate the next generation. Technology, many believe, is the next printing press -- capable of opening countless doors for people who would otherwise find them locked.

Therefore, districts such as Linwood Public Schools in New Jersey have created comprehensive technology plans. In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia School District teamed with Microsoft to build the School of the Future.

Others have taken dramatically different approaches, like a small charter school in Oakland, Calif., whose fiery administrator eliminated PCs and Internet connections, and returned to the basics.

Can technology really change the way we teach our children? Is it the next step for human enlightenment? Or is it an unnecessary distraction?

Technology Integration

According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, students should be technology literate by the time they complete eighth grade. Not every child, however, has equal access to technology. Often, schools in affluent neighborhoods offer students a richer technology experience than schools in poorer districts. Moreover, a technology gap exists -- and some say continues to grow -- between America's middle and lower classes.

Many observers believe technology can improve learning -- but only if it is correctly deployed and thoroughly understood.

"Technology in classrooms has to be distinguished from technology in schools," said Howie Schaffer, public outreach director at the Public Education Network, an organization working to reform public schools in low-income communities.

"An enormous amount of resources have been poured into wiring schools. There's evidence that something like 96 percent to 98 percent of America's schools are wired to some extent," he said, adding that the manner and extent to which this technology has been deployed in these schools varies.

"Unfortunately, as you can predict, the poorest, urban, under-resourced schools often find themselves with old computers, slow connections, with limited capacity to keep these computers up," Schaffer continued, mentioning that computers are often set up in a separate room.

There is general consensus that to be effective, technology in schools must move beyond having a computer lab that students visit a few times weekly. A successful, technology-rich school must integrate technology into the curricula, and teachers should be trained to use the technology to maximize its potential.

"The average American public school teacher in 2004 had a total of eight hours of professional development on using things that are classified as technology," said Schaffer. "Yes, technology makes a difference in the classroom, but it only works if the technology is in the classroom, if it's good computing equipment, if the teachers are trained, and if it's integrated into the curriculum. You need to use computing technology in math, in science, in art, in physics."

The concept is not lost on federal officials. Tim Magner, deputy director for the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, understands that a well designed technology plan can improve academic performance.

The impact of technology in the classroom depends heavily on its implementation, he said. "Technology, when thoughtfully applied in the context of an overall instructional program, can have some pretty significant effects."

Magner added that technology can act as a facilitator, improving how parents, teachers and students communicate and connect. Like under-trained teachers, however, many parents are unfamiliar with technology and unable

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.