Equal opportunity has been a cornerstone of this nation for more than two centuries. But society has not always measured up to that ideal, and you don't have to go far to see the disparity between the exclusive suburban neighborhoods of the affluent and the decrepit slums of America's inner cities or the ramshackle homes of the rural poor.
And, since most of society's ills find their way to the schoolhouse door sooner or later, it is no surprise that U.S. schools have had to confront the split between haves and have-nots. Education is one of the most accessible avenues for society's disadvantaged to get a chance at equal opportunity, but our schools have often fallen short.
Our educational system has endured vicious battles over racial integration and providing more equitable educational opportunities to African Americans and other minorities. Because of arbitrary district boundary lines, parents have seen neighboring districts build impressive new facilities while their own children have had to learn in dilapidated and inadequate classrooms. In state after state, people have filed lawsuits contending that states were not fairly distributing monies to schools.
In the midst of these struggles for equity, the rapidly accelerating power of technology and the massive amounts of information available on the Internet have planted seeds of hope among educators and our nation's leaders that computers could close the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
Technology "gives us the tools to ensure that no one gets left behind," says President Clinton. "Millions of Americans now on the economic margins can join the mainstream in the enterprise of building our nation. A child in South Central L.A. or in the most remote part of Indian country can have access to the same world of knowledge in an instant as a child in the wealthiest suburban school in this country."
But technology won't be able to close the digital divide if the divide itself is preventing the have-nots from gaining access to the technology.
Poor areas without adequate telecommunications infrastructure often are bad candidates for luring businesses. That prevents people who live there from getting the economic opportunities that could improve their situation and can trap the community in a cycle of poverty.
In the 1997 Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education, the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology's Panel on Educational Technology argued that the gap in computer ownership between low- and high-income groups "threatens not only to perpetuate the existing familial patterns of socioeconomic disadvantage, but to widen the gap between the most and least affluent Americans."
In recent times, the community has frequently turned to schools to address a societal problem. When children were coming to school hungry, schools began free- and reduced-meal programs. And now, when children are coming to school without knowledge about computers or access to technology, schools are expected to step in.
Technology can enhance learning In the 1990s, schools have embraced the potential learning benefits that computers and related technology can bring to students. Once thought of as luxuries or expensive toys, computers have become a common and vital part of a student's school experience.
The Panel on Educational Technology's report cited several potential benefits of educational technology:
-Personalizing education to take advantage of the needs, interests and learning styles of individual students.
-Giving more attention to higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills learned through "real-world" tasks.
-Letting students take greater control of their own education. They can seek resources when they become useful to them and explore topics in greater depth when they wish.
-Providing teachers more efficient ways to assess student progress, maintain portfolios of student work, communicate with parents and administrators, exchange ideas and experiences with other teachers, and gain access to data and educational software over the Internet.
Other studies and surveys have indicated that technology can enhance student achievement, increase motivation and spark enthusiasm for learning, especially with at-risk students. A recent Illinois survey reports that more than 86 percent of the state's principals said that students had developed an increased interest in classroom learning and activities, and 83 percent said that technology promoted creativity, exploratory skills and self-motivated learning.