Tech Know-Nothings


On Saturday, April 25, about 30 New York City schools marked Net Day ’98–an event started in 1996 by Sun Microsystems CEO John Gage and Michael Kaufman, currently the director of digital learning at PBS. Albeit a month after other Net Day events took place around the rest of the country, it was the day that Torrance Robinson and the group he cofounded, NYConnects, began wiring ”at least 30 public schools.” As he tells it, the stakes are extremely high: ”We’ve got a mayor running around saying that we’re the capital of the world, which I agree with to an extent. Just not when you look at our schools.”

The Clinton administration’s goal of having nearly every public classroom wired to the Internet by the dawn of the millennium, something the mayor has said he also supports, is often seen as just so much political expediency. However, a study released last month in the journal Science gives this oft-cited mission a whole new raison d’être. The study reveals a marked difference between the numbers of white and black Americans who have access to the Internet. In households with incomes of less than $40,000, whites are six times as likely as blacks to use the World Wide Web. (For families with incomes over $40,000, Internet access was virtually the same for both blacks and whites.) A major reason for the disparity: 73 per cent of white students have access to computers at home, while only 32 per cent of black students do, according to the study. And without computers at home, the only viable way for poor minority students to access the Internet is in school.

So how is the New York City school system, the country’s largest–comprising 1134 schools with a predominantly minority student population–faring in its efforts to narrow the chasm between the haves and the have-nots?

”Frankly, we’re behind,” admits Elspeth Taylor, the determined chief information officer for NYC public schools. ”We don’t have good numbers, especially when compared to nonurban schools. But we’re aggressively seeking to close the gap. It’s very important that all students have access to the technology.”

At first glance, the numbers for how many NYC schools have some kind of Internet access don’t seem that bad. According to Taylor, 75 per cent of all city elementary and middle schools, and 89 per cent of high schools have some sort of connection to the Internet. ”But these numbers are somewhat misleading,” Taylor says. ”We need to remind people that some of these connections involve only one computer, which doesn’t necessarily allow all students to have access.” In fact, the average number of computers connected to the Internet in city schools, some of which house several thousand students, is three for elementary and middle schools and six for high schools.

Along with a small contingent of upstart community groups and upward of $250 million in city, federal, and private funds, Taylor and a network of highly motivated teachers and administrators are starting to speed things along to the point where there just may be a chance to narrow the divide.

One of the most daunting aspects of getting the city’s schools wired involves infrastructure improvements needed to facilitate working Internet connections. ”Some of these schools still are firing furnaces with coal,” said Andrew Rasiej, who was surprised to discover just how unwired the city’s more dilapidated buildings were. Rasiej is the ex-owner of the club Irving Plaza and the founder of an organization called MOUSE, or Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education. The nonprofit group is dedicated to matching up New York City’s burgeoning corps of new media workers with the unmet needs of the city’s would-be high-tech schools.

”We thought we’d find a bunch of kids with software problems that we’d help solve,” Rasiej says of MOUSE’s initial impulses. ”But for the most part these schools have no networks. The foundation first had to be put in place.” Or, as MOUSE’s executive director, Sarah Holloway, describes the realization: ”We had to take 19 steps back.”

Wiring a school properly takes a lot of effort, not to mention quite a bit of money. A report released by the federal government’s General Accounting Office earlier this year cited one study’s estimate that placing one networked computer lab in each school in the United States would cost $11 billion up-front plus $4 billion in annual maintenance costs. Taylor calls the wiring, which sometimes gets hindered by discoveries of asbestos in need of removal, the ”hardest part” of the overall tech-in-the-schools initiative. And of the $2.1 billion proposed by the Board of Ed in 1997 for the school system’s five-year technology plan, Taylor says that nearly half would be set aside for ”infrastructure improvements including wiring and phone lines.”

Taylor is quick to point out that ”we don’t actually have $2.1 billion, just a comprehensive strategy to fit resources into as we get them.” (The federally mandated Universal Service Program, or the e-rate, allows schools to receive 20 to 90 per cent discountson phone service, Internet access, and other ”nonhuman” resources associated with wiring schools.) Nonetheless, the situation is hopeful enough for Barry Hauptman, the technology coordinator for the Manhattan High Schools Superintendency, or MHSS, which represents 38 high schools and about 50,000 students, to reveal his expectation that ”all the city’s schools will have significant Net connectivity within the next year and a half.”

Which doesn’t leave much time to train the teachers.

While cobbling together all the wire, hardware, and software needed to construct a computer network, and finding enough manpower to get the whole thing built, may be the hardest part of bringing tech into the classroom, it’s not the most important. The key component is getting teachers comfortable with the technology. Elspeth Taylor calls this phase of the initiative ”professional development,” and so far it’s been the defining characteristic separating schools that have made significant strides from those falling into the regrettable category of ”percentage of schools with over a thousand students and no Internet access whatsoever.”

Case in point: Martin Luther King High School, located at 66th and Amsterdam Avenue. Before MOUSE got involved with MLK, Rasiej says, ”there was one computer for 1500 students.” After three months of planning and three more of pulling wires and acquiring and setting up computers, that ratio was down to one computer for every 20 students, an impressive bit of progress, no doubt, despite the fact that a 1998 GAO report recommends an ideal ratio of one computer to every four or five students.

But the turnaround of MLK would not have been possible, Rasiej willingly admits, without the individual whom Rasiej calls ”the champion”–28-year-old schoolteacher Gregg Betheil. ”To understand the critical component of this arduous process,” Rasiej says, ”you’ve got to talk to Gregg.”

Talking to Gregg Betheil, or Mr. B as he’s known to his students, involves going to school in the literal sense. In the basement of MLK, Mr. B leads students from the school’s Academy of Finance (a program where students are selected and prepared to hold summer jobs and internships on Wall Street) through completely digital lesson plans.

One recent Thursday morning, Betheil addressed a group of about 20 students who were loosely clustered around the room’s half-dozen or so networked computer stations; some students, in pairs, sat directly in front of computers, one eye on Mr. B and the other on the screen in front of them, filled with multicolored pie charts that kept changing configurations in response to constant mouse-clicking.

Betheil is teaching these kids about budgeting, and, as he lectures and prompts the students, he does so in an appropriately wired fashion. Having transcended hard-to-read blackboards and swirls of gritty chalk dust, Betheil smoothly controls a computer-projected slide presentation with a handheld wireless mouse that looks like a TV remote control.

”We try to bring the tech right into the classroom because we think separating the tools from the work is bad,” says Betheil, who’s taught at MLK for five years and has been the building’s technology coordinator for the past two.

All this promising evidence aside, however, there are still a few hurdles. For one, while Betheil is clearly not the only NYC schoolteacher pushing the high-tech program, there aren’t exactly tons of people like him. Though he’s been known to take weekend excursions to help students and their parents go computer shopping, he says that ”not all teachers are comfortable with computers and lots of people don’t know how to teach with them.”

A recent survey revealed that only 15 per cent of teachers nationwide have more than nine hours total of technology training. Moreover, 18 states don’t even require such training as part of teacher certification programs. And according to the United Federation of Teachers, New York is one of them. Elspeth Taylor says that only between 10 and 15 per cent of New York City’s teachers have any kind of computer training. Even fewer are actually using the technology in the classroom.

To remedy this deficiency, says MHSS’s Hauptman, a conference, to be called ACT, or Aligning Classrooms and Technology, has been scheduled for the end of May. ACT will bring together 225 teachers, representing Manhattan’s high schools, for some hands-on training focusing on how to meaningfully integrate digital technology into their curriculum.

But there’s only so far teachers can take all of this, even if you’ve got a small army of them, each as motivated and skilled as Betheil. ”Some of our schools are among the best in the country while some don’t have any sort of Internet connection at all,” says Betheil. Such disparity, Taylor says, is the result of a ”piecemeal approach to getting tech into schools, whichhasn’t allowed us to get a minimum level of access to all students.” To achieve this goal, says Michael Kaufman of Net Day, ”you need to have the top-end support.”

Specifically, what’s needed is support for a group of full-time employees to work in the city’s schools as systems administrators, to make sure the schools’ growing networks function properly and that they get repaired in a timely fashion when they go down, which they invariably do. (At this point, schools have to rely on the efforts of volunteers from groups like MOUSE.)

One obstacle to getting this sysadmin corps in place has been the lack of evidence that having wired classrooms in fact enhances the learning process. The GAO report says that ”research data on technologies with the potential to support fundamental changes in teaching are few…and without [more] research, some analysts have questioned whether technology can significantly benefit schools.”

Barry Hauptman, speaking for Manhattan’s high schools, says, ”If and when technology starts to show with hard data that it can enhance achievement, that sort of staffing won’t be a problem. The budget support will be there for the long term.”

But Elspeth Taylor is already convinced. Her $2.1 billion, five-year plan (the one for which they don’t yet have all the required capital) calls for one full-time sysadmin on-site in each school, ”the same way you do it with custodians.”

Andrew Rasiej and his MOUSE cohorts are familiar with the analogy. ”You can get a doorknob fixed or a lightbulb replaced because there’s a physical plant and a staff of custodians,” Rasiej says. ”But there are no custodians who fix networks and there have to be. We’ve just got to get some people off of lightbulb duty and onto those computers.”