WASHINGTON -- If you are of a certain age and think back on your high-school days, you might remember your great achievement as catching that touchdown pass, or winning the election for class president. But did you create a world?
David Moore did. Last year the Montgomery Blair (Md.) High School junior designed a Web site for the roughly 300 students in the school's Communication Arts Program that allowed them to communicate with each other and teachers any time of the day or night to get more information about a homework assignment or to gush over the latest movie. Each class has its own page, and there's a live chat room as well.
The virtual hangout (the kind of software environment that some companies sell under the moniker "groupware") has been such a success that the school has asked Moore to enlarge the project to serve all Blair students this year. "I'm trying to make the package general enough so that it could be redistributed and used at other schools" or even in business, said Moore.
In Fairfax, Va., you will see another futuristic scene: fifth-graders at Mantua Elementary School using rugged, kid-sized "eMate" laptops from Apple Computer in the classroom and even taking them home at night. They use the machines to simplify the drudge work of school: rewriting drafts of papers, sharing information with fellow students and collaborating on reports. "It was really awesome," said Carey Russell, an 11 year old who took part in last year's pilot program.
These students, and kids of all ages taking part in similar classroom experiments across the country, are at the center of an intense national debate over the uses of technology in the classroom. President Clinton has pledged that "every single child must have access to a computer, must understand it, must have access to good software and good teachers and to the Internet, so that every person will have the opportunity to make the most of his or her own life."
Will the cornucopia of computers, Internet connections and more improve education? Or will it turn out like so many other technologies that have been thrust on students over the years, one more attempt to come up with a machine that can do the work of a teacher?
A growing chorus takes the latter view, arguing that the focus on computers in education is causing problems, not solving them. Two major criticisms have emerged. One group of critics call the new high-tech toys an academic fad that wastes precious class time and education funds. Another group frets that computer access is such a powerful tool that those students who don't have ready access to it will be doomed to failure, widening the gap between rich and poor.
Taken together, these two arguments might seem contradictory, a digital variant of the old Woody Allen joke about a Catskills mountain resort: The food is terrible and the portions are too small. But increasingly educators are finding that the answers to both are inextricably linked.
"You wire up the schools and you declare victory and move on? That's the least of it," said Gail Breslow, director of the Boston Computer Museum's Computer Clubhouse. Breslow worries that "there isn't enough thought being given to "What do you do now?' " She is one of many educators trying to provide both access and an effective education.
The introduction of computers and the Internet into classrooms has had mixed results. Each side has anecdotes of success or failure to bolster its argument, but studies proving that computers in the classroom are effective are hard to come by.
A report released this summer by the National Science Foundation did cite studies giving "evidence of learning advantages that ranged from the equivalent of one-third to one-half of a school year" from kindergarten to the sixth grade; those results, however, have been disputed.
After reviewing some of the things that school kids do with computers in the classroom, one might be forgiven for wondering whatever happened to the future of science fiction. "Beaming" homework assignments to the teacher's computer instead of having to hand them in on paper is not one of the earth-shaking glories we expected from science fiction. So much of the fun stuff failed to materialize; moving sidewalks are pretty much limited to big airports, and just try to find a personal jetpack.
But the personal computer, for the most part unforeseen by the imaginative scribes of the genre, has made its way into schools across the nation. Many of the most interesting uses that the high-tech tools are being put to may seem mundane. To some educators, that's precisely the point of becoming familiar with technology: "It becomes invisible," explained Ellen Schoetzau, principal of Mantua Elementary School.
Yet the first group of education technology critics say the new direction of America's schools is a dead end. Clifford Stoll, a California-based writer who calls computers "the filmstrips of the 1990s," took on high-tech teaching as one of the failed promises of computer technology in his book "Silicon Snake Oil." Stoll, who is writing a follow-up that focuses entirely on education, noted that some school districts are shifting funding from traditional areas of education.
"Instead of . . . wiring our schools maybe we should spend our money on rewarding teachers, on smaller class sizes, on such things as field trips, teaching music and art," Stoll said. "We have a finite number of dollars. No matter how you cut the pie, schools don't suddenly get a stack of more money because they suddenly bring the Internet into their classrooms. That money has to come from somewhere else."
Computers, Stoll argued, waste precious classroom time. He recalled watching students in an Oakland school struggle to get a computer simulation of a pendulum to work on their computer screens. "Rather than spending three minutes with a string and a weight," he said, "you spend 10 minutes waiting to get everyone's computer systems running."
In the 1950s and '60s, Stoll noted, educators and politicians said television would be an integral part of every classroom, replacing instructors. At the time, each experiment was dubbed a success by the participants. But television, he pointed out, has a minor role in the classroom today.
Teachers are the only answer for improving education, Stoll insisted. "Neither Muppet nor modem can deliver inspiration, commitment, a sense of discipline and responsibility, a love of scholarship or a sense of academic excellence."
Even technology's most ardent boosters agree that classroom computers used poorly will lead to poor education, just as ill-used textbooks or just plain old bad teaching will.
But 11-year-old Allison Schultz, who used one of the Mantua laptops all last year and is looking forward to having them again in sixth grade, scoffed at the notion that using her classroom computer is like watching a televised teacher.
"Just sitting there watching a TV, you're not doing anything but sitting there watching a TV," she said. With the laptops, "it's more interactive. The kids feel like they're doing something to learn, and when you're doing something to learn it's funner. When you're just watching a lecture you doze off and you don't pay attention."
The computers have helped Mantua teachers successfully move to a different style of teaching, Schoetzau contended. "Instead of that old 'sage on the stage' it's really that 'guide on the side.' We've become facilitators of education." In practical terms that means students do a lot of their own digging and learning.
Last year, the school asked teams of fifth-graders to find ways to prevent erosion of an exposed hillside on the school grounds.
Some searched for information on the Internet, some went with their parents to nurseries to research ground cover; each student beamed his or her chunk of the assignment to a team leader's machine, and they collaborated on final reports to the principal. "That's a very different learning and teaching than when I was in elementary school," Schoetzau said with pride.
Laura Schultz, whose daughter Allison was part of last year's laptop pilot program at Mantua, said her child and others were excited by the technology. "I expected the novelty to wear off, and it didn't," she said. "They became better writers, more apt to just do something" instead of stalling and fiddling around. "These kids would dive into these enormous projects without a second thought."
How could the computers be responsible for such a change? Schultz compared it to the simplicity and ease of use of electronic mail, which leads people to send and read far more correspondence than they would deal with on paper. Just as e-mail eliminates the frustrating steps of finding paper, an envelope, a stamp and the proper address, the eMate laptop blended research information, a blank page and the ability to correct mistakes effortlessly.
The $700 computers have exceeded all expectations for durability, Schoetzau said, with not a single machine broken during the first-year pilot program.
One problem has developed for the Mantua program, however. Apple Computer, manufacturer of the kid-friendly eMate, has discontinued the product. The company had based the little machine on its hand-held personal digital assistant, the Newton. Apple killed the Newton this year, and says it will relaunch the eMate with an operating system that is closer in design to the one that comes with today's Apple desktop machines.
Being orphaned didn't stop Mantua, however, since administrators decided they had a machine that served their purposes. The school bought enough new eMates from remaining supplies to expand the program from the fifth grade to the sixth grade.
Schoetzau bristled at the thought that someone might consider the machines obsolete simply because the manufacturer has pulled the plug. "Obsolete for whom?" she asked. "For us and for what we're doing right now it is a perfect match. What we will do a year from now, I can't answer that."
The second group of critics contends that computer technology is so important that those who don't have access to it will become the disadvantaged in a widening gap between rich and poor and white and nonwhite. Recent studies indicate that what has become known as the "digital divide" is real, both in the schools and at home, where computer lessons are reinforced.
The National Science Foundation report cited figures showing that poor and minority schools "have one-third to three times less access to these technologies" than well-to-do and predominantly white schools. "Poor and minority students cannot compensate for less computer access at school in their homes," the report said, because minority computer ownership trails white ownership.
A report released this year by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) found that "the 'digital divide' between certain groups of Americans has increased between 1994 and 1997 so that there is now an even-greater disparity in penetration levels among some groups. There is a widening gap, for example, between those at upper- and lower-income levels. Additionally, even though all racial groups now own more computers than they did in 1994, blacks and Hispanics now lag even further behind whites in their levels of PC-ownership and online access."
Even though African Americans spent almost $600 million on computers and related equipment last year, according to Federal Communications Commission chairman William E. Kennard, the NTIA found that twice the percentage of white households (41 percent) owned a computer.
Whatever may be happening in the classroom, other research by professors Donna L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak of Vanderbilt University suggests that the racial divide on the Internet goes beyond economic factors.
They found that while 73 percent of white students own a home computer, only 33 percent of African American students do so. Once a computer is in place in the home, Hoffman said in an interview, "then their usage was equal." Yet nearly 38 percent of those white students who do not own a computer at home still reported using the World Wide Web in the previous six months, compared to 16 percent of African American students. Whites have more ready access at friends' homes and through libraries and community centers.
To Hoffman, the racial divide means that whole sectors of society are not getting access to online information and online bargains as well. "It's also a commercial revolution, not just an information revolution."
Hoffman and Novak conclude in a paper released this year that the computer gap poses a grave societal risk. Echoing journalist A.J. Liebling, who observed that freedom of the press was limited to those that own one, "the Internet may provide for equal opportunity and democratic communication, but only for those with access. The United States economy may also be at risk if a significant segment of our society, denied equal access to the Internet, lacks the technological skills to keep American firms competitive."
In 1996, Congress mandated a program to vastly expand Internet connections in schools and libraries, a landmark addition to the notion of "universal service" that helped to put a phone into virtually every home in America.
That action, popular with consumers, has run into problems as the Federal Communications Commission attempted to implement the specifics. Under the FCC plan, called the Education Rate or "E-Rate," schools will be able to get Internet access at a discount, subsidized through a long-distance telephone-company bill charge of about a dollar a month.
Some 80 percent of America's schools already are connected to the Internet, but it's often a cluster of machines in a computer lab or library. Fewer than 30 percent of schools have at least one classroom wired to the Internet, according to U.S. government figures. The architects of the new proposal want to extend the connection.
That plan has come under heavy fire from telecommunications companies and from conservatives, consumer groups and others. They call the subsidy a back-door tax, and say that such an expensive undertaking should be launched, though bond elections and other funding mechanisms by which schools are held accountable.
Ensuring access to technology has become the mission of hundreds of organizations. Groups such as the nonprofit Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet) struggle to reduce the gap between the data haves and have-nots. CTCNet is made up of more than 250 sites that offer computer training and access to machines free of charge, largely in poor areas.
Ultimately, the problem is not simply computer ownership, said Jon Miller, vice president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a contributor to the NSF report. "School multiplies your advantages or your disadvantages," he explained. "If you have a lot of advantages walking in the front door, they are going to multiply them. If you walk in with a lot of disadvantages, they are going to multiply them." Addressing the challenges of inequity goes far deeper than buying a little hardware and software.
The Boston Computer Museum's clubhouse program is aimed at solving the two biggest problems of high-tech education at once. It provides computer access to low-income students in a friendly, supportive environment. But just as important, program leader Gail Breslow said, the clubhouse is an experiment, done in close consultation with researcher Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Lab, in finding effective technology education.
Breslow called the handful of clubhouse sites "a model learning environment . . . where young people could use computers as tools for creating" informally and flexibly.
"The most important thing in the 21st century is going to be learning how to learn," Breslow said.