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Fostering the Use of Educational Technology: Elements of a National Strategy

Glennan, Thomas K. and Melmed, Arthur (1995). Fostering the Use of Educational Technology: Elements of a National Strategy [Online]. Accessed 3/30/02: http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR682/contents.html.

The Rand Corporation is an important source of educational research. Arthur Melmed worked for the National Science Foundation for many years and was a pioneer in fostering the development of IT in education.



In 1983 there was about one computer for each 125 students in the nation's public schools. By 1995, there was a computer for each nine students. In 1994, the nation's schools spent about $3 billion on computer- and network-based technology. Additional funds were spent for other kinds of equipment such as video players, facsimile machines, and telephone lines as well as for technology-related training. Nationally, new federal legislation has emphasized the importance of educational technology and leaders have called for actions to ensure the access of all schools to the national information infrastructure. Many states and local school systems have appropriated or reallocated funds, or issued bonds to finance acquisition and installation of technology in schools. As has been the case in other parts of American society, major changes associated with the growth of information technology are clearly under way in our schools.

At the same time, much of America is in the midst of significant efforts to reform and improve the performance of its education system. The president and the governors, in a historic agreement, established broad national education goals in 1989. National political, business, and community leaders have called for higher standards and educational practices that enable virtually all students to meet these standards. Because of the significant growth in the importance of being competitive in the international economy, educational outcomes relating to the capacity to effectively work, continue to learn, and be effective citizens are receiving greater attention. States and communities, to varying degrees, are pursuing these goals.

Technology can play a key role in this reform. Numerous examples exist where computer- and network-based technology has been used to

  • tailor learning experiences more sharply to learner needs and abilities.
  • provide students with access to resources and expertise outside the school, both enriching their learning and extending the time devoted to learning
  • support more authentic assessment of a student's progress
  • assist schools in managing and guiding the learning activities of their students.

Moreover, as Louis Gerstner, CEO of IBM, has said, "[information technology] is the force that revolutionizes business, streamlines government and enables instant communications and the exchange of information among people and institutions around the world." If technology becomes widely infused in a school, it seems probable that it can play analogous roles in education. Technology can be the "revolutionary force" that instigates and supports reform by teachers and administrators at the school level.

The authors of this report believe the continuing growth in the presence of technology in schools presents an important opportunity to a nation seeking improved performance from its schools. The report seeks to identify principles that should guide the actions of public officials, educators, and others concerned with using technology to improve the performance of schools and school systems. Prepared as a result of participation by RAND's Critical Technologies Institute (CTI) in federal efforts to plan a research agenda and develop a national educational technology plan, it is based upon a series of workshops, interviews, and literature reviews. The report considers three major questions:

  1. What do we know about the use and effectiveness of computer- and network-based technology in elementary and secondary education?
  2. What major strategies should the nation consider as it seeks to make effective use of technology in its schools?
  3. What are the most important roles for the federal government to play?

While we present a variety of important findings and recommendations, perhaps the most important is that the nation seek to build its strategies on lessons from its early experiences. The significant levels of investment made in recent years mean that some schools have already acquired and put substantial amounts of technology into effective use. A key role for federal, state, and local officials is to tap the experiences of these "pioneer" schools for lessons that can increase the probability that continued investments in educational technology will be well used.



The growth in use of technology by schools is strong; schools are adding equipment and developing connections to the national information infrastructure at a high rate. The expanded penetration of computers in schools, noted in the opening sentences, is projected to continue. Despite this rapid growth, surveys suggest that the average school still makes limited use of computers and substantial numbers of schools have very limited access to technology of any kind. Instances of deep, schoolwide use, espoused by advocates of technology-supported instruction, are comparatively rare. Rather, use of technology to significantly affect classroom practice tends to be limited to small groups of teachers who are excited by the potential that they feel technology has to motivate their students or to access new resources. As has been the case with past attempts to introduce technologies such as radio, film, and television into schools, computers and telecommunications remain marginal contributors in most settings.

A small number of "pioneer" schools with ubiquitous technology show the potential for restructuring provided by educational technology. In these schools, students, teachers, and administrators report taking new roles. Technology has been used to manage complex, standards-related instructional processes in ways that have previously been achieved by only the most skilled teachers. It facilitates communications among teachers so they can collaborate more effectively. In some of these schools, technology is also used to support communications among schools, students, and parents, fostering an improved partnership among these actors, and greater accountability and public support.


Research and practice suggest that, appropriately implemented, computer- and network-based technology can contribute significantly to improved educational outcomes. Most of this experience is in small trials in one or a few settings, but research has aggregated these experiences into a significant body of literature that illuminates the potential of technology in a variety of settings.

Research on "reinventing" whole schools through ubiquitous use of technology is not common. In part, this reflects the rarity of such schools--schools that may provide computers for each child and extensive networking that encourages collaboration and communication. The research that exists is promising but not conclusive. The schools represented at our CTI workshops were producing results valued by their community, but they clearly were exceptional schools. It remains to be seen whether similar results can be sustained as increasing numbers of schools acquire similar levels of technology.


According to surveys carried out several years ago, the availability of technology in schools serving poor, minority, and special-needs populations does not appear to lag substantially behind the averages of schools taken as a whole. Past federal, state, and local funding and policies appear to have mitigated extreme differences in the average availability of computers among special populations. In particular, federal compensatory education programs have supported the acquisition of substantial technology for schools serving disadvantaged populations, particularly at the elementary school level.

In contrast, the disparities in home possession and use of computers are substantial among families with differing incomes, parental education, and ethnicity. To the degree that technology comes to be used to extend the amount of time spent in learning activities outside the schools, these disparities will have considerable consequences for the achievements of students from different family backgrounds. If the disparities persist, access to technology is likely to become one more element in the array factors that cause a student's educational attainment to be highly correlated with the socioeconomic status of his or her family.


The costs of ubiquitous use of technology are modest in the context of overall budgets for public elementary education, but actually moving to such use would require significant and potentially painful restructuring of school budgets. We investigated the costs of a small number of schools making extensive use of technology. The estimated annual costs related to technology use in those schools ranged from about $180 to $450 per student. In 1994-95 the current expenditure per student in average daily attendance was $5,623. If $300 were viewed as a target level of funding per student for technology-related costs, about 5.3 percent of the current budgets of schools would need to be allocated to technology. On its face, this seems a level that should be attainable.

However, we estimate actual expenditures per student in 1994-95 to be $70, or one-quarter of the $300 figure. The bulk of school budgets is devoted to personnel costs; in most districts funding for materials and supplies is very restricted and provides little opportunity for further reallocation to technology. To support levels of expenditure equal to $300 per pupil will require reallocations of funds that have proven very difficult to achieve in public schools and/or increments in funding that taxpayers in most jurisdictions have been reluctant to provide.

Such reallocation will be possible only if the public and the educational community come to feel that technology is essential to meeting their objectives for student learning. Information about and demonstration of the importance of technology are critical to continued growth in technology's use. In our view, developing and disseminating such information constitutes a core role for the federal government.


Other challenges need to be met if effective, widespread use of technology is to be achieved. Two seem particularly important: equipping teachers to effectively exploit technology for the benefit of their students and assuring a plentiful supply of high-quality content software.

Both the observations of experts at our workshops and the results from past research strongly suggest that teachers must acquire new skills needed to operate in technology-rich environments. Current professional development policies do not encourage teachers to acquire such skills. Similarly, few programs preparing people to enter the teaching profession were viewed as dealing effectively with technology. If the nation fails to aggressively address this problem, the significant investments in technology itself are likely to have marginal impacts on the overall conduct of schooling.

Educational software provides a somewhat different challenge since it is developed and sold in commercial markets. Widely available software tools such as text processors, spreadsheets, and network browsers play key roles in schools with ubiquitous technology, but they are largely developed in response to broader commercial markets. This is not the case for content software, which provides important and structured sources of information and/or opportunities for practice. Such software, keyed to the content standards of states and local districts, is important for realizing the full potential of computers.

The market for educational materials, as traditionally structured, offers limited incentives for entrepreneurial development of content software. The market is fragmented and governed by a variety of materials adoption practices. Even if a high proportion of schools acquires a product, the volume of sales is small. This is particularly true with the more specialized subject areas characteristic of much of secondary education.

However, this situation may be changing. New alliances among publishers and a spectrum of software developers, the rapid growth in the national information infrastructure coupled with its potential for changing the manner in which software is distributed, and the emergence of new entrepreneurs all promise significant changes in the manner in which schools acquire and use instructional materials and content software.



Why should the nation develop elements of a national strategy concerning educational technology? After all, large investments are being made in such technology, and equipment, software, and practice are evolving rapidly. In our view, the reason for seeking a strategy lies in the nation's past experiences with attempts to capitalize on technology or to promote one or another reform in education. All too frequently, these efforts foundered because implementation was flawed, communities and teachers were not adequately involved, or inadequate resources were devoted to the task. Some attention to these lessons will help the nation increase the probability that investments in technology will yield improved outcomes in terms of student learning.

A full strategy, engaging all relevant interests, is surely too ambitious. However, we propose several strategic principles to guide the nation as it moves to introduce additional information technology into its schools. As additional experience is accumulated, more explicit principles can be developed. The proposed principles are simple and straightforward--intended to shape an ongoing activity rather than spur new activities.

  1. The introduction of educational technology into schools should occur as a component of a broader effort of school reform to improve the learning of all children. Such reforms include developing and implementing high standards for all students, creating assessment systems that effectively measure the attainment of such standards, restructuring the roles of teachers, and adopting instructional practices that increase students' motivation and time to learn. In the absence of a persistent and intensive effort to maintain a focus on improving student learning, the promise of technology will be lost. In the absence of changes in the incentives governing the behavior of schools and teachers, it is unlikely that student learning will improve. Technology without reform is likely to have little value; widespread reform without technology is probably impossible.
  2. Over time, the costs of educational technology should be built into school budgets as a normal component of recurring costs. Major responsibility for financing and implementing technology clearly lies with state and local school authorities. These authorities are likely to incorporate technology as a recurring cost only as technology demonstrates its value in schools and districts that are early adopters.
  3. Public authorities at all levels should work with the private sector to see that all schools have access to the national information infrastructure at reasonable costs.
  4. All levels of government should monitor the access to technology that exists for traditionally disadvantaged populations and be prepared to do what is possible to ensure equality of access. If, as we expect, learning expands beyond the walls of the school and the length of the school day, the inequalities in access to computers and telecommunications outside the school will become an important additional barrier to achieving the traditional national goal of providing equality of educational opportunity to all children.
  5. All levels of government should seek to learn and use the lessons from schools and school districts that pioneer in the creation of technology-rich learning environments. The early adopters of technology can help smooth the way for those who follow.
  6. The federal government's role should involve leadership, dissemination of information on effective practice, fostering the development of organizations capable of assisting schools to make effective use of technology, and funding of research and development.



While the major burdens for acquiring and using educational technology lie with schools, school systems, and states, there are important and traditional roles the federal government should play. These encompass four major classes of activities.

  1. Continuing advocacy and leadership for school reform, emphasizing the potential that technology has for improving student performance.
  2. Creating and disseminating high-quality information concerning the effective deployment and use of education technology.
  3. Fostering the development of assistance organizations that will help schools and school systems succeslly implement effective, technology-enabled schools.
  4. 4. Sustaining a vigorous and relevant program of research and development related to educational technology.

Leadership and Advocacy

Even in these times of political turbulence and change, most Americans look to leaders of the federal government for guidance. Thus the federal government can bring together state and local leaders, executives of private firms, community leaders, or representatives of key interests to discuss common issues or to map collaborative efforts.

Leadership can also be provided by identifying and recognizing outstanding performance. One of the most powerful national programs affecting the private sector has been the Baldridge Awards for quality management. These awards have inspired many companies to undertake extensive efforts to improve the quality of performance of their entire organization. Various programs to recognize effective schools have had similar, if less well publicized, effects. There is every reason to believe that effectively publicized programs that appropriately recognize technology-enabled schools, effective educational software, or specific classes of educational technology applications can provide strong guidance and incentives to schools, school systems, and the private sector.

Creating and Disseminating Better Information for Reformers Concerning Technology

A traditional federal government function has been to survey activities across districts and states to understand what is working and what pitfalls and barriers exist. In the area of educational technology, the Department of Education might gather data and assess and disseminate information on

  • effective strategies for financing educational technology at the state and district levels
  • exemplary program and schoolwide implementations of technology as a means of restructuring schooling
  • effective applications of technology to the training and professional development of teachers
  • the progress in connecting schools and classrooms to the national information infrastructure
  • the access of various special populations of students to technology.

Some of these are tasks for the National Center for Education Statistics; others should be carried out by the Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI). Many examples of effective practice would presumably be found in the pioneer schools and districts that are emerging. Special attention should be devoted to them. The Department of Education should coordinate these efforts, perhaps through the Office of Educational Technology or the Planning and Evaluation Service.

Fostering the Development of More Effective Assistance Organizations

It is important to distinguish between the dissemination of information discussed in the previous subsection and the provision of assistance to schools, teachers, and school systems. RAND's experience in evaluating school reform programs persuades us that there is an important function of organized assistance for the transformation of schools generally and for the development of schools with technology-enabled learning environments in particular. This assistance should be concrete, timely, and sustained. It should be provided on terms that the recipients find helpful, rather than on terms convenient to the provider.

The Department of Education should identify the qualities of effective assistance and inventory the potential sources of assistance related to technology. Working in conjunction with other department offices, particularly OERI, it should guide the department's support of assistance organizations so as to further the effective school use of educational technology.

The medium is part of the message. The Department of Education should actively seek opportunities to model and exploit the use of technology as a tool for providing assistance.

Support for Research, Development, and Demonstration (RD&D)

RD&D support is traditionally one of the least controversial of federal roles. In areas where private firms cannot expect to capture the full benefit of their investment, R&D tends to be under funded. Where states and localities have only limited RD&D management expertise, the federal government is the obvious source of support for R&D activities. This is true for education.

There is little need for additional R&D on hardware or software products that have substantial application outside of education. The suppliers of such software and hardware products have every incentive to make R&D investments themselves. However, there are some needs, specifically related to education, for which school demand does not currently seem adequate to justify private investment or for which the short time horizons of public officials do not lead to state and local investment.

Areas of research and development that have particular benefits include the following:

  1. Development of improved models for training teachers (and other staff) as well as better methods for promoting their professional development after graduation. Interactive network and CD-ROM applications could provide more timely and relevant sources of information and assistance than can be provided with current institutional arrangements.
  2. Research and demonstration of ways in which to promote equal access to educational technology by all citizens.
  3. Initial development of content software serving important educational needs, particularly in middle and secondary schools where market incentives appear inadequate to generate a sufficient supply.
  4. Development of new assessment methods and instruments appropriate to the new learning outcomes sought by society and encouraged by the use of educational technology.
  5. Development of advanced software tools that ease the creation of applications or the use of networks.
  6. Continued work on learning and cognitive science.
  7. Demonstration and assessment of effective technology-enabled learning processes.

We believe effectively planned and well-run demonstrations can produce high-quality information concerning the potential of technology for the improvement of learning. Demonstration projects also provide a means for the federal government to share some of the risks associated with new ventures. Solicitations associated with such programs provide the opportunity to stimulate the development of effective new technology applications. Support for demonstrations, if properly structured, can also help develop new sources of assistance to schools and teachers. The Technology Challenge Grant Program, sponsored by the Department of Education, has been put in place to help promote these objectives.

The federal actions proposed here are comparatively modest but of considerable importance. We expect them to provide guidance to the rapid development and deployment of educational technology that is now taking place. The key common quality of all the activities is that they provide information that will help educators, business people, parents, and policymakers contribute more effectively to this deployment.

The nation's most important educational goal must be to produce learners adequately prepared for life and work in the 21st century. Faced by uncertain demands, we should ensure that our youth master basic language and mathematics skills (perhaps in the context of studying subjects like history and science). But it is important that they also learn how to gather information and collaborate with others in the use of that information in solving problems and making informed judgments on public and private concerns. The nation must develop schools that can enable our youth to meet these goals. Properly employed, educational technology will make a major contribution to those schools and their students.



Many people have contributed to our efforts. Linda Roberts, head of the Office of Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and Ed Fitzsimmons of the Office of Science and Technology Policy provided continuing advice and encouragement in their roles as sponsors of our work. Jonathan Hoyt and Gwen Solomon (Office of Educational Technology), Dexter Fletcher (Institute for Defense Analysis), and Gary Bridgewater (Office of Science and Technology Policy) provided encouragement and support throughout.

We owe a large debt of thanks to the individuals who took the time to participate in our workshops; their names are listed in the appendix. A number of them took the time to follow up their participation with notes and additional input. In addition, many people in government and industry took the time to talk with us; we appreciate their contributions of insights and data. Within RAND, Brent Keltner, David McArthur, Douglas Merrill, Sue Purnell, and Randy Ross made important contributions through their writing and advice. Karl Sun was responsible for the research on school district investment reported in Chapter Four. Nancy Rizor competently handled the logistics of the workshops. Jim Harvey regularly provided valuable advice and counsel as well as writing grace. Finally, Wally Baer (RAND) and Larry Frase (Educational Testing Service) provided cogent and useful comments on an earlier draft of this report.

Obviously, errors in fact and judgment are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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