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Current, reliable information on technology access and use is critical to understanding the breadth of learning opportunities afforded by computers and the Internet. Timely surveys can also inform about the extent to which students and the U.S. population in general can access and use technology resources at school and in their homes and where gaps in opportunity remain. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has benefited from the strong support of the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology (OET) in designing and conducting the technology surveys featured in this issue of the Education Statistics Quarterly. Susan Patrick, the director of OET, provides the commentary for this issue.
NCES began tracking the use of technology for instruction in schools in 1994, when it launched its annual Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) survey on Internet access. "Internet Access in Public Schools," now in its 10th year, tracks progress made in connecting public schools and instructional rooms to the Internet, how public schools are connected to the Internet (broadband vs. narrowband), and the student-to-computer ratio. To keep up with advances in technology and Internet expansion, NCES has added questions to the survey to address emerging issues. These questions provide information on the technologies and procedures used to prevent student access to inappropriate material on the Internet, the availability of adaptive and assistive devices for students with disabilities, and access outside of regular school hours. Questions on topics such as platforms, memory, and disk space used on instructional computers; school web sites; school-sponsored e-mail; and laptop computer loans also enable school officials to compare their own technology programs to others.
NCES also tracks individual and household use of computers and the Internet. A number of different NCES surveys—the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, the National Household Education Surveys Program, and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort—contain items on this topic. The primary data collection that NCES uses to track changes in individual and household use of computers and the Internet, however, is the Current Population Survey (CPS). The first CPS collection on this topic was conducted in 1984. Since then, NCES and the U.S. Census Bureau (which fields the CPS) have worked with OET, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other agencies to adjust the survey to reflect changes in technology over time. The most recent CPS collection on this topic was fielded in October 2003. It covered a wide range of related subjects including household computer ownership and Internet access, individual use of computers and the Internet for activities such as completing school and work projects, the locations where people use computers and the Internet, and the use of other information technologies.
In addition to technology access in schools and homes, NCES has studied
NCES also expects to release in fall 2004 a new FRSS survey that will examine the extent to which school districts offer distance education courses to public elementary and secondary students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that technology-based education at the elementary and secondary levels enables school districts to expand the range of courses available and facilitates more flexibility in student schedules and instructional delivery. To date, however, no nationally representative studies have examined the relationship among distance education availability, course offerings, and enrollments in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. The new survey will provide for the first time
Other NCES projects that relate to information and communications technology include the Technology-Rich Environments (TRE) pilot assessment, which is being conducted for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The TRE assessment developed a set of example modules to use technology to assess student problem solving at the eighth grade. These example modules use the computer to present multimedia tasks that cannot be delivered through conventional paper-and-pencil assessments, but that tap important emerging skills.
To date, NCES surveys have generated findings that have been valuable to states, school districts, and postsecondary institutions by helping them benchmark their own technology goals and needs against national averages and comparable systems. In addition, the Department of Education has used results from these surveys to report to Congress about the outcomes of various technology initiatives and programs and to plan its own strategic agenda for using technology in education. The popular press, the education press, researchers, and the public have followed the survey releases, as evidenced by the large and growing volume of downloads from the NCES web site of the reports documenting these releases. Each new release documents that Internet access has expanded the reach of our reports to a wider audience and the increasing interest in these reports.