Remarks of Assistant Secretary Irving at the Mississippi Educational Technology Luncheon

The Ed Tech Challenge: Training Our Youth for 21st Century
Jackson, MS
January 27, 1999
"The Ed Tech Challenge: Training Our Youth for 21st Century"

Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

at the

Mississippi Educational Technology Luncheon
"Using Technology Tools to Transform Teaching and Learning"
Jackson, Mississippi

January 27, 1999
[as prepared]


I'd like to thank the Mississippi Council for Education Technology, Ellen Davis Burnham, Helen Soule, Dr. Larry Anderson, and so many other friends for inviting me here today. It's a privilege to be here at the Mississippi Educational Technology Luncheon to honor those who have contributed to the successful implementation of education technology this past year.

Those of you working on ed tech issues are truly today's pioneers. As President Clinton said in his State of the Union speech last week, we are standing on the "mountaintop of this next century, look[ing] ahead to the next one." No-one knows exactly what the 21st century holds. But what we do know is that next century's jobs will require a higher degree of technical literacy and high-tech skills than ever before. Our challenge today - as state and federal officials, school administrators, and educators - is to prepare our students to compete in this high-tech economy. And those in ed tech are blazing new trails to meet this challenge.
 

The Technological Revolution

When you look at the world today, there's no doubt that technical literacy is as important as "reading, writing, and arithmetic" to our students. New technologies now pervade daily life. Today, some estimate that nearly 200 million people are now online worldwide -- not only for e-mail, but to shop, listen to music, watch live video footage, or trade stocks. There are now 830 million web pages you can visit, and by 2003 there may be 8 billion.

"The Internet audience is not only growing, it is getting decidedly mainstream," according to the Pew survey released two weeks ago. This year's online holiday shopping is an example of that trend. It may not have been a White Christmas, but it was certainly a "Web Christmas": consumers spent $ 8 billion on online holiday shopping this year, by some accounts - three times the amount anticipated.

But these technologies are doing more than facilitating online shopping -- which is why it is so essential to incorporate computer training in the school curriculum. The Internet, wireless systems, and satellite technologies are opening new doors for Americans. Now, those in remote areas and those at home, can take distance education courses from universities worldwide. They can use these technologies to brush up old skills or to learn new ones to find jobs in newly expanding areas. Even navy officers serving on aircraft carriers can now access courses using computers, satellite transmissions, and video conferencing. And, if you have a computer and online access, you can explore the thousands of job postings that are placed only on the Net, or find the best price for a consumer good.

Even more importantly, training in high-tech skills will prepare our youth for employment in the 21st century. Today, a significantly high percentage of jobs require computer literacy. More than seven million Americans now work in information technology jobs. More Americans now build computers than cars, make semiconductors than construction machinery, and work in data processing than petroleum refining. In a recent US News and World Report survey of the "best jobs of the future," eight out of the twenty selected jobs were involved high-tech skills.

We are now in a situation where there are more high-tech jobs than people to fill them. Over 347,000 jobs are currently unfilled. And, over the next seven years, more than one million new jobs will be created in computer-related fields alone. This means that companies needing employees with high-tech skills will move to cities where they can find those skills. A city or town's economy could depend on its ability to train its workers. You already know that Jackson's economy is being transformed by companies such as WorldCom/MCI and Tritel (which I heard, by the way, just signed a $300 million agreement with Ericssen).

And it is not only technology-related jobs that require high-tech skills; jobs in all areas will require computer literacy and other technology-related skills. D.C. Cablevision told me recently that it would not even consider someone for a job - of any kind - if that person does not know how to use a computer. And look at what is happening in the retail industry: on-line sales of travel, music, clothing, automobiles and electric goods have increased by 200% over the last 12 months. The same is occurring in the insurance, banking, and real estate industries. Millions of Americans employed in those industries will need high-tech skills, as will policemen, farmers, government employees, and educators -- all of whom will be incorporating new technologies in their work.
 

The Administration's Programs

President Clinton and Vice President Gore have long recognized the importance of preparing our communities and students for the high-tech jobs of the 21st century. Two weeks ago, I took part in a conference hosted by Vice President Gore on "21st Century Skills for 21st Century Jobs." Tens of thousands of people attended this conference via satellite to discuss new ways to meet the workforce demands of the next century. Vice President Gore announced, among other things, that he will allocate $60 million to regional programs to provide technological training for incumbent and dislocated workers. "America's competitiveness and the prosperity," he noted, depends on the ability of our people to learn "throughout their lifetimes."

The fate of this country also depends on the ability to train our students in school. Children with computers will not only have employment advantages over those without, they will also have educational advantages over those without. Providing children with access to computers and training is therefore key to ensuring their success in the future.

We need to provide access and training in public institutions because many of our children, particularly those in low-income, minority, rural, or inner city households, still do not have computers or Internet access at home. Only 2% of children in low-income, rural households have Internet access, compared to 50% of urban households earning more than $75,000. Similarly, African-American households are two times less likely to have computers and three times less likely to have online access than White households. Ninety-two percent of African-American children still lack access to the Internet at home. The figures are even worse in rural areas and central cities.

These findings are from NTIA's most recent study, based on 1997 data, called Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide. This study, which updated our original 1994 study, found that computer ownership has grown among all groups but that we still have a significant digital divide based on race, income, education level, age, and location. NTIA will issue a new study this year exploring the digital divide in 1999 and why certain households still lack access to computers and the Internet.

The "digital divide" underscores the importance of providing computers and Internet access in schools and public institutions so that every child can access new technologies. Several years ago, President Clinton established the goal to connect every school and library in America to the information superhighway by year 2000. The Administration has since launched numerous programs to introduce computers in the classroom and to connect schools to the Internet. For example, we have encouraged communities to establish "NetDays," which can be described as "electronic barn-raisings" designed to bring together community volunteers and companies to wire neighborhood schools. The Mississippi Department of Ed Tech puts information on Net Days on the Net; you've got the pioneers right here, and you're showing others how it's done.

Many of you in this room area also familiar with the Administration's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), administered by NTIA. TIIAP provides grants to non-profit and public entities that use new technologies to reach underserved communities. Over the last five years, we've given almost 400 grants totaling $118 million in matching grants. The grantees range from innovative programs helping low-income neighborhoods get online access to health care information, to programs providing access to job bank databases.

Some of the best examples of these projects have brought new technologies to students and are based right here in Jackson, Mississippi. For example, TIIAP helped fund the Mississippi Family Math and Science Network Project. Through this project, the Mississippi Department of Education has brought high quality Internet access to five rural school districts and trained high school students to design, build, and maintain the local area networks. We have also been proud to help fund the Connect-2-Tomorrow project, which connects chronically ill youngsters at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Using e-mail and video conferencing, these patients are still able to keep up with their classmates and classes even though they're hospitalized or homebound. Last year, I had the opportunity to meet some of the young people who are personally benefitting from your work with this program. You are the visionaries; I'm just a bureaucrat with a checkbook!

In addition to TIIAP, the Administration has also fought hard to establish and preserve the education-rate, or "e-rate," program. This program provides a discounted rate to schools and libraries for Internet access, telecommunications services, and equipment to connect to Internet. This fiscal year, $1.9 billion has been appropriated for e-rate grants; $427 million has already been released in three waves of grants. The Administration has also developed several grant programs - such as the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants and the Technology Literacy Challenge grants - to assist schools that are incorporating new technologies in their curricula.

As the President noted in last week's State of the Union address, "we are well on our way to our goal of connecting every classroom and library to the Internet." In 1994, only 3% of US classrooms had computers, according to the National Center of Educational Statistics. The most recent study by Market Data Retrieval has found that, in 1998, 85% of schools and 44% of all classrooms had Internet access. This study also found that the 12-1 ratio of students to computers in 1993 was down to 6.3-1 in 1998. Many of you here have had a part in helping us make these tremendous strides.

Remaining Challenges

Many challenges, of course, still lie before us. First, we need to make sure that, as we connect schools and libraries, it is done on an equitable basis. By the last official count, only a little more than half of rural libraries offered Internet access. Classrooms in rural and predominantly minority public schools were also nearly three times less likely to have Internet access as those in wealthy schools. The e-rate program currently gives priority to the neediest schools; but we need to be sure that this program, and others like it, succeed in reducing disparities among schools.

We also need to galvanize our rural communities and inner cities to hold "Net Days" to wire local schools. Imagine how many more rural communities and minority students could access the Internet if every Lions or Kiwanis Club, every church, and every civic and social organization adopted a school and held a "Net Day."

Second, we need to focus on teacher training. It is one thing to have computers in the class; it is another thing to ensure that they are used in a meaningful way. The recent Market Data Retrieval study uncovered some disturbing news. It found that, even though classrooms may have computers, a large number of teachers are not using the Internet for teaching. Only 14% of schools surveyed reported that 90% or more of teachers use the Internet for "instructional purposes." Clearly, our challenge now is to train teachers to successfully integrate new technologies in the classroom.

We must also explore the most effective ways to use new technologies in class. I was struck last fall by several articles discussing the largest study to date, conducted by the Educational Testing Service, on the use of computers in helping students learn. The Washington Post's headline read "Study Faults Computers' Use in Math Education." The New York Time's headline read "Computers Help Math Learning, Study Finds." The headlines appear contradictory, but both were accurate. The study found that, if used certain ways - such as through repetitive drills -- computers actually lowered students' performance on math tests. But if used to illustrate abstract concepts, computers were found to improve students' scores. Teachers need to learn which methods work, and which don't.

Over the next ten years, we will have two million new teachers entering the work force, who will need training in incorporating new technologies. The Administration has allocated $75 million in its FY 1999 budget to help with these training efforts. Other efforts, such as requiring evidence of such proficiency at the state level, would help us ensure that our teachers are putting technologies to the best use in class.

Third, we should be focusing on the inclusion of all students in technological training -- especially girls and minorities who are underrepresented in the high-tech fields. According to recent studies, minority and female students are less likely to choose computer science as a field of study or to find computer-related jobs. A report issued last summer in by Virginia's Fairfax County School Board, for example, found that girls make up only one-third of the students in computer science courses and that women compose only 25 percent of the information technology work force.

Minorities are similarly underrepresented in these areas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 7.2% of computer scientists in 1996 were African-American and 2.6% were of Hispanic origin. In a more recent survey in Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Chronicle found that staffs at the leading 33 companies were only 4% African-American and 7% Hispanic, even though Blacks and Hispanics respectively make up 8% and 14% of the area's labor force.

We must reverse these trends by inspiring girls and minority students to join computer classes and pursue math and science. Our children should know as much about Bill Gates as Kobe Bryant, and as much about Michael Dell (whose net worth increases by at least $100 million a month) as Michael Jordan (who earns $100 million a year). They need to learn that 15 hours in front of a computer per week is far more likely to lead to a lucrative career than 15 hours on the court. Only if we lay these foundations early on, can we pave the way for these students to explore profitable high-tech careers down the road.

Finally, I want to stress the importance about thinking "outside the classroom." As important as it is to wire our schools, we also need to reach out to other communities through public facilities. Some of our students, and certainly many adults, are more likely to learn about computers in community centers or after-school clubs.

For example, one of the many successes we've seen through our TIIAP program is a program in East Palo Alto, California, called "Plugged In." Even though Silicon Valley is close by, students in East Palo Alto have had little opportunity to learn about computers. The "Plugged In" project, however, is changing that story. "Plugged In" operates a community access center with computers and Internet access. Students drop in after school to take computer training courses or to use the Internet. These kids have now even learned how to operate their own business by designing web pages for local businesses. This program, and others like it, are increasing the chances of employment, or even self-employment, for the youth in the neighborhood. Plugged-In provides a valuable model for alternative ways to reach out to, and excite, our youth in new technologies.
 

Conclusion

We have many opportunities and challenges ahead of us. But all of us must continue to invest the time and energy to bring our children into the technological age. Author William Gibson has been quoted as saying that "the future has arrived; it's just not evenly distributed." As we move into the digital world, we cannot afford to let technological literacy become unevenly distributed, or to become a nation divided between "information haves" and "information have nots." Those of you in this room are making a significant contribution towards bridging that gap, and I look forward to working with you in the future to bring the benefits of the digital age to all of America's children.

Thank you.