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Editorial: When kids are online in school, but not learning

Seventh eighth grade students work prepare for Bond Elementary School's first participatiFUTURE CITY competitiusing computer simulations research build working city

Seventh and eighth grade students work to prepare for Bond Elementary School's first participation in the FUTURE CITY competition, using computer simulations and research to build a working city to deal with the Englewood community's problems with diabetes and high blood pressure on Thursday, January 6, 2011. l Keith Hale~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 22, 2013 6:46AM

A digital divide is no longer the most serious problem in computer labs across the Chicago school system.

A more pernicious divide has taken its place.

Only about half of CPS middle and high school students use computers at least once a week at school, and 20 to 30 percent use it rarely or not at all, according to new research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The divide separates students attending high-achieving schools from those in neighborhood schools and public charters. Nearly 65 percent of teachers in test-based high schools expect students to use computer technology to complete assignments each week compared to just over 30 percent of teachers in charters and 40 percent in neighborhood schools, according to 2011 teacher surveys.

And we’re not talking creative computer work — this is basic Internet searches, power point and spreadsheet assignments. The researchers say weekly school-related computer work is a very low bar.

“The frequency with which [students] are being expected to use computers for school-related work is pretty dismal,” said lead researcher Stacy Ehrlich. Students can access technology outside of school and often in school, she said, though differences from school to school are still too common.

“What is lacking in students’ experiences is the expectation that students regularly use technology for learning,” the report concluded.

Some good news: When teachers expect more computer use, and principals strongly support that effort, kids report using technology more, regardless of school type. But low expectations are still too common, especially in weaker schools.

Veteran CPS staffers laid out a key barrier: “It’s teachers not knowing what to do if kids turn the computer on,” one said. But that’s just a start: computer labs are often busy with students taking standardized tests; discipline problems discourage teachers from letting students roam online; theft of iPads and laptops is a problem; the rote learning in some schools doesn’t lend itself to using computers creatively; and broken and outdated equipment is a problem.

CPS officials tell us they are hard at work on these issues, and Ehrlich is impressed with the efforts. CPS is working to better distribute hardware, especially laptops and iPads in elementary schools, and educator training is a big focus for next year.

CPS says the 55 schools proposed to absorb students from closed schools this summer will each get a computer lab and every student in third through eighth grade will get an iPad. All schools must develop technology plans, though principals decide how to spend discretionary dollars and where to focus teacher training.

All principals would be wise to remember this:

“Access to computers is not enough,” the researchers wrote. “The call to action is no longer simply to provide students with computers and Internet access. Rather, it is to raise the expectations for technology use in all schools.”

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