JOHN NOMES and three other classmates at the Peabody School in Cambridge, Mass., cluster around a computer in the back of Jackie Crowe's seventh-grade science class.
They are studying planetary construction. Their assignment: to download earthquake statistics from the National Earthquake Information Center on the Internet and plot the data on a world map. The results will show that earthquakes have occurred along plate boundaries, explaining how the continents were formed.
In past classes, Mrs. Crowe says, it's been a tough sell to get students to look up often-outdated material in books. Now, she practically has to pull her students away from their work.
''I never had to fight to get them to go to lunch before,'' she says, trying to usher several students out the door.
What's going on in this classroom is what President Clinton hopes will soon be standard everywhere. His goal: to have every classroom and library in the country - public and private - connected to the Internet by 2000. Forty-four states are already moving forward with education-technology plans under grants from the federal Goals 2000 program.
But wiring schools to the information superhighway is only a start. A big component will be training teachers, integrating computers into the curriculum, and even reevaluating the way students are taught. This doesn't mean nixing the basics, experts say, but rather teaching them in the context of modern technology.
''The schools are way out of date in terms of being able to provide a learning environment that is comparable to the way we want people to perform on the job,'' says Dave Moursand, executive director of the International Society for Technology in Education in Eugene, Ore.
While some educators question whether every classroom will actually be surfing the Internet in 4-1/2 years, few dispute the need for computers to be integrated into the curriculum. Students with access to computers will excel in tomorrow's work force; those without ''will graduate with skills that prepare them for yesterday, not tomorrow,'' says Cheryl Lempke of the Illinois State Board of Education. The president's proposal, she and others hope, may help level the playing field.
In comparison with other countries, the United States leads in using technology innovatively in the classroom. Even so, the number of successful programs in schools remains limited.
A decade ago, 75 students typically shared access to one computer. Currently there is about one computer for every 10 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. This is an average, meaning that while some schools may be very well equipped, others have virtually no computer technology.
But while the number of computers is growing in most schools, Internet access is often very limited. In Crowe's class, for example, more than 20 students share one computer with Internet access. Only 35 percent of all schools are connected, and a tiny fraction of classrooms in those schools are hooked up.
A big question is funding.
The US Department of Education estimates that it will cost anywhere from $10 billion to $50 billion to wire the schools, buy more computers, and train teachers.
The federal government plans to put up several billion dollars in matching grants as seed money, says Linda Roberts, director of education technology for the US Department of Education. But she hopes that the majority of funding will come from states, communities, and the private sector.
So far, 40 percent of the money has come from local governments, she says. Twenty-five percent has come from federal funds; 20 percent from state revenues; and only 10 to 15 percent from the private sector.
Still, while Ms. Roberts points to what she calls ''pockets of excellence,'' the investment in computers - and teacher training and curriculum development - hasn't been enough to have a significant impact on student learning.
''Every time you talk to people about technology, the first thing they say is, 'With all we've invested so far, why haven't we seen significant gains?' '' Ms. Roberts says. ''Well, the answer is, we've invested very little.''
Currently, schools spend about $20 per student on technology each year, estimates John Phillipo, head of the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology in Marlboro, Mass. For technology to really make an impact, schools need to invest $100 to $120 a student.
The issue is paramount, he says, to the country's economic development. In an information-based economy, workers must be able to access, analyze, and communicate information using the basics of technology, Mr. Phillipo says. ''Can you create a skilled worker to do those three things without technology? You can, but they won't be productive,'' he says.
Computers can also help solve some behavior and attention problems. ''Kids today really are computer savvy, but when they enter the classroom, it's a very gray, very old fashioned environment,'' says Ruth Ann Burns executive director of the National Teacher Training Institute in New York. Technology, she says, helps ''bring the real world into the classroom.''
Today, roughly 85 percent of the curriculum is based on textbooks, Phillipo says. Ideally, 65 to 70 percent of materials should come off the Internet. He says that material is more timely and engaging - textbooks are practically out of date when they arrive in classrooms.
Some education experts contend that the weak link in this chain is solid planning on the part of school administrators as to how computers fit into the curriculum.
''The belief that technology can be a magic bullet can be dangerous,'' says Stone Wiske, co-director of the Educational Technology Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. ''In this day and age, schools do need a certain amount of technology, but I don't think every kid in every classroom has to be touching a computer so many minutes per day.''
Some schools, she and others say, have been pushed into purchasing computers - often by parents. But without the proper training and planning, the technology may go unused.
''We've come up against this where school districts have invested in computers and software and minimal training and everything lies fallow,'' Ms. Burns says.
Equally important is integrating the technology into the curriculum. Florida, for example, requires 30 percent of funds for technology in schools to be spent on teacher training. The private sector, Mr. Moursand notes, invests closer to 50 percent into staff development.
Phillipo urges schools to spend 25 cents on research and staff development for each dollar spent on Internet access. No one, he adds, knows where that money will come from.