COMPUTER technology is not yet synonymous with education reform. But calls to wire all classrooms - led by President Clinton, who wants every school in the country on-line by the year 2000 - tend in that direction.
The momentum is unmistakable. To appear even moderately "with it," schools must have banks of desktops and laptops. Their students should be navigating the Internet and exploring multilayered CD-ROMS. But what is all this doing for that sometimes elusive goal, learning?
Experts point out that when it comes to quantifiable learning - i.e., knowledge that shows up in test scores - computers have a strong record. Software geared to sharpening basics like vocabulary, spelling, and math facts can be effective. Some studies have indicated that youngsters using computers in this way acquire facts about 30 percent faster than peers unassisted by technology, and their test scores reflect this.
But if computers are simply cyber-flash cards, their promise could be hollow. What about so-called "higher order" skills - original research and analytical thinking?
These are what proponents of launching everyone on the Internet have in mind: kids mining hitherto inaccessible lodes of information and making contacts across continents.
But isn't a measure of that available to any motivated student with a decent library at hand? Perhaps, but minus the immediacy and excitement new technology brings. In fact, excitement may be why a lot of wired classrooms do in fact work well.
In large-scale experiments, like the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (which has been under way in various parts of the country for about 10 years), the liveliness is tangible. Students in these programs do their homework, they graduate at a much higher rate than classmates who aren't in such technologically rich environments, and they typically go on to college. These trends are notably true for minority kids in the inner city.
But technology isn't all that's at work. Special programs that feature computers often include greater freedom - and training - for teachers, who may work in teams. Students are given more opportunity to pursue interests. Their fascination for the work cuts down on discipline problems. These programs become schools within a school, and learning can explode.
That brings us full circle to education reform. Computer technology may not be its essence, but it can certainly be a catalyst. It can't substitute for basic skills, but it can provide a fresh context for applying them - as well as a fresh incentive for mastering them.