Access to computers and telecommunication networks is essential for both teachers and students to make use of GIS as a learning tool for spatial thinking in K–12 education. Although instructional computers have been present in most American schools for nearly 20 years, their use was limited by the small number of computers compared to the number of students. Today, public schools have an average of one instructional computer for every six students, which is close to the ratio of four to five students per computer that “many experts consider to represent a reasonable level for the effective use of computers within the schools” (PCAST, 1997, p. 21). Nearly every public school—regardless of level, poverty concentration, and metropolitan status—is connected to the Internet, and two-thirds of them are connected to the Internet by dedicated-line network connections (NCES, 2000a). However, the use of these lines may well be for administrative rather than academic support.
Although nearly all public schools have access to instructional computers and the Internet, there is much variation in their availability. For example, medium to large schools have a greater number of students per computer with Internet access than small schools, and urban schools have a greater number of students per computer than rural schools. The largest variations occur in schools with varying degrees of poverty. Schools with the highest concentration of poverty have the most students per instructional computer (NCES, 2000a). Moreover, poorer schools spend far less on computer technology than richer ones, making them less likely to be able to acquire the latest computers as they emerge in the future (Anderson and Becker, 2001).
As the availability of computers and network connections in schools and classrooms has grown, so has the number of teachers and students using them and the frequency with which they use them (Levin et al., 1999). Despite such increases, only about 50 percent of the teachers with instructional computers available in their schools use digital software for instruction (Smerdon et al., 2000). This modest figure is attributed to the relative neglect of spending for software and technology support (Anderson and Becker, 2001). The types of software that teachers use most in their classes are word processing software for composing and editing text, CD-ROM reference software, and World Wide Web browsing software (Becker et al., 1999). Only the more computer-skilled and enterprising teachers in schools with above-average computing environments use technology in more innovative ways (e.g., using software to solve problems and to analyze and display data) (Becker et al., 1999).
For teachers to integrate GIS into instruction, they must have adequate numbers and types of computers. The majority of schools have adequate hardware and network connections to run current versions of GIS and the connectivity to download data. However, only a handful of schools have a laboratory dedicated to GIS. The majority of schools have dedicated writing laboratories or computer science laboratories, but it is difficult for classes in other subjects to gain access to them. With the growing importance of geospatial technologies in the workplace and in everyday life, consideration should be given to the creation of laboratories in schools that are dedicated to tools such as GIS.
If schools are to implement more than stripped-down versions of GIS, software designers have to depart from their normal assumptions. Typically, their assumptions are based on the ability of the user community to afford the latest computers and their willingness to replace existing ones every two to four years. These assumptions are invalid in the K–12 context for all but the wealthiest schools; so a change in mind-set will be needed if GIS is to be implemented in an equitable manner.
Most software packages (e.g., Idrisi, MapInfo, ArcView) have been developed for professionals in business and government and, in education, for the higher education market. The lack of GIS software designed for the K–12 market is perhaps not surprising given the relative lack of penetration of GIS into school education. Yet without the provision of software packages that are develop-