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Kids & computers: a natural revolution

A man whose computerized video game was on the fritz phoned a neighbor for advice. The neighbor wasn't home, but his seven-year-old son offered to help instead, explaining: ''Computers are kind of a priority with me, and they're not with my dad.''

After asking if the caller had a ''language card'' and an ''integer basic,'' the second-grader promptly resolved the problem over the phone.

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Such ease with and natural affinity for high technology among the very young is one reason most schools are rushing to put microcomputers in the classroom.

Although many teachers are still somewhat wary of the new teaching aid, no school that can afford the equipment wants to be left behind. An estimated 1 of every 4 school districts nationally now has some kind of computer in use for instruction.

''There is terrific public and community pressure for schools to get computers,'' confirms Dr. Janice Patterson, program coordinator of the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research.

Often the decision is made on budget grounds without careful thought as to how the new equipment will be used, she says. The price range - $300 to $2,500 per computer system - sometimes prompts school boards and parent-teacher associations to decide that several scattered, limited computer systems are better than one versatile central one for a district. Dr. Patterson, whose organization pinpoints and pursues needed research in this field, argues that the flexibility of a larger system that can accommodate more educational programs often makes it a wiser choice.

''But a school district really needs to decide if it wants this technology at all and if it has educational reasons that go beyond just buying it because the school down the road has one,'' says Dr. Patterson.

Teachers who use computers in the classroom often feel isolated from one another. To counter that, the research center, an offshoot of the University of Wisconsin department of education, issues a quarterly newsletter and holds periodic workshops for teachers.

Still, the most common use of computers is for drill and practice, she says. Youngsters usually get instant feedback as to whether they have chosen the right or wrong answer.

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Some teachers doubt that the equipment can be used for teaching at all. Part of the problem, says Dr. Patterson, is that much of the software developed so far has come from computer scientists who are often not too familiar with educator goals. That is one reason why some teachers are hard at work devising their own computer programs. The Racine, Wis., school district has two teachers devoting full time to that task. The Wisconsin Center for Education Research is currently developing a system to help teachers evaluate the kinds of software available.

Many teachers concede that the use of computers does seem to increase student motivation to learn and often allows complex subjects such as geometry to be introduced at a lower than usual grade level. Many educational experts in the field suggest that the strongest suit of computers as a teaching tool may be their ability to help students learn problem solving techniques and analysis.

In simulation programs for junior high school, for instance, students make decisions on how much food and what path to take on a 19th century ''trip'' west. They see the direct consequences of their choices, and learn accordingly.

''It's a game-like format, but it requires the use of specific substantive knowledge and analysis,'' says Dr. Patterson.

In some schools, computers are reserved as a reward for the most gifted children, or, in effect, as punishment for those in need of remedial help. Dr. Patterson argues that if computers are a good teaching tool, all children should have access to them. And she suggests that both students and teachers should be allowed to take school computers home.

''You only learn as you have time to tinker with them,'' she says, ''and it's a myth that they're going to self-destruct if anyone pushes the wrong button.''

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