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Tech invaders: school survival shifts to center screen

''By the end of this century the classroom as we now know it will no longer exist,'' says Seymour Papert, renowned professor of mathematics and education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While some might disagree with Dr. Papert's timetable, it's clear that in the foreseeable future children will use computers the way they now use pencils and books.

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A surge of new information technologies is forcing educators to rethink how learning and teaching should take place in the age of space shuttles and pocket televisions. In years to come, the development of videodisc, cable TV, teletext, and telecommunication technology will create educational options not even thought of today.

But it's computers that will tie these technologies together into powerful educational tools.

Computers are already available to students at about 1 in 3 US public schools , according to a 1982 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics in the US Department of Education. Industry estimates peg the number of classroom computers at over 300,000 - a figure expected to more than double by 1985.

The boom is also being felt in countries such as Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The British government, for instance, is picking up half the tab for a plan to put at least one microcomputer into each of that nation's primary and secondary schools by the end of 1984.

This international flurry is caused by falling prices for microcomputer hardware and pressure from parents worried that their children may be left in the technological dust. There's a feeling educators and parents, that students may be disadvantaged unless they are trained in new technologies.

But pinpointing necessary skills and blending them into the academic game plan is a major undertaking, and a controversial one. Researchers are just beginning to study the educational overtones of the new technology and its long-term effect on children.

Even those enthusiastic about computers warn that the machines are often introduced for the wrong reasons and put to inappropriate uses.

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''It's not at all settled whether computers will help or hurt,'' says Alfred Bork, director of the Educational Technology Center at the University of California at Irvine.

Dr. Bork says the impending shortage of qualified math and science teachers will help hasten the day when most learning is done through computerized work stations.

''The only hope for a kid in a small, rural school to get trigonometry is through computer-based learning,'' says Dr. Bork, whose California research center specializes in crafting computer versions of classroom courses.

What's unsettling to some educators, though, is that computer-based learning can take place just about anywhere and might make schools obsolete.

''The new technologies begin to offer the possibility for out-of-school learning, which is a challenge schools will have to take very seriously,'' says Karen Sheingold, director of the Center for Children and Technology at the Bank Street College of Education in New York.

Bank Street is one of several institutions focusing research on new educational technologies. The school has two computer-equipped experimental classrooms and is conducting an array of ongoing projects, including one designed to combine video with classroom materials and computer assignments.

''We'll have a very powerful tool when we marry the beauty of video with the power of computers,'' Dr. Sheingold says.

But according to experts interviewed by the Monitor, the future of these technologies is clouded by some touchy issues, including:

* Student ability. It's not yet clear how deeply children understand sophisticated technology, especially computers, when introduced to them in school. Research needs to be done to determine which high-tech tools enhance a student's ability to acquire new skills and how this electronic style of learning takes place.

* Teacher role. Educators have to learn to use new technologies before they can wield them effectively in the classroom. But some teachers feel uneasy about anything that alters the student-teacher relationship. In computer-based instruction, for instance, teachers tend to become consultants, rather than the focal point of learning.

* Equity. Some worry that glittering equipment will be concentrated in wealthy school districts, creating a technological gap along socioeconomic lines. According to Market Data Retrieval, a market research firm, 80 percent of the nation's 2,000 largest and richest public high schools have at least one microcomputer, while 60 percent of the 2,000 poorest have none.

* Social context. Although difficult to pin down, the impact that new technology has on the social climate in classrooms is vital to understanding how best to use the machines.

Some critics are concerned that computers will isolate children. Initial research, however, suggests just the opposite may be true. Bank Street researchers are finding that youngsters working in groups at microcomputers tend to talk with one another more about the assignment than kids working with printed materials.

Some school administrators already see computers as social levelers, drawing together students of varied ethnic and racial backgrounds. This is especially true where magnet schools featuring computers have been established, such as San Diego, Houston, and St. Louis.

It helps to remember that electronic innovations are nothing new down at the schoolhouse. Language labs, tape recorders, and filmstrip projectors all had their day in the sun, as did other types of so-called ''teaching machines.''

''The technologies of the sixties were spurned because schools acquired them without knowing how to use them,'' says Ken Komoski, director of the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE) in New York, school computer consultants. ''It was constant innovation and no change.''

In many cases, interest fizzled and sometimes expensive machinery ended up tucked away with the empty glue bottles.

''Television was the first serious competition schools faced in 400 years, and they didn't respond effectively,'' says Mary-Alice White, director of the Electronic Learning Laboratory at Columbia University Teachers College. Kids now spend 28 hours a week watching television, she says, but only 25 hours a week with printed learning materials in school.

Children arrive at school having learned how to learn - electronically. They're experts at gathering information from sounds and images on television screens, Dr. White says.

Computers will continue the shift begun by television, she says, moving more and more learning away from classrooms and into the home. She says schools could meet the competition by integrating computers into all parts of their academic programs.

''Parents care very much that their kids get a crack at the world coming up - and they think computers are the key,'' Dr. White says. ''So it seems inevitable that there'll be a lot of educational software in the home.''

One of the biggest hurdles for schools trying to leap into computer technology is the meager amount of well-designed educational software available. (Software is the set of detailed instructions that allow computers to carry out specific functions.)

A slurry of software pours onto the market every month. While some new programs show significant improvement over earlier efforts, much of what's available is flawed or inappropriate.

One computer-aided instruction program, for instance, is designed so that a child who describes a campfire as ''hot'' is told that the answer is wrong, because the computer is looking for ''warm.'' In another program, children are taught a first-grade math principle in language written for fifth- or sixth-graders.

The reasons for the dirth of high-quality software, although complex, can be narrowed down to one overriding factor: money.

The educational market for microcomputer software is about $28.5 million a year, according to Talmis Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm. At the same time, schools spend about $1 billion on printed materials for use in the classroom.

''Schools just haven't constituted themselves as a decent market,'' says Mark Tucker, director of the Washington-based Project on Information Technology and Education funded by the Carnegie Corporation. As a result, he says, development dollars for educational software are funneled toward home applications - clearly a lucrative market.

Piracy of computer programs is also a problem. As nonprofit institutions, schools have limited resources and tend to rationalize copying programs for educational use as morally defensible.

On the whole, the computers humming away in classrooms are used to drill students in basic skills, such as multiplication tables, and to teach computer literacy. Some colleges are even developing plans that would require every student to have a personal computer. The most ambitious of these plans is being implemented at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

While many schools have established ''computer literacy'' requirements, the term is anything but clearly defined. It usually means teaching students the general principles of computer technology and a dab of computer programming.

Computer literacy is a ''motherhood issue,'' says Dr. Bork. ''Everyone's in favor of it. But if you ask them what they're in favor of, you get all different answers.''

Instead of pushing for ''literacy,'' experts say more creative approaches are needed to make full use of new technologies.

''And I don't think any one school system can come up with that on its own,'' says Columbia's Dr. White. ''It will take a national response by all the schools , backed by the public and government dollars.''

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