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A Technology Revolution in the Classroom

A reshaping of schools has begun, but teachers need time for training and for creating curricula

IT'S just one tiny corner of the United States, but the ``wiring'' of the elementary school in Pomfret, Vt., is typical of a technological transformation touching schoolrooms across the country.

Last year, the school had seven older Apple computers for its 108 first- through sixth-graders. As recently as two years ago, there was resistance to increasing that number, principal Lynn McMorris says. But thanks to an anonymous donor and a favorable town-meeting vote, private and public dollars have combined to outfit a computer lab with 16 new Macintoshes plus five Apple laptop computers for the opening of school this fall.

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The teachers, all of whom received some training during the summer, are thinking up ways of using the machines to sharpen reading, math, and research skills. Most of the kids are enthralled, Ms. McMorris says. ``I think it's the biggest thing we've ever done.''

Information technology is having a similar impact on schools all over the US. ``The question is not, `Should we use it?' but `How can we take advantage of it?' '' says Linda Roberts, special adviser on technology for the US Department of Education. ``It's not just computers on desks, but they're connected by networks to other computers'' across districts, states, and countries.

The technological reshaping of America's classrooms is well under way. But obstacles loom too, notably the lack of teacher training and the problem of equitably spreading the new tools around to both rich and poor. Subsequent articles in this series will examine those issues.

A survey of teachers last year by Princeton Survey Research Associates found that computers were installed in 52 percent of US public classrooms. Televisions were in 41 percent of them, though only about half are accompanied by video-cassette recorders. A smaller percentage had the telecommunications hookups for modem use, networked computers, or on-line information services like Prodigy.

Most teachers in the survey still identified a reliable photocopier as the most important piece of classroom technology and relatively few (9 percent) saw a lack of technology as an obstacle to better teaching. But younger teachers were interested in making more use of computers, CD-ROMs, laser videodiscs, interactive TV, and other electronic tools becoming available.

``If there's an information highway, the school buses have to be driving on it,'' says Inabeth Miller, vice president of The Lightspan Partnership, Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif., company. Her firm is bringing together computer-game creators, educators, and Hollywood animators to produce new programming for interactive television, which allows two-way communication between student-viewers and televised instructors.

A critical piece of technology for access to the next generation of educational programming, Ms. Miller says, will be more sophisticated television-set-top boxes, similar to those used with cable TV setups, that will pull a variety of instructional options into a classroom or living room. Such boxes will have ``all the power of a computer,'' she says.

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But roadblocks could prevent many teachers and students from cruising into the land of electronically enhanced learning, according to experts in the field.

The lack of electronic infrastructure in many schools - cable TV, fiber optics, networked computers - is one source of delay, says Cheryl Williams, director of technology programs for the National School Boards Association.

Numerous schools have computer labs full of outdated machines, Ms. Williams says. As a new wave of technology comes in, educators often have not assimilated the old wave. ``All of a sudden, in marches a multimedia machine,'' Williams says, ``and you wonder why there's future shock?''

But teachers and administrators are gradually getting up to speed on technology, she says, and pressures from state governments pushing education reform and private businesses interested in developing the educational market will accelerate that process. ``We're at the point,'' says Williams, ``where we'll see a lot more innovation in what schools look like and how they pay for and manage'' the new technology.

John Gallaher, chairman of Electronic Publishing International in Winston-Salem, N.C., sees one main obstacle to wider application of technology in education: For most people, the stuff is just too hard to use. He and his wife, Janet, have formed the C.E. Stone Foundation to promote advances in educational technology.

The time it takes to become familiar with a new machine trips people up, and often training is not available, Mr. Gallaher says. Another problem is a lack of guidance for administrators and teachers on purchasing new equipment, he says.

``If a consumer product takes more than a few minutes to learn, it's never used,'' Gallaher says. ``Yet we've tolerated machines that can take months to learn.'' He is urging software manufacturers to reduce the basic ``navigating'' steps needed to begin work within a program to no more than seven, which would be standardized industry-wide.

Ideally, teachers, students, and parents should be able to survey and test educational software and multimedia products with the same ease that a car buyer test- drives a new car, he says.

THE Department of Education's Ms. Roberts says that teachers she knows around the country confirm that the biggest barrier to using technology is time - not just for learning how to use a machine but how to integrate it into a curriculum.

John Yrchic, a senior researcher with the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union, points out that training with educational technology has two parts: (1) an introduction to the equipment and how it operates, and (2) teaching people how the equipment can be used to create new approaches to teaching. ``Technology can lead to dramatic changes in pedagogy,'' Mr. Yrchic says. ``But that depends entirely on how it's implemented.''

Dave Moursund, executive director of the International Society for Technology in Education and an education professor at the University of Oregon, recalls one principal telling him proudly, ``All my teachers are computer-literate.'' When he asked the man what that meant, the principal replied that they had all had 10 hours of training.

Moursund says the way schools structure time for staff development needs radical change if teachers are to stay abreast of the new technology.

Parents who devote 10 minutes a day to working with their kids on a computer may be in a better position to use the technology for learning than an overtaxed teacher, Moursund says.

Miller sees the possibility of having the same telecommunications technology available at home as at school, so that projects started at school through interactive video can be carried through with parents on a home TV screen, preferably during hours that might be devoted to watching commercial TV.

Gallaher predicts that home users, particularly parents who are schooling their children at home, will become the most creative users of the technology. The wider use of CD-ROMs will open up a vast home market. And Gallaher sees CD-ROM as a transitional technology that will give way to devices that pull videos directly from on-line providers, combining the functions of computers, televisions, and telephones. ``What's happening in the home will be carried into the school,'' Gallaher says.

Moursund offers a note of caution. He argues that no matter how much new technology becomes available, it can't of itself provide the ``higher order of thinking'' that conveys an understanding of writing, say, or of mathematics. ``The human teacher is able to do something that the technology, the delivery systems, can't do,'' he says.

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