Students 'log on' with computer as 'teacher'

We shouldn't have been surprised that the introduction of computers into education has not gone the way it was planned. By now it's become an old technological story we hardly ever manage to get the timetable right.

Everybody knew computers were coming to education, in a really big way, in 1960. Now, in 1981, we know it's true. Computers are coming to education in a really big way. At least, sort of. . . .

With this in mind, consider computers. We have no clear knowledge of how quickly computers are moving into education, nor what the results will be. But we have some very definite knowledge of what hasm happened. And there are a few sound bases for reasonable conjectures about certain aspects of the future.

Consider sociability: When students work with computers, this need not be private. Working with computers can also be a highly social activity. If the setting allows it students can share their work, rather like the law students in "The Paper Chase." When tasks are cumulative and creative -- these arem attributes of some of the computer work done by elementary and secondary school students today -- it is reasonable to ask a fellow student if you may use the program she wrote that makes the computer draw flowers on a TV screen, or the program that arranges words in alphabetical order -- because you need it for something you are trying to do. Students often work up careful codes of "responsible" and "polite" conduct for such situations that provide for sharing, cooperation, appropriate credit to the inventor, and so on.

More than once, I have seen university research projects in danger of falling behind schedule that were rescued by a group of high school students who assumed responsibility for some aspect of the computer programming work. The computer expertise of these young people is awe-inspiring, but even more impressive are the organizational and managerial skills that some of them display. Anti- social? Not a bit! Of course, there arem computer buffs given to solitude and privacy, who are even recluses, just as some poets and weight lifters are.

If students have the good fortune to work at one of the larger computer systems, with perhaps a thousand or more terminals linked to a single very large time-shared computer, there may be even more opportunities for social behavior. Such a time-shared computer can allow any two people, at any terminal, to be in direct communication. And it is possible to have a terminal at home, connected to the same large time-shared computer that the school uses. I know students right now who do. For them, doing homework is a lot less solitary than it used to be.

If you are working at your computer terminal and you encounter some problem -- perhaps in Esperanto linguistics -- you can use the communication capability of the computer to seek help from someone else at some other terminal. On some time-sharing systems, you aren't just connected to a computer, you're connected to 500 or more other human beings. One of them may know the answer to your question, and may be willing to take a moment to help you out. Of course, you may be in Urbana, Ill., and the person who helps you may be in Palo Alto, Calif.

What people usually have in mind when they speak of "computers in education" is usually computer assisted instruction (CAI) and simulation: using the computer as a "teaching machine" (CAI-mode) or as a simulation of some real condition such as flying an airplane, modeling the nation's economy, or pretending to run General Motors. There is no question that some learning gains are possible from either of these uses. But it is also clear that there is nothing automatic about it. These gains are possible only with high-quality, carefully prepared lesson materials.

The computer, by itself, does not transform knowledge any more than a printing press does. Suppose that modern printing had suddently become available, but there were no books or manuscripts to be printed and bound. The technology itself would not write them. Authors would have to do it, and the results would be as good or as bad, as helpful or as useless, as the authors made them.

That is not a bad metaphor for the state of CAI. The technology is here, and every day it becomes cheaper and more powerful. The computer can talk to students; display text, pictures, and diagrams on a TV-like screen; reproduce sounds; tell where a student touches the screen; listen while a student plays the trumpet and analyze the sound he produces; play music on an electric organ; respond to student questions and criticize student diagrams; and so on. For the most part the lessons to be presented have not been created. At the University of Illinois we are nearing the end of our second decade of using computers to help teach Russian, veterinary medicine, organiz chemistry, Latin, physics, computer science, genetics, nursing, accounting, French, Esperanto, and much more. We may have the largest collection of computer lessons in the world, but it is nowhere near enough.

We do notm have a course in ninth grade algebra, tenth grade geometry, trigonometry, or calculus -- though we do have pieces of some. For other computer systems even less is generally available. The books have yet to be written.m The "printing press" is here, but the manuscripts are not. It would seem that a new industry is being born -- but few people are doing the creative work to design and author CAI lessons. It is as though we had TV, with only blank screens.

Aside from the need for more activity by CAI lesson authors, there are two serious points which deserve heavy emphasis. First, just as there are good books and poor ones, there are good CAI lessons and poor ones. In some lessons, the computer is used as an "expensive page-turner." A printed book would do at least as well, and often better. Other lessons seem to have no point at all.

Second, and most important, every method of instruction canm teach certain things and cannotm teach others. I have learned many things about politics and economics from lectures, but I doubt you could use lectures to teach someone to ride a bicycle. Hence, an educational system heavily or entirely committed to lectures probably could not teach bicylce riding. You can use workbooks to practice the basics of arithmetic, but probably not to teach someone to compose music, to write poems, to paint in oils, or to play the piano.

You can teach many subjects b y computer, but I fear there are a number which will prove impossible. I fear the list includes anything that is very subtle or profound, for computers, at least so far, tend to break knowledge up into small pieces, to lose larger wholes. Computers tend to "teach" material that is sharply focused, explicit, and all-too- often trivial.

Unfortunately, these propensities are exactly those areas where our education system already has large problems. One would like to see an antidote, not more of the same.

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