Teachers, computers, prejudice, and Lesley College

Here is the problem: You have a generation of students who, as adults, will need to know how to use computers as surely as they will need to know how to read and write.

And you have a generation of teachers, few of whom know to use a computer and many of whom are wary of computers, seeing them as the domain of mathematicians or the source of billing errors.

How do you open up those teachers to the educational possibilities of computers? How do you get them to jump the technological generation gap so they can teach their students how to use computers without passing on any of their own prejudices?

The first step is to cure them of their fears and prejudices, according to Nancy Roberts, the director of a new program in computers and education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass.

And the best way to do that is to let teachers fiddle with computers for a few hours to see "just the fun of it all," Dr. Roberts said. Lesley gives teachers that chance to fiddle at conferences and one-day seminars.

A few hours won't make them experts, she said, but it may change their attitudes and whet their appetites.

"The main thing they can learn is that the machines are controllable, that they are not monsters," she said. "We can teach them to use a canned program in less than an hour, but that's not where the excitement is."

Lesley is hoping teachers won't stop at a few hours, but will go on to where the excitement is, on to integrating computers into all their curricula.

"We give them a taste and hope they come back for more," said Richard Carter, a graduate student at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who teaches the seminars.

For those who want to nibble a little longer the Lesley College offers a variety of graduate courses, and for those who want something to chew on, Lesley started a master's degree program last fall.

With 10 degree candidates signed up and about 50 students enrolled in the three courses offered this spring, the program is the most successful new program in terms of enrollment ever offered at Lesley, according to Dr. Roberts. The school also requires its undergraduates to take one computer course.

Lesley's program works because it doesn't expect its students to have mathematical or technical backgrounds, said Marilyn Martin, a high school English teacher who said she was somewhat leery about taking a computer course because she was not strong in math and science.

She was motivated to learn more about computers after she saw how well using computers with students with learning disabilities worked.

Lesley's classes use computer programs based on language, not math, and students are expected to think in terms of education, not electrical engineering , Dr. Roberts said.

"If you drive a car, you don't have to know how it works," she said.

Some teachers are apprenhensive about computers in classrooms because they worry students will lose the human contact they have with teachers, said Edith Sparre, an elementary teacher who has also taken courses at Lesley.

But, she said, they are getting more enthusiastic as they see how computrs can be used.

Although the aim of the program is to get teachers to use computers in creative and innovative ways, relieving their anxieties is important even if they don't come back for more training, Dr. roberts said.

If computers are not to be just another educational fad, teachers will have to accept them and be involved in getting them into classrooms, she said, adding that other innovations have failed because teachers were not caught up in them.

"They were imposed from the top. This has got to be grass roots," she said.

Not all the teachers in a school need to be experts in using computers, Mr. Sparre said, just as all of them don't have to be experts in other areas. But they do need to be receptive, she said.

Teachers who are at least comfortable with the machines will not resist them and can encourage their students to learn even if they don't want to learn themselves, Dr. Roberts said.

"Kids by using them will understand them, she said. "I'd like to get this generation to let the kids take over."

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