California elementary school experiments with classroom of future

ROOM 405 at Brookhaven Elementary School in Placentia was an ordinary classroom last June. Today it looks like what proponents call it: a ``classroom of the future.'' Stiff-backed wooden chairs have been replaced by cushy swivels, naked floors by sound-absorbing carpet. Blackboards have been replaced by nonglare white boards. A satellite dish perches atop the roof. New AT&T computers sit on every desk. And a big, closed-circuit TV screen hangs from one corner, broadcasting C-Span (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network). A teacher can press a button to alter the video source of the images displayed on the screen from moment to moment.

Obviously, this is a classroom in which high-technology and education have married.

But will the marriage last?

Critics and advocates differ in their estimates but agree on what matters most: a need for improving the quality of teaching and learning.

``Today we can bring the world into the classroom at the flip of a switch,'' says district superintendent of education Keith Larick, sounding a bit like a proud father. ``This classroom represents a deliberate decision to create a preferred future -- a prototype school for the next decade and beyond.''

``Until now, people thought of computers as the answer to our unending problems with education,'' says Kerry Johnson, computer and telecommunications coordinator of the classroom. ``We're not emphasizing computers. They're just one part of the technology. We wanted to systematically study and test which equipment worked well for our purposes, which combinations were appropriate for teaching and learning.''

At an official unveiling, parents and community leaders had the opportunity to play student in the classroom of the future. Their questions revealed both enthusiasm and misgivings. ``How can we get this at our school? We want our kids to have it.'' And ``This is scary. The kids will pass us up by the fourth grade.''

Doubts are voiced by educators as well. Bill Habermehl, assistant superintendent for educational services of the Orange County Department of Education, thinks the Brookhaven idea is too new to spread to other districts. ``Placentia bit off a total commitment. Other districts may only be willing to adapt portions of the program.''

When the Placentia School District decided to incorporate the latest technology into its schools, decisionmakers were unsure about how to proceed. A task force, working in conjunction with specialists from AT&T, settled on the concept of a prototype classroom. In a unique business relationship that could serve as a model for other districts, AT&T is providing hardware and services at no charge in exchange for demonstrations of its equipment. And the Virginia-based National Information Utilities, t ogether with the local phone company, Pacific Telesis, provide support. Without this kind of plan, Mr. Larick says, it would cost the school about $1 million per 1,000 students to buy the kind of technology in this room.

Some $50,000 for other aspects of the project came out of a district fund earmarked for technology, Larick adds. Another $500,000 is budgeted for additional equipment in the coming year.

The district is applying for state and federal grants, and project members also anticipate receiving $1 million from state lottery revenues. Another innovative source of income: When the classroom is fully up and running, the school plans to lease equipment after school hours to corporations and universities, for private use.

The idea behind the classroom is simple: By keeping the technology captive for a while, this affluent district will test hardware and software before making heavy financial investments in equipment for other classrooms and schools.

Meanwhile, the task force can address pressing questions: Which hardware is best suited to teaching and learning? Which combinations of equipment work best together? How do you refit older classrooms? How do you train teachers to use new methods of transmitting information? How do you involve parents? And, of course, what are the long-term effects on student interest and performance?

A new elementary school, scheduled to open in Yorba Linda, Calif., in January 1987, will be the first of the district's schools to get a complete high-tech classroom modeled on this prototype.

Here at Brookhaven, teacher training is under way, and students are enthusiastically experimenting in the Disney-like atmosphere.

The impact of this kind of classroom on students remains unknown. Critics are worried that computers could supplant teachers. Richard Clark, an educational psychologist at the University of Southern California, likens educators' current love affair with computers to an earlier affair with instructional television. ``Advocates make similar claims with each new medium,'' he says. Mr. Clark, who has been studying the effects of computer-based instruction for the last few years, adds, however, that ``in edu cation, the medium is not the message.'' Instead of being totally preoccupied with technology, he cautions, ``we should focus on developing instructional strategies.''

Margaret Herron, principal at Brookhaven and chairwoman of the task force, disagrees. ``Until now, teachers have primarily used lectures and a chalkboard to teach. In this setting, they need to choreograph as many as 30 children, handling discipline problems and giving a lesson all at once. But if students are engaged with computers, a teacher can be free to give instruction at an individual pace. We believe students will end up with more personal contact rather than less.''

Others worry about parents being left behind, as their children take off into the world of tomorrow. But in this case the parents are built into the plan -- and they do not need to own computers. For the small price of a modem, Mr. Johnson says, parents will have access via phone lines and television sets to information about attendance and homework. They will also be able to send messages to, and receive them from, their chidren's teachers.

At a preliminary test of the hookup between home and school, parents recently dialed into the Times-Mirror data base and news service to help their kids with homework. Johnson says, ``The home takes on a vital new role in this light: the responsibility for learning.''

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