Teaching with high-tech. Experts grade computers' promise and performance

It's an after-school meeting between teacher and parent. The parent's daughter has had a bad report card. What's the matter? Rather than asking about personal problems or difficulties the child may be having at home, the teacher says, ``Have you considered buying a home computer?''

This scene, taken from a national advertisement, underscores the fervor surrounding the biggest trend in American education in the past five years: the proliferation of microcomputers in public schools. Some even promise that computers may, as one prominent computing magazine put it, ``save our schools.''

Since 1981, the number of computers in schools in the United States has jumped from 30,000 to more than a million. Every school district in the nation now uses computers for instructional purposes, according to the National School Board Journal. Droves of parents have also purchased computers for their children, many of the parents echoing the dialogue in another ad, where one parent tells a friend: ``I was afraid to buy a home computer, but I was more afraid not to.''

In response, a number of educators are now charging that American public schools have rushed headlong into the computer era without thinking much about the consequences or what the most effective use of the classroom computer is. Many school districts have come to look upon computers as a kind of ``wonder drug,'' says Joe Nathan, education expert of the National Governors Association, something that can cure all the aches and pains of the educational process.

There seems, nevertheless, to be little doubt among experts that computers can be a powerful educational tool. Marc Tucker of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy has studied computers in education for the past three years: ``Their potential is enormous -- for math and social studies as well as drawing, painting, writing, music, and for problem solving and analytical skills. The writing and rewriting skills learned by using a computer are critical in shaping a more literate society -- you can justify them on that point alone.''

Yet educators such as Dr. Nathan and Mr. Tucker say the potential to misuse computers is also great. Both find a gap between what computers could do in schools and what they are presently used for. Tucker found all too often that teachers were poorly trained to use computers as teaching tools and were freighted with low-quality software that reduced the computer's role to that of ``a drill sergeant, used for rote learning.'' What computers ought to be, he says, are ``intellectual assistants.''

Nathan, author of a recent book titled ``Micro-Myths'' (Harper & Row-Winston Press, $8.95), is a bit sterner in his critique. The American fascination with machines and technology as the answer to all human problems, he says, has led to school administrators' becoming so absorbed in ``computer hype'' that they give little thought to how computers affect the learning process. Computers are now used to replace traditional instructional relationships between teacher and student ``simply because the computer is there,'' he said in a recent Boston interview.

Nathan feels that educators have a responsibility to give children and young adults more perspective on a tool they spend so much time with and which many view ``as a kind of god.'' It's more important, he says, ``for young people to do serious thinking about the impact of technology in the 20th century -- on schools, family, defense, values, and the individual in society . . . more important to do that, than learn how to program a computer.''

An added plague on the house of education, says Nathan, is the success computer companies have had in programming educators and parents to think that a school is not up-to-date unless it offers courses in ``computer literacy.'' The costs of some of these courses are high, and as a result, school budgets in subjects such as language, art, drama, and music are cut. Tucker found that ``in some districts, math and science budgets were slashed to buy computers.'' Both Nathan and Tucker are opposed to separate computer courses where the computer itself becomes the subject of study, rather than writing, or English, or science.

``Micro-Myths'' challenges seven commonly held opinions about computers and education. Namely, that:

Computers are ``value neutral'' -- they are just another tool.

There is such a thing as ``computer literacy,'' and every student needs it.

Using computers is the best way to learn most subjects.

Computers will revolutionize the schools.

Lessons of the past regarding technology in the schools are clear and obvious.

All parents who can afford it should buy computers for their children.

There is not much good educational software available.

The book, though not especially distinguished, is a good and quick background look. Nathan himself is not an anti-technology zealot. He is, in fact, a board member of the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation and a contributing editor of ``Computer User'' magazine. Fine examples of creative and constructive uses of the computer in learning are included: Pennsylvania high school students who use computer programs to run energy audits for the local community, following physics instruction in home insulation and weatherization techniques; a Minnesota high school that helps students run spreadsheets on farm management.

But underlying the book is Nathan's concern that not enough is known about how the sustained use of computers affects children's thinking processes. So far, he says, the entire weight of education policy revolves around the question: ``What should four-year-olds be learning on the computer?'' The question Nathan wants asked first is: ``Should four-year-olds be spending a lot of time on computers?''

A different opinion on that conundrum comes from John Brockway, a psychologist specializing in technology and society at Davidson College in North Carolina. He says that small children see computers mainly as fun. ``Just as most piano virtuosos begin at an early age, so with computers,'' Dr. Brockway says. ``The earlier, the better.''

``My six-year-old daughter plays with the computer for an hour, then plays with her dolls. It's really OK.''

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