`THINK of a computer as a glorified monkey wrench,'' says Bob Tinker, at the Technical Education Research Center in Cambridge, Mass. ``It's a very useful tool, but you still have to know what to do with it.'' As the novelty of computers in the classroom wears off, computers are being used less as electronic drillmasters or to teach programming, and more as a tool to help students think and learn.
``The same hunk of software can be used to teach at fourth-grade or at college level,'' Dr. Tinker says, depending on how the teacher uses it.
Tinker is working on lab science software aimed at developing children's intellectual curiosity through research. He uses computer-linked ``probes'' to display data graphically during experiments on topics such as heat and temperature, sound, motion, and visual illusions.
Although fields like geometry and physics seem like the most obvious subjects for educational software, the possibilities are broad. Brattleboro Union High School in Vermont, for example, uses software called ``Stella'' to model changing his-torical situations in an advanced social studies course on revolutions. Using computers to simulate historic events can help bring the dead past to life.
Another innovation is interactive video, which combines a television screen and computer memory. Visual data such as films or slides can be stored on a videodisc for quick access.
Children today are ``predisposed to the use of technology,'' according to Lockley Miller, editor of Videodisc Monitor. ``They pick up information at a much more rapid pace and in an edited manner.''
Technology such as videodisc promises to ``maintain their interest, and to deliver detail at the pace that can keep up with them,'' Mr. Miller says. Subjects such as art or geography can be presented on videodisc either in linear fashion, where the content is viewed in a set sequence, or interactively, with the students calling up information of their choice.
Will the use of computers, on top of all the time spent watching TV, mean that children will have little human contact? Not necessarily, say experts like Martha Stone Wiske, co-director of Harvard University's Education Technology Center.
``Education is a human process,'' Ms. Wiske says, ``the process of cultivating minds. Machines are never going to take the place of teachers.''
Computers are likely to be used for group projects that encourage student dialogue, as well as independent thought, says Jeff Davis, who is involved in a teacher training program for a consortium of mid-Pennsylvania high schools.
``There's too much information for the teacher to be an expert [in many areas], but with the technology that's available, it's very easy for teachers to become facilitators,'' Mr. Davis says. As director of marketing for ISC Educational Systems, Davis introduces educators to the uses of interactive video technology.
Software manufacturers tread a fine line between making products that can be sold in the current market and pushing to keep pace with the momentum of new technologies.
``I don't think schools know where they want to be, and this makes it difficult for software designers,'' says Ann Wujcik of Talmis, a market research concern that studies computers in education.
Some research is happening in individual schools. In one project, Apple Computer has provided one computer per child and teacher in 14 classrooms across the United States to examine the shape that education might take in a ``technology saturated'' environment.
But amid the vast array of software products, produced by hundreds of companies, there is a need for more research to determine what uses of computers are most effective in classrooms, says Ms. Wujcik.