IT is now more than a decade since computers first crept into American classrooms, bringing with them the potential for revitalizing the lives of teachers and students alike. Until 1977, when the first ``personal'' computers arrived in the marketplace, computing was too expensive for most schools. A few time-shared a big mainframe through an expensive telephone connection and put the terminals in the business division of the high school or ``vo-tech'' school. No elementary students ever saw a computer, and no teacher incorporated computing into an academic subject, except possibly computer science. When a handful of excited teachers began to bring their own stand-alone microcomputers into their classrooms and share them with colleagues, the revolution was on.
Despite the initial resistance by intimidated teachers, the number of computers in schools mushroomed. Market studies today show close to 2 million machines in United States schools. Almost every American schoolchild now has access to a computer, and the implications for schooling are profound. Not only can students learn new skills and established content in new ways, but also teachers are impelled to rethink what they teach and how they teach it.
Trends in school practices
Two major trends have emerged, both driven by existing school practices. Some schools and districts have maintained a large measure of autonomy and have responded to the new opportunities by developing a systemwide plan to incorporate computer-based instruction into the whole curriculum, K-12. Over the long term, they plan to acquire hardware and software to support their redefined educational goals, maintain teacher training and continued assistance, and work together to achieve their goals. Many have been helped by private donations from computer companies, public funding from federal and state agencies, and local dollars from state and district governments, PTAs, and businesses.
States as diverse as Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, and North Carolina lead the way. In some states, infusions of cash have helped districts acquire hardware, software, and training. California, among other states, has set up regional centers that provide technical assistance and opportunities to review software. In many states, such as Massachusetts, growing cohorts of qualified computer specialists and classroom teachers have banded together to share freely what they have learned and to provide continuing support to one another and to new recruits. This is not a top-down innovation; it is a genuinely grass-roots revolution, spurred on by voluntary generosity. The knowledge and skill donated to meetings of computer-using educators breed an energy for work, an excitement, and an optimism that have long been lacking in the nation's schools.
At the other extreme is the pressure to incorporate computers as one more transient bit of technology in the unchanging classroom scene - the latest highly touted gadget to join the language labs and teaching machines on the shelves of storage closets. Most schools still base instruction on textbooks and workbooks, lesson plans, and test questions. In the last couple of decades, teachers' initiative and imagination have been subordinated to the syllabus.
Where computers have been brought into most schools, they are often mandated by administrators, under pressure from school boards. In turn, unwilling teachers resist the pressure from above. Moreover, teacher training is often inadequate and too brief. One way out is to provide step-by-step lesson plans, accompanied by computer drills and tutorials keyed to the textbook. This way, teachers don't have to confront anything drastically new that they aren't prepared to teach. Likewise, they needn't dump something from the present curriculum to make space for new computer-based material. And they can meet test requirements and supply fairly precise grades.
The result is often to ignore the extraordinary power of the computer that could help schools rethink what they can and should teach. It also deadens the enthusiasm that students bring to computer use in their subjects.
In a series of reports based on national surveys of teaching practices, Henry Jay Becker, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, has reported that computers are most widely used in schools either for computer programming instruction or for worksheet-type drills and tutorials in such subjects as language arts and arithmetic. Dr. Becker says, ``Despite the concentration of mathematics applications in the early grades, in the secondary grades only a very small portion of instructional activity with school computers has been devoted to traditional mathematics subject-matter. Science subject matter has constituted a similarly small part of school computer use, at both elementary and secondary levels.'' This, despite the fact that computers play an essential part in adult work in mathematics and science and engineering, fields in which the United States has a growing shortage of qualified professionals.
In similar fashion, much computer use is focused on drills in spelling and other language skills, while the national complaint is that high school graduates find it hard to enter the work world because they can't read adequately, write coherently, or express themselvesin face-to-face communication. Effective computer uses
In two areas of schooling, positive changes can be seen. One is the incorporation of computers into the education of children with special needs or communication handicaps. Thanks in large part to federal and state support of special education, computers have changed the lives of children who, in many cases, couldn't be taught through conventional means or mainstreamed in regular classrooms. Some of the filmed records of such computer-assisted cognitive development are intensely moving. For example, Dr. Sylvia Weir and her associates in the Logo Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have videotaped severely handicapped youngsters learning with computers over time. In some cases, her subjects would have been doomed as unteachable, without computers.
The other area is also dramatic and is increasingly widespread. It is the use of computers and word-processing software to encourage children to learn to write. Much school software makes use of computer programs originally developed at great cost as tools for business. Adapted for children, such programs can make a huge difference in the ways that children learn to solve problems, use intellectual tools and data bases, and use graphics and spreadsheets. Of these powerful adult tools, none have captured the imagination of teachers and students (and home-based computer users) so well as word processing. To add to text and graphics production there is now desktop publishing. What empowerment! Even youngsters who can't shape letters well enough to write with a pencil seem to want to express themselves on the computer, whether with a keyboard or a mouse or a graphics pad or simply by pointing at a touch-sensitive screen. With or without teacher help, they are writing their own stories and poems for classmates and families to read, illustrating the text with original pictures, and - with a little help from friends - putting out newsletters and broadsides to share with the world.
For those who believe that we learn by doing, the proof is implicit. Computer-based writing, editing, and publishing offer the first major integration of technology into the basic curriculum.
The omens are propitious. With stunning new tools, a fresh approach to teaching, and renewed spirit, teachers are bringing much-needed enthusiasm to their classrooms, and their students are responding to the change.
Adeline Naimen, a former director of software, writes frequently on computers in education.