Computers Spark Faster Pace, More Student Initiative
Hi-tech focus in Lowell, Mass., changes teachers' style and blurs subject boundaries
LOWELL, MASS. — The eighth-grader swells with pride when he talks about the computer projects he's done in school.
Using state-of-the-art technology, the student at Benjamin Butler Middle School in Lowell, Mass., has written musical scores, toured the Louvre's art collections, designed a beach house, and put together a video documentary on an animal hospital.
"It's a lot better than just sitting there while the teacher talks," he says.
But asked what year the Declaration of Independence was signed, he hesitates. "Oh, uh, I know that," he says sheepishly.
Therein lies the problem for technology in the schools. Few teachers doubt that students would rather work on a computer than listen to a lecture or read. But some educators worry schools are neglecting basic knowledge while they chase the latest technology.
Fifteen years ago, an average of 125 students shared a computer. Now the number is 10. Virtually all of the nation's schools use computers, according to Quality Education Data in Denver. In addition, the Clinton administration vows to connect every school to the Internet by 2000.
But most classroom computers are already ancient by today's standards and only 23 percent are hooked into the Internet, the Denver research group found. Only about 15 percent of teachers have been trained.
"You can't just automate pencil and paper," says Ann Flynn, director of the Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, part of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "Just because you have the wires in, doesn't mean you are making the best use of your class."
The city of Lowell, Mass., an old mill town 23 miles north of Boston, has tried to tackle that problem. In a long-term renovation of its dilapidated schools, it also spent tens of millions of dollars installing computers and teaching the staff to use them.
"You don't see the smokestacks belching smoke anymore - we are no longer an economy of heavy industry," says school-committee member George Kouloheras. "Now we are about computers and technology."
Surrounded by high-tech companies such as Digital Equipment Corp. and Lotus, the school system drew on area experts and corporate largess. Over a decade, the schools put computers in every classroom. Teachers have computers on their desks that they use in part to communicate directly with the principal or other teachers. By October, all 28 schools will be hooked into the Internet.
Administrators also gave careful thought to how the computers should be used. "We mandated that when a class gets a computer, the teacher gets training," says Steven Arnoff, administrator of the school system's technology. "Once kids get their hands on a computer, there's no holding them back, unless a teacher knows how to direct them."
Students at Butler spend their entire school day surrounded by computers. Every class has access to 16 CD-ROMs, video equipment, the Internet, and software. The school even has its own Web site (www.tiac.net/users/sweeneym).
As a result, traditional subject boundaries have melted away. Music classes team up with history classes to teach John Philip Souza's music and the era in which he lived.
"We don't have the time to sing the way we used to," says music teacher Sharon Clark. "But we can connect with social science. You can see the light flicker on."
Instead of subjects, each grade studies themes. The eighth grade is studying inventions. The seventh grade is learning about animals, and the sixth grade is investigating colonial America. Every student is required to produce a research project.
Branthorn Horn, an eighth-grader, put together a video on illegal dumping behind the school. "It's giving the school a bad image," he says. He researched the property and investigated the pollution using the computer.
Branthorn can't imagine school without computers. "It's part of our lives," he says. "There are all these things we can do with them, instead of just sitting in our chairs."
Some teachers no longer feel they command center stage, standing in front of the classroom with all eyes on them. But they doubt the students miss the lectures. "It's hard to be interesting all the time," science teacher Bill Gianoulis says. "They don't even need me. I can't keep up, they go so fast."
In many schools, computers are forcing teachers to change style and step back as students discover things for themselves.
In New Haven, Calif., a blue-collar town outside San Francisco, Marilyn Forrest had her doubts when computers were put in her ninth-grade English classroom at James Logan High School five years ago. "I thought I wouldn't use the computers if I could do it another way," Ms. Forrest says.
But she found her students learned faster and used more skills with the computer. "They have to write well, read well, and understand how to use the computer," she says.
In the fall, the class read John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," using the computer to find photos and diaries from the Great Depression. Then students made multimedia presentations based on what they learned.
At the end, Forrest gave them a pop quiz, similar to the one she gave out five years ago. The results astounded her.
"Forty of them got A's, and 10 got B's," she says. "And these weren't honors students. I realized it was in them all along, and it was the computers that brought it out."
But back in Lowell, Mr. Arnoff suspects teachers may not have noticed a sea change in the way students reason.
"The kids are different from the ones we saw five years ago," he says. "Their thinking is diverging from the traditional hierarchical, outline form of logic. At an early age, students are clicking on shapes to activate something. They are manipulating symbols.
"How will the ability to recognize and use symbols affect them as they approach learning? I don't think anyone's looking at that."
Schools Invest in Technology
* In 1983, 125 students shared one computer. By 1989, that ratio had dropped to 25 to 1.Last year, just 10 students shared a computer.
* 47 percent of US schools used modems for instruction in 1996, versus 14 percent in 1991.
* 23 percent of districts have Internet capability. 67 percent of the schools with Internet limit access to the library.
* 54 percent of schools used CD-ROMs in instruction in 1996, up from 7 percent in 1993. This was the largest growth rate of all technologies used in schools.
* Ratio of multimedia computers to students in 1996: 24 to 1. (US Department of Education's recommended ratio is 5 to 1.)
Source: Quality Education Data