How to grade a school's use of computers. (Kids & Computers)
by Gregg Keizer
You want the best for your kids--the best home, the best friends, the best schools. Especially the best schools. Nothing brings out the protective side of a parent like a threat to a good school.
With computers such an integral part of today's, not to mention tomorrow's, teaching, you're right to worry about how your children use computers at school. Are there enough computers to go around? Are they being put to good use, or are they just silicon babysitters?
The answers are just a school visit away.
More kids spend more time with computers at school than ever before, but with a few exceptions, classrooms aren't completely computerized. When you're looking at how a school uses computers, take a head count. "The lower the ratio $(of kids to computers$), the better," says Donald La Salle, director of Connecticut's Talcott Mountain Science Center, a heavily computerized regional learning center. Your school's on the right track if it can boast at least one computer in each class. And if it features a lab with enough machines to handle a group of 20-25 at once, it's above average.
You can play the same numbers game with software. A school may settle on one word processor, for instance, but it needs a clutch of specialized programs in as many subject areas as possible if it's going to meet the needs of all its children.
"A good school would have a variety of different software," says Susan Schilling, vice president of development at MECC, a major educational software publisher in St. Paul, Minnesota. "Some exploratory software; some reference materials, may be in CD-ROM form; and for the higher grades, desktop publishing tools."
Finally, tally up the computer peripherals the school owns, from laser printers to laser disc players. Though they're not necessary for great teaching, they're certainly evidence of a staff on the cutting edge of educational technology and proof that it has confidence in computers.
Here Computers, There Computers
As you take the count, notice where the computers are placed. If they're all in one or two rooms, raise an eyebrow. Segregating machines from their users--the kids and teachers--doesn't foster an atease attitude about technology. "They should be very accessible," says Schilling. And that means they should be in the class.
Teachers' desks are great place for computers, if only as an indication that the instructors are as comfortable with the technology as are their charges.
And don't forget special spots, like the media center, music department, and science room. Computers common in these locations speak volumes about the school's commitment to cross-curriculum use of high-tech.
The most important element of computers in the classroom is also the hardest to capture--how teachers use the technology. "This is probably the most important $(aspect$)," says La Salle, "for if there isn't a creative teacher, then the computer becomes a millstone around the neck."
Go to a reliable source, your child, and ask what kinds of things he or she does with a computer at school. Innovative and interesting applications can make computers a crucial element of the class. Simulation software such as Maxis' SimCity, Microprose's Railroad Tycoon, and MECC's Oregon Trail can encourage self-guided explorations that would otherwise be impossible. A curriculum that stresses team solutions, with the computer as coach or information recorder, helps teachers manage several small learning groups simultaneously.
Look, Listen, and Learn
"If computers are visible, you can see it in the first ten minutes," claims Schilling. "It doesn't take long to sniff them out."
So spend some time at your child's school, and you'll walk away with a good idea of how well it's working with computers. If even that's impossible, make a phone call or two--to both the school and the district's computer director or coordinator--and then play twenty questions with your kid.