The World Inside the Computer
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
Computer Learning Month
You will be getting this issue just as you gear up for another school year as an educator, a parent, or a student. In case you haven't heard, October 1987 has been designated by Congress as Computer Learning Month. It's an opportunity to think about how computers can enrich learning in the classroom and at home, and to remember how far we've come in a few short years.
I began writing this monthly column for COMPUTE! back in April 1982. At that time only about 20 percent of U.S. schools used computers in the classroom. Now, five years later, the figure is above 96 percent (99 percent of all public middle and secondary schools).
In 1982, there were only a few thousand computers in public schools. Now there are more than one million. Over 15 million students and 500,000 teachers use computers.
These are momentous changes. But even more important is how computer use has evolved. Back in the early 1980s, almost all computer instruction centered on learning programming and the internal operation of computers. Computers were taught in special laboratories, separate from regular classrooms and regular teachers. Boys swarmed around computers, both during and after school, but girls were nowhere to be seen.
Today, programming is still taught in many schools (for good reason—as a problem-solving and thinking skill and to convey a working understanding of how computers process information). However, most schools are moving away from programming instruction and are trying to integrate computers into the day-to-day curriculum and to encourage teachers to use computers to enrich lessons in a variety of subjects.
I recently attended the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Philadelphia. I got a moment to sneak away from the hubbub on the floor, climb the stairs, and look out over the area from the relative quiet of the press-room. What a view! Educational computing—which I once equated with my high school math teacher sneaking several of us boys into his closet in the back of the room to do calculus problems on his home-made analog computer—now was big time. Dozens of colorful booths filled the giant arena. The floor was alive with hundreds of excited educators rushing from booth to booth to catch up on the latest products and ideas. Gone were the booths focused on computer science, algorithms, and data structures. In their place were signs advertising new programs to fit into the K–6 science curriculum, how to use computers in reading and writing, computers in American History, computer programs for special education. And the people had changed. Instead of the young male hackers of yester-year, the booths—and attendees—were made up of teachers and exteachers, most of them female.
Women are becoming more prominent in educational computing at all levels—even back in the classroom. According to one study, boys and girls are enrolled almost equally in elective computer classes in middle and high schools.
Another difference: Five years ago, few teachers knew anything about computers, and many teachers simply avoided them. Today, "teacher training" is a top-priority goal of all major state and district-level educational computing projects. And the results are heartening. Almost a third of all U.S. teachers and more than half of all computer-using teachers have had ten or more hours of computer training.
So it's time to celebrate. And Computer Learning Month is a good time for a celebration.
But we should also use this month to set new goals. There is still much work which remains to be done. For example:
- On the average, there are still more than 37 students per computer—less than the equivalent of one computer per classroom. If we are to truly integrate computers into a student's daily learning, we need more computers.
- Students in lower-income schools have significantly less access to computers than students in upper-income schools.
Also, work needs to continue. Primary tasks are:
- To get girls more involved in computers (especially after hours, when boys tend to take over).
- To encourage teachers to incorporate computer-assisted learning into their daily lesson plans.
- To make it clear where the best computer programs fit into the curriculum; then to distribute the results so teachers can easily make use of computers when they get to the right point in their lessons.
Plan A Celebration
Schools, teacher organizations, and parent groups across America are holding events to celebrate Computer Learning Month, including contests, computer fairs, essay activities, and computer open houses for parents. Why not join them? It's likely that students and teachers at your school have been doing some exciting things with computers.
For more information about special offers, posters, and national contests, write: Computer Learning Month, Software Publishers Association, P.O. Box 19763, Washington, DC 20036-0763.