Learning With Computers
Glenn M. Kleiman and Mary M. Humphrey Teaching Tools: Microcomputer Services
P.O. Box 50065
Palo Alto, CA 94303
How might existing computer technology change schools in the near future?
In this column, we recount a hypothetical visit to the Charles Babbage School, circa 1985. Our tour guide was the principal, Ada Lovelace, who told us the school has been using computers since 1982.
At Babbage School, children move about a great deal, working individually and in groups on different lessons and projects. The children have a lot of flexibility in which lessons they do when, and in how they approach studying a given topic. Everyday attendance is not compulsory, and some children often take lesson disks home to work on their own computers. Teachers generally work with individuals or small groups of children. Ms. Lovelace told us the teachers spend most of their time tutoring and directing children's learning. The students have a lot of choice, but the teachers make sure that each child engages in a balanced variety of activities each week. Very little time is spent in record keeping or grading—computers take care of that. Since computers make truly individualized instruction possible, grading is not emphasized as it once was.
Many lessons are very different from those in schools of 1980. For example, nine-year-old Jane showed us a computer lesson on ecology and pollution. The computer showed a lake with a variety of plants and fish. It also provided information about the food chain and reproduction rates of the species within the lake. Jane then told the computer that a certain pollutant had entered the lake. The computer responded that the pollutant had killed 50% of the "glod" plants, and asked Jane to predict the effect of this on the other life in the lake over the next five years. Jane then compared her predictions to the actual effects calculated by the computer, finding that she had estimated much less damage than would have occurred.
This simulation certainly seemed to teach her the basic principles of an ecological system. Computer simulations are available at Babbage School for many science lessons. Ms. Lovelace told us that she hopes to get simulation programs to teach principles of economics and social psychology. She pointed out that software development has lagged behind hardware advances ever since she first worked with computers.
Lessons As Games
Other lessons take a more game-like format, often with two or more players. Competitive games requiring (and providing practice in) math and language skills are very popular. Several children were playing an adventure game in which they explore a complicated world created within the computer. They search through castles, caves, and mazes for treasures, while trying to avoid the dangers of creatures such as wizards, dragons, and gremlins. Lessons in reading comprehension, logic, and map reading were embedded within the game.
Ms. Lovelace said that some children spend a lot of time with these game-lessons, and that completing one adventure can take several weeks. Teachers can instruct the computer to modify the game as it is being played. They use this capability to introduce new vocabulary words and other educational material, and to encourage the children to do other lessons. For example, 12 year-old Jim (who told us that "adventure is a real classic computer game") often neglected his science lessons. A quick modification by one teacher added a wizard to the adventure. This wizard gave Jim instructions for finding a treasure which required knowledge about certain star constellations. We later saw Jim engrossed in an astronomy lesson.
Ms. Lovelace told us that the children learn a great deal by exploring environments simulated on the computer. For example, one program creates computer screen representations of gears, pulleys, wheels, levers and so on. The child can combine these simple machines on the screen to create devices to perform various jobs, such as moving heavy objects. The device created can be tested through computer simulations to see if it works as planned. The child can then modify and re-test the device, or build a new one.
Creating, testing, and modifying devices in this simulated environment produces an understanding of the principles of simple mechanical machines. Other programs available at Babbage School create environments in which children can explore geometry, physics, and simple computer operations. Ms. Lovelace expressed the hope that more such programs would be available soon since this type of learning makes abstract concepts more concrete and manageable for children. Also, children learn through active exploration, rather than just passively remembering information given to them.
Writing And Typing Skills
Several students were engaged in writing projects. All the writing was done using word processing programs. The children easily entered and then revised their writing. Everything from correcting spelling errors and adding or deleting words to rearranging paragraphs was done quickly on the screen. Using word processors makes writing more enjoyable and children are willing to revise their own work many times — something they are reluctant to do when they have to rewrite by hand each time.
We expressed surprise that all the children knew how to type so well. Ms. Lovelace told us that they had learned from a computer program. The program presents typing drills and measures how long it takes to complete the drill on the computer keyboard. Later drills are designed to give practice with letters or letter combinations the child has typed incorrectly or too slowly. Since practice is directed at specific problems, learning is very rapid.
Some of the children were writing articles or stories for the school newspaper. One child told us he was writing a science fiction story about what the world would be like without any computers. When he finished his story, he stored a copy on disk so the newspaper editor could edit it later. We were told that, after being approved by the editor, the newspaper was automatically formatted and printed by the computer.
Other children were writing letters. They told us the letters were for their pen-pals in Japan. The letters were sent via electronic mail and the children expected to receive answers the next day. One child asked us why they were called "pen-pals." After we explained, another child added "it's like why we say 'dial the phone' — it's left over from the old days."
Speech Synthesis For A Blind Student
Later, we noticed a child wearing headphones attached to a small box next to a computer. The box was a speech synthesizer. At the push of a button, it would convert the text on the screen to speech. Ms. Lovelace told us that John has been blind since birth, but with the speech synthesizer, a special keyboard, and some other electronic devices, he is able to progress with his lessons very well. She emphasized that computers have been a tremendous help in educating children with all types of handicaps and in making it possible for handicapped children to work in regular classroom settings.
Many lessons were about computers themselves. Computer studies are a standard part of the curriculum. All the children learn how to control computers to permit creative work. For some, this consists of writing computer programs. One group of children was working on a math drill program to be used by younger children in the school. After testing it on some five-year-olds, they told us that it was "a neat program, but some of the instructions mixed up the little kids. It still has to be more user-friendly."
Other children used a computer to write music. The program allowed them to enter musical notation, listen to the music, alter its pitch and tempo, and change the notes. It was like a word processor for music. Their work was to be transmitted via a computer network, to be entered into a statewide computer music contest.
We also saw a group of three children working on a computer art project. Each child would take a turn adding something to the computer display by drawing on a board next to the computer. They simply outlined what they wanted to draw and it appeared on the screen. After something was placed on the screen, it could be easily colored, moved, rotated, made larger or smaller, or erased. With a great deal of animated debate (one of the teachers had to ask them to settle down) a picture was gradually taking form. Later, a large version was printed to hang on the classroom wall, and three small copies were printed for the artists to take home.
We asked the teachers about the discipline problems so prevalent in schools a few years ago. One teacher, who had been teaching for 20 years, said that many problems have been minimized since education had become truly individualized. Students and teachers feel less frustration and a greater sense of accomplishment since there is so much flexibility in the content and methods of teaching and learning.
Children with learning problems receive a great deal of specific help. Teachers have time for individual tutoring, while computers provide unlimited practice at a level and pace appropriate to each child. The problems that could lead to a child being labeled as "learning disabled" have been reduced. Debates among educators about such things as which is the best method of teaching reading have also decreased, since an optimal method can be used for each individual.
Is This Science Fiction?
Is Babbage School science fiction? Such a school doesn't exist today, but the technology to do everything we have mentioned does exist. We believe that Babbage School could be a reality within the next few years.
Will your school take advantage of computers and other technological innovations? The aim of our columns is to help you make good use of these new and powerful tools for teaching and learning. In each column, we will discuss a general issue about learning with computers, issues such as: what is computer literacy? How can computers facilitate the education of handicapped individuals? What training is required for teachers to make good use of computers?
We will also point out some articles, books, software, hardware, and sources of information you may find useful. Relevant to this column, there are many books about the influence of computers in the near future. We particularly recommend the following four:
- The Micro Millenium, by Christopher Evans (Pocket Books, 1979). Discusses computers of the past, present, and future and their effects on society. Includes an account of the roles of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the history of computers.
- The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler (Bantam Books, 1980). Toffler's thesis, developed in some detail, is that our society is in the midst of a Computer Revolution, comparable in scope of its effects to the Agricultural Revolution (the first wave) and the Industrial Revolution (the second wave).
- The Electronic Cottage, by Joseph Deken (William Morrow & Co., 1981). A wide-ranging discussion of things computers can do, how they work, and how they may change our everyday lives.
- Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, by Seymour Papert (Basic Books, 1980). A detailed description of some computer-created environments for children to explore, and the effects on the children's understanding of mathematical concepts.