THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
Islands Of Learning
Fred D'Ignazio, Associate Editor
I am afraid that homes and schools are swiftly becoming islands of computer learning. I am afraid that unless something is done to coordinate this learning, the tremendous educational potential of personal computers might never be realized.
I've been speaking on this subject at several educational conferences, including the National Educational Computing Conference in Baltimore, the Florida Instructional Computing Conference in Tampa, and the Hollins College conference on "Computers in the Schools."
In Tampa, my speech was entitled "Linking Computers in the Classroom and the Home." After the speech, one of the people in the audience came up and introduced himself as Kenneth Komoski, Educational Director of the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE).
Ken and I sat down and chatted. We discovered that each of us independently had decided that the critical area in educational computing was neither the classroom nor the home. Instead it was the connection or the gap between the two.
To show how similar our thinking was, here's a quote from one of Ken's recent articles:
It's important for parents to work cooperatively with educators and community leaders to make decisions about computers and educational software.... At stake is not only the quality of computer instruction in the schools, but also the full educational potential of microcomputers for your child, your family and your community. If parents and schools do not work together, much of this potential may be lost.
Kenneth Komoski, Network (3/83).
Ken told me about the work he had been doing. He mentioned that his organization, EPIE, had recently joined forces with Consumers Union to evaluate educational computing products. Evaluations are published in a monthly MICROgram. (Subscriptions to MICROgram are available from EPIE-Consumers Union, P.O. Box 839, Watermill, NY 11976.)
Millions Of Programs
Hundreds of new educational software packages are appearing each month. Families and schools are buying these packages by the millions. In 1982, 1.4 million educational software packages were sold. Experts predict that 4 million packages will be sold this year.
Families are buying the software and schools are buying the software, but there is little or no coordination between the two. This is the source of Ken's and my concern.
The Miracle Machine
This lack of coordination creates a real problem. The biggest impact of computers will probably be on kids using computers at home. Yet families have the least experience in setting up a formal curriculum of instruction.
Many parents buying computers are hoping that the educational programs that their kids use will teach the kids without any parental guidance. Or that the programs at least won't do any harm.
But are these parents placing too much faith in the computer?
Ever since they were first invented, computers have been seen as a miracle solution to all sorts of problems. But people have learned the hard way that computers do nothing on their own. If computers are given the right instructions, they can help. But people still do most of the work.
The same is true for computer learning. The computer cannot teach a child on its own. Parents and teachers still need to do most of the work. They need to create an environment and a curriculum fitted to the needs and age level of each child. Then the computer can be a valuable assistant.
The Impact Of Computer Learning
We have another problem. Computer learning at home is likely to be unguided and uncontrolled. Yet unless computer learning at school and at home is better coordinated, the impact of computer learning will be much greater at home.
Look at the ratio of kids to computers at home and in the schools. At home the ratio is great; at school it is miserable. This is not a nice thing to admit, but it's true. One reader recently wrote me that at her school the ratio was 400 kids to only one computer. "But," she admitted, "I suppose that's better than no computers at all."
At home the ratio is much smaller, of course. Either it's nonexistent, because the family doesn't want or can't afford a computer, or it's something like two or three kids per computer.
And when you think about how much exposure each child will get to educational software at home, the situation looks even worse.
Software prices are beginning to drop rapidly. Quality educational software will soon be available at affordable prices (from $5 to $30 a package). Yet at school the software must run on the same computer that is in demand by (perhaps) hundreds of schoolchildren. This makes it unlikely that a child using a computer at school will be able to sample and fully experience the full range of software that his or her school can afford.
At home, on the other hand, a child's family might buy two or three dozen packages, and the child will have the opportunity to fully experience all of them.
The lesson here is that the impact of computers will be much greater on kids learning at home.
A Riot Of Computer Learning
In recent columns, I have discussed educational computing in the classroom and in the home. In one column, I wrote about the "riot" of learning that will soon be taking place in homes that have computers. I called it a riot because computer learning at home will be spontaneous, uncontrolled, and, perhaps, destructive.
Parents have always depended on teachers to provide formal instruction for their children, especially in basics such as arithmetic, writing, and reading. Now there are dozens of math drill programs, typing tutors, spelling instructors, and reading "games."
Parents are buying these programs and turning the computer into a vehicle to teach these skills at home. But in most cases the computer "tutor" will not have a parent looking over its shoulder. The tutor will be teaching the child, but its lessons won't be integrated into a balanced curriculum especially suited for the child.
And this is just the beginning. The computer's effect on home learning will soon increase dramatically. At the end of the next twelve months there will be software on the market to teach every conceivable subject or skill to kids of almost every age. There will be geography programs, programs to teach chemistry, astronomy, art, dancing, song writing, juggling, current events, and world religions.
Parents will buy this software, but kids will be expected to use it on their own.
The Cereal-Box Strategy
Schools and families will buy millions of educational programs. Schools will buy programs only after they have evaluated the programs' pedagogical soundness and relevance to teachers' existing curricula.
How will parents choose among the hundreds of educational programs on the market? They will buy programs the way they buy everything else.
They will choose a particular package because:
- Their child responds to an ad on the back of a box of cereal by crying, "I want that program, Mommy!" And how can the mommy refuse? After all, the program is educational. And it's a lot better than getting the kid the laser blaster that was advertised on the box of cereal the family finished last week.
- Software will soon be on sale at special software stores and at almost every sales outlet imaginable, including local convenience marts, department stores, bookstores, drugstores, beauty salons, hardware stores, and supermarkets. It will be sold alongside how-to manuals, mass-market books, and other inexpensive consumer items. It will become as cheap and as convenient to buy as a detective novel, a romance novel, or a carton of milk.
- Software will soon be packaged as glossily as cosmetics and rock records. Ads on TV, on the radio, and in stores will make buying software as appealing as buying a new kind of lipstick, deodorant, sports car, or diet soda. It will look like an offer that can't be refused.
- Buying software will help people keep up with their neighbors who are also buying software for their kids. After all, a responsible parent can't sit still and watch her kids slip behind. And even the President of the United States admits they're not getting the education they need at school. The only way to get the kids educated is to give them an early start on learning at home. And the only way that can be managed is with a computer–and lots and lots of software.
Help From Software Publishers
Can't parents depend on educational publishers and computer companies to advise them in making their purchases?
Not likely. Educational publishers and computer companies will likely have little or no interest in coordinating the software that children use at home and the software they use in school. Nor will they be concerned with how their software fits into a child's development and into his or her learning experiences.
That's why the average home's computer learning environment will be riotous. Most parents won't have the training or the time to properly select educational software. Nor will they have the skill to build that software into a comprehensive "Home Learning Program" for their children.
Schools have this training and skill, but they are not currently part of the home software selection and evaluation process.
Islands Of Learning
I see two islands of learning that will soon be created by computers. One island will be the school, the other the home.
In the school, computer learning will be structured, well organized, well thought out, properly sequenced, comprehensive, and pedagogically sound. Unfortunately, it will also be minimal, since each kid will have an absurdly small amount of time using any particular package. The effect of computer learning at school will be diluted by the huge number of kids trying to share a few computers.
In the home, computer learning will have a great impact, because kids will have the opportunity to spend a great amount of time on the computer and richly experience each program. Also, there is great potential for home learning to be exceptionally creative, open-ended, informal, self-motivated, and self-guided.
Unfortunately, this potential probably won't be realized. Children's home computer-learning will be blunted by a lack of any plan; by lack of coordination with a child's physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development; by a lack of non-computer learning activities that support the computer instruction; by improper sequencing of materials and concepts; and by the gaps in learning caused by a family's arbitrary purchase of software packages.
If present trends continue, and schools and homes become islands of computer learning, what will be the result? What will be the effect of computer learning on our children? What kind of kids will we be turning loose in the public schools? How frustrated will computer-literate kids become when they don't find the same computer resources at school that are available at home? Will non-mainstream kids be left behind? And, if so, how will they ever catch up? (They won't catch up after they leave school. In the future, the average workplace–factory or office–will be even more computerized than the average home.)
If present trends continue, there is the possibility that the effect of computer learning at school will be minimal. It is likely that the effect of computer learning at home will be profound, yet it may also be profoundly destructive. It is also possible that the enormous potential of computer learning at home and at school might never be realized.
Can we permit this? Are there any alternatives?
There are alternatives. We can link computing at home and computing at school. We can build bridges between these islands of learning. The bridges will permit a two-way flow of expertise and resources. The sharing of computers, software, and learning strategies can make it possible to realize the computer's great potential as a learning tool for children and their entire family.
Ken Komoski's plan for building these bridges is similar to my own. Ken (in his MICROgram and elsewhere) stresses "concrete programs and policies" I emphasize communication. Both elements are important. What we need, at minimum, is:
- Community-wide Training. Teachers, parents, and children need to attend common training sessions to learn how to use computers and how to evaluate, select, and get the most out of educational software.
- Community-wide Access. Parent-teacher organizations should set up computer cooperatives to evaluate computer software and hardware sold by local vendors. Discounts (Ken's idea) should be offered to parents who buy the computers and software recommended by the cooperative. Low-income families in the community should get special deals: computers and software should be available for families to lease, lease-purchase, buy at a discount, or check out from a co-op library.
- Communication. The co-op should hold regular public meetings and publish a monthly newsletter to make all the parents in the community aware of the diverse aspects of educational computing, including:
- Past, present, and planned applications of computers in the school (by teacher, subject, and grade).
- Educational applications of computers in local homes (by manufacturer, name of software, subject, age of children).
- Recommendation of the best new educational software and hardware; results of evaluations and tests performed at local schools and by local parents.
- Opportunities for Action: Community Computer Faires, Computer Flea Markets and Yard Sales, Parents' Brag Nights, involvement in software and hardware evaluation committees, donation of used hardware and software to the co-op library, etc.
Families will be buying much more hardware and software than schools. And they will be going through it much faster. The co-op should get families to donate, loan, or sell (at a discount) the old software and hardware that their kids have outgrown. This strategy will create an enormous reservoir of materials that can be used in the classroom and by families who otherwise would have no access to them.
In addition, this strategy will create a Supply Depot of computer parts, including disk drives, cables, monitors, computer circuit cards, wires, plugs, and connectors. Since computer models change so rapidly, this Depot could become an invaluable resource for the schools and the community at large. Having backup computer supplies will make it possible to keep computers up and running for longer periods of time. It will make it possible to put more students on the computers and allow the students to use a wider variety of software packages.
What Do You Think?
I am convinced that the most important area in educational computing will be what is done to link educational computing in the classroom and in the home.
What do you think?
I would like to hear your ideas about this subject. Is it important? Will it become more important in the future? What are some of the dangers if nothing is done? What are some of the strategies we can adopt to link computing in the classroom and the home? What issues haven't I covered?