Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 46 / MARCH 1984 / PAGE 142

Learning With Computers

Glenn M. Kleiman


Let's consider some of the steps involved in the introduction of computers in schools, and some of the difficult issues teachers, parents, and school administrations must face.

Computers are tools. They are different from most other tools in that they operate on information and can be programmed to serve a wide variety of purposes. But they are the same as other tools in that they can be used well or poorly. A hammer can be used to build furniture or to destroy it. A computer can be used to create original stories, music, and art; to explore complex scientific relationships; or to play the most mindless of games.

How computers affect students depends upon how the students use them, the quality and appropriateness of computer activities and software, and the manner in which computers are integrated with other educational activities.

In many schools, individual teachers, parents, or students have brought computers into classrooms. Since those who do so are typically knowledgeable and excited about computers, they are usually successful in integrating computers with classroom activities, and in teaching students about them. However, implementing computers on a school-wide or district-wide basis is a more complex task, one that requires a great deal of thought, careful planning, and an ongoing effort.

Computer Comfort

The first step towards using computers as educational tools is for teachers, administrators, parents, and students to become aware of the possibilities, to develop an interest in trying some of them. Understanding the possible uses of computers and having a general understanding of their nature is often called computer awareness.

The next step is computer comfort. This means that everyone involved should actually use a computer and become comfortable with the mechanics of loading and running programs, entering information, using printers and so on. There is no substitute for hands-on experience in coming to appreciate the potential of computers. At this stage, it is best to try a variety of programs to experience the different possibilities. The aim is to develop more concrete knowledge about what computers can do, and to gain critical skills in evaluating software.

Once past the awareness and comfort levels, the real work begins. Decisions have to be made about how computers will be used and whether some students or classes will have priority over others. How will computers be integrated into the curriculum at each grade level? Will they be used primarily for lessons and drills or to teach computer programming?

If programming is to be taught, which language (Logo, BASIC, Pascal) will be selected? Should the computers be used primarily in math and science classes or mainly for word processing? Will educational computer games be used? What about computer art and music? Will all students get equal access to the computers? Should gifted children or those in need of remedial assistance be given priority?

There are no "right" answers to these difficult questions. Each group of decision makers must decide how to best allocate the available computer resources to meet the needs of their school or district.

Selecting Products

Other important questions focus on the setting in which the computers will be used. Will they be placed in classrooms, in the library, or in a special computer laboratory room? How will their use be supervised, and by whom? Who will take care of maintenance and demonstrations of how to properly use the computers?

After decisions are made about how the computers will be used, by whom, and in what settings, it's time to start selecting hardware and software. Again, there are many questions. Should one brand of computers be purchased, or are different ones best for different purposes? For which brands of computers is the best software available? For which computers are good versions of the BASIC, Logo, and Pascal languages available? How much memory is needed, and are disk drives and printers needed for each computer? Are color video monitors essential, or will black-and-white do? Are modems needed? Which word processing program is best for students? What about lesson and drill programs? Where can good science simulations be obtained? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed.

The relative importance of such questions, and the appropriate answers to each, depends on the prior decisions about how computers will be used, as well as the constraints imposed by the available budget, space, and personnel.

Hardware Is Not The Only Budget Item

At this stage, careful budget planning is critical so that sufficient money will be available for software, peripherals such as printers, staff training, maintenance, and supplies (such as disks and paper). This point cannot be overemphasized. Many schools have invested all their available funds in hardware, only to discover that it is useless without appropriate software and staff training.

Once the computers are installed, there is another set of concerns. How will requests to use computers be handled? What about keeping up with new developments and the ongoing acquisition of new hardware and software? What should be done to encourage students and teachers who are uncomfortable using computers? What should be done about students who are so interested in computers they neglect other areas of study? How are computers changing the social structure of classes? Has a group of interested students evolved into a computer elite which tries to monopolize the computers? If so, how can this clique be led to serve as peer tutors to help and encourage the other students? Will teachers be uncomfortable because some students will know more than they do about the computers? What about students interested in more advanced programming or in forming a computer club?

The Challenge Of Computers In Education

As with any educational innovation, many new questions arise. This presents an exciting new challenge to educators: to adapt new technology to improve children's education.

Current claims about computers can be compared to prior claims about the educational potential of television, and this comparison raises serious concerns. Computers in education are now at a stage similar to that of television a few decades ago.

The enormous educational potential of television is well established; most children have learned a great deal from television. Unfortunately, much of what they have learned consists of advertising jingles and other trivia. With a few notable exceptions, television has not fulfilled its potential as an educational tool. The same could happen with computers; they could end up being used primarily as mindless electronic toys. Since computers are just beginning to be widely used, the directions we set in the next few years will be critical in determining whether their potential as educational tools will be fulfilled.