Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 88 / SEPTEMBER 1987 / PAGE 70

Computers and Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor

The Classroom Computer—A Tool For Teachers

While the use of computers as educational tools goes back 20 years or more, the current interest in educational computing is the result of the creation of powerful microcomputers in the late 1970s. By 1979, those teachers who were interested in educational computing were coping with the rapid introduction of new hardware and were confronted with very few choices in the area of educational software.

Computer manufacturers—unsure of the role of their product in schools—used every trick in the book to promote the computer as an educational tool. I remember one advertisement for the Radio Shack Model I that included this line: Parents—For the price of a good bicycle you can make an investment in your child's future. This strategy, and others like it, succeeded in pushing small computers into the classroom, even though most educators were unsure how to use them. The only thing that seemed certain was that the computer was being promoted as a tool for students, not for teachers.

The ensuing years saw an inevitable shakeout as some manufacturers dropped out of sight. The teacher's choice was soon limited to a few brand names, and software companies devoted to student-based educational software started to blossom like wildflowers after a spring rain. One result of the sudden growth of the software industry, was that confusion in the area of computer hardware shifted to confusion in the realm of software instead. Many industry leaders picked (or created) bandwagons of their own, and teachers were bombarded with messages from all sides, each promoting one use of computers at the expense of others.

Philosophical debates raged as to the best use of computers: Should they be used as primary delivery vehicles for instruction? Should they be used to supplement the teacher's efforts? Should computers be used to structure the educational experience or to liberate it?

In an attempt to bring organization to people's thinking about educational software, some people latched on to the Tutor, Tool, Tutee model of computer use, described by Robert Taylor in his book, The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee (Teacher's College Press, 1980). His model divided most educational software into three classes based on the function of the computer, the scope of its application, and the nature of the student's interaction with it.

Tutor, Tool, Tutee

Tutor software is designed to help the student acquire a specific skill—number facts, for example. The content and instructional style of this type of software covers the range from simulation of a task (running a lemonade stand, for example) to rote drill and practice.

Tool software includes word processors, databases, spreadsheets, graphics programs, music composition tools, etc. The focus here is on using the computer as a tool for the creation, capture, development and exploration of ideas in many subject domains. A word processor, for example, is of as much utility to a student in English as it is to a student in History.

Tutee software is based on a model that the student learns best by teaching a concept to others. In this case the "other" is a computer, and the vehicle for communicating ideas to the computer is a programming language. Logo, for a variety of reasons, is considered by many to be an excellent language for this task.

What About The Teacher?

A brief glance at the three categories mentioned above—Tutor, Tool, Tutee—reveals one aspect in common: Each of these applications treats the computer as a device for the student, not for the teacher.

Is this a reasonable expectation? As valuable as these applications are, it may well be that our focus has been benevolently misplaced. Educators naturally place their children ahead of themselves. But given the scarcity of computers in the classroom, there may be a better way to use technology for the benefit of children and teachers—and education in general.

To see why, let's explore the reality of computers in today's schools.

Where Are The Computers?

As popular as educational computing may seem from the total volume of sales into the classroom, the penetration of computer technology has barely scratched the surface. In 1983, for example, only 7 percent of the elementary schools in the United States had five or more computers. According to a survey conducted by Henry J. Becker, at Johns Hopkins University, the number of classroom computers quadrupled by 1985. But even then the overall ratio of students to computers was a pitiful 42 to 1. Allowing for the purchase of more computers in the interim, today's student to computer ratio is probably about 25 to 1—still too small for computers to reach their fullest potential.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many schools concentrated most of their computers in a "computer lab," where students get access to the machines for about 20 minutes per week. The remaining one or two computers in the school are often put on movable carts, like movie projectors, to be wheeled from room to room on an "as needed" basis.

To see how limiting this is, imagine what impact the pencil would have on students if they could only use one for 20 minutes a week—and they would have to go to a "pencil lab" to find one. And yet many of us (myself included) were blinded by the promise of student-based educational computing, and we saw the scarcity of classroom computers as only a temporary inconvenience.

The reality is quite different.

The investment required to place the power of the computer in each student's hands—an investment of $2,000 per student—is beyond the scope of educational budgets in this country. And yet, because of our focus on the computer as a tool for student use, we have overlooked an important opportunity. While the ratio of students to computers may be 25 to 1, the ratio of teachers to computers is nearly 1 to 1. Provided that a way can be found to make the computer into a power tool for educators—a tool that lets teachers teach what they want to teach the way they want to teach it—educational computing may finally come of age.

Interestingly enough, the technology to make this happen has nothing to do with computers. The tool that can make the classroom computer into a powerful teaching tool is the inexpensive liquid-crystal display plate. This new display technology, available from several vendors for well under $2,000, sits on top of a standard overhead projector. Anything that would be displayed on the computer screen is projected onto a standard movie screen at the front of the room for all to see. For less than the cost of another complete computer system, the teacher can increase the effectiveness of the classroom computer by 30.

With The Computer

The model I envision for classroom computing places the computer in the hands of the teacher. Using special software, the teacher can use the computer as an electronic blackboard. Unlike conventional blackboards, the teacher's computer can hold a lot of information, can bring up high-quality graphic images in a few seconds, and can provide a printed copy of anything that has been displayed. This printout can serve as class notes, the recording of classroom brainstorms, and so on.

The challenge for software developers now, is to respond to the needs of the teacher who wants to use the computer as a direct tool of instruction from the front of the room. I, for one, have elected to concentrate my efforts in this area of software development.

I think it is time that we shifted our focus slightly from educational computing from the student's desk to the front of the room. The benefits are tremendous.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Thornburg's latest book, The Empowered Teacher, published by Starsong Publications. He welcomes letters from readers and can be reached at P.O. Box 1317, Los Altos, CA 94023.