Computers In The Classroom
Part I. How It Was
Computers and educational software have had a great impact upon our educational system over the past ten years, but the educational system—especially the educational marketplace—has exerted influence of its own as well.
First, computers had to physically get into schools. That task was not easily accomplished. During the late 1970s, there were few school systems or districts with concrete plans for incorporating the emerging technology into their classrooms.
Charles Blaschke, president of Education Turnkey Systems, a market research and consultation firm specializing in educational hardware, recalls the late seventies as a time during which schools began seeking a rationale for incorporating computers into their curricula.
"There was increasing pressure from parents," Blaschke says, "who wanted their students to have the opportunities that computers could provide. Schools reacted by getting their first machines, although they didn't know exactly how to put them to work."
As recently as 1980, only seven states had official policies regarding the implementation of computers in public schools. Yet schools in virtually all of the states were acquiring machines, and various uncoordinated activities were creating a sort of computerized anarchy. At the same time, teachers began coming to terms with the physical reality of the computer, and learning how to take actual advantage of the machines' educational potential.
Teachers Take The Lead
Parents and school boards weren't the only ones who were interested in computers. Teachers themselves played a large part in putting the technology to work.
"Initially, the process of getting computers in the classroom was a scattered grassroots effort on the part of individual teachers," says Brian Dougherty president of Berkeley Softworks. He goes on to say that these teachers were often lonely in their enthusiasm in computers—not everyone perceived the benefits that computers could bring to education. That's changed now. "Today all schools recognize computers as an important part of the educational process," Dougherty says. "But even five years ago it was quite different."
He likens the situation in classrooms to that in the business environment. "Corporations did not initially embrace personal computers," he points out. "At many companies what happened was that an individual who perceived the computer's potential bought a PC and put it to work." The example set by those individuals fostered the implementation of other computers, and so on, leading to today's business environment where personal computers are ubiquitous.
"In the educational market," Dougherty continues, "you had an individual teacher getting a computer, then individual schools planning courses in computer use, followed by school districts putting together plans for computers. And finally the entire educational establishment sees how important computers are."
Obviously that sort of revolution in understanding does not take place over night, but the early 1980s witnessed a dramatic acceleration in attention and energy giver to the incorporation of computers into schools. Charles Blaschke reports that those initial seven states with official computer education policies in 1980 were joined by nearly three dozen more within a year or so.
Washington Keeps Hands Off
One reason for the diversity of approaches to classroom computers may be the decentralization of our educational system. Educational decisions are pretty much left to individual school districts. With the exception of a brief debate over the goals of computer literacy, the federal education bureaucracy has left the details of their implementation to the schools themselves.
Chester Finn, Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, says that the Federal government plays only a very small part in determining either curricula or resources for our schools. He says, "We don't in general get involved at all in the delivery of any instructional materials—and computer hardware is completely outside our ken."
Rather, the Department of Education sees its role as that of clearinghouse, providing toll-free educational bulletin boards for teachers. "Our largest undertaking," Finn states, "is E.R.I.C.—the Educational Resources Information Center, a database for gathering and disseminating educational research information."
Curing Computer Phobia
While some teachers eagerly embraced the arrival of the computer, others were less certain. Some even feared it. The attitudes of teachers have changed as well. Jan Davidson, founder and president of Davidson & Associates, an educational software publishing firm, recalls that many professional educators mistrusted computers.
"Teachers have naturally become much more sophisticated about computers than they were," says Davidson, a former teacher herself. "When we got started with computers there was some apprehension that computer technology might ultimately replace teachers themselves. There was therefore some real reluctance about embracing classroom computer technology."
Seth Levin, president of Gessler Educational Software, a developer and distributor of foreign language software and supplementary course materials, reveals that his company faced particular challenges in the early days of educational computing.
"Language teachers," Levin says, "unlike teachers in most other disciplines, already had a large investment in technology, represented by language labs with tapes and headphones. There was a real uncertainty about computers, a definite fear that this was another technological system that would cost a lot of money and end up not being used."
Hesitation and apprehension, Davidson says, have largely been replaced by enthusiasm. This shift in attitudes can be traced in part to simple proximity, Davidson feels. Teachers have used computers more and more, and as a result they are now relaxed about the technological and professional implications; few feel threatened by computers today.
"But a lot of the change in attitude is a result of the higher quality of software available today," Davidson says. "This is true at all levels and in almost every discipline. We're able to see the advantages of teaching writing with word processing software, or organization with outlining software, and so on."
Software Goes To School
At first, no one seemed certain what qualities made for good educational software. For one thing, there was confusion about the value of the computer itself in our classrooms.
David Seuss, president of Spinnaker Software, recalls the early days of classroom computing. "Back in 1981, the educational applications the industry was coming up with were basically for boring and ineffective uses of the computer. The industry displayed a lack of imagination coupled with enormous expectations, real blue sky stuff about the computer's impact."
While the great potential of computers was being invoked by market analysts, software companies themselves were doing little more than adapting traditional educational materials such as flash cards for display on CRTs.
Kathleen Hurley, vice president for the educational division of Mindscape, remembers teachers' eagerness for worthwhile educational software being dampened by weak programs. "When computers first started being used in classrooms," Hurley says, "teachers were pretty much restricted to drill and practice software, although any type of educational software was rare enough that teachers were really using whatever kinds of programs they could get their hands on."
Dissatisfaction with the nature of educational software in the early 1980s led more than a few educators to enter the marketplace with products of their own. Jan Davidson was among those teachers-turned-entrepreneurs.
Davidson recalls her reactions to scholastic software in the early 1980s. "As a teacher I looked at the software from an educational point of view, and I saw a good amount of material that was labeled education $$$that displayed poor pedagogical approaches to its subject matter. It's important that the educational aspects of a product be primary—not the product's technical aspects."
The former teacher also says that there was a real misperception of the rewards that the educational marketplace offered. "When I first got into the industry," she observes, "there were a lot of people who saw educational software as glamorous, and its market as a good place to get rich quick." Davidson feels that the misperception has largely disappeared. "The industry, I think, now understands that it's a long-term business, as is any aspect of education, really. And, while it's certainly rewarding, it's not a field for anyone to choose who wants a fast route to getting rich."
Spinnaker's David Seuss notes that the period of boring, unimaginative (though educationally sound) products did not last long. "Within a couple of years we began to see several things happening to educational software all at once," he says. "Companies began generating products that did use the computer imaginatively, products that used graphics that were attractive and well-designed, programs that were able to hold children's interest."
At the time, there were few computers in the schools, and programs tended to use the hardware in alternative ways, unrelated to specific curriculum goals. "A program such as Snooper Troops," Seuss says of one of the earliest and largest educational software successes, "involved the whole class in solving a mystery. The package had arcade elements, offered the class a chance to play a fun game, involved the students in solving a mystery, while teaching skills that included gathering information and drawing conclusions."
Such programs, however engaging, did not address actual day-to-day curriculum needs.
Now we're experiencing a much closer integration of software with academic agenda. "Today," Hurley continues, "publishers are looking much more closely at the curriculum, seeking to tie their products in with textbooks and daily lesson plans. We're all making more of an effort to work with teachers, helping train them, showing them how software can fit into their whole educational program."
The Age Of The Computer Lab
For a time it looked as though computers might be restricted to specific rooms within schools. Computer labs came into being in many if not most schools, with computers centralized in a single room to which students came for instruction. Labs and workshops seemed at first to solve the problems caused by the fact that there were a lot more students than there were computers. But it was not a very effective solution.
"The computer lab is a mistake," says John Paulson, president of Springboard, a manufacturer of educational software. "A room filled with computers that students see only occasionally is not very satisfying to the students. The reason for the dissatisfaction is that the computer can't be used as a tool the way the student wants to use it."
Another teacher-turned-entrepreneur, Paulson sees the problems with computer labs as carrying an opportunity as well. "Obviously, if students see the potential of the computer, know what it can do for them, but don't get to use it often, there's a real feeling of frustration," he says. "But I think of it as a wonderful frustration, because it creates a demand for more computers, more computer time per student."
Paulson senses that the pace of getting more computers into schools is increasing. "It's speeding up as a result of that frustration," he says. "If you have only one computer in a school—as many schools did just a few years ago—then nobody gets to use it much. But if you have 100 computers, then there's a lot more frustration, a lot more demand for even more computers. The more we allow students to have more access more regularly to their computers, the higher the rate of frustration during those times when access isn't available. And that wonderful frustration increases the time cycle for getting computers where they belong—in front of every student in every classroom in every school all the time."
In addition to questioning the wisdom of physically locating all computers in a central lab, many educators and software developers resisted the initial purpose of those labs—the teaching of something called "computer literacy."
Computer Literacy (Whatever That Was)
Charles Blaschke says, "Computer literacy attracted a great deal of attention around 1983." Various levels of government sought to establish a mandate for a consistent approach to making students computer literate.
Blaschke says that the problem is that there was never a consensus as to what computer literacy meant. Generally, the goal of computer literacy was to teach students how to operate computers. Many educators and legislators also felt that instruction in programming computers was another important objective.
That's changed now. The failure to arrive at a common definition and shared goal for computer literacy coincided with the topic itself being largely abandoned. There was a shift toward using the computer as a productivity and applications tool throughout the curriculum, rather than simply in computer labs and workshops. Instead of learning BASIC, students are learning word processing, desktop publishing, and the operation of spreadsheets and databases.
The increased focus on applications and productivity is another consequence of the growing but still limited number of computers available. Jan Davidson says, "I personally don't think it's necessary for a child to learn programming. As long as computers are a limited resource, students are better off using them as word processors than writing BASIC."
The abandonment of computer literacy as the single goal of computer education, however, does not mean that understanding of computers plays no part in education.
As Betsy Pace, K-12 education marketing manager for Apple Computer, points out, "We're seeing computer literacy—the ability to operate a computer—seen more and more as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself." Pace compares computers to telephones, saying, "I think that over time computers are going to be like the phone system. You don't have to know anything about the communications infrastructure in order to use a phone. With a computer, you don't have to know how a program is written in order to put that program to work."
Springboard's John Paulson notes that the act of learning how to run various applications also teaches, almost incidentally, a high level of computer literacy. "Students derive so much value from applications," he says, "that their ability to run them can almost be taken for granted."
This is not to say that programming is not finding an important place in education. "Students can learn a great deal about problemsolving from writing programs," Pace says. Jan Davidson suggests that programming can be used effectively with advanced and gifted students. Additionally, she says programming itself, rather than being restricted to computer rooms, is finding its way into mathematics and science curricula as an elective.