Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 88 / SEPTEMBER 1987 / PAGE 12

Computers In The Classroom

Part II. Current Trends

When there were only a few computers in schools, computer labs and concentration on computer literacy made sense: Few schools had computers. Those that had computers had few. In 1981 less than 20 percent of American schools were using computers. Last year there were computers in 96 percent of our schools. A few years ago, the educational hardware market absorbed roughly 50,000 computers a year. "Now," says Pace, "that market is taking more than 400,000 new machines every year."

Numbers that large, coupled with machines already in schools, have resulted in schools encountering the happy dilemma of having too many computers to put in one room or even several rooms.

The solution seems to be to put computers in every room.

The greater quantities of hardware is accompanied by increasing teacher expertise. Throughout the country, teachers are demonstrating greater facility both in operating the machines and in using them to aid instruction.

As a result of the dramatic increase in the number of machines, can we expect a consensus on the place of computers in education? Not necessarily, says Brian Dougherty. "We're starting to see some centralized guidelines, not only at the state and local levels, but also on the federal level, with increased computer funding being delivered.

"But, as far as a standardization of the purposes to which computers are put, no, I don't think so. Different states and different school districts mean that you're going to have different attitudes about computers. But among all the teachers and schools that I've talked with there is an understanding that the computer is a tool that students are going to be using for the rest of their lives."

David Seuss of Spinnaker suggests that it's a mistake to expect any sort of shared vision or agreement on the educational place of personal computers.

"The last few years have showed that teaching with computers is hard," Seuss states. "But so is teaching with textbooks. We have over 200 years experience with textbooks, and we still debate what the best approach to material is, how a curriculum should be assembled, which cognitive theories we believe. Nearly every state has its own, different approach to teaching the same topic to kids the same age."

Seuss says it's no different with computers and software. "We're at the very beginning of that 200-year period. Basically, we still don't have any real idea what we're doing. As far as computers go, we haven't explored and failed enough, we haven't tried enough strategies, alternative curricula, and so on. We're at the beginning of an enormous period of experimentation that's going to have its share of failures and partial successes. The result is going to be different from all of our initial hopes and dreams."

Integrated Programs

The disputes about the uses to which computers should be put is viewed by some as one of the real benefits that the technology provides. Computers, after all, are good at many things, not just a single thing.

Kathy Hurley of Mindscape takes note of the current, rapid diffusion of computers throughout curricula. "Computers are finding their way into every subject," she says. "We're seeing word processing used to prepare reports in virtually every subject; spreadsheets are being put to work in home economics and science classes; desktop publishing programs are turning up in several disciplines; databases are being used in social studies, and so on."

One result of this diffusion is a growing need for teacher-oriented materials aimed at effectively incorporating software into classrooms. Teachers themselves are requesting more than just software from developers. At the moment, many educational software developers are responding to requests for more supplementary materials to accompany the programs they use.

Cathy Carlston, vice president of educational market planning for Brøderbund, an educational software publisher, is excited about the opportunities these material present. "Brøderbund now works more closely in partnership with teachers. I think we're seeing a shift away from courseware alone. We're working to develop materials that really help teachers in the classroom, and this is a significant response on our part to market needs."

If teachers have come to see more clearly the ways in which computers can be used in class, it's also true that software developers are arriving at a better understanding of the teacher's needs. "Teachers face unique classroom challenges," Carlston says. "They have limited time that's also segmented. They face 30 or more students and have to deal with the managerial problems that accompany numbers that large. Our approach is to put together teacher-specific materials that address the entire classroom situation which includes the curriculum itself in the form of lesson plans, as well as addressing the students' skills, goals, and accomplishments. This sort of approach makes the computer a much more effective teaching tool."

Seth Levin points out that his company, Gessler, had 50 years' experience as a publisher of foreign language supplementary materials before entering the software field. Now Gessler is coordinating its software with other teacher materials. "Software struck us as a natural adjunct to our product line," Levin says. "We entered the market in 1982, fully expecting that most of the other major publishers would do so as well. While that didn't happen, we've found the response to the products we've developed and licensed to be gratifying."

Hardware manufacturers are involved in producing coordinated curriculum materials as well. IBM has achieved much success with its Write to Read literacy course. Apple Computer has long been actively involved in the generation and distribution of teacher-oriented materials.

Drill And Drill Again

These advances and shifts in emphasis do not mean that the use of computers for traditional purposes is being overlooked. Among the many advantages the computer offers is its inexhaustibility and infinite patience. For drill and exercise, computers can provide students with programs which, while essentially geared to rote learning, are interesting and also free the teacher to concentrate on more substantive matters.

Jan Davidson says that, "From the teacher's point of view, the computer can make captivating something that's hard for teachers to do. Few teachers really enjoy long sessions of drill and practice. By letting the computer deal with those aspects of education, the teacher has more time and energy to focus on the principles that underlie the exercises."

"Teachers enter the profession," says John Paulson, "because they understand the importance of their various subject areas, and they want to communicate that importance to their students. By shifting the routine aspects of education to the computer where possible, the teacher is better able to deliver that sense of importance to the class."

As computers have grown more sophisticated, so has their ability to provide tailored drills and exercises. Seth Levin of Gessler notes that in foreign languages drill and review remains essential to mastery. "Conjugations and vocabulary words," he says, "have to be learned by pure rote. A good computer program can provide a complete tutorial, analyzing the particular mistakes each individual student makes. Obviously this flexibility has advantages. The program can be used remedially for students who are having trouble. But it also gives the gifted and talented students the chance to move ahead of the class and learn new material on their own."

Market Challenges

The evolution of the purposes to which computers are put in classrooms places additional marketing challenges on software manufacturers and developers. Should programs be developed for the most common machines in schools, which means restricting the program to 128K or involving frequent disk-swaps? Or should developers push the limits of technology, taking advantage of increased memory to offer increasingly sophisticated features? Does it make better market-sense to develop for the most experienced teachers, those who have a history of understanding computers? What's the best way to address the needs of teachers less comfortable with computers?

"There's no question," says Seth Levin, "that market pressures and questions like those play a large part in determining which products actually make their way into the classroom. Sometimes there's no immediate market—or at least no immediate payoff—for the most innovative or exciting packages." As an example, Levin cites Gessler's CLEF—Computer-assisted Learning Exercises for French, a Canadian-developed package that consists of dozens of disks. "In many ways this is the most sophisticated error-analysis program we've ever seen," he says. "But the size of the package—the number of disks—frightens off some purchasers. We made the decision, though, to proceed with the marketing of CLEF because it was too good a product not to. It was a long-term decision, not something we wanted to amortize in six months. Long-term, it's probably a good decision. As networking from hard disks becomes more common in schools, I think we'll see large packages like CLEF facing less resistance."

Gessler offers no easy solutions to the market questions. "We're beginning to see a really striated classroom," notes Levin, "with some teachers who want to use computers to their limits, and others who want software that will hold their hands." Gessler, he points out, is, like many software manufacturers, now marketing programs that let the teachers themselves establish the level of difficulty with which they are most comfortable.

John Paulson of Springboard is also aware of the fragmentation of the market. "I think we're finally beginning to understand where computers ought to be, how they ought to be used," he says. "But the field is still so new and young that while there are a lot of teachers who are putting computers to work in innovative ways, there are also quite a few teachers who will retire without ever having used a computer."

The Hardware Question

Whatever the advances in software, it is the computer itself—the actual hardware—that remains the focus of much of the attention given to the changing classroom. The machines themselves provide the momentum for their own integration into the academic environment.

The most successful hardware manufacturer in the educational marketplace is Apple Computer. Apple was among the first hardware manufacturers to perceive the importance of the education market, and to approach that market aggressively. As a result of its ongoing and intensive effort, there are more than one million Apple-II series computers in the nation's schools.

Pace says the company has achieved an educational penetration comparable to the penetration of MS-DOS in the business environment. To preserve that market share, the company has worked closely with educators from the very beginning, creating a separate educational marketing division and maintaining a high profile at educational conferences, symposiums, and conventions. In the higher education marketplace, the company achieved a large success with its Macintosh line.

MS-DOS Moves In

Now, though, Apple's clearcut educational hegemony may be ending. The huge business success of IBM's PC family paved the way for the PC-clones and compatibles which offer large memory, mass storage, and access to huge libraries of MS-DOS programs. Clones deliver these features at a price far lower than IBM's, and often lower than Apple's as well.

Additionally, there is a sense on the part of some manufacturers and distributors of PC compatibles that the market is open to MS-DOS machines.

"The past six to eight months has seen a significant increase in educational market share for Radio Shack," says Charles Blaschke of Education Turnkey Systems. "There's also been a definite increase in the number of MS-DOS education packages over the past 12 months." Blaschke estimates that there are as many as 1600 educational packages available for MS-DOS machines, as opposed to 8000-9000 software packages for Apple machines.

The dominance of MS-DOS in business is being exploited by manufacturers eager to extend that dominance to the schools.

Wally Amstutz, vice president for marketing for Amstrad, views MS-DOS as a natural choice for schools, pointing out that the business environment into which students will graduate is overwhelmingly MS-DOS driven.

"It doesn't make any sense," says Amstutz, "for students to grow up on Apple and then have to cut their wisdom teeth, as it were, on MS-DOS in the office and professional environment." New to the American computing market, Amstrad hopes to achieve substantial penetration of the educational market in the months ahead.

One company that has been involved with educational computing from the early days of the industry is Tandy/Radio Shack. "We've been making a determined effort to get our machines into classrooms since 1979," says Ed Juge, Tandy's director of market planning. Since the introduction of PC-DOS and MS-DOS in the early 1980s, the company has seen an increasing number of schools select MS-DOS machines as their computer of choice.

"Our research shows Tandy holding down 25-28 percent of the K-12 education market," Juge notes. "In some states our share of education climbs as high as 45 percent."

While the company has achieved educational success in school districts of all sizes, Tandy has particularly high levels of market penetration in smaller communities, where the local Radio Shack store may be the only computer outlet. "Naturally, our retail presence plays a part in our success," Juge explains, "but we also make a concerted effort to work with educational software developers to insure that their programs are available for our machines."

Whatever the size of the particular school system, Juge does not view computer purchasing as solely price-driven. "There's no denying that price is an important factor, particularly for school systems with limited funding. But just as important is the availability of useful and educationally sound software. That plays an important part in buying decisions. Desktop publishing, for example, was for a long time available on Apple machines. Now, of course, desktop publishing programs are coming out for MS-DOS machines, which further strengthens our position in that market." Juge estimates that education accounts for approximately 20 percent of Tandy's computer sales.

Juge, too, sees decided advantages to increased educational dependence upon MS-DOS machines. "Using machines other than MS-DOS in the schools," he says, "is like teaching driving in a right-hand drive car. When the student gets out on the roads he discovers that it's a left-hand drive highway system. MS-DOS is the world's dominant operating system: It doesn't make sense for students to be learning on anything else."

Apple's Betsy Pace is confident about her company's strength in education, and is sanguine about the criticism, noting that Apple enjoys the competitive atmosphere. "Competition creates a healthy dialogue," she says, "and goes a long way toward making more people more interested in educational computing." She acknowledges that MS-DOS computers have demonstrated a lot of appeal in vocational education classes where students learn word processing and other skills.

To suggestions that Apple machines don't provide adequate preparation for "the IBM world," Pace suggests that critics might consider supplying students with Macintoshes, which are achieving substantial penetration of the business market and are on their way toward establishing a business standard of their own.

Selling To Students

Another growing educational target market for computer manufacturers is the individual student. The bulk of this market is made up of older students, and specifically college students who can afford personal computers. At the same time, more households are acquiring computers, with education listed by consumers as one of the primary motivations for the purchase.

The college market is particularly lucrative, as more and more colleges and universities require students to have computers. Again, it was Apple that first tapped the potential of this market with its Macintosh.

"The way Apple positioned the Mac in college bookstores tells you a lot about how to go after that market," says Wally Amstutz. "In many ways college students are the ultimate hard market. They don't have a lot of money; they buy for price, but they're very demanding of features. College students also tend to have a certain pragmatic sense of time. They want to go the fastest, most efficient route they can."

He says it was an understanding of all these market aspects that led to Apple's successful penetration of college bookstores—and through them to the students themselves—with the Macintosh. The time has come, he feels, for MS-DOS machines. "Certainly Amstrad is well-aware of the real success that the Macintosh found," Amstutz says. "But we also understand student concerns about compatibility with IBM. It's one of the reasons our computers are configured the way they are—with a mouse, GEM, and windows, graphics, all the features that are appreciated in K-12.

"But we're also bundling productivity software that should find real success with the older student, the student who understands computers and is ready to get to work."