Computers In The Classroom
Ten Years And Counting
Keith Ferrell, Features Editor
The partnership between microcomputers and the classroom is ten years old. During this decade, hopes for the partnership first dwindled, then revived as new hardware and improved software became available. To what extent does the marketplace determine the nature of educational computing? And what lies ahead for computers, classrooms, and the educational system in which they are evolving?
Alexander the Great possessed many gifts, perhaps none greater than the teacher selected for him: Aristotle. A great teacher, however, can't do everything, and the story goes that Alexander had difficulty mastering the Calculus. Stumped, the young king finally invoked his sovereignty and demanded that his teacher simply give him the knowledge of the Calculus as his kingly right.
Aristotle's response to the youthful monarch was both patient and profound: "There is no royal road to learning."
Whether or not the story is true, the sentiment it expresses is as accurate today as 22 centuries ago. That accuracy extends to all forms and formats of the educational process, no less for software, hardware, and the computerized classroom than for Alexander, Aristotle, and the Calculus.
A decade ago, when the educational promise of the microcomputer was first being explored, many saw that promise as unlimited, projecting vast and dramatic changes in the nature of the educational process. That computers and classrooms go together is obvious now, but even before microcomputers became generally available, some educators and quite a few speculators had begun to extol the computer's virtues as a "teaching machine," a royal electronic road to learning.
Predictions ran rampant. Within a decade, printed media would become extinct. Children would begin programming at an early age, and as they progressed through school there would be increasing emphasis upon learning sophisticated programming languages. The computer would come to dominate the educational process, replacing traditional tools and curricula. With sufficient advances in technology, some felt, computers might even take the place of human teachers.
Now, though, after a decade's experience in computers and education, most of those speculators have come to see that, for all of the contributions computers and software can and do make to every level of education, they remain tools, just as chalk and blackboard are tools.
After a relatively brief flirtation with establishing a national goal of "computer literacy"—usually interpreted to mean providing students with a foundation in computer programming—both the educational establishment and the computer industry shifted their focus toward the use of computers as applications machines designed to help students accomplish specific tasks.
The voice of big business entered the dialogue as well. Early on, Apple Computer recognized the size and importance of the educational market, specifically the K-12 market. Apple's huge and ongoing success in that market has attracted other computer manufacturers into the arena. Today, a duel is shaping up between Apple, which still holds the largest share of the educational hardware market, and Radio Shack and a variety of IBM compatible manufacturers who are aggressively promoting their MS-DOS machines to schools.
The evolution was even more dramatic in software. The initial flurry of unfocused excitement prompted the development of many dramatic programs which captured children's interest, but were of questionable educational value. Gradually, though, the software industry and the educational establishment moved toward a more thoughtful incorporation of computers into existing, proven curricula.
Now, ten years on, the introductory phase of the partnership between education and computers is ending. Newer, more dynamic educational technologies loom, promising new opportunities. Excited speculation once again fuels symposiums and debate. This time, however, the speculation is informed by a decade's worth of practice, successes and failures, experimentation and refinement. While many techniques remain to be discovered, the educational computing industry now has a solid sense of purpose and direction.