Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 96 / MAY 1988 / PAGE 86


Computers in Schools Are Living Up to the Promises Made Years Ago, So Don't Despair or Give Up the Faith Yet

In the late 1970s, they told us that computers at school would revolutionize education. We bought a 16K PET here, an Apple II there, and awaited the revolution.
    We expected miracles in those innocent days. We got PacMan and Parsec instead. Not that arcade-style games are devoid of educational value. Conquering each new screen requires imagination, analysis, problem-solving skills, and manual dexterity. But no researcher has yet proven a correlation between Donkey Kong scores and educational achievement.
    In those days, supporters of computer education needed tough skins. We taught BASIC without knowing exactly why, and we argued for computer literacy without understanding what it meant. Still, we shared a vague sense that somehow computers were or would become important educational tools.
    Skeptics tolerated us much as we all live with an occasional head cold. If micros established a foothold, teachers and parents who found them intimidating would be forced to master them. Under such conditions, who could blame those who desperately wished the things would just go away?
    "Where's the evidence that computers had even a minimal effect on educational performance?" they challenged. We mumbled something about too few machines, too little time to assimilate the technology, and ineffective software.
    Accepting our arguments, education agencies began supporting the computer movement with generous (if not lavish) in fusions of funds for software, equipment, and training. They called our bluff.
    Fortunately for all concerned, the results have been dramatic. Increasing numbers of teachers are now computer literate (whatever that means), and software companies currently offer some very well-designed educational packages for home and school. An in-school ratio of roughly 20 students per microcomputer leaves room for significant improvement, but it represents millions of dollars-no small commitment.
    Clearly, the time has come for educational computing to prove its worth both in schools and at home, and there's every reason to believe that the results will be dramatic.
    Already students are discovering the benefits of word-processing software and are learning to enjoy the writing process. Progressive parents and teachers are employing specialized hardware and software to provide educational assistance for the handicapped. Carefully selected drill-and-practice and tutorial programs are helping some catch up while allowing others to move ahead.
    Increasingly, yesterday's promises are becoming today's realities. Currently, computers and quality software are helping us learn more, understand better, progress faster, and explore new ideas.
    Even with all this, though we've only seen the beginning. The outlook for the future looks even more promising. To overestimate the potential benefits of computers in education is virtually impossible. Yet we must remember that the technology itself offers no magic solutions. As with other tools, we can use computers effectively only when we fully understand what they can and cannot do.
    Computers alone cannot motivate, but in the right hands they can make learning so much fun that even the least motivated students will seek out opportunities to learn. Computers cannot actually teach, but when teamed with carefully selected software they can-and do-offer unlimited opportunities for learning.
    How can we motivate our children to use their computers? Which software belongs at home and which at school? How can a home computer improve a child's success in class? What do computers do well, and what is best handled by more traditional approaches? What is your local school doing right (or wrong) with its computers?
    Every month, this column will grapple with these and similar questions. I expect to prod (perhaps even provoke) you with a mix of fact and opinion about the scope and direction of educational computing. I promise to strive to keep you up-to-date on the newest and best ideas and products in the field. I can't promise to be right always, but I can promise to read the mail.
    What can you do? Insist on reading specific, practical suggestions here every month. Implement those recommendations that offer the greatest reward for you and your family. Be patient, but expect to see real and meaningful benefits.
    So whether you're just thinking about buying a home computer or you use one every day, stick around. If your micro sits gathering dust in the closet (having failed to live up to your expectations), dig it out and hook it up.

David Stanton can be contacted via CompuServe (72407,102) or by mail at P.O. Box 494, Bolivar, New York 14715.