Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 2, NO. 7 / OCTOBER 1983



How computers can help the schools


Last month we looked at how computers can be used in the classroom to help students learn. However, there are two other areas in education for which computers are used - administration and Computer-Managed Instruction (CMI). This month we will examine how the computer can improve the efficiency of schools and the implications of such use.


Schools may be in charge of educating our youth, but they are also businesses - big businesses. Supplies must be bought, bills paid, payroll calculated, insurance plans evaluated and scores of federal records kept. Long before it was popular to have a computer in the classroom, school districts were turning to the machines to reduce some of this burden.

A large school district has thousands of students and hundreds of employees in many different schools. The information generated by each school throughout the year is periodically examined, organized and tabulated. Once it has become part of a data base, the superintendent can know in minutes, rather than days, the student-teacher ratio, the number of children on the federal free-lunch program, or which schools offer calculus and advanced biology.

It is not necessary to be a large district to see the benefits of such organization. Principals of public and private schools have searched for more efficient methods of keeping attendance, generating report cards, scheduling classes and maintaining permanent student records.

Computers may be used by librarians so that a topic can be researched quickly, thoroughly and painlessly. To prepare the inevitable reports, both librarians and office secretaries appreciate the benefits of word processing and data base programs. Individual teachers have taken advantage of the computer's speed and organizational capabilities to store and calculate grades and generate practice problems.


Computer-Managed Instruction (CMT) is the use of the computer to maintain records associated with student performance. This usually includes, but is not limited to, the results of particular Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI) packages. As the student completes each lesson, the computer stores the progress, scores and records the results of all tests or quizzes completed, and provides progress reports to the teacher. These reports, either individual or class-wide, may be used to rapidly identify unsatisfactory progress or weak areas. An individualized curriculum could be written for each student allowing the teacher to more effectively utilize the limited class time available.

The ultimate fear of CMI is that it might result in the drastic reduction of teachers with only the computer controlling the progress and instruction of the student. This ignores the personal and motivational relationship between student and teacher and the development of social and academic skills that occurs in a classroom of peers. The free exchange of ideas and techniques encouraged by the teacher assists the child's maturing process. The elimination of teachers should not be a goal in the use of computers in education; rather we should be examining how we can use computers to help the teacher and make better use of the limited teacher resources available.


The most serious apparent hazard of computer use in the schools is the potential lack of security and confidentiality for student and personnel records. It is probably no coincidence that Congress gave students the right to examine and contest their school records in the same year that it attempted to provide privacy protection for all citizens. Since 1974, school records must be accurate, up-to-date and private.

With an entire class (or school) record stored on magnetic media, several problems can arise. First we must prevent the imaginative or vindictive student from unauthorized access to or alteration of his or another student's records. Secondly, we must insure that frequent backup copies are made and archived so that a computer casualty does not eliminate an entire semester's results. Finally, we must not overwhelm the administration or teacher with computer-related tasks. Just because it is possible to keep more information and generate more reports does not mean that we should do it.

When mainframe or minicomputers were providing the bulk of computing resources to the classroom, the protection of student records was relatively simple. Often, not even the teacher had sufficient information to alter records. Each machine's operating system was designed to provide several levels of security to user and systein files. As microcomputers become more widely used, the built-in security of the larger machines is often lost. The ultimate responsibility for security of student information rests with the individual school and with each teacher implementing CMI in the classroom. While more sophisticated protection schemes are being implemented, schools must develop and maintain their own security procedures.

In the area of archiving, software publishers need to cooperate with their customers. Schools will not purchase expensive software or fragile media if they are unable to make archive and record copies. Often one copy of a program is worse than none. Where separate data diskettes or tapes are used, the teacher must make it a part of daily routine to backup each class period. It only takes one loss-of-data accident to emphasize the catastrophic results of not maintaining backup copies.

In the last area, school systems that intend to computerize should be willing to train the personnel involved. Administrators need to be consulted frequently to decide which reports should be discontinued and what additional information is desired. Schools could fund workshops for its implementation and solicit suggestions for future capabilities.

Parents need to become active in the decision-making process. They can ask questions, volunteer expertise, or sit on committees that select the hardware and software to be used in the school. Most of all, they can be supportive as the new materials are implemented while demanding that high standards be maintained in the education of their children.


No microcomputer will satisfy the needs of a large school system. Even large high schools may find it easier to share administrative packages via terminals from a central mainframe or minicomputer. Small private schools and individual teachers will benefit most from using the microcomputer.

A microcomputer, especially the ATARI, is more than capable of handling an individual teacher's computer chores. We have used an ATARI 800 with a single disk drive and 48K of memory to maintain the grade records of six high school classes over the past year. This typically requires about 30 minutes per week for data entry and allows us to easily generate weekly progress reports or final grade calculations. This eliniinates hours of calculation the night before these reports are required. Although this is a program of our own design, there are several available at reasonable prices that accomplish the same tasks.

Several publishers - including Milliken, SRA, and McGraw-Hill -- have begun to respond to the rapidly growing education market. The amount of CMI available for the classroom expands each day, making the teacher's and administrators job more difficult due to the sheer volume of material to be reviewed. Through persistence and careful planning, it is possible to select CMI packages to augment the regular classroom routine in almost any subject. Once the individual packages have been identified, the teacher must integrate them into the instructional process so they appear as natural extensions of the traditional classroom.

On the home front, some publishers are starting to realize there is an even larger untapped audience for educational software. By incorporating some of the basic record keeping round in CMT packages, anyone can expand their educational horizons at home in a pleasant and painless manner while documenting their progress and problem areas.


This concludes our overview of computer use in education. Over the next several months we will explore many of the special features of the ATART computer by developing a preschool educational game.

John and Mary Harrison are parents, teachers and ATARI hobbyists. Mary teaches math and computer science at the high school level. John holds an M.S. in computer science and develops educational software. They will be coordinating the Education Department for ANTIC.