ATARI STILL MAKES THE GRADEBY GIGI BISSON, ANTIC ASSISTANT EDITOR
Dabney Lyons and Sharon Simms at Terra Nuova call Forest Hill and tell them to get ready for the day's online session.
Using an Atari 800 and modem, Sara Armstrong leads her class at Terra Nuova Montessori school in a book discussion.
Meanwhile, Bob Baird's students at Forest Hill Elementary school, 150 miles away, talk to the kids at Terra Nuova.
When you're trying to get kids interested in computers, Atari's game machine image is a plus, not a problem.
"The Atari has the best graphics and sound and that's what turns elementary school students on," says Jolene Morris, the computer education coordinator for a Utah school district that uses 720 Atari 8-bit computers.
In the Caribbean Islands, Mrs. Jose Orlandi, an occupational therapist specializing in learning disabilities, uses the graphic capabilities, colors and sounds of her Atari 400, 800 and 800XL computers to develop eye-hand coordination, and teach color and shape recognition to handicapped children.
The 16-bit Atari ST computers also score points with educators for superior graphics and sound. At Computer Curriculum Corp. of Palo Alto, California the Atari 520ST was chosen to replace dumb terminals that had been included with the CCC Microhost educational minicomputer system for nearly 10 years. Now the ST's vibrant colors and high-resolution graphics are major selling points for this dedicated education system.
Teachers consistently agree that the price, reliability and ease of use of the Atari 8-bit computers make them great for learning. The problem then, is not image, but reality: Atari educational software is tough to find. But with imagination and hard work, many teachers are getting around that obstacle.
"I've been waist deep into it. I get computer burnout sometimes," Jolene Morris says. "But unless you're this involved, you don't know where to go."
For Morris, hunting down affordable, high-quality software requires a bit of ingenuity. On the side, she teaches programming classes at Utah State University. Naturally, the students are assigned to write educational programs and the best programs are used in Morris' elementary classes. She has downloaded software from bulletin boards all over U.S and wrote many of her collection of 250 public domain programs herself.
"If you want software, you write your own," Morris says. 'A programmer can't write good educational software; only a teacher can. A teacher's software may not have the greatest code, but there are some good pedagogical things in there."
With school dollars so tight, money is an object. "You can't touch an Apple or even a Commodore for the price," Morris says. By going for Ataris instead of Apples or IBMs, the 80 elementary schools in her district can afford five times as much hardware.
For commercial software, the Utah school district uses Batteries Included's B/Graph in junior high school math classes, the AtariWriter word processor, Broderbund's SynFile + and SynCalc. "The Factory (from Sunburst) is great," she says, "But at $49.99 there's no school alive that can afford more than one copy."
Each class of 36 students is split in two groups. One group uses the Ataris hands-on, while the other group watches lesson projected onto a big-screen televison. Even with only enough machines for half the class, Morris says, "I'm really very fortunate to have so many computers."
"It's time-consuming to write your own software; I'd like to see a network or clearing house where Atari educators could collaborate," says Morris, who once ran two bulletin boards for that purpose. She put out the word about her 256 public domain disks, offering to send a disk full of her programs in exchange for just one new program.
"I got so many requests, I just couldn't do it-at least three letters a day from all over the world," she says, "There's a burning need for Atari educational software out there."
Many user groups create public domain software collections: The Jersey Atari Computer Society created a Print Shop graphics disk, for example. Morris' local user group hopes to do a similar project with education. If you are interested in assisting or contributing software, write to: Atari Computer Enthusiasts of Salt Lake, P.O. Box 26664, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84126.
Teachers don't make hardware purchases, administrators do. For Roland Fetzer, a Brooklyn, NY elementary school teacher, that's the problem. His classroom is equipped with Apple lie and Radio Shack TRS-80 computers, "and compared to my Atari they are primitive," he says. "Both computer teachers in the school are Atari users, but we cannot convince any administrators to buy Atari computers."
Four years ago, Helen Shephard became involved as a volunteer in a research project to determine the best use of computers in a sixth grade class at the Julia Randall Elementary School in Payson, Arizona.
"Our struggles with the Logo language highlighted the fact that changes in lifestyle since the 1940s had robbed at least 80% of the children of developing thinking skills. We mean visual thinking, decision making and accepting challenges," Shephard says.
To develop what she calls the "Exciting Three," she uses Atari computers. Visual Thinking is first, with four months of mastering Logo. Second is Decision Making by creating stories with AtariWriter following the methods of professional writers- several rough drafts before the final draft. Third in the Exciting Three is Challenge Accepting as students illustrate their stories using Super Sketch and print them in color on an Okimate 10 printer.
"Nobody is to blame that the children have been robbed of an opportunity to practice visual thinking. We adults were busy blaming somebody else and in the meantime the real culprit, lifestyle, escaped scot-free," she says.
ONE IS ENOUGH
Not all schools need a truckload of Atari hardware. Rebecca Pyle's second grade class at Mechanicsburg School in Urbana, Ohio has only one Atari 800 and an old TV set.
She brought in a few books of very simple programs and turned the kids loose. A couple of the brighter students broke the ice by typing in some short graphics programs. "I never gave any formal programming instruction," she says, "but pretty soon someone got the bright idea to change parts of the program to see what would happen. Now the kids are fighting to get back to the computer and 'play'."
PEN PALS ONLINE
Every Monday after lunch, Montessori teacher Sara Armstrong types a question mark and the discussion begins.
Her students at Term Nuova Elementary School in the San Francisco suburb of Hayward, California use an Atari computer and modem to talk with kids at Forest Hill Elementary, 150 miles away high in the small mountain town of Auburn.
The Atari Sister School Network, a project spearheaded by Atari Inc. was once a group of 10 schools. Atari donated the hardware and even paid for long distance phone charges between schools. Using a prototype gadget called the Piodyne Switch, two or more users could conduct a conversation or leave messages. The schools used the system to write interactive stories, with each taking turns writing a chapter in the tale. When Atari Inc. dropped the program, Terra Nuova and Forest Hill hung on.
Now, the schools both read the same books and hold interactive discussions about them online. Last year, this project won the two schools a Golden Bell Award from the California State School Board Association for innovative use of computers in the classroom.
Armstrong bubbles with enthusiasm when she talks about how one Atari computer has enriched her classroom of 14 students aged 9-11. One girl at Forest Hill always talked the most during the online book discussions. "My kids would say, 'What's she going to say now, we're always interested in what she has to. say."' The girl's parents were surprised to find this out because she was always very withdrawn. "But the computer brought her out and it changed her life," Armstrong says.
At the year's end, the kids from Forest Hill met their online pen-pals in person on an exciting three-day field trip to the city They slept on the school floor at night and spent days touring museums and aquariums.
The children bring their own experiences to the online sessions, and they learn about the subtle differences in urban and rural life. "When I ask the kids why they think telecommunications are important, they say, 'If you can see your ideas, not just hear them, you get into them more," says Armstrong.
FIVE YEARS AFTER
For a short time in 1981, the old Atari Inc. aggressively pursued the education market. The Atari Institute For Educational Action Research gave away $1 million in hardware and cash stipends for educational projects.
The institute's vision, according to then-director Dr. Ted Kahn, was to "demonstrate how the power of the smallest chip of silicon...can unleash a massive expansion of human potential and give our generation and future generations...the gift of lifelong learning."
Five years is hardly a lifetime, but most of those Atari Institute computers are still in use. Atari 8-bit models are used exclusively at 257 U.S. Department Of Defense schools for children of military personnel around the world.
Under Jack Tramiel, Atari Corp. still donates hardware to worthy causes, but in a more restrained manner. "We're a business, not a philanthropy," says Atari marketing manager Brian Kerr. While Atari seems to have left the 8-bit elementary school market to deeply-entrenched Apple, they're getting a solid hold in the college market with ST computers.
"Atari is making a major push in all markets. Education is a natural for the ST and one we're definitely looking at," says John Scruch, director of Educational Sales for Atari Corp. Atari currently offers a 10% discount to schools and universities through local dealers.
Atari gets inquiries daily from school systems, especially from math labs because most of the accepted computer languages are available for the ST. One of largest parochial schools in Falls Church, VA uses several hundred STs. And, according to Scruch, the ST has a strong foothold at University of California's Berkeley campus. "Case Western Reserve University in Ohio is doing some very bizarre things by hooking up 68020 chips to the ST with expansion boxes," Scruch says. And universities throughout Europe, particularly West Germany, have embraced the ST with a passion.
If Atari has any plans to compete in the college education arena against computer workstation giant Sun Microsystems and ex-Apple CEO Stephen Jobs' new company Next, Inc. with their rumored 32-bit computer workstation, they're not talking about it. "It's certainly a possibility," Scruch says. "You have to keep a certain air of mystery."
Admit it or not, Atari's forthcoming IBM and Apple II hardware emulators for the ST are perfectly suited for education. "If you're looking at the school market and want to provide a clear upgrade path, giving schools a way to run their existing software on a less expensive computer is a natural," Scruch says. "And an ST costs much less than an Apple II." The recently released 80-column card for the 8-bit computers is also a boon to educators.
"We don't like to niche," Scruch says, echoing the philosophy of the
new Atari Corp. "If you don't target a limited market, and you create the
most powerful machine you can, people will find applications for it."
LEARNING LATIN WITH 64 ATARISSomething's wrong with Rev. Nicholas Lombardi's students. "I assign tests on their own time and they'll do it. I still can't figure it out." he says with a New York accent and a hearty laugh.
"So many kids wanted to take the quiz on Virgil's 'Aeneid,' I had to put a password on it so they wouldn't take the test before they finished the class. I swear it," Lombardi says, adding-one imagines, in jest-"Kids are very easily fooled."
Lombardli's students may think they're playing games in the "language arcade" at Fordham Prepatory School, an affiliate of Fordham University in the Bronx, New York City. But they're actually learning Classical Greek, Latin, French, German and Spanish on 64 Atari 800XL computers linked to a Corvus 20-megabyte hard disk drive.
Computerized quizzes spark healthy competition among students.
The greatest advantage of the computers is that they have created extra class time. Lombardi does the teaching. The computers do the dirty work-vocabulary drills, grading, and recording. "The computer is just a teaching aid like an overhead projector, textbook or chalk board," he says. "But this is the only one I've found that kids will use outside of class."
"The computer is the only teaching aid I've found that kids will use outside of class," says Rev. Nicholas Lombardi.
If Lombardi had his way, more computers would be used to teach Pascal the philosopher than Pascal the programming language. "Computers are so bogged down in math and sciences, But they're ideally suited to the humanities."
"I'm a much better teacher than any computer." Lombardi says. "I'm absolutely convinced of that." "Teaching is a personal sharing of ideas. A computer can't communicate on its own, it's just a medium" he says.
"Many teachers are hostile about using computers, or afraid they'll be replaced by the machines," Lombardi says. "Six years ago, I was too." If he had not been so determined to beat a co-worker at Space Invaders, Lombardi might never have put Atari computers in his classroom.
Another language teacher, Rev. Russell Sloan, brought his Atari computer to school. "He said it might have possibilities for teaching. He was playing Space Invaders," Lombardi recalls. He took one look at Sloan zapping aliens with a joystick and was appalled. "I told him his mind had completely disintegrated," Lombardi says.
Sloan said, ''Why don't you just go play with the machine?" Skeptically, Lombardi took it home during an Easter break. He got fascinated by a program listing in a magazine and started typing in a game. "About halfway through I had to know what all those strange words meant," so he bought a programming book. By end the of Easter vacation, he knew BASIC.
He created Pac Vir (that's Latin for Pac Man) to teach passive voice in Latin. Using the Atari cassette recorder with a simple programming POKE, Lombardi's own voice recites vocabulary through the monitor speaker.
No other machine could do that without special cards. And a speech synthesizer would require more memory-significantly. He tried using a speech synthesizer, but the lack of clarity made it worthless. "Se habla espanol" in mechanized speech would just impede teaching proper pronunciation
Eventually Lombardi and Sloan wrote 169 educational programs teaching French, Spanish, German, Latin and Greek. These programs, originally written for the Atari, were ported over to the Apple II and marketed by Learning Technology, Inc. For information about the Atari versions of these programs, contact Lombardi at the Fordham Jesuit BBS-(212) 579-2869- where he's the sysop.
The Language Arcade computers are used for quizzes, drill and practice outside of class, never during regular clasroom hours. "I get a real kick out of the articles you see knocking drill and practice and pushing simulations, which I think are a waste of time;" Lombardi says. "If you can just get students to drill more... well, teachers have been trying to do that since language study began."
Lombardi figures he can buy four complete Atari setups for the price of one Apple. Why is the Apple so popular then? "Apple markets to educators aggressively. And teachers really need an 80 column screen for tests and word processing."
"My pet peeve has always been that we saw the Atari computer as the
best possible computer made for education, but Atari never saw the potential,"
Lombardi says. "Don't they realize that kids go home and buy the same machine
they use in school?"-Gigi Bisson
ATARI EDUCATIONAL SOFTWARE SOURCESWhen purchasing software, who can you trust? The Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE), education's only non-profit consumer agency, provides objective information about educational software to parents and teachers.
EPIE's services include: The Educational Software Selector (TESS) a directory of software for pre-school through college. With 948 pages, TESS provides everything you need to know about 7,800 programs for every major computer used in schools and homes. Included are EPIE recommendations, references to magazine reviews and profiles of 625 software suppliers. EPIE Online, a searchable, electronic version of TESS can be found on CompuServe, along with EPIE Forum for educators and students. (Type GO EPIE at any ! prompt.)
For more detailed information, reply via CompuServe Easyplex mail to 70007,454 or contact EPIE at P.O. Box 839-0, Water Mill, NY 11976. (516) 283-4922.
Through Softswap, a public domain barter organization founded in 1980 by CUE, (Computer Using Educators), teachers send one original public domain program. and get a different one in return. They have only six Atari disks however. "Some are quite good," says Jolene Morris, a Utah teacher, who mentions Volcano, a simulation that puts you inside the Mount St. Helen's volcano eruption.
Janice Marshall, a CUE spokesperson, says CUE modifies each disk, removing bugs and loud noises, and cleaning up the disks to meet CUE standards. The public domain programs include Apple, Atari, IBM, Commodore PET, Macintosh, and Tandy TRS-80 software. Although there are only six programs in the Atari 8-hit library, more are certainly welcome.
"You don't have to be educator to participate, but your donation must be an original educational program-not pirated commercial software, Marshall says. And if it originally appeared in a magazine, Softswap needs a release from the magazine.
Softswap, c/o San Mateo County Office of Education, 333 Main Street,
Redwood City, CA 94063.
(From outside the U.S., please send $5 for shipping.) -Gigi Bisson