David D Thornburg, Associate Editor
Go To School
Go To School
Since September is back-to-school month, I thought I would interrupt our discussion of languages to comment on the growing use of computers in the classroom.
Just as the number of computers in homes is rapidly increasing, the classroom computer is also becoming ever more common. During the last several months I have been speaking to thousands of teachers in California who are interested in this phenomenon. In my travels around the state, I have found that the effective use of this technology is equally of concern to parents, teachers, and administrators. Unlike the "visual aids" revolution that filled schools with underused overhead projectors and filmstrip machines, the classroom computer appears to be here to stay.
The major problem facing teachers today seems to center around which machine to buy, what software to get, and what to do with the computer once it is in the classroom. Some teachers are apprehensive about using computers because they don't see how the computer can be integrated with their existing curriculum. I tell teachers that if they are satisfied with their classroom activities and feel that the children are learning the things they should be learning, that the best computer for them might be no computer at all. It would be tragic if the computer were forcefed to these teachers and, as a result, disrupted their presently successful teaching style.
Judging by the attendance at conferences on the use of computers in the classroom, there are many thousands of teachers who do want to know more about computers and their effective use with children. Except for a few books on the topic, there is generally little in the way of formal training available for computer-using educators. California is particularly fortunate in that it has Teacher Education and Computer Centers (TECC) located all over the state as a result of Governor Brown's Investment in People program. Among other activities, these TECC centers sponsor computer classes for classroom teachers.
Some of the state and community colleges are offering courses in this area as well, affording teachers the opportunity to learn about computers from the vantage point of their profession. Other states, such as Minnesota, have been similarly helpful in providing teachers with the information they need. And yet the field is growing and changing so rapidly that it seems like a full-time job to stay on top of new developments. It is so sad, for example, to find a teacher who was given a computer that has only a text display when that teacher wants to teach computer graphics. The fact that all computers are not "created equal" is sometimes learned too late.
First Things First
The most important thing a teacher can do first is to figure out how the computer will be used, identify the software that will be needed to achieve this goal, and then buy the computer that runs this software. This approach to computer purchasing ignores the practical considerations of cost, but one must ask if a cheap computer is a bargain if all the software you want is available only for other machines.
Computer use in the classroom falls into several categories - it can be used to reinforce lessons through computer-assisted instruction (this includes drill and practice programs); it can be used as a tool for learning about computers per se - as a "computer literacy" tool; and it can be used as a tool with which children can make discoveries and can explore topics on their own. The teacher can also use the computer for classroom management, lesson preparation, etc.
It takes some time for a teacher to become well-versed in the ways computers can be used - and this stage should be reached before the software selection process begins. Once teachers are ready to look at software, Pandora's box is opened. The sheer quantity of "educational" software is staggering. In the past, much of this software was garbage. Fortunately, times have changed. But teachers still have to learn how to evaluate software critically and how to interpret software reviews written by others.
Fortunately, teachers have some help in this area in the form of a new book, Courseware in the Classroom by Ann Lathrop and Bobby Goodson (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, $10). This fine book surveys the various uses of computers in the classroom, illustrates in detail the software selection and evaluation process, and lists many of the better software packages on the market today. Because the field is growing so rapidly, annual supplements will be published.
The Teacher's Job
Once the computer gets into the classroom, the teacher has to keep up-to-date on new software, teaching techniques, and computer technology. All this takes time. Where does this time come from, and who pays for it?
It is interesting to see that thousands of teachers appear willing to give up weekends with their families to attend conferences on the use of computers in the classroom. I am appalled to find that some schools expect their teachers to attend such workshops on their own time and at their own expense, but are willing to send a school secretary to a class, during working hours, to learn how to use the school's word processor.
I was once asked if we can afford to have computers in the classroom. My response was that there were three costs involved. There is the cost of the computers and software; this is the cheapest part of the system. There is the cost of "release time" to allow teachers to become proficient at computer use without using up their weekends and vacations. And then there is the cost of increased teachers' salaries to keep these people in the profession once they have acquired all this skill.
At a time when the quality of education in this country is undergoing such careful scrutiny, the question is not if we can afford this expense, but how we are going to provide appropriate levels of support.
Our kids can't wait any longer.