Computers In The Classroom
Part III. The Next Ten Years
The coming decade promises educational and technological evolution on a scale likely to dwarf even the most dramatic recent innovations. So far, classroom computers have pretty much been used to deliver traditional educational materials in new ways.
Now, however, education and society are poised upon the brink of advances that may be as far ahead of the current generation of computers as those computers are of blackboard and chalk.
"We've barely scratched the surface when it comes to using computers in the classroom," says Betsy Pace of Apple. "I think we all have an increasing vision of how computers can be used, as well as a sense that the computers of the future won't even look like they do now and are going to be able to do many more things than we can now envision."
It's this aspect of the educational computer that most excites Pace. "We're approaching the point where computer technology will be conveying information in ways different from books or blackboards and chalk. That difference is going to make the technology sustainable in the classroom."
Pace emphasizes that computers deliver information differently from books rather than instead of them. "We don't see computers replacing teachers or books. Mankind has had an intimate friendship with books for hundreds and hundreds of years. Rather than replacing books and teachers, we have concentrated on the ways the computer can be used to help and reinforce them."
Ultimately, Pace feels, computers will alter the nature of classroom education itself. "I think we're going to be moving away from students learning facts," she says, "and toward higher learning skills. School will no longer focus solely on memorizing a set of information, but on helping the student in using, finding, sorting, applying, and writing about information."
John Paulson of Springboard sees this sort of advance as bearing enormous educational advantages. "Education will start crossing a variety of subject matters," he says, "showing students the relationship among many bodies of information. And it won't be just facts. In simulations, for example, we'll be able to greatly elevate the level of discussions and understanding by putting students in charge of very intriguing and complex scenarios through which students can explore a variety of political circumstances. They'll be able to experiment, to make decisions and see the consequences of those decisions. For the first time, I think, students will really have a clear picture of consequences and variables and will learn that in some subjects there are no absolute judgments, that every path can be explored."
Friendlier And Friendlier
The software for these new types of learning will be increasingly easy to use, says Broderbund's Cathy Carlston. "One of the things we're beginning to see is a real opportunity to take advantage of the available technology to make our educational programs more effective.
"Although it's tempting to work with bigger configurations, the challenge is to develop not just bigger programs, and more sophisticated programs, but programs that are even easier to use and to incorporate into the classroom. Of course, it takes a lot of memory to make programs more transparent, but we are seeing more memory in the newer computers." Carlston feels the arrival of these transparent programs will be accompanied over the next two to five years by the integration of many different technologies.
Mindscape's Kathy Hurley also sees a rapid convergence of several technologies. "Developers and educators will be taking advantage of videodisc, telecommunications, and other technologies to the point where I'm not certain of the future of stand-alone software. The opportunity that exists for developers is to take what's already there and tie it into these new and emerging technologies. The challenge, on the other hand, is to keep up with all of those technologies and make the right development decisions for what the market is going to buy."
One new area that's attracting a good bit of attention and excitement is networking, the linking of all the computers in a classroom or a school.
Tandy is providing classroom networking, whereby the students' computers are linked to the teacher's machine, which serves as both a file-server and a monitoring location from which the teacher can observe individual students at work.
"Our networks have evolved quite a bit over the years," Juge explains. "In our early networks the teacher was able to download files to the students. By the time we introduced Network 3, the individual student was able to use the computer to request a download." Network 4 is a Corvus network, with students able to access the teacher's hard disk storage.
Other companies also see the increased importance of networking, not the least of them Berkeley, which has developed a program that permits teachers to network Commodore 64s with Apple and PC compatibles, all managed from the teacher's PC. The program, called geoNet, lets the teacher create a customized directory and then send it to each of the computers on the network. A 512K RAM expansion card for each student's computer turns that computer into a workstation.
Brian Dougherty of Berkeley envisions classroom networks as only a beginning. "With geoNet," he says, "each student workstation is linked to the teacher's PC, but the PC itself is not only a file-server. The teacher's PC can be ethernetted to other PCs in the school or elsewhere. This will let a student with say, a Commodore 64, go through the teacher's PC by way of geoNet, then go out over ethernet to access other educational technology throughout the system."
Talking In Class
Farther down the road there is the promise of speech synthesis and voice recognition. "Right now this is of paramount concern to us,"says Gessler's Seth Levin. "While at the moment speech synthesizers don't have the sophistication to generate accents, much less recognize pronunciation problems, we will have those capabilities someday soon, and a whole new generation of instructional possibilities will be made available to us."
Speech synthesis excites developers outside the foreign languages disciplines as well. "The ability to include speech in our packages will add an entirely new dimension to a child's educational experience at the computer," says Jan Davidson. "As with any new technology, though, the technology alone is not the answer. What's important is that developers take advantage of new capabilities in ways that increase educational effectiveness while addressing student motivational factors and attention."
Another area that Davidson finds exciting is the increased memory that new computers offer. "The one thing my developers fight for," she says, "is more memory to do what they need to do. Some things are hard to accomplish in 128K. You only have so much memory to spend when you're developing a program. I'd love to see 256K become standard."
At the same time, Davidson feels it's important to maintain a sense of perspective and purpose. "We have to be sure that the advances in computers are used to help achieve educational results. We must not only take advantage of new technology but do it in ways that increase the educational effectiveness of our materials."