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Solving Achievement Problems in Bits and Bytes

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The energy and enthusiasm now being invested in getting computers into our schools is nothing short of remarkable. Parents dip into their own pockets to buy them when the schools cannot. Bond issues to purchase computers pass when others do not. Legislators rush through bills to create computer programs for the schools while general school-aid bills languish. And the rate of purchase of new machines and hardware climbs steadily.

Yet, despite this feverish activity, or perhaps because of it, very little thought seems to be going into the question of how best to use this technology.

The most common instructional applications of computers in the schools by far are basic-skills instruction (read "drill and practice") and computer literacy (read "teaching computer programming in basic"). Why would we want to do that?

Take drill and practice. There is a large body of research showing that students who use the computer for practice in the basic skills do better than the students in control groups who do not use the computer. But, instead of asking how the computer compares to conventional classroom practice, we should be asking how using the computer compares to the best methods we have yet found for improving students' performance in the basic skills.

One recent study found that the effects produced by computer-based teaching were not so great as those produced by programs of peer and cross-age tutoring, but they were far greater than effects produced by programmed instruction or the use of individual learning packets. One can go a step further. The use of older students to teach younger students is also cheaper.

The problem is that we are not asking: "Given the problems students have--say, poor performance on measures of basic skills--what is the most effective and least expensive way to attack those problems?"

What about the use of the computer to teach "computer literacy"? In practice, this mainly means giving students rudimentary instruction in programming in basic.

For most educators, teaching basic is roughly equivalent to helping their students master the computer. In the minds of teachers and parents, it is important for students to master the computer because doing so will give them an advantage--perhaps a decisive advantage--in their careers. They also feel that mastering the computer will give students, in a more general way, competence in the technology that will surely shape our society as well as our economy. But the question is, will teaching students basic accomplish these goals?

First, we might ask whether having an economy and a society dominated by the computer means that we will need vast numbers of computer programmers. The telephone system, which depends on the highest of technologies and has an ubiquitous presence in our lives, does not require that the people who use it demonstrate any sophistication whatsoever of a technical sort.

If not all the people who use computers will have to know how to program them, then how many professional computer programmers will we need? The fact is, that although there is now a shortage of computer programmers, virtually all the experts believe that we will need many fewer programmers in the future than we need now, which is only a few tens of thousands. So we certainly cannot justify the widespread teaching of any sort of programming on the grounds that we will need millions of programmers.

But we will need some programmers. Not only that, but it is also the case that many teachers tell us that teaching programming helps students to think clearly, to structure problems effectively, and to approach their solution in a disciplined way--universal skills that can be widely applied.

Sure, but that still begs the question: Does the teaching of basic make sense if we want to prepare people who will program on the job or who will go about solving problems in a disciplined way? There is every reason to believe that the answer is no.

The approach most commonly used to teach students programming in university computer-science departments is "structured programming." Students taught structured programming are in fact being taught an intellectual discipline--a sound method for defining problems, structuring them in such a way as to render them manageable, and attacking them in a way that will more likely lead to a solution. Many of the best teachers of university programming courses have said that students taught basic--especially in high school--are spoiled for serious instruction in programming since they must unlearn the bad habits they have acquired before they can learn proper approaches, and many prove incapable of doing so. In the name of providing "computer literacy," then, we may be making many students less computer literate than they would be if they had never laid eyes on a computer.

You may by now think that I am opposed to the use of computers in our schools. Not at all. How, then, should they be used? As tools--for word processing, spread-sheet construction, data-base management, graphic display, and for creating art and music, among other things.

We learn to write by writing a lot and by rewriting what we wrote, editing to improve. Students would learn to read and write far more easily and have more fun doing it if they used word processors. It is also true that the spellers, grammars, and thesauruses that can now be purchased to work with word processors can help students improve their spelling, diction, and syntax. They learn by doing, a technique thought by many educators over the years to be the best way of learning almost anything.

Spread sheets and data-base-management programs, like word processors, could be used to great advantage in any course in which data play a role--most courses in the curriculum, from history to shop. They can be used to teach how data can be used to understand and analyze all sorts of phenomena. Having a nation of people fully familiar with the uses of data would confer a spectacular economic advantage on our country.

In addition, computer models and simulations can provide both an intuitive and an explicit understanding of how complex systems work, how they can go wrong, and how they might be improved or made to work properly. Such systems might include cell biology, ecosystems, the economics of a region, the forces underlying historical transformations, and the methods of navigation. Having a nation of people for whom "systems thinking" is as natural as driving a car would also give us an economic advantage over our industrialized competitors.

Consider also some of the programs now available for painting and making music with the computer. They not only have enormous expressive power, but, like fully configured word-processing programs, they help students gain a sophisticated understanding of the structure of the medium. Far from suppressing creativity--a charge often leveled against the computer--these applications unleash it in a way that is beyond the capacity of all but the best classroom teachers.

None of these applications falls under the heading of computer-assisted instruction or of computer literacy as we know it. They do not involve the computer as an instructional delivery system, nor do they require the student to learn how to write a line of code. These applications can be run on the kind of machines the schools now own. There are some very good "tool" programs now available for these machines and others are being written.

What stands in the way of the use of the computer as a tool in our schools? A big effort must, of course, go into software development. Tool uses mean redefining the curriculum and how it is taught--a mammoth job. From a curriculum-development standpoint, the hardest job is not creating the basic software tools, but rather creating the materials surrounding the software that help the teacher to use it to accomplish the goals laid out in the scope and sequence of the course.

That is the proper task both for our school staff and for our textbook publishers. If they attack the problem, they will find that the long-awaited school-software market will materialize, that students are making incomparably greater progress on the full range of curriculum goals, and, finally, that our children are mastering the computer.

Vol. 02, Issue 31, Page 19

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