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Schooling in 'Basics' Must Precede Computer Literacy

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Baltimore--Schools would do a better job of preparing students for an increasingly technological society if they improved programs in English and basic mathematics instead of increasing instruction in "computer literacy."

That is the opinion of several educators and industry officials attending the National Educational Computing Conference here last week.

Vico E. Henriques, the president of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association, said students who are taught how to program computers are often of little use to the burgeoning computer industry because they are otherwise inadequately prepared by the educational system to function effectively on the job.

'We Need Literacy'

"We have to teach them to read [road] maps," Mr. Henriques said of computer repairmen, a field which he said has a 14-percent shortage of qualified workers. "What we need more than anything else is literacy."

Courses in programming in basic or in the design of specific computer hardware, Mr. Henriques said, are helpful to the few students who eventually become programmers.

He said, such courses are of little use to the students who move into other fields that use computers. Mr. Henriques added that the industry is not seeking "computer literacy, because that can be developed, but linguistic literacy and math literacy, literacy in structured thoughts, literacy in problem-solving."

Unless more people possess those aptitudes, Mr. Henriques said, the U.S. could develop into "a two-class society"--in which some workers would be able to have "three or four careers," but others would not have the basic skills necessary to adapt quickly to a changing marketplace.

John Castellan Jr., professor of psychology at Indiana University, said educators must decide "how we balance computing with literacy."

Mr. Castellen said he was concerned that money spent on computers would deplete funds spent on other subjects, especially mathematics and science, noting: "Science teachers are being told that they're getting a computer but they won't be able to get biology equipment."

One study has concluded that the poor academic preparation of workers costs American business $225 billion annually, Mr. Castellen said. Computers might not do much to improve that situation, he added.

Mr. Castellen said that, upon learning that his son's junior high school had two computers, he tried to determine how his son could use them. "We found out that one was locked in a closet and the other was in an instructor's home," he said.

William G. Aldridge, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, questioned current efforts to increase high-school requirements in mathematics and science as well as in computer literacy.

'Unqualified' Teachers

He said 60,000 of the high-school mathematics and science teachers, or 30 percent, are "unqualified" for their work, he said. Increasing the standards would require as many as 200,000 additional teachers. Furthermore, he said, the computer industry is "draining off the best and the brightest" potential teachers.

Speaking at another session of the conference, Tom Snyder, the president of a software firm, expressed concern that teachers, manufacturers, and publishers would prematurely "formalize" the place of computers in the curriculum. If educators define technology's role too narrowly, he said, the computer will not improve any aspect of education significantly.

Mr. Snyder said he is "skeptical" about attempts to determine quickly what role the computer should have in the classroom.

"For the next couple of decades, we have to be in a 'mess-around' period," he said.

Among other issues touched on by speakers at the meeting were:

The merits of "discovery" and "di-dactic" educational computer programs. Brian McLaughlin of the National Institutes of Health said experiments show that students learn more with "discovery" programs.

Students who used software for programming that stressed "learning by doing" (discovery) rather than "learning by being told" (didactic) led to greater retention of the subject matter, higher levels of self confidence, and more interest in continuing work with computers, the results of an experiment Mr. McLaughlin conducted at Catholic University suggested.

The difference between the two methods was most striking among students with poor academic records, Mr. McLaughlin said.

Programming languages.s LaFrance, assistant professor of mathematical science at Oral Roberts University, said the widespread use of basic is creating a generation of students whose skills do not match the needs of the industry.

Mr. LaFrance recommended that educators begin using computer languages that have simpler structures, such as logo and fortran.

Computer simulations in science education. David L. Wilcox, professor of biology at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., said his students who use computer simulations of the functions of the kidney learn the functions faster than others who use a textbook.

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