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The School of the Future: Two Scenarios Considered

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Nashville--Scenario I: With the advent of microcomputers and other technological advancements, educators will rethink the teacher's role, the mission of schooling, and the organization of the classroom. As a result, the school of tomorrow will differ greatly from today's.

Scenario II: Schools, ever resistant to change, will incorporate technological advances only as long as the status quo is not threatened or disrupted. As a result, computers--like science, typing, or physical education--will be absorbed into the existing structure of the school as a separate field of study.

These widely differing scenarios were discussed by educators and technology experts at a three-day seminar here last month. The meeting, "Planning for the School of the Future," was co-sponsored by Vanderbilt University and the International Business Machines Corporation.

An Instrument of Change

While possible scenarios preoccupied seminar participants, at least a few left concerned that their specific questions about planning for the use of technology had not been addressed.

"The title of the conference was how to plan for the school of the future, but I really haven't heard that question addressed," Ronald Gray, superintendent of schools in the Bellefonte (Pa.) Area School District, said after the second day of the conference.

"I think there are some people at the conference who are viewing the computer as an end," he added, "and I see it only as an instrument, an instrument we can do a lot with."

Rethinking the School

For example, seminar participants noted in formal presentations, small-group discussions, and interviews that the widespread use of computers in schools can lead to:

A new role for teachers. Instead of delivering information to students primarily through lectures, the teacher will be a "facilitator" of information, managing the instruction of individuals and small groups of students.

A new set of basic skills. "Reading, writing, and arithmetic" will be joined or replaced by "analysis, synthesis, storage, and retrieval'' as the basic skills. The emphasis will shift from knowledge of facts to the ability to manage information.

A new classroom structure. Instead of 30 desks facing a single blackboard, the classroom of the future will house several electronic work stations. Students, grouped according to ability, not age or grade, will work on individualized "modules" of instruction.

A redefinition of the mission and nature of schooling. Students will learn at school and at home. Parents and other community members, via electronic links, will be a part of, and benefit from, the expanded role of the community-based school.

Impediments to Change

"Things will change; they can never stay the same," said Joe L. Byers, professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University. "Technology is changing our whole society. It would be absurd to assume that somehow technology would not change the structure of the educational institution."

But that change, others warned, is threatened by nonexistent or poor planning, unprepared teachers, inadequate software, a shortage of funds for research and development, and the very nature of the educational system.

The visionary view of technology's effect on schooling "doesn't pay attention to the structure of schooling as a system," argued Arthur Luehrmann of Computer Literacy Inc., a partnership formed in Berkeley, Calif., primarily to write textbooks on computers for beginners.

"It sort of says technology makes it possible, therefore it's going to happen," he said. "But the technology makes many things possible that haven't happened. There could be outstandingly high-quality videotaped lectures, which teachers could interrupt every two to three minutes and have discussion about. They don't do that. It would be cheap to do, it could be done, but it isn't happening."

The primary reason for technology's failure to have a significant and wholesale effect on schooling, Mr. Luehrmann said, is that "the school as a structural unit, as a system, is very robust against change.

"It doesn't change as much as it might in an abstract sense. It tends to go back to what it was and absorb the new into its structure."

Other Obstacles

There are also concrete obstacles to the dramatic changes that futurists say will make tomorrow's school scarcely recognizable by today's standard, according to several seminar participants.

"Unless we re-conceptualize the role of the school and how teachers operate, adding computers and home-school linkages just increases the teachers' workload," said David Berliner, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Arizona.

"It's not that they can't do it," he added. "It's just that the way that they think of themselves and the way they're trained now is to deliver instruction. To work with computers they'll have to be managers of instruction, and that's a whole different view of what teaching is about."

A further obstacle, Mr. Berliner and others noted, is the dearth of good software enabling students to interact and sharpen their critical-thinking skills. While such software programs exist, they are rare because of high development costs in a market of uncertain financial return.

To make the development of such software economically feasible, Mr. Berliner said he is in favor of a national curriculum--at least in the elementary grades.

Government Sponsorship

"The most wonderful interactive software costs a fortune to develop," he said. "If we had some agreed-upon objectives for the first four or six grades, then the government could sponsor developmental efforts, and then we could build some beautiful stuff.

"But no one will put up the front-money otherwise," he added. "And I don't see anything wrong with a national curriculum in those areas. Most of us know we want a certain level of literacy in the first four or six grades, a certain level of numeracy, and we want certain scientific concepts taught. We've got a lot of consensus in those areas."

A Sense of Urgency

Although they differed on the ultimate effect of technology on the nature of schools, seminar participants agreed on one thing: Educators now know that they must accept and respond to the potential of the computer.

"It's more part of the real world now so that it's not an exotic instrument," Mr. Luehrmann said. "People are coming to computers on their own terms. They're not saying, 'We can ignore this; we cannot deal with it.' They're saying: 'We're going to deal with it. The question is how. What's the best approach?"'

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