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Eye on Technology: Soviet Educator Looks at Computers, Listens for Ideas

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Alexandria, Va--Nikolai D. Nikandrov sat in the computer laboratory of St. Stephen's, a private high school here, and watched with fascination as the instructor demonstrated a simple Apple computer system used by students.

Computers, more than anything else, seemed to capture the high-ranking Soviet education official's attention as he toured the Episcopal school's classrooms this month during the first day of a three-week visit to the United States. The trip is being sponsored by Educators for Social Responsibility, a Cambridge, Mass., teachers' association that deals with issues of the nuclear age.

As General Secretary of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Pedagogical Sciences--the highest educational post a member of the U.S.S.R.'s national teaching academy can attain--Mr. Nikandrov said he strongly believed that computers and computer-literate students could significantly advance "perestroika," the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's attempt to restructure that country's economy for greater productivity.

But as the owner of a personal computer he described as basic and obsolete, Mr. Nikandrov said he was also keenly aware of how far his country is from having the equipment needed to meet its closely linked goals of educational and economic reform.

Mr. Nikandrov, who came to the United States to speak at Harvard University and other sites and to study American schools, said Soviet educators increasingly have been looking to the American educational system as a model for their reforms.

But the Soviet system has a long way to go before its schools will resemble those in the United States, Mr. Nikandrov said. For the time being, he added, he and most other Soviet educators are looking to perestroika as the best hope to spur both economic revival and increased spending on schools, which are completely dependent on support from the central government.

"There is a direct connection between the amount of money put into education and the effectiveness of education," Mr. Nikandrov said. "Much more money should be pumped into schools."

"But if perestroika fails, that money is just not available," he added. "It is as simple as that."

The reverse is also true, however, according to the Soviet official: If school reform fails, then the population will be less able to contribute to perestroika--already under pressure from an entrenched bureaucracy and the resistance of citizens who cling to the old ways.

To highlight the disparity between Soviet educators' hopes for reform and the reality of the Soviet economy, Mr. Nikandrov pointed to the limited success his country has had in introducing classroom computers.

Soviet officials had planned to place 500,000 computers in the country's 130,000 schools during the five-year period ending in 1990, Mr. Nikandrov said. But now it appears they will barely reach half that goal. The educator also noted that many of the computers being installed in schools are unreliable or obsolete, largely because of his country's inability to acquire foreign computers or the technology necessary to build good computers at home.

But the winds of change are blowel10ling through the schools nonetheless, Mr. Nikandrov asserted, noting, for example, that "in the humanities, people discuss just about anything they want to discuss."

Also being considered, but not yet implemented, are proposals to give school administrators more leeway in determining school schedules and budgets, and to give students more freedom in choosing their courses.

And more and more schools are being allowed to experiment with changes in curriculum, teaching styles, and school organization, Mr. Nikandrov said. Variations of such American concepts as magnet schools and merit pay have been given thought as well, he noted.

Mr. Nikandrov said many of the educational reforms under consideration have been advocated by the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences and its presidium for a decade or more, "but they were not heeded by those who had the power or the money."

But the academy now is being given a much stronger advisory position by the educational establishment, he said, and is likely to play a growing role in reform.

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