Windows '95 Prompts Questions of Compatibility
If there was one message vendors at this summer's National Education Computing Conference hoped would resonate with buyers long into the school year, it was that their products will be "compatible with Windows '95."
Although media coverage and the Microsoft Corporation's advertising might indicate otherwise, Windows '95 is nothing more than a new operating system for personal computers. In other words, it is a vastly complex series of instructions that tell a computer how to do its work.
But Windows '95, the successor to Microsoft's existing Windows system, is also expected to make using the average personal computer easier and to improve performance on more sophisticated machines. It is scheduled to debut later this month at an extravaganza worthy of its well-heeled Redmond, Wash.-based parent.
Aficionados may argue whether Windows '95 is the boon to computer users that its maker claims. But for many users, the most important question may be whether it makes their old software programs obsolete.
Part of the allure of Windows '95 is that it is an independent system that, unlike Windows, does not need the ubiquitous MS-DOS to function. But in press briefings, Microsoft's spokesmen have been quick to note that the vast majority of DOS and Windows programs work with Windows '95.
They also stressed that many schools are buying, or are expected to buy, the faster machines Windows '95 demands, though the shift in purchasing may be slow in coming.
Many education-software developers, however, argue that the introduction of a new Windows product will lead to confusion for purchasers as well as marketing and software-development headaches.
To ease the transition, Microsoft and the Compaq Computer Corporation have released a preliminary list of more than 60 developers of educational software that have pledged to come up with products compatible with Windows '95.
Microsoft also continues its push into the K-12 software market.
Company officials announced at the education-computing conference here that they are devoting a portion of Microsoft's entry on the Internet's World Wide Web to educational products. The "Focus on K-12" area is located at www.microsoft.com.
On another front, Microsoft's chairman and co-founder, Bill Gates, argues in a recent article that society is on the verge of a multimedia learning revolution. The article appears in the summer edition of GW2K, a magazine shipped to the 1.7 million owners of Gateway 2000 brand computers.
As an example, Mr. Gates describes a young girl using an interactive computer program to study the moon and the planets. She "could see photos, listen to narrations, examine diagrams, and read details," he writes. "If she didn't know something, such as the difference between a planet and a moon, she could look it up."
Microsoft produces a CD-ROM version of "The Magic School Bus" series of children's science books that allows young learners to do all of the things Mr. Gates describes.
Although CD-ROM is currently the multimedia format of choice, Mr. Gates predicts that "within a few years, most multimedia information will be delivered by a high-speed information network connecting every school and business, and most homes."
Microsoft engineers say, however, that numerous technological, regulatory, and economic barriers remain in the path of that goal.
Mr. Gates, meanwhile, strikes a characteristically optimistic posture about the future of technology in education.
"I know there is skepticism. There was a backlash against the original computers in schools because they were drill oriented," he writes. "But when the computer can satisfy curiosity and make learning fun, the possibilities get exciting."
A counterpoint to Mr. Gates's enthusiasm appears in the summer issue of TECHNOS: Quarterly for Education and Technology, a publication of the Bloomington, Ind.-based Agency for Instructional Technology.
Richard P. Lookatch, an A.I.T. educational psychologist, argues that the current popularity of multimedia instruction is largely a faddish cure-all for educational ills. Such a remedy, he writes, will lead to disappointment and frustration for many students.
Careful review of research claiming to show measurable benefits of multimedia instruction almost invariably reveals errors indicating that researchers have found educational benefits "that aren't really there," Mr. Lookatch writes.
He said such errors are not a recent phenomenon, but date back at least to the early days of television in the classroom.
In those days, the best teachers were selected to teach televised lessons and were given ample time to prepare. Researchers comparing the results of televised lessons with those of "average" teachers in conventional classrooms frequently concluded that televised lessons were more effective.
"The real finding was that better teachers with more preparation time and novel teaching tools resulted in greater student achievement," Mr. Lookatch writes.
Similar design flaws, he contends, plague almost all studies of multimedia in the classroom.
Mr. Lookatch concedes that a multimedia approach can have benefits. But, he says, "for each well-guided application there is a host of misapplications ... with measurable costs in achievement and dollars."
More important, he adds, "they are misapplications that deprive students of those human interactions and hands-on experiences that yield feeling, thinking adults."
The filmmaker George Lucas, like Mr. Gates a wizard of technology and marketing, argues in a recent article that most schools are not conducive to the individualized and exploratory learning that both men believe technology can offer.
In the summer issue of Edutopia, the newsletter of the Nicasio, Calif.-based George Lucas Educational Foundation, Mr. Lucas outlines his own vision for a school that would provide such an environment.
He uses as an example a "post-production studio" he designed and built that allows him to abandon outmoded, expensive, and labor-intensive filmmaking techniques. The studio, he writes, allows him to substitute digital images for large crowds of extras or hours of location filming.
It features movable walls to enhance sound recording and readily accessible wiring, all of which "support the creative work that needs to take place there."
"What does all of this have to do with education?" he writes. "If we are going to transform education, so too must we transform school facilities. They need to be flexible and adapt to the changing nature of teaching and learning."
--Peter West [email protected]