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With Computers, Apple Project Finds Less May Be More

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First-time visitors to Dodson Elementary School here often wonder if they've come to the right place.

They've been drawn to the 983-student K-6 school on the outskirts of Nashville by the promise that they will see the technologically advanced classroom of the future. Most figure they'll find students seated individually at their desks, staring at computer screens and intently pecking away at keyboards in solitary study.

What they find instead are large and rather traditional open classrooms cluttered with books, where children in multiple-grade groupings work cooperatively on projects with one another and with their teachers.

When computers are used--and they are used extensively for everything from word processing to research--they most often are used cooperatively, with as many as three students grouped around each screen.

Each screen, of course, belongs to a computer made by Apple Computer Inc., for six classrooms in Dodson Elementary are part of the company's much-discussed Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow project.

And what visitors see here today is a far cry from the project's original vision when it was launched in 1985, said Faye Wilmore, who coordinates the Apple program's teacher-development center at the school. The idea then was a computer for each student.

"That's how we started out," Ms. Wilmore recalled recently. "What we discovered was that we didn't need that much technology. The children all congregated around one computer anyway."

The finding that fewer computers may actually produce more effective use of technology is just one of many that have grown out of 10 years of research on the ACOT program.

"We're not thinking about `pizzazz' with technology," said David Dwyer, an Apple distinguished scientist and the company's manager of learning technologies in Cupertino, Calif. "We're talking about using technology as a tool for teaching and learning."

The Decade Behind

The ACOT project is one of the longest-running efforts to discover how the effective use of technology can assist in reforming the nation's schools. It began in 1985 with several hundred students in seven schools representing a cross section of schools nationwide.

Apple recently published a summary of its findings in "Changing the Conversation About Teaching, Learning, and Technology: A Report on 10 Years of ACOT Research."

Since Apple made more than 60 percent of the computers that are in schools nationwide today and conducted the research on ACOT, it is no surprise that the report concludes that technology contributes to school reform.

Independent experts in educational technology, however, are more skeptical of the ACOT approach, in which technology is layered on top of a school district's existing curriculum and bureaucratic structures.

Nevertheless, Mr. Dwyer said the ACOT study has revealed several noteworthy points about the effective use of technology. Among them:

  • Technology acts as a catalyst for fundamental change in the way students learn and teachers teach.
  • Technology revolutionizes the traditional methods teachers use.
  • Students become re-energized and much more excited about learning--resulting in significantly improved grades--while dropout and absentee rates decrease dramatically.

Mr. Dwyer said that for high school students in the program, drop-out rates fell from 30 percent to near zero, while absenteeism was reduced from 8 percent to 4 percent. College attendance also increased dramatically among ACOT students over the decade, he added.

Of these findings, perhaps the most important is that teachers can and will embrace technology, if they are given the kind of professional development and support they need, Ms. Wilmore said.

To gain that professional development, teachers from around the country arrive at Dodson Elementary School, sometimes not even knowing how to turn on a computer. Over several days, they learn to use word-processing and reference software effectively as a part of an integrated set of educational resources that includes textbooks. Then, the Dodson teachers show them how to encourage their students to follow suit.

The emphasis here is on helping teachers understand they don't need a lot of technology to make a difference in their teaching.

"It sounds so simple when someone tells them, `Incorporate technology into the curriculum,"' Ms. Wilmore said. "But they don't have a clue how to do it. When teachers walk in here, there is nothing going on beyond what they could do in their own classroom."

The Decade Ahead

Over the years, the program has had its ups and downs, paralleling the rising and falling fortunes of Apple itself, which has faced tough competition from companies selling IBM-compatible machines. (See related story, .)

Five of the seven original sites dropped out for various reasons. Some lacked support from local school officials or parents. Some had trouble maintaining an up-to-date stock of computers, even with Apple's help.

Ms. Wilmore noted, for example, that in the early days of the project, the goal was to provide every ACOT student and teacher with a home computer. But that proved too costly.

Still, the ACOT classrooms have been a showpiece for a company that prides itself on serving the education market. And they have been praised for blazing trails in technology innovation.

"The lessons learned provide a rich foundation of experience and knowledge to guide current investments in technology at the local, state, and national levels," Linda G. Roberts, the technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, writes in the ACOT report.

In August, Apple launched the second phase of the program with the opening of the Portal School in Cupertino, a new school based on the first decade's findings. During the second phase, the project will expand abroad and will increase its focus on staff development.

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