In Indiana, It’s PC’s To Go

By Daniel Gursky — September 01, 1989 5 min read

It’s an educator’s dream. Students are asking for more homework. Parents are more involved with their children’s schoolwork. And teachers are finding new enthusiasm for their work.

The key ingredient is the personal computer—300 of them in the homes of 4th graders in five Indiana communities. The computers are the centerpiece of the “Buddy System Project,” an ambitious initiative aimed at improving educational performance in a broad mix of schools.

“Our objective was to take available technology into the homes of kids from various education, family, and community backgrounds,” says Kent Wall, president of Technology Management, Inc., a telecommunications consulting firm that is coordinating the project. “We were not interested in inventing something new, but in applying what we already have to improve our children’s opportunity to learn.”

The idea for the project came from the Indiana Corporation for Science and Technology, a nonprofit corporation set up by the state legislature to promote high-technology economic development. The corporation conducted a feasibility study in 1986, and the Buddy System Project was officially launched last fall. At that time, every 4th grade student in the five participating schools received, free of charge, an IBM or Apple computer to take home, and the teachers involved began integrating the machines into their classroom curriculum.

A smaller number of computers, some equipped with modems for transmitting data, were set up in classrooms and laboratories so that students could work on assignments at home or at school and teachers could use the computers in their daily lessons.

The first year of the project was a surprising success, according to teachers, principals, and project organizers.

“We had pretty high expectations for the project,” Wall says. “Some people thought we were crazy, but things have really gone quite a bit better than we expected.”

As a consequence, the project will be expanded this school year to include 5th graders at the five pilot schools—and possibly additional elementary schools. The Buddy System is by far the largest take-home computer project in the country, Wall says. To date, more than $5 million in time, equipment, and expertise has been donated by the Corporation for Science and Technology, the Lilly Endowment, Indiana Bell Telephone, GTE North, IBM, and Apple Computer, as well as the Indiana Department of Education.

While the primary goal of the project was to encourage students to spend more time on their schoolwork, those involved say there have been significant bonuses.

“It was successful in areas you really cannot measure on paper—like motivation and self-concepts,” says Sharon Snellenberger, a teacher at Washington Irving Public School 14 in inner-city Indianapolis.

Snellenberger also saw her students working together more in class. “They were not afraid to share their work with each other,” she says. “They were really questioning and thinking more about their work.”

Just as important, Snellenberger herself is more enthusiastic. “It has been more exciting for me to teach this year,” she says.

“The project seems to have given teachers an opportunity to reinvigorate their careers,” Wall notes. “That’s something I didn’t expect, but it has become one of the more important things in the project.”

The benefits of the program also have spilled over into the homes of the participating students. At Public School 14, for example, teachers say that some of their students have taught siblings and parents—many of whom have never finished high school—to use the computers. They have helped some parents learn job skills such as typing and filing; one mother is even writing her autobiography.

In the classroom, teachers have broad discretion in linking the technology and the curriculum. “This really has to be driven through the classroom; it really has to be the teacher’s set of tools,” Wall says. “We didn’t impose anything on them.”

Teachers at Public School 14 integrated the computers into an innovative program called “Young Authors,” in which students produce creative writing projects—complete with computer-generated illustrations.

“They really have blossomed in the area of creative writing,” says David Harakas, the school’s principal.

Spelling and written composition were the focus of the Buddy System at Dayton Elementary School, located in a rural, predominantly middle-class town of 900 residents. “On our state tests [taken in May], our 4th grade did extremely well in language mechanics,” says Principal Donald Timmons. “I think using the word processing and doing the spelling corrections and things such as that on the computer contributed to those higher scores.”

A more comprehensive evaluation at the end of the year will allow teachers to compare students’ precomputer achievement with their performance since participating in the project.

But the project’s future does not depend on those results.

“Our expectations [for test scores] are really pretty low for this first year,” says Wall. “We’re not going to be turned off if the actual test scores say not much has happened.”

Linda Curry, the other 4th grade teacher at Public School 14, is more interested in looking at test scores after the pilot group finishes 5th grade. Because students have learned to use their computers, she says, they’ll be able to spend more time this year on the actual schoolwork.

Many of the students in Curry’s district never graduate from high school. “If we can turn these kids on to something, they’ll carry through and not drop out,” she says. “If we do that for just two kids, we’ve done a good job.”

Harakas, the principal, echoes those sentiments. “The gap is already big enough between the affluent suburban child and the inner-city child,” he notes. “My greatest fear is that today’s technology avalanche will leave our kids behind. They need computers to have marketable skills so they can survive in the future.”

Wall has an even more ambitious plan in mind. “My vision from the beginning has been that every kid from 4th through 12th grade should have this technology,” he says. “It shouldn’t matter where he lives, what his socioeconomic situation is.”

Other cities and states may follow Indiana’s lead in the near future. Education officials from throughout the country have contacted Wall to talk about developing their own programs based on the Indiana model. “Over the next two years, I think other people will be trying to figure out how to make it work in their community,” he predicts.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as In Indiana, It’s PC’s To Go