As in most elementary classrooms, the desktops of Margot Toering’s 6th graders are littered with books, pencils, and paper. But when Toering’s students finish their class projects on whales at the end of the semester, they won’t have created them from these materials. Instead, the students will turn over magnetic disks that hold “multimedia presentations’’ with graphic displays, sound, and text--reports they’ve prepared on computers, either at home or in the classroom.
Toering’s students at Timothy Ball Elementary School in Crown Point, Ind., are computer savvy, able to handle a keyboard as easily as a pencil. This is because for the last two years each has had a computer at home provided by a unique state initiative known as the Buddy System Project, a cooperative venture between state government and business that has already equipped thousands of 4th and 5th graders in Indiana with PCs.
Watching as a student-teacher conducts her class, Toering marvels at the long-term effect her student’s aptitude with technology is certain to have, not only on the students themselves but also on the school system as these youngsters move toward graduation. “What they’re learning here will carry on to junior high school and high school,’' she declares. “That’s what’s amazing to me.’'
Still, it’s unclear just what the effect will be--both in terms of pedagogy and curriculum. One thing seems clear: It won’t be business as usual. Brooke Regnier, a local parent who sits on the state’s Buddy Project board, points to one example. “What we find is that the children are becoming so sophisticated on the computer that they’re assisting the teachers,’' says Regnier, whose own daughter is enrolled in the program.
Launched seven years ago as a modest local initiative to equip students in two schools with home computers, the Buddy System Project now has an annual budget in the $6 million range, much of it spent on equipment and software. As of this year, it has installed computers in 6,000 Indiana elementary students’ homes.
In addition to support from the state legislature, the project has attracted such corporate and philanthropic partners as the Ameritech Corp., GTE, the Lilly Endowment, and the Ball Foundation. Participating schools and districts are required to match the state contribution. The program targets 4th graders, who receive a computer, modem, and printer for use at home. They can keep the equipment for two years.
Project officials say the 4th grade is an ideal time to introduce youngsters to computers. They point out that boys and girls at that grade level are equally receptive to technology and have already gained some familiarity with the rigors of homework. In addition, the bond between parent and child is still strong at that age, and parents generally are able to cope with 4th grade assignments.
The Indiana program has become a national model for others trying to link the school and home environments by computer. Even so, the project has not been without setbacks, as Al Hill, executive director of the Corporation for Educational Technology, the nonprofit group that coordinates the Buddy Project, is quick to point out.
A long-term plan to link all Buddy homes in the state to a communications “loop’’ with access to the Internet experienced setbacks and is only now getting off the ground. Plus, many elementary teachers do not have the know-how to fully utilize the technology.
Not enough of the project’s budget has been devoted to staff training, Hill says, which has slowed the integration of the computer into the curriculum. It’s also meant that many teachers have been unable to help parents who have problems with the hardware at home. “Our experience has shown that it takes five, six, or seven years to fully integrate the technology,’' he says. “And that is simply asking more than the typical teacher is either willing or capable of supporting.’'
Hill notes that the project currently is developing a package of materials that he hopes will enable parents to help their children work on the computers, relieving teachers of some of the burden that has been placed on them.
When the project first came to Ball Elementary two years ago, many teachers, but particularly the older ones, were reluctant to embrace the computers and the changes they brought, says Toering, who coordinates the project at the school. But most of their fears have abated, she notes, mainly because teachers have come to see the machines as an integral part of their instruction and not just another “add-on.’'
One of the organizers’ challenges has been convincing state lawmakers, who have been generally supportive, that the program is producing results. “We’re being asked on a regular basis ‘Have math scores improved?’ '' Hill says. He and others argue that this is not an appropriate question. “We don’t ask if chalk improves standardized test scores,’' he says, “or if pencils improve standardized test scores.’'
Many people, Hill explains, have yet to recognize that the ability to use computers to access information and services and to communicate with others is a worthy and valuable educational goal. “What the Buddy System does,’' he concludes, “is equip children with a whole set of resources that will make their entire formal education far more productive and enriching.’'
You won’t get much of an argument on that score from Jim or Esther Lambert, whose two sons, Jeff and Kevin, are students at Timothy Ball Elementary.
Grouped around the family computer in the guest room, watching Kevin peck away at the keyboard, Jim Lambert ticks off some of the skills his sons have already learned, skills, he explains, that will be useful much later in the job market. Among other things, he says, both boys can use e-mail, prepare computerized term papers, and tap into software-based reference materials.
As Kevin types a message to his teacher, he explains that one way she encourages her students to use the e-mail system is by posting a “word of the day’’ on an electronic bulletin board. Each student must write a sentence using the word and then send it to her via e-mail. In exchange, he notes with a sly smile, the students are rewarded with pieces of candy.
His teacher also posts science vocabulary on the bulletin-board system as well as daily assignments. This way parents can make sure all the homework gets done.
Although the thrust of the Buddy Project is to make sure children from all economic backgrounds have equal access to computer technology in their homes, the district does not restrict the use of the computers to youngsters. Jim Lam-bert, who is a special education teacher, concedes that he often uses Kevin’s machine for his own projects.
Crown Point is a community in transition. Along Route 231, a main artery leading into town from I-65, new houses are being built that can only be described as sumptuous. They are intended, locals say, for Chicagoans who are so fed up with city life they’re willing to put in the hour-long commute each way. Only a few minutes farther west on the same road, the parking lot around the local feed store is packed, an indication that the area’s agricultural roots are still firmly planted.
In the town square, the Old Lake County Courthouse--a red sandstone artifact of the 1880s that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places--no longer dispenses justice but is, instead, home to gift shops and boutiques. Across from the courthouse, sandwiched between the Island Restaurant and the defunct People’s Bank, a banner slung across the front of Instant Access, a computer store, advertises accounts on the Internet.
The Crown Point school district applied to be part of the Buddy System Project precisely to help its students prepare for this world in transition. Community support for the program is strong. A family-owned local bank, Centier, has created a special savings program to help former Buddy students buy their own computers once they enter 6th grade. According to bank spokeswoman Carol High-smith, children can set aside money in an account on a regular basis, beginning when they enter 4th grade. They can then collect the savings two years later to buy a computer. Centier also has established a low-interest loan program to help parents wishing to buy machines for their children--and themselves.
Although these two bank programs are designed to help students and their families purchase computers for school use, Toering believes they may have a broader impact. Several parents of Buddy students, she points out, have found new jobs, thanks in part to the computer skills they learned working alongside their children. Parents, Toering explains, “are thirsty to learn to keep up with their kids.’'
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Preparing For Tomorrow in Crown Point, Ind.