Computers Column

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The National Commission on Excellence in Education made a "breakthrough" when it listed computer science as one of modern education's "new basics." But the commission was too vague in describing just what computer knowledge students should acquire during their elementary and secondary schooling.

That is the opinion of Arthur Luehrmann, a partner at Computer Literacy Inc., and the co-author of a major textbook for "computer literacy" courses.

Writing in a forthcoming issue of the aeds Monitor, the monthly newsletter of the Association of Educational Data Systems, Mr. Luehrmann says "few people" in the computer-science or data-processing fields would find the commission's guidelines useful in building a computer-education program.

Mr. Luehrmann says the goals of computer education listed by the commission--giving students an understanding of the role of computers in society, how computers are used in all disciplines, and how computers work--are "worthy" but amount to little more than "computer awareness."

Furthermore, Mr. Luehrmann says, since computers are used at all levels of education, many students master the commission's goals before reaching high school--which in those instances makes the recommendation of a one-semester high-school course both unnecessary and redundant.

Mr. Luehrmann proposes that all students be required to demonstrate mastery of "computer literacy" by the time they reach the 9th grade, and then to take more advanced courses in computer programming or data-processing before their high-school years are over.

Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Luehrmann says, paying for computers should not be much of a problem for schools. A more difficult problem, he suggests, is going to be attracting enough qualified teachers to teach the high-school courses.

There are now some 50,000 teachers using computers in elementary and secondary schools, Mr. Luehrmann notes, but few of them are qualified to teach demanding high-school courses. If his proposals are accepted, by 1990 schools will need as many as 100,000 teachers who have backgrounds in programming and data-processing, he says.

Teacher-training, according to Mr. Luehrmann, is an area "of critical shortage or key national need," the language used by the excellence commission to describe areas demanding a federal role. But before teachers who use computers can expect help from Washington, he adds, they will have to band together as a lobby similar to those of other education groups.

People laughed when President Reagan remarked that playing "Pac-Man'' could be good training for fighter pilots. But a doctoral candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education appears to have corroborated his claim, at least indirectly.

Diana Gagnon says a study of 58 undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard found that video games helped the player improve his or her skills in dealing with spatial relationships.

Women and older students, who previously demonstrated poor spatial skills on standard tests, were able to match the scores of men after five hours of playing two- and three-dimensional video games. Because those skills are related to academic fields in which women have not been prominent--science, engineering, drafting, and design--the games might be used to improve aptitude in the areas.

The study's subjects were given standardized tests before and after playing the games. Ms. Gagnon recorded the subjects' scores on the games as well as on the tests; other students, who took the tests without playing, served as a control group.

The standardized test for three-dimensional relationships guaged the students' ability to see objects rotate in space, and the test for two-dimensional relationships measured the students' ability to work through a maze. The players played the games "Battlezone" and "Targ."

Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, the Democrat of New Jersey who founded the country's largest data-processing company, has proposed a bill to promote computer use in the schools in a way that he says will not be ''pell-mell."

Mr. Lautenberg, who founded Automatic Data Processing in Clifton, N.J., has spoken out often since joining the Senate this year about the danger that wealthy schools will outstrip poorer schools in the use of computers. He devoted his maiden speech on the Senate floor to the subject.

Under the Lautenberg bill, the Education Department would award grants to the states totaling $600 million over four years. The states, after approving districts' plans for computer use, would, in turn, make grants. The districts would be required to spend $1 in cash or in-kind services for every $3 they receive from the government.

The money would be allocated by a formula that takes into account a district's wealth and school-age population.

Notes: Users of microcomputers, especially those who work in close proximity to other computers, can reduce their need for calling in the serviceman by up to 70 percent if they use an "uninterruptable power system." The solid-state device maintains a steady flow of electricity; computers often "crash" or lose their short-term memories when the electrical current fluctuates. The device has one hitch for schools: It costs about 20 percent of the price of the computer system, which schools already have a difficult time affording. ... Alan Alda, the new advertising spokesman for Atari Computers, strikes a familiar chord in a new television commercial. Mr. Alda, who played a man sensitive to the concerns of women on the television show "M

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  • H," is shown introducing a computer to a young girl. He nods approval as the girl uses a word-processor to change the statement "All men are created equal" to "All men and women are created equal."--ce

Vol. 03, Issue 05

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