Computers Raise New Issues For School Administrators

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Minneapolis--Seven years ago, Fort Wayne, Ind., school officials arranged for a high-school geometry class to use the computer at a nearby university, thereby signaling the district's entrance into the era of computer teaching.

Today, after spending $1.75 million to buy 500 computers of its own, Fort Wayne offers almost all of its 32,000 students a chance to learn on and about computers.

Adminstrators there eventually want all students to leave the system with a basic knowledge of computers. But moving toward that goal presents special concerns for adminstrators like David D. Platt, who, as Fort Wayne's director of program development and evaluation, guided planning for the school district's computer program.

Among other things, Mr. Platt had to worry about buying the most appropriate equipment, making certain the district was getting its money's worth, training teachers, and seeing that, from an educational perspective, the district was using the technology correctly.

Recognizing that such issues are increasingly of concern to administrators, the American Association of School Administrators held a conference here last month on "Managaing Education Technology."

During the three-day meeting, adminstrators like Mr. Platt received suggestions on everything from evaluating software to encouraging more girls to enroll in computer classes.

"I'm a curriculum person, not a computer scientist," said Mr. Platt, who began his educational career in 1964 as a teacher in Fort Wayne, and worked as a principal before being appointed to oversee the development of the district's curriculum.

Many administrators who attended the conference, who are now planning their district's computer programs, said they have similar nontechnical backgrounds. But they said a lack of such expertise is not necessarily a major drawback in managing a computer program, although it has required many of them to "bootstrap" their way into a knowledge of computers, as one participant described it.

"We've picked up information by going to conferences, talking with computer teachers, reading magazines and periodicals," said Howard Merriman, assistant superintendent of management services in Columbus, Ohio.

In a keynote speech at the conference, Arthur Luehrmann of Computer Literacy, Inc., offered suggestions on how administrators can plan for the successful use of computers. Mr. Luehrmann, who coined the phrase "computer literacy," was formerly the assistant director of the computer center at Dartmouth College and associate director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Today, he describes himself as a teacher, author, and businessman.

His advice reflected the range of issues that administrators must confront in their planning.

Computer courses, he said, should be taught by those teachers with a particular interest in the new technology. "The worst thing an administrator can do is to walk in and say: 'Next semester, we are going to teach five sections of introductory computing, and I've just bought all the equipment for it, so go to it,"' he said. "You'll scare the heck out of the teachers."

Instead, Mr. Luehrmann advised the adminstrators to "nurture" a teacher who shows interest in the field by providing him or her with the necessary preparation and offering encouragement.

Similarly, he advised that administrators not restrict the use of computers to the mathematics department. The computer course does not, as some administrators assume, have to be in that department, since computers don't necessarily have anything to do with mathematics, he said. Rather, at least initially, the course should be located in the department of the teacher who will teach it, the speaker suggested.

Administrators must also be aware that some other courses might have to be changed or eliminated to accommodate computer classes, Mr. Luehrmann said. He suggested jettisoning whatever courses are the weakest and pointed to outmoded vocational-education courses as being "natural targets."

Training teachers to use computers will be "a tough problem for a long time to come," Mr. Luehrmann said. Most teachers who use computers in the classroom will have to teach themselves or be provided with inservice training, since many colleges of education do not provide such instruction.

Several administrators at the conference said they already offer teachers extensive inservice-training programs in computer education. Fort Wayne, for instance, provided its teachers with a total of about 7,500 hours of such instruction last year; this year the total is expected to top 17,000 hours.

Cost is another key issue for administrators who want to bring computers into their schools. Although the price of computers is expected to continue declining, Mr. Luehrmann said, administrators must weigh the cost of waiting to buy cheaper equipment against the educational benefits to students of starting programs soon. "You certainly save money by waiting," he said. "But kids in the meantime are not learning."

A program can be started by providing one teacher and eight computers for each 400 students, Mr. Luehrmann said. Reasonable start-up costs for hardware and software would be about $20,000.

All districts should have a one-semester course in computer literacy as a graduation requirement, he contended. Mr. Luehrmann said the current elective status of such courses is not adequate because disproportionately high numbers of boys enroll in computer classes.

Mr. Platt of Fort Wayne said his district already has a three-year plan for developing and implementing an educational program involving computers.

Each year, school officials evaluate and update the plan.

With basic equipment in place, he said, the district's current goal is to assure that the computers are used for what he thinks should be their primary purpose: freeing teachers to spend less time drilling students and more time teaching them to analyze and evaluate.

Vol. 03, Issue 09

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