Computer Geeks

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Books, pencils, and paper litter the desks in Margo Toering's 6th-grade class here at Timothy Ball Elementary School. But when her students finished their class projects on whales at the end of the semester, they didn't hand her a folder full of loose-leaf sheets.

Instead, they turned over computer diskettes that held "multimedia presentations" combining graphics, sound, and text--reports they prepared on home computers or on the machines that line the periphery of the classroom.

Toering's students handle a keyboard as easily as most students wield a pencil. That's because for the past two years each of them has worked at home on a personal computer provided by the Buddy System Project, a cooperative venture between state government and businesses that has equipped thousands of elementary students across the state with home computers.

Looking on as a student-teacher conducts her class, Toering wonders aloud what effect this aptitude for technology will have on the school system as her students advance toward graduation.

"What they're learning here will carry on to junior high school and high school," she notes. "That's what's amazing to me."

Like Toering, others in the Crown Point School Corp. are wondering just how the new technology ultimately will change their lives. Like their counterparts elsewhere, educators here have long assumed they knew the kinds of basic skills that students would need to go on to higher education or the workplace. And they worked hard to provide those skills.

But the Buddy System has changed all that. And two years into the project, the folks in Crown Point are beginning to see that education may never be the same again.

"The children are becoming so sophisticated on the computer that they're assisting the teachers," says Brooke Regnier, who serves on the Buddy board and whose daughter is enrolled in the program.

Thus, the school board must soon take up the issue of how to upgrade the skills of teachers who daily must deal with some 850 technologically savvy students.

Board members will also have to decide what in the curriculum must stay and what must go as a result of almost universal access to computers. For example, they may deem that cursive writing, long a staple of the elementary curriculum, is no longer necessary. At the high school level, typing class may be pass‚, since students will have long since mastered the computer keyboard. And some teachers are unsure whether print references and textbooks will be needed in classrooms that have access to on-line resources and electronic encyclopedias.

Parents of children in private and parochial schools, meanwhile, have begun to ask the district what skills their children will need to have mastered should they transfer into public high schools.

Born seven years ago in Indianapolis as a modest local initiative to equip 500 students in two schools with home computers, the Buddy project's annual budget is now in the range of $6 million, most of which is spent on equipment and software. Last year alone, the project installed computers in about 6,000 homes from one end of Indiana to the other.

The project, run by the nonprofit Corporation for Educational Technology, is supported by the state legislature and such corporate and philanthropic partners as the Lilly Endowment, the Ameritech Corp., GTE, and the Muncie, Ind.-based George and Frances Ball Foundation.

Individual schools or entire districts may apply to be Buddy sites. To be chosen for the project, sites must be innovative and willing to enhance the state's contribution of $900 per student sufficiently to provide each student with a computer, modem, and printer at home.

Buddy students receive their computers in the 4th grade and keep them until they enter 6th grade. Project officials say 4th grade is the ideal time to introduce computers. Boys and girls at that grade level, they say, are still equally receptive to technology and have received homework. Bonds between parents and children are typically still strong at that age and parents generally are able to cope with 4th-grade homework assignments.

Teacher Training

Technology experts nationwide consider the Buddy Project a leading model for linking schools and homes by computer.

But Al Hill, the executive director of the Corporation for Educational Technology, notes that the effort has endured its share of difficulties.

Lack of teacher training is one. Less than 30 percent of the project's budget statewide has been devoted to staff training, which has kept teachers from fully integrating technology into their curricula or being able to help parents with the hardware at home.

"Our experience has shown that it takes five to six or seven years to fully integrate the technology," Hill says. "And that is simply asking more than the typical teacher is either willing or capable of supporting" without additional training.

The project is developing materials that will enable parents themselves to take a more active role in helping their children use the computer in their schoolwork, thereby relieving some of the burden on teachers.

Toering, who coordinates the Buddy System project at Timothy Ball Elementary, agrees that teachers, particularly older ones, did not immediately embrace the computers when they arrived two years ago. But, she says, those fears mostly have abated because teachers now see the machines as integral to instruction, rather than as an add-on.

Another difficulty has been convincing state lawmakers, who generally have supported the program, that it is beneficial to students. "We're being asked on a regular basis 'Have math scores improved?' " Hill says.

That, he says, is the wrong question. "We don't ask if chalk improves standardized test scores or if pencils improve standardized test scores."

No one, meanwhile, argues that test scores have deteriorated as a result of the program, only that access to technology alone has not produced any sizable improvement.

Many of the lawmakers who fund the project don't recognize developing the ability to use computers to search on-line services and databases and to communicate with others electronically as an important educational objective.

But "the business community is requiring that young people have those kind of skills," Hill says. "What the Buddy System does is equip children with a whole set of resources that will make their entire formal education far more productive and enriching."

Satisfied Customers

You won't get much of an argument on that score from Jim or Esther Lambert, whose 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 notes that both his young sons can now use electronic mail, compile computerized term papers, and peruse software-based reference works, a repertoire of skills that will serve them well in the job market.

Kevin is laboriously composing a message to his 4th-grade teacher, Julie Gasparovich, which he will deposit in her private mailbox. He explains that one way his teacher encourages the class to use the system is by posting a "word of the day" on an electronic bulletin board. Students must then use the word in a sentence and send the sentence to her personal e-mail box. As a reward, he notes with a sly grin, she presents them with a piece of candy the next day. The teacher also posts lists of science vocabulary words on the bulletin board along with daily homework assignments so that parents can ensure the work gets done.

Because the district places no restrictions on how the computer may be used, other family members get in on the action. Jim, a special-education teacher, often uses the machine to communicate with colleagues in the district. He also does word processing and records class grades on a spreadsheet program.

A Changing Community

Even before the advent of the Buddy project, Crown Point was a community in transition.

Along state Route 231, a main artery leading into town from Interstate 65, new houses are going up that can only be described as sumptuous. The houses, locals say, are being built for commuters eager to escape the urban problems of Chicago, an hour's drive away.

Yet, only a few minutes' drive further west on the same road, the local feed store still appears to be doing a brisk business, testimony to the agricultural roots that slowly are being cut.

In the town square, the Old Lake County Courthouse--a red brick artifact of the 1880s that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places--no longer dispenses justice, but candy, knickknacks, and Christmas ornaments from several gift shops and boutiques.

And across from the courthouse, sandwiched between the Island Restaurant and the defunct People's Bank, a banner slung on the front of Instant Access, a computer store, advertises accounts on the Internet.

The school corporation applied for the Buddy Project precisely to help prepare its students for this world in transition. So community support for the program is strong, says Jeff Iacobazzi, the executive assistant to the district's superintendent.

He points to the example of a local family-owned bank that has stepped in, with a little encouragement from the district, to address the issue of how to provide former Buddy students with computers once they enter 6th grade.

Carol Highsmith, the spokeswoman for Centier Bank and herself a Buddy parent, explained that it has set up two programs, though with little response so far. Families can set aside money in a savings account, beginning when the children enter 4th grade, and collect the savings two years later to buy a computer. The bank also has established a low-interest loan program to allow parents to buy machines.

"Our focus is to be very active in the communities we serve," Highsmith says. "We thought this was a good way of helping the family provide educational tools for their kids."

Supporters also stress that the Buddy System is having a wider benefit than just providing students with computers.

Several Buddy parents, Toering notes, have been able to get new jobs thanks in part to computer skills they acquired while working alongside their children. In fact, she notes, parents are often the most eager members of the family to get the computers.

"The parents are thirsty to learn enough to keep up with their kids," she says. "A lot of them can't believe that we're going to give them a computer for two years."

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