High-Tech Teachers Find Their Goals Are Hard To Reach

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The divide between the vision of what a high-tech education should be and what's actually happening in the schools continues to defy attempts to bridge it, according to educators who were sharing ideas at a symposium here last week.

In the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History--just a few steps from artifacts of America's technological progress--about 330 educators spent most of the day pondering that divide and describing technology projects they were implementing in their schools.

The vision was offered by keynote speaker Seymour Papert, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, who challenged them to rethink educational practices and to embed technology-based methods into their programs.

Among his ideas: Students are looking for "hard fun," not diversions; they want to create and control their own learning experiences; and they need a new set of basic skills to allow them to do so.

But in one discussion that followed, panelists and other participants admitted that schools can't respond to those aspirations as long as student progress is measured in Carnegie units, school schedules remain rigid, parents resist unfamiliar methods, and colleges of education lag in preparing teachers to use technology.

"We're still stuck with 150 hours of physical education being mandated," observed panelist Frances Kelly, the director for voluntary education for the U.S. Navy.

One attendee, Linda Revica, a teacher from Newport News, Va., said that to persuade school districts to allow radical changes, educators need more proof that technology is effective.

"There is a place for the puff and inspiration, but where is that pure empirical data?" Ms. Revica said in an interview. "We have to rely on anecdote. Educators don't build in assessment from the beginning [of their projects]."

Cynthia Pride, the instructional technology specialist for the Beaufort County, S.C., schools, said her 14,600-student district had managed to create a culture of change by saturating classrooms with computers and teachers with training.

Through a nonprofit leasing arrangement, the district has helped provide laptop computers to 1,300 6th and 7th graders--with 8th graders scheduled to be added in the fall. Those grade levels were targeted because students in them were losing interest in schooling, Ms. Pride said.

Teachers have become energized and have accepted being co-learners with their students, she added.

Many participants at the meeting were hungry for practical ideas, like one suggested by Dawn S. Russert, a technology coordinator from Manteno, Ill.

Ms. Russert rose from the audience and described how a high school physics teacher in her 1,500-student district won a $500 technology grant last fall for video-conferencing technology, then challenged his students to find a purpose for it.

They hit upon the idea of creating a laser light show system for school basketball games. The students' research included on-line conferences with professors at Western Illinois University, then with optics and laser experts at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, Ms. Russert said.

They continue to expand the system they created--a collection of lasers, oscillating mylar sheets, music speakers, and static and motorized mirrors, she said.

The teacher concluded that the project enabled students to learn the content of four chapters in their physics textbook that he didn't have time to teach, Ms. Russert said.

The symposium, which also focused on the links between work and learning, was sponsored by the Smithsonian and Computerworld magazine and underwritten by Toshiba America Information Systems, Inc.

The event also marked the 10th annual Computerworld Smithsonian Awards, given for visionary use of information technology, announced June 8.

The winner in the "education and academic" category was the JASON Foundation for Education, which has been widely recognized for organizing yearly scientific undersea expeditions that allow up to 1 million students to participate using video-conferencing centers and the Internet.

A more surprising winner, in the "media, arts, and entertainment" category, was the Kid Witness News club at Public School 41 in New York City. The school edged out professional organizations such as the National Geographic Society.

"We beat CNN and the [NASA] Jet Propulsion Lab--I still don't understand it," a jubilant Gary M. Wexler, the school's principal, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Wexler described the location of the 1,100-student school as "a pretty rough neighborhood" in Brooklyn--which ironically may have provided his students a winning edge in the contest.

About 40 students in grades 4 through 8 at the pre-K-8 school take part in the after-school video club, in which teacher Jeff Goldstein helps them produce public-service and news videos, Mr. Wexler said.

But the stories come from their own lives. In one production, students videotaped themselves in their apartment practicing "ducking under" when shots ring out in the apartment complex.

In another video, the camera shows a little girl from behind as she plays hopscotch and recites, "One, two, three, I'm a baby." The camera gradually pans around her to reveal that she herself is pregnant.

Students created versions of that video in five different languages, Mr. Wexler said.

Over six years, the club has been lent video equipment from the Panasonic Foundation as part of the foundation's national Kid Witness News Program, then gotten to keep it as prizes in the foundation's annual competition for local Kid Witness clubs.

Information about the winning projects will be added to the Smithsonian's permanent research collection.


Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 12

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as High-Tech Teachers Find Their Goals Are Hard To Reach
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  • Read Seymour Papert's remarks at the Smithsonian Computerworld Symposium.
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The Kid Witness News program is supported by the Matsushita Electric Corp. of America, not by the Panasonic Foundation.

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