A Goal in Itself or Means to an End?

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Almost every 3rd grader at L'Ouverture Computer Technology Magnet Elementary School here can navigate the Internet, and almost every 5th grader can create a Web site.

But the school's teachers spend little time in class actually teaching these skills.

"We don't teach technology," says Howard Pitler, the principal of the 380- student K-5 school. "It should be embedded. You want to teach the technology skills while the kids are at the computer ready to go."

Almost all educators agree that schools have a responsibility to prepare students to function in a digital world. Technology is everywhere, the thinking goes, and if today's children don't know how to use it, they'll lack the skills they need for the jobs of the future.

To many people, this goal is the most important purpose of putting computers in schools. Others, meanwhile, see technology primarily as a means to an end. Their main reason for using it is to teach academic content in ways that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

"The way you use a computer is that you give a kid a computer, and you say, 'You need to research and write. You need to do all the things you've been doing. If you don't know how, ask, and we'll come help you,'" says Michael F. Sullivan, a former assistant state superintendent for instructional technology for Maryland who now runs the Agency for Instructional Technology, a Bloomington, Ind.-based nonprofit organization that develops K-12 educational products.

Teaching technology skills is increasingly becoming "a side issue," adds Margaret Honey, the deputy director for the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology in New York City. "I'll still go into schools where I hear the teachers talking about teaching children technology skills, but they tend to be the teachers who don't have the skills."

At L'Ouverture, one reason teachers don't have to devote much time specifically to technology skills is that their students, who have access to 10 computers in each classroom, pick up many of the skills on their own or from each other.

When L'Ouverture installed computers six years ago and became a magnet school, most teachers changed their practices so that students now rotate from one learning center to another, instead of learning most lessons sitting together as a whole class.

A recent visit to the school found students helping each other with software or the Internet in almost every class at almost every moment. Unlike in many schools where children immediately call for the teacher when they get stuck, students here often look first to their peers in their small groups.

"I teach them to do that," says 2nd grade teacher Rhonda Willome. She says she tells the children, "Don't interrupt me while I'm teaching."

"You learn which kids can help the other kids," adds Jane Farris, a 4th grade teacher. "The teacher just can't be everywhere at one time."

One of Farris' students, 10-year-old Kamile Asher, credits her classmates with helping her get up to speed on computers when she transferred to L'Ouverture from a school where she didn't use them at all.

"Jamie showed me a lot of that stuff," she says, pointing out a boy seated near her. "Sometimes, I wouldn't understand what Miss Farris would say, so I would ask those around me."

"She caught on quick," brags 10-year-old Jamie Powers.

This kind of cooperation has emerged in other schools where students use computers intensively, according to an evaluation of a student laptop program published last year by Rockman Et Al, a San Francisco-based research and evaluation firm run by researcher Saul Rockman.

Teachers in the program, which involved 53 schools, reported that students turned to each other when faced with software problems they or the teacher couldn't solve. One teacher, according to the evaluation, "felt that it was a waste of time to teach specific software applications, because once one student learned how to import a table from Excel into Word, for example, all the students would know within a few days."

This isn't to say that teachers should never break out a lesson about technology from the rest of their teaching.

To teach her 4th graders some aspects of HyperStudio, a presentation software program, Farris instructed them as a whole class, with the aid of a TV monitor. First grade teacher Tammy Venning says her students spent about two weeks rotating through a daily learning center designed to acquaint them with Kid Pix, a drawing program.

Stephanie Anderson, a kindergarten teacher, says she needs to spend more time on computer skills than teachers of older students, since many of her pupils have not yet been introduced to computers.

For the first two months of school, Anderson structures her classroom so she can hover over her students who are using computers. It's a challenge, she says, to teach them how to log on, because they must type in their name and two numerals, and some of them don't yet recognize numbers and letters.

Anderson waits until spring to introduce some of the more flexible software programs, such as Kid Pix.

"When I do introduce the other software, I do a lot of just letting them explore it," she says. "I have found they do way better that way, and if they have a few questions, I can go over and help them."

The push for children to learn technology skills has spawned efforts by states and associations to adopt grade-level standards in this area. Forty- one states now have standards or graduation requirements pertaining to technology, according to a survey by Education Week.

The International Society for Technology in Education, based in Eugene, Ore., released national technology standards in June and is now working with six curriculum groups to incorporate them into academic standards.

ISTE believes technology skills are "basic skills," says Lejeane Thomas, an education professor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, La., and the chairwoman of the accreditation and standards committee for ISTE. " There are basic technology skills that all individuals need to know to live in the world where information is so important and technology is used so much in the work environment."

At the same time, ISTE doesn't advocate teaching technology skills as a separate subject.

"We believe technology skills can be taught in the context of the curriculum, but very good planning has to occur and the skill, indeed, has to be there," Thomas says. "It doesn't just happen. Just because you say, 'And we're going to use a database' in your lesson plan doesn't mean you've thought about the sequence [of learning skills] that needs to occur in order for students to use it in their learning."

At L'Ouverture, teachers have crafted guidelines for what students need to know about technology at each grade level. Principal Pitler views the guidelines as expectations, not standards, and acknowledges that not all students meet them.

Willome says about 80 percent of her 2nd graders met the technology skill goal this past year for using HyperStudio.

"For the primary grades, it's important for them just to have fun with [ technology] and not feel pressure," she adds. "We just want them to develop a love of computers that can develop into a lifetime of learning."

A recent class led by 3rd grade teacher Pam Wegeng offers an example of how L'Ouverture teachers try to incorporate technology skills into the curriculum.

For a lesson on learning and writing about heroes, Wegeng requires her students to find their subject on the Internet. Her plan also calls for the students to make a stack of HyperStudio "cards"--or computer screens-- about their heroes.

Earlier in the school year, she had worked with students in small groups to demonstrate how to find an address on the Internet and some technical aspects of HyperStudio. On this morning, she checks in on the computer users while other students work on other parts of the lesson. She gives the children ideas for names to plug into search engines or steers them away from unproductive Web sites.

"Normally, I give them certain sites to look up," she says.

Not every lesson involving technology at L'Ouverture is a success. A visitor observes several 5th graders waste a half-hour while surfing the World Wide Web for information about Mozambique and how to travel there. They aren't goofing off; they simply lack knowledge--such as how to spell Mozambique or that Southwest Airlines doesn't fly internationally--that would help them search the Web efficiently.

And with some classes at L'Ouverture as large as 32 students, teachers acknowledge that students sometimes waste time on computers because of a lack of supervision.

But teachers are sold on the long-term benefits of helping students gain computer skills.

"It's a confidence builder for them," Willome says. "They may have an edge over someone else. They may not be the quarterback or the fastest track runner or the beauty queen, but they may be able to do HyperStudio. They may be able to teach someone else how to use a computer."

Vol. 18, Issue 05, Pages 33, 35

Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as A Goal in Itself or Means to an End?
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