Ed-Tech Policy

Ed. Schools Scrambling To Catch Up With the ‘Microcomputer

May 05, 1982 11 min read
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But at Teachers College at Columbia University, a “microcomputer resource center” that was intended to be a casual “drop-in” facility has grown since its opening in 1979 into a bustling focus of faculty and student activity open 12 hours a day.

At Ohio State University, which annually graduates more new teachers than any other institution in America, a 12-member “technology” group within the education faculty is working to develop courses and programs that will introduce students to the theory and operation of computers as teaching devices. “If we had required microcomputer courses three years ago, we would have been the laughingstock of the community,’' said Suzanne K. Damarin, the assistant professor of education who heads the group. “Now many education schools are having to catch up so they can lead.”

With varying degrees of farsightedness and enthusiasm, faculty members and officials at education schools across the country are coming to grips with a technology that some philosophers and historians have called the most powerful educational and social tool since the invention of movable type.

The capacity of the computer to store, rearrange, and manipulate information in vast amounts has already transformed many sectors of society over the last 25 years. It has been a recent development, however--the production of the self-contained, small, and relatively inexpensive microcomputer--that has put the technology’s remarkable properties at the service of educators and their students.

But the so-called “microcomputer revolution” has occurred so rapidly--in less than five years--that the growth in the number of classroom computers is significantly outpacing both the number of teachers trained to use them and the ability of education schools to incorporate the technology in terms of faculty expertise, coherent programs, and the basic re-search upon which academic disciplines are traditionally based. That situation, educators agree, leaves the education schools hard-pressed to respond to the mushrooming demand for information and training in the field of computer-assisted pedagogy.

And, some education theorists fear, it may also severely limit the potential of the computer to move beyond “drill and practice” and into the realm of “interactive” learning that they believe offers the most significant prospect for enhancing students’ intellectual development.

Lack of Computer Knowledge

While it is estimated that there are as many as 90,000 of the portable machines in schools across the country, and that by 1985 the number will jump to 400,000, the vast majority of practicing teachers, experts say, do not know how to oper-ate a microcomputer, much less to use one effectively in a classroom. Nor, they acknowledge, are very many of tomorrow’s teachers yet being prepared in schools of education to use computers in their courses.

“The machines are appearing rapidly in schools, but they are getting used poorly or not used at all,” says Alfred M. Bork, director of the Educational Technology Center at the University of California, Irvine.

Many school districts are trying to cope with the problem by organizing workshops and conferences to acquaint their staffs with microcomputers. And a growing number of education schools and commercial organizations are also sponsoring such efforts.

But these workshops--often one-time, weekend-long sessions or a short series of seminars two or three hours in length, which simply introduce teachers to the operation of a microcomputer--are frequently inadequate, according to Nancy H. Roberts, director of the Computers in Education Program at Lesley College, in Cambridge, Mass., and other experts in the field.

‘Teachers Need Help’

“The introduction of microcomputers into the classroom raises tons of issues that teachers need help in thinking through,” says Ms. Damarin. But she and others assert that those issues--such as how microcomputers affect the relationship between student and teacher and how the machines can best be integrated into a traditional curriculum--have not been raised by enough of the education schools. Instead, on the theory that something is better than nothing, many have channeled resources into providing the “one-shot” seminars and workshops for school districts.

“There’s no question that education schools need to require computer courses; knowledge of computers is not something you can get in one day,” says Ms. Roberts.

David G. Moursund, a professor of computer science at the University of Oregon, estimates that as few as 5 percent of the approximately 1,350 teacher-training programs in the country offer undergraduate courses in computer education and that a small fraction of those now include such courses in their degree requirements.

According to an unpublished survey of some 500 teacher-training programs conducted last summer by Verson S. Gerlach, a professor of education at Arizona State University at Tempe, only 160 schools (32 percent of those surveyed) offered one or more computer-education courses at either the undergraduate or graduate level. (Practicing teachers usually enroll in graduate courses.)

Moreover, Mr. Moursund, who is also president of the International Council of Computer Educators, a professional organization for teachers who use computers in their classrooms, says relatively few education schools offer complete sequences of courses in microcomputer use for practicing teachers. Perhaps 10 schools, he and others say, offer a master’s degree in the subject.

No state currently requires computer courses for teacher certification.

Key Reasons for Lag

Officials in education schools agree that, in addition to the novelty of the whole field, there are several key reasons for the lag between teacher-training programs and the growing need to prepare teachers to use the new technology:

Sharply declining enrollments, combined with budget cuts, have left many teacher-training programs financially strapped and unable either to invest quickly in new faculty or to retrain present faculty. To a lesser extent, the computer equipment itself, which ranges in price from $1,700 to $2,200 for the microcomputers used in most schools, also presents a strain on their dwindling budgets, although some universities with computer-education programs report that they have received generous donations or loans of hardware and software from computer manufacturers and distributors.

Even if the money were readily available, education schools would have trouble finding qualified computer instructors. The competition for such people by industry is intense.

“Getting qualified computer teachers has been a serious problem for [university] computer-science departments, so you can imagine what the education schools are going through,” said Joan F. Targ, a lecturer in the school of education at Stanford University.

And the shortage of trained faculty members within the education schools has created another problem, some say.

Because computers have been used in computer-science and mathematics departments at many universities for many years, the faculties of these departments are now frequently called on to teach the microcomputer courses in the education schools.

Difficult Questions

The problem, Mr. Bork of the University of California at Irvine and others contend, is that while these mathematics and computer-science instructors can show teachers how to use computers, they are often unprepared to help teachers with the difficult questions raised when microcomputers are used to teach other disciplines at the elementary- and secondary-school levels.

“Computer-science people are often not successful in teaching teachers how to approach computers,” says Robert Taylor, chairman of the department of computing in education at Columbia’s Teachers College, “because they don’t think like teachers, don’t have the same concerns as teachers, and they don’t understand why teachers might fear computers.”

Efforts to retrain existing education-school faculty members have been slow and have met with a good deal of resistance.

“Many [faculty members] don’t want to interrupt successful careers to learn a new field, and some feel uncertain and are afraid of showing their ignorance,” says Mr. Taylor.

Adds Mr. Moursund of the Uni-versity of Oregon: “You can certainly learn quite a bit from dabbling with a computer, but it takes a tremendous effort and commitment of time to learn the technology well enough to teach [on a college level]. Many people don’t have the time or are not willing to make that step.”

Those faculty members who do decide to make that investment may actually find themselves receiving little support from their department’s hierarchy. “There is no reward structure to foster interest in taking the risk to learn a new field,” notes Mr. Taylor. “A faculty member can gain recognition by writing an article for some obscure journal, but receives no credit for writing a [computer] program.”

Nonetheless, some schools are trying to develop computer skills among their faculty members. The college of education at Arizona State University at Tempe, where three faculty members instruct 150 students in computer classes, now requires all new faculty members to have a working knowledge of computers and is deciding whether to require its existing faculty to take computer-use courses.

A discrepancy between the quality of computer software and the sophistication of the hardware has also contributed to the problems education schools have in developing high-level courses.

Many of the microcomputer programs now available for elementary- and secondary-school use are for mathematics courses and do little more than drill students rather than hone their cognitive skills.

“Most software amounts to taking a workbook and slapping it on a computer,” says Colette A. Daiute, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Teachers College who teaches a course on “Computers in Writing"--one of the few such courses in the country.

As a result, many education-faculty members question the value of teaching teachers the new technology.

Little Research

Similarly, the use of microcomputers in schools is so new, says Ms. Roberts of Lesley College, that there has so far been little research to suggest the effect of their use on the way students learn, student achievement, and the relationship between student and teacher. She terms the research that has been completed to date “trivial.”

Nonetheless, the demand for computer courses has risen sharply within the last two years.

At Lesley College, each of the 900 undergraduate education students must take a two-credit computer course in order to get a degree. “We can’t cope with the demand [for graduate-level computer courses],” says Ms. Roberts. “We could triple our facilities if we had the money.”

Enrollment in computer courses at Teachers College has jumped 400 percent in five years.

Lesley College, Teachers College, the University of Illinois at Urbana, Ohio State, Stanford, and the University of Oregon are among the 10 or so education schools that offer a master’s degree in computer use.

These schools are building ambitious and innovative programs.

At Teachers College, considered a leader in the field, the emphasis is on how to improve practical applications of computers in the classroom, and the busy microcomputer resource center symbolizes the growing level of faculty and student interest.

A more modest program was started by the school of education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania when it bought 16 microcomputers and placed them in classrooms in a nearby middle school. In return for sharing the machines with the school, Lehigh’s faculty members are allowed to use the middle school’s classrooms--complete with students--as “laboratories” for their microcomputer courses.

The University of Oregon’s college of education has one of the oldest programs in computer education, having since 1970 offered a master’s degree in “Computers in Education” jointly with the department of computer science. It has offered a doctorate in the same subject since 1974.

Most education schools’ microcomputer programs, however, are only two or three years old, even the leading ones.

Schools Offer Courses

Top schools offer courses on a range of subjects, from the simple operation of a microcomputer to the use and evaluation of different computer “languages"--such as BASIC, PASCAL, and LOGO.

Nearly all of these schools teach teachers how to evaluate different types of computer software, as well as to explore how best to fit “computer time” into a regular classroom schedule.

“There is such a halo effect regarding software that teachers just do not ask these questions,” said Ms. Damarin of Ohio State.

Most of the schools offer courses in programming, and some have offerings in the administrative uses of microcomputers. Lesley College offers a course on their uses in instructing the handicapped.

Most of the leading programs also have “laboratories"--modeled after the “language labs” that became popular in the 1960’s--stocked with a variety of computers that many times are lent or donated by computer companies eager to market their products.

Oregon and other schools are also using intensive summer “institutes” to train teachers and administrators who then return to their school districts and become microcomputer teachers themselves.

This summer, for example, Stanford University’s school of education will co-sponsor a new institute for teachers, using 30 personal computers donated by IBM.

At Oregon, the summer computer program swells to 15 courses and enrolls up to 700 students who are taught by six instructors.

Over time, these efforts to train teachers to teach other teachers in the use of microcomputers may be successful.

Classroom Use of Technology

But the immediate question concerned educators raise is whether most of nation’s 1,350 teacher-training programs--given their financial condition and the other formidable obstacles they face--will be able to catch up and offer courses in computer use that are sophisticated enough to allow teachers to make good use of the new technology in their classrooms.

The answer to that question, say experts, may determine whether microcomputers revolutionize education or wind up in the storage room with the old teaching machines and other short-lived classroom technologies.

(Elizabeth Field also contributed to this report.)

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1982 edition of Education Week as Ed. Schools Scrambling To Catch Up With the ‘Microcomputer


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