Ed-Tech Policy

Firm To Use Compact-Disk Technology In Developing Exam for Science Project

By Peter West — April 24, 1991 8 min read
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In a development that could help foster innovative educational uses of compact-disk technology, a California company has agreed to create a disk-based tool for assessing the progress of students participating in the National Science Teachers Association’s Scope, Sequence, and Coordination Project.

Bill G. Aldridge, the NSTA’s executive director, said in an interview in Houston during the association’s recent annual meeting that the group was nearing an agreement with American Interactive Media Inc. to develop a computerized examination for 7th-grade science students in the project, which is designed to restructure the way the subject is taught in secondary schools.

The examination would use the firm’s proprietary “compact-disk, interactive,” or cdi, technology.

Although the specifics of the agreement had yet to be worked out, Mr. Aldridge said he envisioned that test developers, using the enormous information storage capacity of the compact disk and taking advantage of its ability to store sound, computer data, and still and video images, would be able create an unusual multiple-choice examination in which students who answered questions correctly would be required to defend their responses.

Software stored on the disks would scan students’ responses for key words and concepts indicating a full understanding of the concepts being tested.

“What we have here is a remarkable technology,” Mr. Aldridge said.

The disks, in tandem with hands-on experiments, would allow teachers to test students individually to the limits of their potential, Mr. Aldridge said.

Bernard J. Luskin, the president of the Santa Monica-based firm and a former science teacher himself, said that because the software would seek the same material from every student tested, “you’d get both validity and reliability in testing.”

The technology is particularly attractive, he added, because several major consumer-electronics companies this year expect to market new devices--essentially cd\rom players--that will allow the information stored on cdi to be used in conjunction with a standard television set.

If consumers are attracted to the new technology, it would rapidly bring the costs of the machines down, which would eventually drive down the costs of such individualized assessments, experts predict.

If the new assessment project fulfills expectations, it could also prove to be a watershed in the use of compact-disk technology in schools, where the silver platters already are showing up in many high-school media centers.

Computer compact disks, which are identical in many respects to the 4.75-inch platters that have largely replaced phonograph records in the consumer market, have been in general use as a computer data-storage medium only since the mid-1980’s.

When used with computers, these devices generally are designated cd\rom, or “compact disk-read only memory,” which means that unlike conventional floppy disks, they cannot be imprinted with new information by individual users.

And while cd\rom drives are now available on many brands of microcomputers, they have yet to eclipse conventional memory systems in sales.

Some market surveys, however, indicate that schools are one of the biggest users of the devices, using them to archive electronic reference works or, less frequently, to replace floppy disks.

Quality Education Data, a Colorado-based market research firm, estimates that in the 1989-90 school year, 429 of the nation’s approximately 16,000 school districts were equipped with some form of cd\rom.

And in an article he prepared for the journal Educational Technology, the noted educational-computer researcher Henry Jay Becker, of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, argued that compact-disk technology, by virtue of its ability to store vast amounts of data, offers the potential for a major change in the ways that computers are used in education.

“The cd\rom medium makes 100 times as much textual and graphic information quickly accessible to computer users,” Mr. Becker wrote. “This is an improvement of, not one, but two orders of magnitude, and the whole concept of computer software for education is likely to be radically changed as a result.”

In the article, Mr. Becker ana8lyzed three existing electronic reference works available on cd\rom--the Grolier Encyclopedia, World Book’s “The Information Finder,” and “Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia"--and found that they could be sophisticated substitutes for print material.

While he conceded that conventional reference works might already be readily available in print, he argued that cd\rom products are uniquely powerful in that users can search data files for cross-references that will further stimulate inquiry.

A search under the heading “civil war,” for example, would produce articles not only on the American Civil War, but also on internal wars in Britain, El Salvador, and other nations, allowing users to compare and contrast the conflicts.

In addition, proponents say that the disk’s added ability to store sound and images makes it an ideal way to stimulate learning through the use of other senses.

“I see the cd-rom as a medium to enable computer-based learning activities to finally replace the textbook,” Mr. Becker said in an interview.

Software firms already have developed several innovative products that make use of cd-rom’s unique abilities. Some of these include:

Discis Books, a series of cd\rom versions of children’s classics produced by Discis Knowledge Research, a Canadian software developer. The books can be “read” on a Macintosh computer.

Discis versions of such works as the “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” allow children to follow the text and illustrations from the original work as displayed on a Macintosh computer.

Young readers can also click a “mouse” controller to hear words pronounced or entire passages read aloud. Or they can have the machine pronounce individual syllables or provide contextual explanations of selected words.

A disk developed at the University of Florida in Gainesville that contains a list of more than 1,000 proven science-education projects for elementary-school students that were developed, often with federal funding, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

“Several million dollars worth of work has been captured on this disk,” said Mary Budd Rowe, a professor at the University of Florida who developed the disk.

Teachers can read abstracts about the lesson plans written by fellow teachers and print the lessons they want.

“It allows teachers to essentially tailor a handbook to meet their particular goals and resources,” Ms. Rowe said.

Warner Audio Notes, a series of cd\rom products produced by Warner New Media, a division of Warner Communications. The first release is “The Magic Flute,” a three-disk set that contains HyperCard software for a Macintosh computer as well as 143 minutes of music and notes, narration, glossaries, images, and graphics about the Mozart opera.

And at least one school already has produced its own cd\rom product. At South Eugene High School in Oregon, students last year produced a disk-based edition of their yearbook that was distributed along with the printed version.

But, Mr. Becker noted, schools currently are limited in their use of cd\rom technology for a variety of reasons, including the relatively high cost of the computers needed to process the sophisticated software.

Proponents of disk technology suggest, however, that compact-disk products that do not depend on microcomputers at all may well become the fastest-growing segment of both the education and general consumer markets.

Currently, at least three compact-disk “multimedia” formats are vying for the disk market, each a variation on the basic disk concept. Of the three, two do not depend on the use of personal computers.

The one that does, “digital video interactive,” or dvi, is a proprietary technology of the intel Corporation, a major computer-chip manufacturer, and aims at bringing multimedia applications to the personal computer.

CDI, on the other hand, is a joint venture of Phillips International, the Dutch firm that developed the compact disk, and the Sony Corporation. It proposes to bypass the personal computer altogether to concentrate on a new line of machines scheduled to be unveiled next fall.

Twelve of the world’s largest consumer-electronics firms, including Sony, Matsushita, and Magnavox, have agreed on a standard for CDI, similar to the standards that govern audiocassettes and videotapes. These firms plan to release their compact-disk players soon.

Mr. Luskin of American Interactive is quick to point out that such standards do not exist in the microcomputer industry, limiting the widespread utility of cd\rom products designed for personal computers.

Yet while CDI is on the verge of being launched, a similar technology developed by Commodore Business Machines of Westchester, Pa., already is available in five major U.S. markets. This month the firm released in some West Coast and Midwest markets a product it has dubbed Commodore Dynamic Total Vision, or cd\tv.

The device, which Commodore will begin marketing on the East Coast next month, is touted by the company as a machine that “offers computing power without computer complexity.”

And while Commodore contends that the machines are “revolutionary consumer electronics” devices, it also is quick to assert that they will “make our education entertaining and our entertainment educational.”

Mr. Luskin, however, said that before schools can seize upon such a product, it must first be commonplace in the home, as was the case with the videocassette recorder, which is now almost universally available in classrooms.

The availability of an international standard could also make the assessment tool that his firm is designing, as well as a host of soon-to-be-developed multimedia products, available to any school that wants it.

“Compact disks [in the music industry] have been extraordinarily successful,” he said. “They’re small, inexpensive, and easy to use and they have a common format.”

“That’s what made the music business successful,” he continued. “That’s the ethic of the consumer-electronics business.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 1991 edition of Education Week as UBJ: Firm To Use Compact-Disk Technology In Developing Exam


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