Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rethinking Computers in the Classroom

Rethinking Computers in the Classroom

Three fourth-graders sit around a computer in one corner of a classroom at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, a school of 220 students in San Francisco. One 9-year-old boy dons headphones to take his turn with the machine, reading passages from a virtual storybook as an animated panda cavorts on the screen. When he stumbles over words, voice-recognition software from IBM cues him to give it another try. After all the kids finish, the computer gives teachers a report on the students' progress, down to the letter combinations that throw them most often.

This may be a scene from the future of U.S. education. But Harvey Milk is no cutting-edge institution. The school is trying to reintroduce computers into its classrooms after a failed experiment with PCs a decade ago. The school once had plenty of computers and a dedicated technology lab, but a shortage of funds and lack of trained computing staff put an end to the effort. Today, the lab room is used for storage, piled high with boxes. "We've lost money over the years," says Sande Leigh, the school's principal.

Leigh is now trying to scare up funds to finance another effort to integrate computers into classrooms. The school bought PCs, literally at a fire sale, and plans to outfit its 11 classrooms with them early next year. She hopes to install IBM's (IBM) Reading Companion on enough systems to accommodate 44 kids at a time, though she's counting on a grant from IBM to cover the $10,000 cost of the software.

Short of Funds and Faculty

Leigh's experience is an example of what educators say is ailing computer programs in U.S. classrooms. Schools are enthusiastic about the technology's promise, but short of the money and trained faculty to extract many of its benefits. The debate over the efficacy of PCs in schools is gaining new charge as President-elect Barack Obama proposes new federal spending to outfit classrooms with computers and wire schools for Internet access as part of his economic stimulus plan.

In many schools, PCs have failed to aid students' learning or improve test scores, or equip them with the analysis and communications skills that today's workplace demands, according to studies. The problems include a reliance on paper lesson plans that don't factor in technology, and inadequate teacher training and technical support. Also at fault, say educators, is American classrooms' occupation with teaching kids strategies for raising standardized test scores to meet provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

That often leaves little room for creative extras. Other times, school boards buy computers to prove their technical savvy to politicians and parents, without thinking through how kids will actually use the machines. "Any school that focuses on putting more computers in the classroom as their core goal will undermine the transformation that technology can provide," says Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's general manager for U.S. education.

A New Approach in Texas

Now, bolstered by the prospect of new spending on school technology programs, educators are exploring new ways to weave the computer skills seen as essential to this century's workforce into children's daily lessons. "What's exciting about the Obama plan is not just the money," says Elliot Soloway, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who studies the effect of technology in education. "He's going to help schools rethink what the kids do on a day-in, day-out basis." Giving more kids Internet access could compel teachers to switch from asking students to Google for answers to questions, to assigning more involved research projects, Soloway says.

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