Hope for students, instructors
By Courtney Macavinta
October 16, 1997, 6:00 a.m. PT
special report The scene is just one of a seemingly endless stream of television ads touting the Internet these days: children in icy Alaska and sunny Mexico energetically discussing marine life with each other, all through the wonders of videoconferencing.
But teachers don't mind the commercial hype, because many are seeing computers in the classroom transport their students to worlds far away. Moreover, supporters say the technology featured in these ads is crucial to equip students with skills they'll need when entering the U.S. workforce.
"The Net has a social value for our kids. They don't get to travel, their parents can't afford to take vacations all the time. This lets them see a broader world at an earlier age," said Dinice Maiden, technology coordinator for the Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto, California. "On the Net they can learn about professions they've never heard of. They can learn to collaborate by working on projects with kids at other schools using the Net to communicate."
Despite technical obstacles, financial restraints, and disagreement over the PC's ultimate place in the classroom, teachers agree that computers have the potential to revolutionize education. And many aren't waiting for all the big-picture problems to be solved before they experiment.
Through computers and the Net, students can gain access to a plethora of research materials, learn how to process words, analyze data using spreadsheets, and show their findings in compelling multimedia presentations instead of crayons and construction paper cutouts. This process is a precursor to what the nation's corporate marketing executives and college undergrads do every day to complete projects.
"If regular school projects can't suck them in, using interactive media can," said Page McDonald, a technology teacher trainer at Walter Hays Elementary School in Palo Alto, California. "Using the Net as a research tool forces them to make choices and to identify what is relevant information. This is something many adults can't do."
Children at Walter Hays often use both books and the Internet to research projects on such topics as animal habitats. Then they incorporate written descriptions of the creature and photographs--digital and print--into a HyperStudio presentation. Other kids and parents click through the colorful portfolios during Open House.
"You can use a lot of tools--it's faster. The Net has every encyclopedia," said Austin Brown, 9, a fourth-grader at Walter Hays.
Third-graders at César Chávez Academy in East Palo Alto are also learning traditional subjects using computers. Last year, teacher Michelle Williams's students and a bilingual class published the school newspaper in Spanish and English. Sixth-graders pitched in by editing younger students' articles about a fire at a neighboring school and interviews with teachers. With the third-graders looking on, the older students designed the newspaper using Williams's new PCs and a pagination program.
This year, five Hewlett-Packard employees are mentoring her students via email. In addition, a local nonprofit called Plugged In is providing tech training for the kids, who Williams says start out not even knowing what "software" means. She is already convinced that the computer can be a meaningful component to teach any subject.
"For one project they will have to track over a two-week period what the other kids eat. Then they will input data into a spreadsheet, analyze the data, and make recommendations," Williams said. "Last year they found that the kids were eating too many sweets and not enough meat and vegetables. They said the students should eat more low-fat foods."
Others say computer programs can awaken talents in children that books and other media can't. "We?ve had students interested in designing sneakers who weren't aware of how talented they were until they used computer graphics," said Donna Mason, a computer instructor at Alice Deal Junior High in Washington. Mason has been nationally recognized by the Education Department and others for her push to use technology effectively at her school.
Three of her students created a Web site about African American history last year. The students each won a $9,000 college scholarship for their efforts.
"These kids are media babies. This is how they learn," Mason said. "They have changed, and we have to change with them."
Betty Foster agrees. The 20-year third-grade teacher has taught her kids to search the Net to research and describe the rivers, mountains, and lakes in their area around Grand Island, Nebraska. Then they exchange descriptions with children in Australia, and both groups draw pictures based on the essays.
"They studied geography, written language, and art all in one project using the Net and computers," she said. "Twenty years ago we would have simply looked at the pictures in a book, answered questions in the back of the chapter, and had a test on it. That is why lots of students didn't like geography then."
High schools and middle schools are more focused on teaching vocational skills than the primary grades. For example, in the growing Northern California high-tech community of Napa Valley, the state helped build a $2 million New Technology High School, which aims to churn out technically literate graduates. After their sophomore year at one of the two local high schools, students can transfer to New Tech High if they have a minimum 2.0 grade point average, are on track to graduate, and have passed algebra. This year the first class of 100 seniors will graduate.
"Technology is woven into their other core course work within 15 projects per year, which are always completed collaboratively using multimedia and electronic research," said Mark Morrisson, the school's principal. "Only 7 percent of the final grades are based on design. We're interested in the 93 percent behind the design--what they learned and what it means to them."
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