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George Lucas turns computers into pencils

The filmmaker aims to bring together tech and education with Edutopia--a nonprofit magazine and Web site for improving public schools.

Filmmaker George Lucas envisions turning classroom computers into something as ordinary as pencils--and, no, it doesn't only happen in the movies.

At Dreamforce, Salesforce.com's annual user conference, Lucas on Tuesday talked about his effort to bring together education and technology with Edutopia, a magazine and Web site published by The George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

In his keynote speech, Lucas noted that resources are short at many public schools but that those dollars could be stretched further with the use of technology. But, he said, teachers are often not sure what to do with all the computers that companies donate.

"The biggest problem with the technology is they don't know what they're asking for," Lucas said. "Some teachers get it, but a lot of them don't. The ones that do understand the technology know how to use it and how it works best. They do interactive learning, project-based education."

Edutopia's focus is to help instructors learn how to organize a class, using technology to enhance the experience. Google Earth, for example, could be used to teach geography to students, Lucas said.

"Don't use the computers to teach Word Perfect...use them as a tool, like a pencil, to help the educational process," Lucas said. He cited an example of having students build an airplane using a computer program, which, in turn, draws on their math skills.

"They learn math because they have to, if they want to build the plane," Lucas said. "At some point, every kid will turn to their parent or teacher and ask them, 'Why do I have to learn this? Why is it relevant to me?'"

Lucas pointed to abstract concepts and isolation as the enemies of education.

He said instructors could use technology to act as a facilitator in the classroom, prompting students to think of how they came to the answers they did, or gently steering them in the right direction so they can discover the answer for themselves, rather than standing at the front of the class and lecturing students on various subjects.

Technology can also be used to group students together on various projects, creating teams of students with diverse skills, approaches and outlooks.

"If you put everyone inside the box, they all think the same," Lucas said. "But if you put an artist or scientist together, or the fastest student with the slowest one, you will always solve problems faster, because the other would think of different things that the other one didn't. And if they are all inside the same box, you can't get to that."