The Personal Computer as Schoolmate

LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

Betty Aten, principal of Orion Elementary School in Redwood City, Calif., is part of the new breed of educators well versed in teaching the three R's--RAM, ROM and Relational Database. Orion, the public school that my two children attend, is a veritable playground for the technologically inclined. The school serves kindergarten through sixth-graders from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds.

The school year, in most districts, is drawing to a close, but this is the time for teachers to order software for next year and for parents to make their wishes known.

Orion, like a lot of elementary schools, has an Apple II in each classroom. But those machines represent the past. The future lies with the school's Research Center, equipped with a Macintosh LC, a Mac Plus and an IBM-compatible Tandy Multimedia PC.

Tools include an electronic encyclopedia, a modem and access to on-line communications services, a laser-disc player and compact disc (CD-ROM) drives.

Aten is especially impressed with the Macintosh version of the Writing Center, an easy-to-use word processing and desktop publishing program from Learning Co., (800) 852-2255. The school edition of the program ($129.95) comes with a library of "clip art" graphics and a thesaurus. A home edition is available for $89.95.

Sound is an important element in many educational programs. All Macs are capable of reproducing pretty good sound, but the internal speaker in most IBM-compatible PCs is only capable of the most rudimentary beeps and buzzes. The school's IBM-compatible Multimedia PC is equipped with a SoundBlaster board from Creative Labs. The board, which is connected to an inexpensive pair of speakers, is able to reproduce both speech and music.

Sound boards, which start at about $100, can add considerably to the enjoyment of both educational programs and games.

Speaking of games, a number of Orion children are having a great time playing SimAnt ($60) from Maxis, (800) 336-2947. The game allows children to simulate the way ants survive in the suburban jungles that we call back yards.

"I was put off by the program at first," Aten said, "until I realized that it requires children to practice problem-solving strategies." The program's instruction manual includes facts about ants. "The more kids learn about ants and their behavior," Aten added, "the better they'll do at the game." The school principal, though, does draw the line at arcade-type "shoot-'em-up games."

KidPix ($59.95) from Broderbund is another popular program. All three versions (MS-DOS, Mac and Windows) use sound and graphics that make it fun for children to create colorful paintings.

William Magid, the kindergartner in my family, gives thumbs up to the Reader Rabbit series from Learning Co. So do his parents and teachers. The programs teach word associations and reading skills in a fun format. It runs on the Macintosh, Apple II and IBM-compatible machines.

Orion children will soon be "networking" with other children. The school is about to become part of the National Geographic Kids Network. The software, which runs on Apple II, IBM-compatible and, soon, Macintosh, offers a variety of science modules on such topics as acid rain, weather, water and solar energy. A modem link allows children to collect and share real data with fellow members of an "international research team." For more information, call (800) 368-2728.

Most schools have an encyclopedia. Orion's weighs less than an ounce but is extremely robust. That's because Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia, which comes on a single compact disc, contains everything that you'd find in the full 26-volume printed version. Unlike the printed version, the CD also has 60 minutes of audio, 45 animation sequences and can be searched in several ways.

There is a natural language search that allows you to type in a question such as: "Why is the sky blue?" You can also locate articles by using the mouse to click on a picture, a place on the atlas or a location on the U.S. history timeline.

There are versions for MS-DOS, Windows and Macintosh, with prices starting about $800. The company, in cooperation with I. E. Jostens Learning Co., is about to release a special version for schools whose Macs are connected via a local area network. Compton's NewMedia can be reached at (800) 532-3766.

Schools wishing to provide in-depth computer education can benefit from ComputerVisions, a multimedia teaching system available from South-Western Publishing, (513) 271-8811 or (800) 543-7972. Designed to be used in a group setting, it includes hands-on exercises and more than 90 hours of classroom instruction, including four hours of video. The program, which includes laser discs, software and teaching materials, costs $2,600. Designed for seventh-graders through adults, it is available from Arnowitz Inc. of Mill Valley, (415) 383-2878.

For more information about educational software, consult the book "Kids and Computers: A Parents Handbook" by Judy Salpeter (Sams, $16.95). Teachers would do well to subscribe to Technology & Learning, (800) 543-4383, a magazine oriented toward teachers who use computers and related technology in the classroom.

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