COLUMN ONE : Learning a Costly Lesson on Computers : Will multimedia save our struggling schools? Many warn that euphoria over technology will produce a billion-dollar Band-Aid unless we rethink the way we teach.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I believe that ( it ) is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks."

What is this wondrous technology, and who is the visionary making this bold prediction? Bill Gates touting the power of the personal computer?

No, it was Thomas Edison, 70 years ago, talking about the motion picture.

Once, the blackboard was supposed to turn education upside down. Today, multimedia computers and telecommunications are supposed to be the silver bullets that will fix the myriad problems that plague the nation's schools.

But America's love of technological solutions often has ended in heartbreak. And history may repeat itself with the euphoria over computers and education--a fixation driven as much by the electronics industry's search for profit as any sign that PCs can turn around student performance.

It isn't that technology has no place in the classroom. Most educators believe that computers and other Information Age wonders can be powerful teaching tools. In the right hands, they inspire the brightest students as they provide new ways to reach those with learning problems.

But just as the corporate world discovered that technology did not unleash productivity until companies undertook the hard work of changing the way they did business, experts say the billions of dollars a year that schools spend on computers will yield disappointment unless educators change the way they teach.

Which computer equipment to buy, how much to spend on it and how to use the technology are issues that cannot be severed from the national debate over school reform.

"Technology alone will never do it--not without a serious incorporation into how (teachers and school administrators) do their jobs," said Jan Hawkins, director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York.

So far, such caveats have not slowed the flow of education dollars into high technology. The nation's public and private schools last year invested $2.1 billion in personal computer technology, according to a study by the Software Publishers Assn.

Some say that number needs to be higher for schools to be properly equipped. Nearly all schools now have some computers, but on average there is only one for every 14 students, according to Quality Educational Data, a Denver research firm. And California ranks 49th among the states, at one computer for every 19.8 students.

Even at that level, investment in computers competes with spending on teacher pay, books and paper as many schools face financial crises.

Companies whose main talent is selling products to schools--notably Jostens Corp., originally known for peddling class rings and high school yearbooks--have been quick to capitalize on the educational technology craze. Entertainment firms are muscling in as well. Trip Hawkins, chairman of 3DO Co., once declared his firm's advanced video game machine to be nothing less than "the greatest breakthrough in education since the invention of the printing press."

Across the country, schools are leaping aboard the bandwagon. From the elite Dalton School in Manhattan, with its state-of-the-art computer network and in-house software specialists, to scruffy Martin Luther King Elementary School in Oakland, with its shiny new, federally funded "integrated learning system," schools are racing to install new technology before parents accuse them of falling behind.

Yet there is little evidence that computers in themselves lead to sustained improvement in educational performance. American students continue to lag behind counterparts in Japan and Europe, where the computerization of education is far less advanced. Most studies suggest that a range of factors--especially teacher competence--ultimately will determine the effectiveness of computers in the schools.

For veteran educators, today's enthusiasm for computers provokes an uncomfortable sense of deja vu ; they have seen too many technical fixes. In the 1960s and early 1970s, so-called "performance contracting" -- in which corporate management techniques and early educational computer systems were applied to the performance of underachieving students -- was all the rage.

"With the winding down of the military budget ( at the end of the Vietnam War ) , a lot of companies looked to education as a big market," said David Tyack, a Stanford University professor who writes about such educational experiments. "There was an ideology: Business can solve any problem; we can guarantee how much kids will learn."

Pilot programs were set up nationwide, with one of the most prominent experiments in Texarkana, Ark. A company called Dorsett Educational Systems set up a series of "rapid learning centers" where students logged into a centralized computer to practice basic math and language skills, Tyack recounts in a paper on the trend.

Prizes were awarded for correctly finishing a programmed lesson or for advancing a grade level in mathematics or reading. But the experiment fell apart when it turned out that the Dorsett computers were giving students the answers to the standardized tests that were supposed to measure the program's effectiveness.

Performance contracting quickly fell out of favor. But computers returned in other guises. A brief enthusiasm for "computer literacy" had high school and college students learning arcane--and now almost useless--computer programming languages. The first wave of microcomputers in the early 1980s spurred hopes again.

But many schools, especially poorer ones, ended up with obsolete equipment and lacked the software and teacher training to make good use of what they had--a phenomenon detailed in a special fall, 1992, issue of the trade magazine Macworld, which warned of the creation of a "technological underclass" in America's schools.

Multimedia--the latest fad in the computer world--is supposed to change all this, finally allowing computers to live up to their educational potential. By mixing sounds, pictures and video images with traditional text-based computers, multimedia systems seem to engage children growing up in a culture of video games and MTV.

"The technology allows them to absorb things with much more vigor," said Chris Henmann, a science teacher at John F. Kennedy Jr. High School in Cupertino, a district that is part of California's model technology schools program.

"Kids are naturally curious, natural investigators, and this allows them to nurture that," he said, gesturing to his multimedia teaching station that features a computer and a laser disc player for high-quality, interactive video. "They go at it with such passion."

Hungry for the emerging market, the software and entertainment industries are spending hundreds of millions on multimedia programs. Affluent parents--fearful their kids will be left behind--are the most avid customers. Sales of educational software for the home leaped a remarkable 73% in the fourth quarter of 1993, making it the hottest niche in the software business.

Although video game-like "edutainment" programs may be more edifying than the TV watching they are supplanting at home, computer-based learning in the schools displaces other kinds of teaching--not always for reasons of educational effectiveness.

Federal financial aid programs encourage school districts with limited resources to buy integrated learning systems--self-contained computer labs that focus on drilling basic skills.

Descended from the mainframe computer-based "computer-aided instruction" systems of the 1970s, ILSs are a little bit like electronic workbooks that can adapt themselves to students' responses. A wrong answer to a question brings an explanation, and the next question will be of similar difficulty. With correct answers, the questions get progressively harder. The computer tracks the students' progress, allowing them to pick up where they left off after each session.

The leading ILS companies--Jostens Learning Corp. of San Diego and Computer Curriculum Corp., a Palo Alto-based subsidiary of Paramount Communications--have been expanding their systems' capabilities to include multimedia, providing visual and sound cues along with words. Many now can be integrated with other types of software, such as electronic encyclopedias.

But often, these systems' appeal lies in the fact that they provide a simple solution for a troubled school, paid for by the federal government. The companies employ legions of former teachers and administrators who wine and dine school officials--and coach them on how to find money for computer projects.

Under the U.S. Department of Education's Chapter I program, schools in poor neighborhoods can qualify for special funds to help underachieving students--$6.9 billion for this fiscal year. An estimated 5% to 10% of the funds, which are administered by state and local school authorities, are spent on computers.

Some evidence indicates that ILSs help improve test scores in the short term, and for years they have been accepted in many quarters as a worthwhile way to spend Chapter I funds. Just as important, they do not require the expensive teacher training, curriculum overhaul and sophisticated assessment methods that experts call critical to making the most of computers in the classroom.

"The Chapter I programs use ILSs because they have a lot of money to spend at once," said John Cradler, director of the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development in San Francisco, which evaluates programs for the California Department of Education.

At Ralph Bunche Jr. High School in Harlem, computer education specialist Paul Reese is familiar with the problem. The "school within a school" that he helps run is recognized as a technology innovator--a place where computers, teacher training and curriculum reform come together.

Yet when money became available for new machines, Reese was not able to spend it the way he wanted. The terms of a special grant from New York's Municipal Assistance Corp. required the school to buy an integrated learning system.

ILS companies reject the criticisms, pointing out that their systems, based these days on personal computers, are far more versatile than before.

"The technology now is so flexible that it's appropriate for all of our youngsters," said Proctor Houston, executive vice president of Jostens Learning Corp. "In our experience, the key to successful technology use is how it is implemented."

But implementation is the heart of the problem.

Especially in large, urban school districts, teacher training is inadequate. Technology programs are only sporadically coordinated with larger reform efforts. Too often, the computer lab is an island.

And there is an enormous problem with assessment--an extremely contentious subject in the schools even when computers are not involved.

Many educators say technology underscores the need for assessment methods deeper and more revealing than standardized testing, which is under increasing attack as outdated and racially and culturally biased.

There is growing support for so-called project-based learning--in which computers can play a central role--yet there is no cost-effective method to evaluate such techniques. That gap can make it all but impossible to determine how money should be spent: More computers, or more teacher training? More machines, or more high-level multimedia software?

"Technology is a tool, which in the hands of a good teacher can be very powerful. Kids are very attracted to it," said Marilyn Rosenblum, vice president for educational sales and marketing at Broderbund Software, a leading vendor of children's software.

"But it's not the solution to the ills of our schools," she added. "I'm scared that all the media hype and all the Wall Street hype is going to set us up for a big disappointment."

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