If wired right, computers do belong in classrooms

A buzzed-about U.S. Department of Education study released this month found that some popular software programs schools use to teach math and reading are pretty worthless.

I’m a chump for any pedagogic tool that beeps or lets me click on animated bunnies, so I was ready to write skeptically about the study. Then advocates for the industry that sells many billions of dollars worth of these programs each year told me this slam against software is part of a vast Bush administration conspiracy to deprive America’s children of a future, and I became skeptical of my skepticism.

The study, ordered by Congress back when it approved the federal No Child Left Behind Act, tracked 15 reading and math software programs as used in first-, fourth- and sixth-grade classes at 132 schools nationwide.

Phoebe Cottingham, the Department of Education’s commissioner of evaluation, said the study used “gold standard” scientific methods to gauge the software’s effectiveness in raising student academic performance.


The report doesn’t claim to speak for the multitude of products being used in classrooms, and more studies are in order, she said. Yet the inescapable conclusion, she added, is that despite all the time students spent sitting before computers, the data didn’t show more than a blip of increased learning.

“I don’t think anyone expected it would come out so flat,” she said.

Actually, Don Knezek, who heads the International Society for Technology in Education, would have predicted just that outcome.

“There’s been,” he said, “a deliberate effort to discredit and eliminate technology in schools.... We’ve clearly seen our Department of Education and this administration sit back while we’ve fallen behind on the world stage in education.”

I met Knezek in July, at his organization’s sprawling conference in San Diego. He seems a swell guy, and his conference fired me with hope that technology is our last best hope for keeping up as schools in China, India and the Philippines crank out brilliant prodigies.

I still think that. But I also have a hard time imagining Dick Cheney or Karl Rove quietly ordering Ed Dept. toadies to make software look bad so that America can return to the simpler, cheaper teaching methods of the 1950s.

To increase my understanding, I visited USC’s Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey. Carole Beal, a former professor of child development and education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has been working with brainy grad students to develop educational software that transcends the rote “drill-and-kill.”

She is familiar with many of the programs in the software study and says she wasn’t surprised that they didn’t produce big results. The problem, she said, is that only one of those tested uses the sort of artificial intelligence technology that encourages high-level interactivity.

USC’s programmers, for example, are developing questions to assess students’ learning styles and eagerness to improve their grasp of material. They are tweaking the software to predict where the student’s acquisition of information will lead, tossing up new challenges at a pace that the student will find motivating. They’re watching students use their work at several campuses in the district and adapting accordingly.

To see how more traditional software is used in classes, I dropped by William Mulholland Middle School in Van Nuys at the suggestion of Themy Sparangis, the district’s technology bigwig. The school’s energetic principal, John White, has been a strong advocate of technology and created a position of “tech coordinator” to make sure it’s well used.

Teachers send students onto Google Earth in search of geological formations and hand them digital cameras. Bulletin boards are covered with images of students’ faces, their emotions wildly accentuated with Photoshop software. They also put rather old-fashioned programs to what seems pretty solid use.

David Ruiz, an eighth-grader in an advanced English language class has been using a program called Study Island since sixth grade. As I watched, he read a passage from an essay and responded to a tough English question, the answer to which was “allusion.” As a reward, he got to play a snippet of a computer game in which a little skier got big air off a jump.

“If I give my student this type of passage in a book it will take three times longer,” says Noemi Flores, the teacher. “They like the colors. They like being able to enlarge the type.... They’re teenagers.”

Call me an industry cheerleader, but what I see at Mulholland suggests that computers are already helping students learn and will become increasingly important year by year.

Call me a Bush apologist, but I think that every classroom teacher, flesh and bone or silicone and circuitry, should be subjected to rigorous, objective assessment.

When a good teacher and good technology get together, watch out.

Hillary Zana’s sixth-grade social studies class seems like a case study. Her students had just watched an online video clip from about education in the age of globalization, and they were answering questions -- online, for all to see and discuss -- about technology’s role in classrooms.

Zana steered me to an entry by Juan Marrouquin, 12, arguing that technology, though helpful, is not without limits. “If a professor is explaining something like quantum physics,” the boy wrote, “it’s better to just sit and listen.”

USC’s Beal may take exception to Juan’s implication that computers will never have the insight to help out on such tough matters.

You older readers will be pleased to hear how Zana rewarded Juan for his smartness and techno-savvy: He was allowed to sit in the back of the class reading an old-fashioned, paperback novel. He seemed completely absorbed.

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