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Computers, Schools & Families: A Radical Vision for Public Education

by DR. JERRY DEBENHAM, Research Associate and DR. GERALD R. SMITH, Associate Professor University of Utah Salt Lake City, Utah Americans are dissatisfied with their public schools and have long talked about how to finance alternatives through vouchers. But a real alternative is rapidly emerging in the form of computer-aided instruction in the home. Thus, competition for schools in the near future will not be from other schools, but from the home computer. There will soon be so much high-quality learning available on a home computer that public schools will increasingly lose their instructional role and functions. Parents all across America are buying computers in record numbers and purchasing software that entertains and educates their children. In middle class neighborhoods, up to 75% of families now have home computers. The Software Publisher's Association reports that sales to families were up 87% in the first three months of 1993 alone. And predictions are that by the year 2000 about 80% of all families will own computers. Surveys (by software and hardware companies) show that the leading reason for a family purchase of a home PC is not entertainment or after-hours office work but home learning.1 Parents want to give their children a head start on the technology of the next generation. And they want to know which programs are used at school and whether they should get the same software for their home. Indeed, the home market is becoming so strong that software developers cannot resist. It is easier and cheaper to sell to homes than to schools. Plus there are millions of homes, versus thousands of schools. Generally, software produced specifically for the home lacks the recordkeeping, network links and teacher manuals required by educators. This trend may put schools at a further disadvantage, rendering them unable to keep up with what is offered in students' own homes. "With a rapidly growing home market and schools that are strapped for money, there is the danger that fewer and fewer school-oriented titles will be authorized by...software companies."2 In any case, most schools will not be able to realize the multimedia dream for every classroom in any foreseeable future. This dream, however, can and will be realized in the safety of the homes of many, if not most, children. A New Partnership Even as the schools are taking on more responsibilities traditionally left to parents (such as medical, psychological and dietary needs), homes are increasingly equipped and capable of taking on the instructional functions of the schools through the use of computers. Whether we like it or not, instruction is moving out of the schools and into the home. Educators can become a positive part of this trend by exploiting the instructional resources found in the emerging multimedia-equipped home. As powerful as a computer is for home-based learning, there is still a real need for public schools. We would like to present a new vision of the future, one in which school- and home-based learning are combined. Our vision shifts much of the instruction back to the home environment. This will help to strengthen the family by involving parents more directly in their children's education. It will create jobs for thousands of adults who want to work from out of their homes. And it will greatly increase the efficiency of public schools as well as help to stabilize cost increases. Education, under our scenario, will occur both at school and at home through the extensive use of computer technology. The home will be seen as an extension of school; the school will serve to coordinate home learning. Finally, educating parents on how to use the technology will be just as important as educating children. New Roles What will be the respective roles in this new partnership be-tween schools and families? Actually, they are fairly simple to understand. Overgeneralizing, individualized learning would be emphasized in the home while schools focused on cooperative and other group-oriented instruction. Moving the multimedia dream out of the school and into the home makes a lot of sense. Why should we automate the classroom when there are so many learning activities that require teacher direction, role models, counselors and groups in order to be effective? The school should focus on these type of learning experiences and leave individualized instruction to computer automation in homes or small learning centers. Individualized instruction can be better done with computers. Each student progresses through academic lessons at his or her own pace, replacing the lock-step approach of the current classroom in which all students move at the same pace, some learning and some not. CAI gives individualized attention, takes into account any learning difficulties and allows the student to master each lesson before advancing to the next. A school can set mastery standards within the software then administer exams to ensure that these standards are being met. The Financial Bottom Line Financial necessity is the basis for the business world's recent and rapid changes. American public schools are also under pressure, from citizens revolting against higher property taxes. The public wants concrete gains in efficiency, not just promises of "better learning." Shifting the multimedia revolution into the home, however, can create the efficiency gains the public demands. For example, if we limit schools' activities to group-learning projects and assume that the bulk of individualized instruction will occur in the home or a small learning center, then schools can cut the length of the school day in half and double the use of their facilities. There will be two shifts -- half of the children come to school in the morning for three hours, the other half come in the afternoon. Instead of teaching academic subjects as they used to, instructors will conduct group activities, monitor and guide students' progress, and administer tests and other instruments of assessment. In our vision, schools would provide educational software free for use in the home. Computer hardware would be loaned to needy families or purchases could be subsidized by grants. Children with working parents would go to small community-based learning centers or private homes contracting to monitor students' computer-assisted learning. How will students study on the computer at home when, in approximately 70% of all families that have two parents, both parents work? We propose parents be issued something equivalent to a voucher that could be used to enhance family income if a parent wants to stay at home and monitor their children's instruction, or could be used at community-based learning centers to pay for their services. Such learning centers could be based in homes and run by parents like small pre-schools, or could be commercial enterprises created to perform this service, like the Los Angeles-based FutureKids, Inc. This shift in the location of instruction would allow each professional teacher to teach twice as many children due to the two shifts. Efficiency of both personnel and facilities would be drastically increased. Huge savings to schools would result. Part of this could pay for the vouchers. Part could be used to purchase the standardized, curriculum-based software that would be given to parents. And part of the savings should be used to raise teacher salaries so that the most talented people will continue to be attracted to the field. Perhaps there would also be some funds available to conduct free instruction for parents at schools in the evenings or on weekends. Realizing "Computer Home Study" We know of no districts in the nation that are actually implementing the program we propose. However, financial necessity, public security, sophisticated software, and the need to strengthen and involve the family are all causing educators to look seriously at new options. Teachers need to be shown that the public wants technology in the schools, but only if it improves learning and reduces costs. Further, the only way that teachers can get substantial increases in salaries and greater professional status is through a plan that greatly increases their efficiency. For this new vision of public education to work, government must help standardize the computer curriculum and aid in the development and purchase of academic software for placement into students' homes. Companies should compete for the right to develop the hardware and software that will be provided to families nationwide. Significant increases in learning will be possible only by standardizing instruction at the high-quality levels that are provided by software and by the use of vouchers to select both the software and community learning centers that are most successful at achieving instructional goals. What Can Be Done Now? What can we as parents and educators do while we wait for these changes in the system? Obviously, we can try to provide computers and software for our children, but which programs and how do we get students to really learn something from them? There is relatively little comprehensive instructional software; much of what is being produced today is "edutainment" -- a gaming approach to teaching a small amount of educational content. There is little in this software that would suit serious, long-term instruction in the format we propose. Because we believe that the limited learning achieved with most educational software could be significantly improved with supplemental programs that tutor students on the content of the most important material, we set out to design a software program teachers could use to create individualized lessons that would focus a student's learning. Our initial effort resulted in Computer Tutor, which allowed teachers to create interactive matching-, recall- and essay-style examinations that the computer scored, as well as review and practice exercises. Computer Tutor was designed to teach basic concepts and larger conceptual ideas, and was geared to a specific text or software program that provided the knowledge presentation.3 Our most recent effort is RoboTutor, a program expressly designed to address what we perceive is the principle limitation of current educational software: A lack of focused tutorials to review the most critical ideas and the absence of testing and record keeping functions to assess mastery. RoboTutor is designed for K-12 levels. It allows students and teachers to quickly develop new tutorials, study materials and tests. Field Testing in Pilot Sites Jordan School District in Sandy, Utah, has begun a Computer Home Study Program in some of its schools. We have been working with the teachers and principals to reach these objectives: Get teachers involved in recommending appropriate software as well as designing computer tutorials from their own lessons. Get the same software used both at school and in children's homes. Teach children and parents how to create their own lessons on a computer to meet specific learning needs. Educate parents on the value and need to take an active role in their children's education by using a home computer. We felt teachers would be more committed to technology and see its value for learning if the computer had lessons containing their own material, not just "canned" material. After trying to train teachers how to use commercial authoring packages, we decided that if a teacher can't learn how to use a program in an hour and set up a new lesson in 15 minutes, it won't get done! Thus, we specifically designed RoboTutor so that teachers could author tutorial lessons in 15 minutes. We began field testing our RoboTutor software in the fall of 1993. For instance, some elementary school teachers put all their vocabulary words for the year into the program. There were generally 30 to 40 lessons with 12 to 20 concepts, definitions and explanations in each lesson. In another case, RoboTutor was user-friendly enough to enable third- through sixth-grade students to design their own lessons on a variety of subjects. A middle school teacher set up over 100 Spanish lessons and sent them home. At this time, extensive vocabulary lessons for grades one through seven are set up. Other applications are now underway in a variety of fields from geography to logic and science. The results of teachers and families both using the same software (RoboTutor), especially teachers producing their own material and sending it home for use on computers, has been encouraging. Students have enjoyed having it on their home computer, all setup with exercises, games and tests to help them learn concepts. Parents appreciate its effectiveness. If children do the exercises, they almost always get very high scores on exams. Teachers like the ability to create unlimited random tests, do in-class competitions, keep detailed records, and formalize their goals and objectives. Thus, in these Utah schools both teachers and parents are learning that computers can be very effective instructors when coordinated by the school and used at home. One Way to Involve Parents Interestingly, many parents have become so accustomed to schools doing virtually all the educating that they actively resist taking on any responsibility for educating their children at home. They need to be shown that with the aid of good software, they may actually be able to do a better job of educating than what is being done at school. However, parents need a lot of help in getting started -- how to use a computer; how to find good, affordable educational software; and how to motivate children when teachers do not support computer-based home study and there is little time left at the end of the day. To begin this process, we started a Parent Computer Home Study Club. Every month we have an evening meeting at the school for all parents. Announcements are made at school, in PTA newsletters and by personal invitation. At these meetings we deal with many topics, but generally focus on new educational products. If parents want any of this software, then we negotiate for large discounts with the suppliers. We also show, and make available to parents, "shareware" programs that we have reviewed and found to be of considerable educational merit. A small BBS has been set up for parents to use and download shareware as well as the growing body of teacher-produced tutorials. We also demonstrate new hardware, color printers and multimedia equipment. Leading vs. Following The success of our efforts to lead the educational technology revolution rather than following it is encouraging other school districts in Utah to try some of our ideas. Plus, parents are forming their own social and computer networks for the purpose of improving their children's education. This trend toward home- and small learning center-based instruction is happening not just in Utah, but across the country. Public schools can become a part of it, assist it, guide it and, in the process, build a new model of public education that uses both parents and teachers to accomplish educational goals. The introduction of educational technology into the home is beginning to reverse the trend of schools taking on more and more family responsibilities. This will be good for both schools and families. Using vouchers to finance the home study part of our proposal will make it possible to set national standards, develop sophisticated programs, and eliminate pedagogical approaches and learning centers that do not perform satisfactorily. Of course, there will be many problems to resolve as we attempt to reform American education by automating much of its instructional functions and shifting the location of individualized learning into homes and small learning centers. Even if public school educators do not take the lead, the shift to home-based learning will still occur. Indeed, it is happening now! A big concern is that, if left undirected, it will take hold only in the homes of the educated and prosperous, leaving out the under-educated and the poor; that private schools will adopt it, but public schools will be left out. In this regard, it is vital that home-based learning be consciously directed and integrated into public education. For more information on RoboTutor, Computer Tutor, the Computer Home Study Program, or the Parent Computer Club, contact: Gerald Smith, Dept. of Sociology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, (801) 581-8132, fax: (801) 585-3784, e-mail: gsmith@freud.sbs.utah.edu. References: 1. Brady, H., "Computers for Home Learning," Technology & Learning, 14(3), pp. 56-59, 1993. 2. Eisner, L., "Educating our Kids," Technology & Learning, 14(2), p. 28, 1993. 3. Computer Tutor is described in detail in our article, "Automating University Teaching by the Year 2000," T.H.E. Journal, August, 1993.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.

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