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SCHOOLS COLUMN: Finding the right place for computers in the classroom

Iíve used computers for many years and many purposes, and am fascinated by their potential. But Iíve seen them used with varying degrees of effectiveness in the classroom and continue to struggle with how best to use them in education.

Iím not alone. The 1999 Report of the National Reading Panel says use of computer technology for reading instruction shows promise but more research is needed. ďIn sum, the panel is encouraged by the reported successes in the use of computer technology for reading instruction, but relatively few specific instructional applications can be gleaned from the research. Many questions still need to be addressed.Ē

I made some gains in my understanding of this issue last week, oddly enough, in the parking lot of my sisterís church. Sherwood Forest Free Will Baptist in El Sobrante runs a school on site. The school is planning to incorporate computer-based instruction in the coming school year. The firm they are working with, Alpha Omega Publications, has an RV set up to demonstrate the system, and it was at the school to give parents and staff a chance to try the materials and ask questions. The system Sherwood Forest will use is called Switched-on Schoolhouse and is designed for Christian schools and home schoolers.

Representatives of the company and school said the advantages of computer-aided instruction include allowing students to work at their own pace. This is particularly helpful when a teacher is responsible for students in more than one grade. But even within a grade there is a wide range of abilities, and each child can be at one ability level in one subject and another level in another, they noted.

I asked what happens if the student canít read the information on the page. The software, the company rep told me, starts at third grade level. Before that, he said, the student is learning to read and should be doing a lot of work off the computer. Good answer.

But my favorite answer was to my question about the limitations of the computer. What about human interaction, and questions that canít be answered by choosing from among pre-set choices?

The computer, he explained, doesnít take the place of the teacher, it takes the place of the textbook. When you put it that way, this is long overdue. I discovered a few years ago how much more exciting CD encyclopedias are than the book kind, with video and audio clips, links to other sections and websites, and frequent updates. So this isnít a big leap.

The computer can do things like pronounce vocabulary words, give and grade quizzes, and demonstrate how to do a math problem the student has missed. And the things it canít do Ė like find another way to teach the lesson if the student still doesnít understand, assign open-ended projects based on student interest, and foster constructive interaction among the students -- are left to the teacher.

In a way, it's simple. As with any other educational tool, the teacher needs to understand what itís good for and what must be accomplished another way.

This column was written by Wire editor Betty King Buginas for the West County Times and appeared in that publicaton June 18, 2002.

Run dates: 2002-06-28 - 2002-07-12

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