Innovative computer technology threatens to leave Big Bird behind

THE EDUCATION BEAT

June 13, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

If you thought it was tough keeping up with your children's homework. . . .

At Cromwell Valley Elementary, Sarah Holland chooses a software program from the "file server" displayed on her computer, one of 160 terminals for 400 children.

She draws a picture in three colors, then steps a few feet away to retrieve her personal disc. Returning to her computer, she inserts the disc and saves her project "to disc." She'll come back to it later.

She is 5 years old.

Elsewhere at Cromwell, one of two technology "magnet schools" in Baltimore County, essays on the meaning of art are posted on a hallway bulletin board. Requested by students and transmitted on the Internet -- the worldwide computer information network -- they come from students in Slovenia, Sweden, Utah -- and Dundalk.

In northwest Baltimore County, Church Lane Elementary students watch as the fables they have written by computer and sent by fax to Scottsdale, Ariz., are performed live by professional actors and telecast by satellite to hundreds of schools across the nation.

CD-ROMS, common in both schools, allow students to explore DTC the sights and sounds of hundreds of subjects, from the life cycle of the frog to the Amazon rain forest.

Students at Cromwell Valley "talk" by computer in "real time" to Zlata Filipovic, the 11-year-old girl whose diary, a moving chronicle of terror, war and death during Sarajevo's 15-month siege by rebel Serbs, has captured the world's sympathy and imagination.

At Church Lane, students interview a spelunker as they watch him descend into a West Virginia cave. The telecast is live.

At both schools, students exchange letters by the Internet with "key pals" around the world.

And at both schools, all students spend at least 15 minutes a day at computer terminals in self-paced reading and mathematics exercises. With each key stroke, the computer tracks the students' progress, spotting strengths and weaknesses, noting response time and reporting to any teacher willing to press a couple of keys.

It's called an "integrated learning system," and the nation's two big computer education companies, Computer Curriculum Corp. and Jostens Inc., are locked in combat over who will come out on top in a lucrative field.

CCC has made Church Lane its Maryland showcase; Jostens recently held a ceremony at Cromwell Valley to mark its 10,000th school.

The nation's schools spent $2.4 billion last year on technology -- computers, laser discs, CD-ROM drives and the like.

This may be the first revolution in educational technology to actually take hold. Ninety-nine years ago, Thomas Edison's film projector was going to change the face of education. It didn't.

Then there were the "radio schools of the air" in the 1930s, and of course, television in the 1950s. None of these innovations fundamentally changed education, although TV introduced a generation to Big Bird and the other characters on "Sesame Street" and helped teach lots of children how to read and count. But the computer revolution is fundamentally different from its predecessors, says Cromwell Valley's principal, Theresa M. Flak. "The computer is pervasive in our lives," she says. "It's everywhere you look, and it will be for years to come. The kids in this school will have jobs in 20 years that we can't imagine today."

Benson Maser, Ms. Flak's counterpart at Church Lane, notes another difference: Television, until it recently became a two-way medium (thanks to computer technology), made passive receivers of students. The computer requires them to be active, to be "producers rather than consumers," says Ms. Flak.

But the computer revolution promises something else: to widen the gulf between haves and have-nots in American education. Even where schools in poor districts have large numbers of computers, such as at the "Tesseract" schools managed by Education Alternatives Inc. in Baltimore City, the terminals are used primarily for "drill and kill" exercises, not for high-quality instruction in which students create their own programs, working with CD-ROMS, databases, spreadsheets and drawing programs.

And installing and maintaining a computer system in a school is expensive -- especially if the school is old, full of asbestos and plagued by poor wiring, as many urban schools are. Start-up costs are considerable; to replicate the Church Lane program at nearby Hebbville Elementary School would cost about $250,000, according to Mr. Maser.

Each terminal, or "work station," costs about $500 a year for upgrading, licensing and teacher training, he said.

The question of computer equity -- and many more -- will be discussed by more than 5,000 teachers and college professors gathering at the Baltimore Convention Center on Friday for the National Educational Computing Association's annual three-day conference. The convention, with Towson State University as the host, is open to the public. Call 830-3868.

Investment paying off

Three years ago, Magdalene Fennell, a retired Baltimore principal, and her husband, Harold, a retired city department head, decided to give something back to the city that had employed them. The couple adopted a 31-student fifth-grade class at Hilton Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore and invested $3,100 -- $100 for each student -- vowing to distribute the proceeds evenly among those who stay in school and graduate in 1999.

Mr. Fennell said yesterday that only two of the students are "questionable" three years later, one of whom has dropped out. "We've tried to mentor kids on the edge," said Mr. Fennell, "and we've had some luck."

The students now attend 16 schools, many outside the city, he said, and the original nest egg has quadrupled to about $12,000.

Mrs. Fennell was volunteering at Hilton when the couple formed the "Hilton Education Club," which will hold its fourth annual meeting at 5 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

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