You're wrong, but don't ask why

Missed Opportunity

September 21, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When experts in education technology look at the drilling software being used in many poor districts, they don't just see the makings of a new "digital divide." They see a wasted investment.

While it has long been assumed that poor schools lag in access to technology, many are at least as well-equipped as suburban schools thanks to a decade of heavy public spending, including $2.25 billion collected every year from telephone user fees through the E-rate program to pay for school Internet wiring. There is, on average, one computer for every five students in American classrooms today, and almost every school is connected to the Internet.

Using the billions spent on this infrastructure only for drilling programs that are often little more than electronic workbooks represents a missed opportunity, say technology experts.

"It's just taking what [schools] have been doing to make it more efficient, and that to me is missing the point," said Gordon Freedman, a California-based education technology consultant.

The test-preparation software derives from even more basic programs that became popular in the 1980s, when computer labs first appeared in schools. The programs dropped off during the 1990s, when schools found they weren't making much use of them. No Child Left Behind, with its pressure to improve test scores, has sparked a resurgence.

While education technology experts criticize the programs, they also concede they've improved. The new programs' snazzy graphics have made them more engaging for students raised on state-of-the-art video games. And, in their latest models, the makers have been trying to make the drills more substantive by, for instance, putting math exercises in the context of real-life problems.

"We used to call [the programs] `brown-bag,' but I think they're ripening," said Jan Van Dam, president of the International Society for Technology Education, which promotes the use of computers in schools.

A tour of some of the programs on display at the annual education technology convention, held in June in New Orleans, reveals some of their obvious strengths and weaknesses.

Their audio components are particularly useful for early-reading software: In one Riverdeep program, for instance, students drag the mouse to pluck the letter "e"' off of a tree and drag it to the end of words (turning, say, "mad" to "made"), and a computer voice reads aloud the changed word to show the phonetic effect of adding the "e."

At the same time, though, the programs, which cost less to design than more complex education software, often suffer for not being able to explain what students are missing when they pick the wrong answer.

A Riverdeep algebra program gives the expression s=p/2 and then gives four choices for representing the same equation, one of which is incorrect. But if a student picks incorrectly, the program just tells the student he's wrong. If the student picks the right answers and gets to the end of the string of questions, a computer voice chirps: "I guess algebra isn't so mysterious after all!"

Criticism of the programs extends even to some in the education technology industry who are benefiting from the demand for the test-prep products.

"It's generated a lot of business for us, but it drives me a little nuts that the focus is on teaching to the test," said Kate Jensen, the business development manager of Words & Numbers, a Baltimore-based company that writes the test questions for some of the drilling programs.

"The learning process gets lost. There are things to do in math and reading, wonderful, enriching activities, that have nothing to do with the assessments."

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