Computing the worth of $6 million

Students, educators, parents debate whether more computers means improved learning

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Third- and fourth-graders quietly file into the computer lab of Gastineau Elementary at 9:15 a.m. and sit down to practice their keyboarding - what an older generation called touch-typing. Many students wear headphones plugged into the computer.

A computer program presents the child with a word to type. Opaque hands on the screen hover over a screen keyboard, just as the kid's hands rest on a real keyboard. If the child makes a mistake, a ghostly computerized finger moves to the correct key.

After about 15 minutes, the substitute teacher lets the kids play games or use other software ranging from an animated story about the explorer Magellan to "Wagon Train," which requires the child to read instructions and organize a covered wagon trip.

"We've got some kids who are real reluctant readers, but they want to do that program so bad," said the school's technology assistant, Marion Kinter.

At 10, it's time to stop, but the children still stare at the screens, only the hand on the mouse moving. Even when the teacher says it's time for recess, a few children linger at the computers. Sometimes teachers have to switch the room's lights on and off to get the students' attention.

"It's terrifying. It's like Game Boy addiction," Kinter said.

Computers can be an incredibly educational tool, Kinter said, but not when kids are just plugged in. Parents and teachers need to interact with children while they're on the computer, she said.

Some critics of school computers say the harm outweighs the good, or at least the effects haven't been studied much either way.

But proponents say computers open a new world to students, provide them with more ways to express themselves and lend themselves to a type of learning that research shows is best.

Juneau, when it spent nearly $6 million since 1994 to computerize the schools, jumped on a bandwagon that has cost schools $27 billion nationwide over the past five years, according to Quality Education Data, a company that surveys schools.


The nationwide ratio of computers to children improved from 20-1 in 1990 to 6-1 by 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Juneau's elementary and middle schools have a 5-1 ratio, while the high school has a 4-1 ratio.

But has learning improved?

Unclear results

"No one has established how to use technology in ways that actually improve education," said the Alliance for Childhood in "Fool's Gold," a report issued in the fall, "let alone how to do so in a cost-effective way, compared with alternative reforms."

Educators say it's hard to isolate, out of everything going on in the classroom, what improves student achievement. Standardized test scores don't show the value of computers, some researchers say.

"There are a heck of a lot of goals for technology in education which are different from the current curriculum that is measured on standardized tests," said David Moursund, who heads up research for the International Society for Technology in Education.

Educators want children to know how to use word processors, do research on the Web or communicate through desktop publishing, none of which is measured on standardized tests, Moursund said from his office at the University of Oregon in Eugene. But those skills may be needed to get a job.

Moursund also argues that computers lend themselves to types of learning that research supports as good education - such as group projects in which students pick the topics and do real tasks, rather than listening to lectures and giving back uniform information.

"It's not that the computer is teaching the kids. It's rather the computer is changing what can be in a course. We don't measure the results of these things well on standardized tests because they assume kids are learning the same thing," Moursund said.

Students in Belmont, Calif., who made computer-based multimedia presentations were more likely than other students to have done the challenging thinking required in designing presentations, according to SRI International, a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, Calif.

Computers let students create products such as PowerPoint slide presentations, but they don't extend a person's power to deal with ideas or understand things better, said Lowell Monke, an assistant professor of education at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and a former teacher.

Some local teachers say students tend to cut and paste information from Web sites without understanding it. Sometimes when students spell-check a word on a computer, they change it to one of the "correct" words without knowing what word they meant to use.

Intermediate-age students using the Internet are not reading the content, said Kinter, the technology assistant at Gastineau.

"First of all, it's hard to read on a screen. I think it's the classic example of the thing to do - it's technology, but it's not really very efficient. But the reality is things increasingly aren't in books, magazines and catalogs," she said.

Caution in the early years?

The Alliance for Childhood - a group of mainly university professors of education, plus some physicians, psychologists and environmental educators - has called for a delay on adding more computers in elementary schools.

They make an exception for children with disabilities, for whom computers' worth as adaptive tools has been demonstrated.

The alliance argues that computers distract adults and young children from each other, and divert funds from what really improves education.

The group recommended smaller class sizes, more teacher aides and counselors, music and art programs, physical education classes, hands-on science labs, books, nutrition programs, children's health insurance and early childhood education.

But Dara Feldman of Kensington, Md., who has written about early literacy, counters that young children can start to manipulate language with computers, take photos with digital cameras as a springboard for discussion, and access information from the Internet.

"Let's get it into the hands of these young children to lay that foundation for lifelong learning," so they won't need remedial work, she said.

Dr. Marilyn Benoit, who directs children's psychiatric services at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., said she sees children's brains "overstimulated by the new multimedia environment with its sound effects and rapidly changing, attention-grabbing images."

In her 25 years as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, she has seen a disturbing trend of children getting frustrated and angry more quickly when they can't be instantly gratified. Benoit attributes it to children becoming accustomed to the instant responses of technology, including computers.

Children need to learn how to get along with others by sharing and playing with each other, said Dr. Michael Brody, chairwoman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

"Kids are better off with crayons and paper and generic dolls and playing (among) themselves, using their imagination," she said in an interview from her Potomac, Md., office.

Back at Gastineau Elementary, fifth-grader Leigh Miller explained how she intended to add her own paintings to a Web site she was creating.

"I feel less creative on the Internet because anyone can access this font or this color or this picture," she said. "There's something different about making your own thing, especially with watercolor, because you never get the same color when you mix."

Miller said she likes computers, and she doesn't think they draw children away from the real world. But she saw differences between computers and the world.

"I think it's fun to be on a computer because it's like a whole other world, especially on the Internet. It's a way to connect to everybody. It's kind of like a whole new way to look at everything. Because, well, the world doesn't exactly look like the Internet," Miller said. The Internet is "a lot cleaner."

At Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, eighth-grader Trevor Fritz said word processing on a computer helps writing because it's easier to make corrections. But Steven Ryals, a sixth-grader at the same school, said it's easier to write by hand because you "can see all the stuff around you," rather than just the computer screen.

It's not all computers

"The trouble really," said Edward Miller, co-editor of "Fool's Gold," "is that too often what kids actually end up doing with computers is not as good as what they would get in a regular old classroom with a regular old teacher.

"It's not richer, in fact. What really makes for a richer learning experience is having an adult respond to a kid's particular needs, questions and misunderstandings," he said from his Cambridge, Mass., home.

Local teachers say young children still get plenty of instruction from teachers, play, reading, and hands-on paper-and-pencil work. Computers are just another tool, they say.

Besides, many elementary students in Juneau use the school's computer lab for about an hour or two a week, and use classroom computers occasionally.

Becky Engstrom, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Gastineau, said her students do several drafts on paper, talking to each other about the content. They look up misspelled words in the dictionary.

"The last step in the writing process is to publish your book," Engstrom said. That's where computers come in, providing a polished look and making the children feel they can be professional writers.

Riordan Burch teaches a third- and fourth-grade class at Riverbend Elementary and has trained other teachers in computer use. Three computers sit in his classroom, as does a TV, but there are packed bookcases and plastic crates stuffed with hands-on materials. Students' hand-drawn posters and hand-made models of the brain hang from the ceiling.

Burch won't let kids illustrate projects with clip art from computer sites; they have to make their own. He doesn't ask students to turn in typed work very often, and then only after it's been written and rewritten by hand.

He created a classroom Web site with links to other sites that he chose for their educational value and appropriateness for his students' ages. He doesn't let students surf the Internet unattended.

"It's not that technology is all-encompassing," Burch said. "It's like taking your project and adding one little piece."

Sara Raster, parent of a kindergartner and a third-grader at Mendenhall River Community School, said her children don't spend much time in the computer lab at school, "so I don't think it takes away from other things they should be doing."

During computer time for her kindergartner, the children are talking with each other, Raster said. "It's not really solo time, when they're isolated from the other kids."

Raster thinks the computers are worthwhile, partly because they help serve children with varied learning styles. But she said it's valid to ask whether computerizing the schools was worth $6 million.

"If the question were to arise today - should we spend $6 million on computers - I'd think, 'There are a lot of places we need to improve. Is this the best place to spend the money?' I don't know," Raster said.

Some want more

The concerns come as the White House and a federal Web-Based Education Commission, created by Congress, are pushing for more computers in the schools and teachers better trained in their use.

"The computer takes the learning and gives it back to the kids and it empowers the learner. No longer are children restricted to knowing only what the teacher knows," said commission member Patti Abraham, a professor of technology and education at Mississippi State University in Starkville.

The Internet, with its research capability and such features as virtual tours of museums, "opens the door to the world for children and teachers," Abraham said.

Children benefit from interacting with computer programs and Internet sites, she suggested. "The more senses you use, the better you learn something. The fact you can see, you can hear, you can do something, does help the learning."

Betty Carlson, a science and math teacher of gifted students at Auke Bay Elementary, taught students to write a computer program that allowed them to create a undersea environment and set in motion a food chain of creatures eating each other.

"With this," she said, pointing to a screen showing multiplying krill and a lone shark, "they got to see the repercussions happening in front of them," Carlson said. "They really had an in-depth understanding of how a food chain works."

Curriculum support

Local teachers say they use computers to support the curriculum.

"We use technology as a tool, as opposed to an isolated subject," said Janet Valentour, a social studies and language arts teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. Teachers encourage students to decide when to use technology and what kind to use, she said.

Valentour showed a brochure designed on a computer by a group of sixth-grade girls. Their project fell under the broad topic: How does change occur? The girls decided to try to change the rule against classroom pets. They surveyed students on what animals they'd like to see in the classroom and presented the answers in pie charts. They researched the costs of keeping different pets and presented the written results with photos.

Of course, some student computer projects could be done on paper. What children once taped to the refrigerator door is now being put on a Web site. Why use a computer?

"I think the computer adds an opportunity for revision and quality that communicates a little more pride perhaps in students' work," Valentour said.

Other educators say students are motivated to work on a computer.

"Here is the wonderful thing about publishing on the Web, whether anyone reads it or not: Kids take it more seriously, think more about what they are doing, and write better because of it," said Jason Ohler, director of the Educational Technology Program at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Carlson said her students get more passionate about a topic and study it more slowly and deeply when they use computers.

Getting a job

Although proponents of school computers inevitably say technology isn't being used for its own sake, they also say students need to be familiar with computers because they'll use them on the job.

"I think in this society, there's no choice anymore," said Dave Newton, principal at Auke Bay Elementary.

School and library computers allow all children to have access to them, said Juneau School Board member Chuck Cohen.

There's also no choice because the state's content standards for schools require students to be able to use computers to locate information, solve problems, express ideas and exchange information.

Critics of computers in the early grades say high school is soon enough to learn touch-typing and computer programs. Besides, technology changes so fast that programs learned in fourth grade, for example, won't be much use eight or 12 years later when the students look for a job, they say.

And at a time when students' work on the computer is often called a "product," some educators are concerned that computers lend themselves to a stunted, career-oriented philosophy of education.

Computers take away the sense that schools are dealing with whole human beings in a society, and not just developing students skills so students can be economic units in economic machinery, said Monke, the professor of education.

But Monke supports having plenty of computers in high schools.

In the art department at Juneau-Douglas High School, teachers see computers as a tool, not as the place to learn art. Some students take classes in graphic arts or animation that blend time on the computer with hands-on work to learn theory.

"They're learning all the regular, old graphic technique, but they're learning it through the computer," said art teacher Tom Manning. "They're learning on the real-world equipment."

Art teacher Jan Neimeyer's students use computers to connect school to the real world, she said. The students create posters, programs and logos for real clients such as nonprofit organizations that have deadlines and expectations.

"There's some higher-level problem-solving going on," Neimeyer said. "You have to learn the computer and the design."

"The technology of computers has been a real boom for education," said JDHS science department head Erik Lundquist.

Students use laptop computers with electronic probes for measuring temperature, pH, pressure and light intensity, Lundquist said.

"Because of these, students can acquire information very quickly and focus on the analysis of relationships in the data. Laptops help us continue with our emphasis on hands-on learning while using time efficiently. Ten years ago this would have been a very labor-intensive task for students," he said.

"The Internet has allowed us to expect in-depth research in science by our students," Lundquist added.

George Gress, head of the JDHS English department, said its teachers will spend part of their time under a new $135,000 technology grant asking why they are using technology.

Gress said students write more with word processors and organize their material better than they do by hand, and that should translate to better scores on standardized tests.

But teachers are concerned about committing to technology that isn't dependable, and whose uses can lead to haste instead of thoughtful reflection, he said.

Business has put the onus on schools to use computers to prepare students, Gress said.

"How do you get kids prepared? Put them in front of a computer. It seemed like an easy fix. We know there's a lot more to it now," Gress said.

Danielle Tonkin, a JDHS senior and self-confessed computer nerd, says she can express herself better on a computer.

But she added, "Technology's growing so fast it's kind of overshadowing everything we still need," like teachers, pen and paper work and the basics.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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