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Using technology to address old problems in new ways.

After attending a school board meeting, you find yourself walking to the parking lot with the school's superintendent. She knows you are involved in technology and turns to ask: "So, what is the value of computers in education?" This is what's called an opportunity; your next sentence better be interesting. If it is, then she'll ask more questions, and by the time both of you get to your cars, the superintendent may well have learned something very important; the everyday experiences of children in your district may well be impacted. Some potential one-liners:

* "Computers and the Internet are so exciting and neat, the kids just love them."--Wrong answer.

* "Computers are the future; knowing how to work with them will help kids get jobs"--Not bad; still, it misses the point.

* "Computers can help teachers address age-old problems in education--like how do we help children learn to read--in new ways especially sensitive to the needs of this generation of learners."--Bingo! The superintendent will surely respond, "Hmm, tell me more."

Why is the third response the most appropriate? Well, school superintendents tend to be upwardly mobile, and move from district to district every four to six years. Landing the next job in the next bigger district depends, to some extent, on how well the children in their current district do on the state tests.

Superintendents can get behind programs (read: spend their scarce dollars) that address those traditional educational challenges. Rather than seeing this line of reasoning as cynical, we prefer to see it as astute:

* Superintendents control what goes on in their district; that's their job.

* Superintendents need to believe expenditures will lead to improved student learning.

* Technology in schools can only happen if sincere dollars and effort are expended.

By this point, you and the superintendent reach her car. She opens the door and asks the $64,000 question: "Can you give me an example?"

The objective of this month's column is to prepare for such a transforming conversation. In what follows, we present examples of how technology is being used to address age-old problems in literacy and numeracy in new and somewhat-new ways.

Before you get too excited and schedule an appointment with the superintendent for tomorrow we need to come perfectly clean: It is not obvious how technology can be used in new ways to address age-old problems. For instance, a particularly egregious example of this truth is found in the screen images (Figures 1a and 1b) from "Learning All About Electricity and Magnetism," a CD-ROM published by Queue. Guess what the copyright date of this CD is? 19547 Not even close--1994! The pedagogy adopted in this CD didn't work in 1954 and it still doesn't in 1994. A teacher we know paid $130 for this CD. It was on the list of acceptable computer-based materials, so the teacher ordered it. And was she disappointed. Queue should be ashamed of itself. Moreover, putting even good technology into classrooms still requires almost Herculean efforts on the parts of teachers as illustrated in the following vignette.


Middle Years Digital Library Project

Sally is preparing to carry out a six-day "online inquiry" curriculum unit on geology in her science class. Fifteen pairs of children ask their own questions such as "Why do earthquakes stop?" "How did Gelman Sciences"--a local Ann Arbor company--"pollute the ground water where I live?" Students use online resources to pursue their questions. Sally is from Plains Middle School, one of the five middle schools working in the MYDL project in collaboration with the University of Michigan. Here, then, is one day in the life of Sally and her students. (For all intents and purposes, this is a true story.)


The teachers work without a union contract due to a bizarre set of events; the union has asked that the teachers work to rule. This is a problem since the MYDL meetings are after school. Now, due to additional bizarre rules, if Sally works on the MYDL then by defacto it will become a required part of her duties, become written into her eventual contract, even though now it is considered extra.

The curriculum unit really takes 10 days, not six, and this means Sally has to remove other elements from the already jammed-packed curriculum. Sally's district science coordinator is breathing down her neck, worried that Sally is not covering the material needed by the children for their statewide tests. And Sally is being reviewed for tenure this year, thus her performance is being carefully scrutinized.

In the MYDL unit, the students don't use the Internet, they use the University of Michigan Digital Library (UMDL), a Java-based, learner-scaffolded, research support environment. Sally has found that when 11-year-olds get 14,000 hits from a typical keyword search in Yahoo, they quickly lose focus and wander off task. In contrast, the UMDL brings back just a few relevant online collections students find valuable--when it works.

The school district decided to change ISPs in the middle of the semester; the telecommunications director is organizationally isolated from the instructional side of the house and thus has no input from teachers. Now, when Sally's class of 30 students goes to the computer lab, none of the 13 computers appear to be connected to the network. Is it a district network problem? Is the UMDL down? Is the problem simply in the computer lab? Sally follows her instructions and calls three different pagers to alert different folks to the problem. What's she going to do with 30, 11-year-olds at 11 AM, right before lunch?

After herding the 30 children back upstairs to her classroom, Sally uses the three computers in the room to put a few children on the UMDL, trying to salvage something from her lesson plan. Not all the computers in her room are capable of running the Java application; she has to steer kids to the right computers.

Trying to prepare for class at home the night before, Sally wasn't able to use her desktop computer to check the online resources in the UMDL. Besides having to share the computer with her husband and children, it isn't powerful enough to run the Java applications. Moreover, the local phone connections are so poor that while she has a 33.6 modern, she rarely connects at any rate faster than 21Kb/s. Thus, Sally juggled her child-care arrangements the day before so she could stay after school and use her classroom computer, praying the network and application would work. But, we all know that in the afternoon, the Internet slows down to molasses.

The Ph.D. student who does the research on the UMDL in Sally's class is up in arms because she can't get her data that day and wants to know if Sally is going to bring her class back to the computer lab the next day. But, the lab is booked by another science teacher; Sally is out of rotation. She has lost a day, and this has turned her tightly scheduled lesson plan topsy-turvy.

At home that night Sally reflects on the debacle of the day and wonders: "Why am I trying to use computers in my classroom?"

With these sobering caveats to temper our enthusiasm, let's answer the $64,000 question and arm you for your conversation with that superintendent.

Addressing All the Kids

The following are two programs

that attempt to help youngsters learn to read:

* Reading 2 (R2), one of the programs in the highly successful Reader Rabbit series by the Learning Company; and

* Say, Say, Oh Playmate (SSOP), developed by Nichole Pinkard, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

In R2, children are told "Wordville is running out of words" (Figure 2a) and asked to construct words to help out. With a train that looks like a kindly old grandfather, the cover task is clearly make-believe. R2's (Figure 2b) first task gives students random words to combine into compound words like "pan" and "cake." When the child successfully combines a word, a gorilla pops out and tosses the gemstone/word into the railroad car. The child's score is monitored and can be displayed.


In SSOP (Figure 3a) children are asked to teach two animated characters hand-clapping, rhyming routines (e.g., "Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack All Dressed In Black Black Black"). The characters and background have a clear resemblance to the Cabrini-Green Housing Project (Chicago) where the program was first used. The words (Miss, Mack, and so forth) come from familiar clapping rhymes the children know from the playground (Figure 3b). When the child successfully puts correctly ordered words to the rhyme, the character sings out the rhyme, and the child then attaches hand clapping actions to the words (Figure 3c), which in turn animates the two characters on the playground.


Whereas R2 is built around what we as adults think children like visually (talking rabbits and kindly grandfathers) and mimics the endless paper and pencil worksheets designers used when they were children in school, SSOP, in contrast, attempts to reflect images back to the children that they recognize and feel comfortable with, and it attempts to use what children do, day-in and day-out in play, as the jumping-off point for an intellectual activity.

Both approaches work. Some children can learn effectively with R2, and some with SSOP. And some children need still other approaches. Towards providing this diversity, Pinkard has developed an architecture, Lyric Reader, that will enable other programs like SSOP to be developed. For example, Rappin' Reader is a supportive reading program that addresses the interests and imaginations of older children who listen to rap music.

If one were to take a snapshot of what reading instruction looks like in a Lyric Reader classroom, one would find some students receiving individual instruction from the teacher, other students reading real books or writing stories, some children using Rappin' Reader, others using SSOP, and still others using future programs such as Nursery Rhyme Reader. In this classroom, children get the benefits of using their own oral language as a scaffold. In this classroom, cultural differences will not be viewed as impediments to learning but as building blocks.

In contrast, we currently treat all children the same--we give 30 kids in the class the same assignment out of the same textbook. The driving constraint is the textbook. To produce it cheaply enough, it needs to be mass produced; customized textbooks, while promised by the industry, have simply not materialized to any serious extent. But those 30 kids are different. They have different learning styles; they have different levels of knowledge; they have different interests.

If we computer scientists believe our own rhetoric, using objects and web-distribution mechanisms, the costs of producing small-scale software should permit companies to make money as they create "diversity-ware." Pinkard and the Learning Company should be able to churn out a broad range of reading assistance programs. The new opportunity, then, that computational technologies afford, is being able to finally address the enormous diversity in learners--on a cost-effective basis.

An Audience is a Wonderful Motivator

The image of many readers reading this column sure motivates us to take its writing seriously. In contrast, remember back when your teacher assigned you a 10-page paper on the Pyramids of Egypt? How seriously did you really take that assignment? It's hard to get excited about yet another report that at best only your teacher will give just a once over.

But, in traveling around the country and talking with teachers, from elementary school to college, they universally and uniformly report that when students publish their own writings on the Internet, students write more and write better.

Here is a story from two graduate students in the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

"We worked for two years with teachers and students at a local high school to publish fictional works on the Internet (hi-c. index.html; africa_stories/). Students corresponded with students from other countries to learn more about these distant lands and include authentic settings and details in their stories. Students in the local high school were involved in an interdisciplinary program, and thus their writing was to include details ranging from social and political life, to geography and weather, to aesthetics of the country.

"Students first wrote drafts of their stories based on what they had learned in their classes. Then, in correspondence with a reader from another country, they posed specific questions, or asked for comments about their story draft.

"We analyzed both the final products produced by the students and interviewed students on their process. It was clear that students paid serious attention to the comments of the readers. In some cases, the comments were used to improve their stories. In other cases, the comments seemed to clue students to the complexity of the culture they wrote about, and, in essence, scared them from writing in trivial ways about another culture. Students thought about who they were writing for--both the specific correspondent, and the general Internet audience--and they each tried to create a product they would be proud of. Students told us they showed their work to their friends and family on the Internet, and they liked the idea other people could read their work."

One of the graduate students observed: "I think this effect will grow as students in future years see the work of students from previous years, and realize that their work, too, will be available to anyone on the Internet, not just while they are in the class, but for months, or years (or maybe even decades) to come."

Math: Drill and Practice is Still Drill and Practice

Besides reading and writing, children must learn arithmetic. Here's how computational media can be used to provide new (and somewhat-new) ways to address this age-old problem. Remember those worksheets you filled out practicing arithmetic? Today, we have computational versions of drill-and-practice worksheets. Math Blasters (Davidson and Associates) is typical: it embeds a worksheet in a storyline, and it gives the child an immediate reward for success. The storyline in Math Blasters is a knock-off of Stars Wars. Getting problems correct helps defeat the Bad Guys, and after completing a set of problems successfully, the child is given (considerable!) time in a shoot-'em-up game.

Given the two orders of magnitude increase in price for computer-based worksheets, is it better than paper worksheets? Response: Math Blasters has continually sold in large quantities year after year. But is it better? It certainly is more fun; and for us that translates to better.

But the real issue is this: In using computer-based worksheets, where the sole task is drilling children on form not content, we are telling them that math reduces to memorization. Even worse: we are telling them that having fun comes after learning math, on a task that has nothing to do with what they just learned? Why couldn't Math Blasters ask children to do something with the fractions once they memorized the basic facts? Why couldn't Math Blasters include a task where shooting correctly required an understanding of fractions? Then children might see that memorization and use go hand in hand. Then children might see that arithmetic is more than memorization. Given the message that we are sending to children, we shouldn't be surprised that few elect to go on and learn more math--memorize more stuff. We need to use computational media to engender in children interest in the subject matter itself, not in the ancillary tasks.

Manipulating and Linking Representations

Tenth Planet is a new educational software company that produces provocative products. In its fractions module (Figure 4), children can manipulate objects, cutting them up and laying them on top of each other, just like they could with colored pieces of paper. But, the Tenth Planet module provides a measuring table that automatically tells students what part of the whole a piece makes. The measuring table goes beyond what could be done with paper; the Tenth Planet module uses the computational medium to create a novel, useful tool relevant to the task.


The module provides children with easy, one-step access to a computer-based journal where they can annotate their math investigations with written words and spoken words. In educational jargon, Tenth Planet provides multiple linked representations (MLR)--from cut pieces of digital paper to pie charts to written text to speech. Children can manipulate each of these different representations, and then link them together in the journal. MLR works; it is a core learning and teaching strategy for helping children understand math.

And still further, using animations and video, the Tenth Planet module frames the activities with fractions in everyday, real-world contexts familiar to children (such as planting flowerbeds in a garden). Fractions are not esoteric abstractions that one only deals with in a classroom. Rather, fractions are involved in our routine activities. Now, on a case-by-case basis, a good teacher can also provide contextualizations for children; she can take children to a garden, or bring in a planting box. But almost no teacher can provide the range of contextualizations that Tenth Planet provides via multimedia.

The Tenth Planet fractions module makes much better use of the computational media than does Math Blasters. But, the cost of a fraction module is four times that of Math Blasters. Thus, it is reasonable to ask: Are these sorts of modules effective?

* Academic answer The evidence is not yet conclusive

* Gut-level answer--Children return to use and reuse the software

* Practical answer--You get what you pay for: $20 for a glorified worksheet or $80 for thoughtful learning curriculum

A fractions module needs to cost $8 and hundreds of modules for different subject areas must be available. The educational ideas underlying the production of fractions-like modules are becoming better understood. But, how do we reduce the cost from $80 to $8 and still have companies make money?

Calculus for 9-Year-Olds

While coming of age in the 1950s, we learned how to take square roots by hand. Is that the sort of math children need to be taught today, given how the workplace is changing and how ubiquitous computational appliances are becoming? So, as to hold the letters to the editor to a minimum, we concede that children need to learn such arithmetic skills as adding and subtracting. But then what? Forget square roots by hand, for heaven's sake. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the sanctioning body for K-12 math curriculum in the U.S., is currently taking on a review of the curriculum that 42 million children are exposed to in the U.S.

As players in that review process, Jim Kaput and Jeremy Roschelle argue that learners, even 9-year-olds, should learn the mathematics of change since it is an important intellectual tool for understanding dynamic systems. Even young children can learn this through the use of a new generation of computer-based visualization and simulation tools.

We can see cars move and basketballs fly through the air. Analyzing such processes was a challenge until Newton figured out how to represent dynamic processes using only static, 2D symbols. He factored out time; time became just another static symbol. The challenge that computational tools are taking on is this: putting time back into the process, thereby making it less abstract and more accessible, but still open to analysis.

For example, Figure 5 presents a screen from SimCalc where a student tries to set the constant velocity of a clown so that he arrives at the same final location as a flying woman. She flies with constant acceleration. Solving this challenge is tantamount to finding the mean value of the changing graph. The mathematics of change has shown itself to be a real challenge even for older students, let alone the younger ones. But, can you imagine SimCalc running on one of those nifty calculators that are in the hands of virtually all K-12 children? Get ready: you are going to re-learn calculus by helping your 9-year-old daughter do her homework!



Children need to learn to read and write. Children need to develop basic arithmetic competency. These skills provide the building blocks upon which children can develop expertise, pull down good jobs, and better their lot. With the dwindling number of unskilled jobs, there is an unprecedented urgency in our society for making sure all children have these core skills.

Computational technologies can play an important role in achieving this end by addressing, in new ways, the unique aspects of learners--their diversity, their need for supportive intellectual tools. However, for this vision to come about, computing needs to make strides. The cost of developing and distributing software must plummet but at the same time companies must be able to make a profit. The hardware folks have been able to pull it off.

Software is a real bottleneck: the need for good educational software is there; the ideas for developing good educational software are just about there; and the funding for educational software is also just about there. While correcting education is beyond the scope of the computing community, playing its role effectively by supplying high-quality, inexpensive software is something that we can do.

One final comment: Don't be surprised if the superintendent appoints you to the the school district's Technology Committee. Now you'll need to practice patience and humility, two skills we techies have in ample abundance. Yeah, right!

ELLIOT SOLOWAY ( is the co-director of the Highly Interactive Computing (Hi-C) project at the University of Michigan.

CATHIE NORRIS (cnorris@ is a professor in the College of Education at the University of North Texas.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Association for Computing Machinery, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Log on Education
Author:Solowasy, Elliot; Norris, Cathie
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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