Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 3 / July 1, 1994 / Page 9
A great deal has begun to be written about the place of computers in the classroom, their benefits and disadvantages. This forum itself has actively promoted the introduction of technology into our educational system. While I agree with this approach in principle, I would like to introduce a note of caution into the ongoing discussion.
Technology should be introduced in the classroom on two basic levels: as a tool to promote learning, and to impart a set of computer skills that students will need in everyday life. We all recognize that students can learn computer proficiency early on. Students move from recognizing letters and shapes on a computer to mastering animated story-telling techniques, from identifying numbers to using the computer to work on spreadsheets and databases. The correct skills need to be taught at the appropriate time, and students who are ready to advance to a higher level should be given the opportunity to do so. We need teachers who can evaluate the proficiency of their students, who can judge when they are ready to approach the next level.
For there to be a successful integration of computers into the classroom, it is crucial that the teachers themselves be familiar and comfortable with the technology. It is of no use to bring equipment into the classroom if it remains unused because of a teacher's discomfort. There is no question but that instructors will have to become students themselves, until they master the new skills called for.
Educational computers can be "very demanding of teachers, requiring retraining, changes in pedagogical practices, and an entirely new body of knowledge to master. The most exciting uses of computers in education are a radical departure from current educational practices and could be threatening to educators and parents alike" (Cheever, p. 273).
For this reason, the appropriate time and resources must be allotted to promote understanding of the technology to the educators themselves, through seminars, workshops, and tutorials.
One of the tasks included in promoting understanding of the available technology is to make teachers aware of the programs currently available that aid learning. There is an ever-widening selection of software that can be used to supplement the teaching of subjects such as reading, math, science, history, and so on. Even so, courseware remains an issue. Despite this explosion of educational applications, software that can address the needs of particular curricula is still not always available. As Goodlad et al maintain, "should large numbers of good programs ever become available and the lack of them and the difficulty of writing good ones together, currently, constitute a formidable bottleneck--students will be able to work successfully and competently by themselves for portions of their time, to select courses that would otherwise not be available . . ." (Goodlad et al, pp. 14-15). The dilemma before programmers is "to bring backgrounds, interests, goals, and selected curricular activities into effective juxtaposition so that the needs of the individuals and the needs of the schools are met simultaneously" (Goodlad et al, p. 20).
Not all programs are suitable or even desirable, and it is often difficult for the layman to judge. To gain the widest amount of benefit out of any application purchase, mechanisms need to be put into place that allow for the researching of such programs and assessing their viability for the classroom, discussing how they would be incorporated into the curricula with the teachers involved, and installing them correctly once purchased. In addition, the instructors need to be able to rely on an individual who can instruct them in the use of the applications, and assist them if they run into difficulties. Without such support, the introduction of computers into the classroom depends too heavily upon the individual teacher's comfort level and technological expertise.
Computer-based education appears to best provide more individualized instruction and personalized reinforcement, a targeted approach that matches each student's abilities. There is no possibility in today's educational framework to provide instruction on a one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio. The advent of computer interactive programming into all facets of a student's education may provide additional instructive support while allowing the teacher to supervise other students.
Yet computers alone, no matter how sophisticated, will never replace the need for the human instructor. Only an actual instructor can teach students to utilize the computer-based tools to further their educational goals. Otherwise, "students could turn a pursuit of knowledge into a ramble through trivia" (Miller, 1993, p. 27). As IBM's William R. Uttal explained, "Those of us who share the enthusiasm for computer based teaching machines do so because a computer allows us not only to simulate all other classes of teaching machines but also to approach full simulation of the human tutorial process" (Uttal in Coulson, ed., 1961, p. 172, emphasis mine). What computer-based educational software will do, as it has already proven it can do, is bring students a more intuitive understanding of the real world, first capturing their interest through compelling courseware.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that technology supplements rather than supplants the role of the teacher in the classroom. For there to be a smooth integration of technology in any school system, computers must be accepted as a useful tool, and not as an end in itself.
Steve Cameron is with the Boston University's College of Communication Multimedia Center, and teaches multimedia applications in the School of Film & Broadcasting.