When bad weather cancels outdoor recess at Moran Prairie Elementary School, students from Nancy Wolfrum’s class race back to their room, glad to have 30 more minutes inside.
Students from other classes find books or board games. Wolfrum’s fifth-graders line up to play computer CD-ROM games. Her room is the school’s electronic mecca, with seven modern computers and dozens of CD-ROM educational games.
Students even visit Wolfrum’s room before and after school to use the equipment. “Some parents come in at 4:30 and say to their children: ‘We really do have to go home now,”’ she said.
Wolfrum’s classroom - although much better equipped than most in Washington or Idaho - typifies where many schools are headed.
Education experts predict nearly every school, in 10 to 15 years, will be wired to the Internet, computers will become tutors for children more at ease with mousepads than books, and teachers will need to know as much about software as history or math.
“This technology changes the way we teach,” said Angie Parker, a Gonzaga University education professor. “It stops the teacher from standing in front of the class, trying to be the sole source of information.
“Now the teacher is the motivator or coordinator, helping students become active learners,” she said.
As K-12 educators struggle to meet high expectations in a time of tight budgets and complex politics, schools are betting on a costly technology that comes with risks and questions.
Are computers merely high-powered chalkboards, or do they require new ways of teaching or restructured classrooms?
How do schools pay for that technology when the computer industry turns out faster and better systems every two years?
Can schools train teachers adequately so computers don’t become high-priced dust collectors?
In fact, Spokane School District has grappled with buying computers for the past three years. Last week, board members chose not to put an $11 million technology levy before voters in the spring.
As classrooms get wired, should technology subsidies be given to poor schools to ensure that low-income students not become techno-illiterate?
Is fast access to volumes of information as important as developing critical analysis and strong communication skills?
The one question many schools won’t have to ask is whether or not to jump on the technology treadmill.
It’s becoming clear, said Randy Wittmer, technology coordinator for the Mead School District, that schools have no choice but to accept computers, software and CD-ROMs.
“We have kids coming into our classes with better computers at home than we have in school,” he said. “They come to our classrooms and if they see an old, inefficient machine without a CD-ROM, they see us as falling behind others.”
In schools with computers, many teachers are convinced technology can transform schools into 21st-century learning centers.
They insist students pay more attention, get better grades, even drop out less when taught in well-equipped computer classrooms.
“Kids have a fundamentally different approach to information” when computers are routinely available, said David Dwyer, head of Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, a 10-year project that tracks students’ performance across the nation.
Added Wolfrum: “Kids are different today. They’re primarily visual learners. It’s a different world from when I began teaching more than 20 years ago, when every desk was nailed to the floor.”
With the right software, a computer can run through tasks at dizzying speed, offering three-dimensional displays of scientific concepts or re-creations of historical events.
Computers, unlike TV or video, also force children to take an active role, added Gonzaga’s Parker.
“Once they feel a sense of control (over what they’re learning), things change. The technology allows students to make choices and navigate to libraries around the world.”
Some critics worry computers will deliver much less than promised, the same way radio and television failed to reshape basic education.
Others doubt that computers - despite their speed and multimedia features - can improve the essential student-to-teacher contact that learning requires.
Yale University professor David Gelertner, who studied educational software, concluded students are more entertained than educated by such technology.
“The sense of relief we felt back in the ‘50s, when our teacher let us watch movies in class, must be what many students now feel confronting much of that educational software.”
Many also say not every school needs to give students access to information around the world.
New York University professor Neil Postman says networks likely will produce information junkies, not better scholars. “Our children, like the rest of us, are suffering from information glut.”
Other critics worry rich schools will move ahead of poorer districts.
“There’s already a gap (between richer and poorer school districts),” said Dennis Small, of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office. “And that gap will only widen unless our state defines a way for schools to find a more consistent way to pay for the technology.”
How to pay for it?
Most public school districts acquire computers through special bonds or levies or by donations from firms such as Microsoft Corp.
Three years ago Spokane school officials spent $420,000 to equip six classrooms with some of the newest and fastest computers.
The goal was to turn those rooms into technology showcases to entice voters to approve a $30 million tax levy to put a computer in every classroom. Voters in 1994 rejected the levy, but the classrooms continue to use the computers.
After years of trial and error, Wolfrum has created a teaching method that sends students to and from her computers throughout the day. She posts a daily schedule that lists which students are assigned to 30-minute sessions.
After each computer session, students move to a reading assignment or science project.
Other students move in, writing or editing or taking a math exercise, such as finding which colors dominate in a typical bag of M&Ms.;
Wolfrum said the use of computers, video cameras and calculators has reinvigorated her teaching. “It freed me up. I do a lot more teaching with small groups.”
Even if computers make students more active learners, teachers can’t be passive onlookers, said Wolfrum.
“I still have checklists. I don’t let students just hunt and peck. They must have a specific goal anytime they use a computer,” she said.
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