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Soviets Fear Computer Gap : Schools Main Target of Effort to Catch West

March 30, 1986|WILLIAM C. REMPEL | Times Staff Writer

On the eve of Moscow's annual military parade commemorating the Russian Revolution, a visiting American last fall expressed respect for the apparent strength and fitness of young Soviet soldiers compared to "soft American kids." His Soviet companion shrugged and smiled: "Yes, but this is the electronic age. We worry about your boys learning to play with computers."

His somewhat playful response masks a serious Soviet concern that American computer education is creating a widening technology gap with troubling implications for the Soviet Union's future scientific, industrial and military positions.

"They're genuinely concerned about what they see going on in the U.S.," said Loren R. Graham, a specialist on Soviet science policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"They see American young people learning about computers from grade school, and they're fearful that if they don't do something, they won't be able to compete . . . with the next generation. They are scared to death about computers," Graham said.

In fact, nowhere is the computer gap more prominent than in the schools. For example, most Soviet students who take computer instruction rely exclusively on textbooks and are taught by teachers who may never have touched a working computer. A leading Soviet scientist compared that to teaching children to ride a bicycle "without the bicycle."

By comparison, there are nearly 2 million personal computers in American schools today, many of them commonly available even to kindergartners.

"If the Soviets want to continue to turn out scientists and engineers, it's very important that they bring computers into the school curriculum," Albert A. Eisenstat, vice president of Apple Computer, said in a recent interview.

Gorbachev Pushes Technology

Last spring, Soviet officials announced a massive five-year program to put 1 million personal computers into Russia's 60,000 secondary schools by 1990. That goal, almost immediately reduced to 500,000 computers, is regarded as a first step in Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's plan to revive inefficient Soviet industry with the help of widespread computerization.

Gorbachev, regarded as "a technological revolutionary" by Marshall Shulman, director of Soviet studies at Columbia University, sees technology as the key to increasing Soviet production. Shulman said Gorbachev recognizes that technology advances are vital if the Soviet Union is going to compete in a world economy "largely centered at this stage of the industrial revolution around technology."

Announcement of the Soviet computer education plan coincided with the significant easing last year of Western export restrictions on small, technologically simple computers--a convergence of events that in recent months has attracted dozens of U.S. and European computer makers to Moscow in hopes of breaking into the untapped Russian market.

Among the computer makers exploring the Soviet market are IBM and Commodore, as well as Apple, the computer company that dominates America's school market.

"Potentially, it's a big market. God knows, they've got a lot of schoolchildren," Apple's Eisenstat said.

Gap Growing

But, despite the improved--and even favorable--trade conditions, little computer trade has developed. Soviet computer education goals remain distant and elusive, and the computer gap continues to grow.

"I think the personal computer wave really caught them unawares," MIT's Graham said. "There's always been a computer gap, but what caused it to really grow was when computers took off in the civilian economy of the West.

"In the U.S., computers spread like wildfire into banking, business and industry. Now the computer industry here is being driven by the civilian economy, and the Soviet Union has not been able to keep pace."

Why, then, are the Soviets slow to buy newly available Western computers that might narrow the gap?

Some American experts blame uncertainty caused by economic and political factors. For example, it could cost the Soviets hundreds of millions of dollars to rely substantially on foreign purchases to meet its goal of 500,000 school computers. So far, the only significant foreign order was for 10,000 Japanese computers that experts say have limited educational applications. Still, the order cost $10 million.

Furthermore, there are signs of an internal debate over how accessible computers should be to the Soviet public. While some in the Soviet scientific community advocate wide distribution, they figure to be a minority. The Soviet Union, after all, is a nation that restricts public access to Xerox machines much as the United States controls possession of machine guns.

Balancing Act

In a country that sends citizens to jail for unauthorized photocopying, the personal computer could represent an even greater challenge to traditional advocates of strict controls on information and communications.

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