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COLUMN ONE : Learning a Costly Lesson on Computers : Will multimedia save our struggling schools? Many warn that euphoria over technology will produce a billion-dollar Band-Aid unless we rethink the way we teach.


"I believe that ( it ) is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks."

What is this wondrous technology, and who is the visionary making this bold prediction? Bill Gates touting the power of the personal computer?

No, it was Thomas Edison, 70 years ago, talking about the motion picture.

Once, the blackboard was supposed to turn education upside down. Today, multimedia computers and telecommunications are supposed to be the silver bullets that will fix the myriad problems that plague the nation's schools.

But America's love of technological solutions often has ended in heartbreak. And history may repeat itself with the euphoria over computers and education--a fixation driven as much by the electronics industry's search for profit as any sign that PCs can turn around student performance.

It isn't that technology has no place in the classroom. Most educators believe that computers and other Information Age wonders can be powerful teaching tools. In the right hands, they inspire the brightest students as they provide new ways to reach those with learning problems.

But just as the corporate world discovered that technology did not unleash productivity until companies undertook the hard work of changing the way they did business, experts say the billions of dollars a year that schools spend on computers will yield disappointment unless educators change the way they teach.

Which computer equipment to buy, how much to spend on it and how to use the technology are issues that cannot be severed from the national debate over school reform.

"Technology alone will never do it--not without a serious incorporation into how (teachers and school administrators) do their jobs," said Jan Hawkins, director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York.

So far, such caveats have not slowed the flow of education dollars into high technology. The nation's public and private schools last year invested $2.1 billion in personal computer technology, according to a study by the Software Publishers Assn.

Some say that number needs to be higher for schools to be properly equipped. Nearly all schools now have some computers, but on average there is only one for every 14 students, according to Quality Educational Data, a Denver research firm. And California ranks 49th among the states, at one computer for every 19.8 students.

Even at that level, investment in computers competes with spending on teacher pay, books and paper as many schools face financial crises.

Companies whose main talent is selling products to schools--notably Jostens Corp., originally known for peddling class rings and high school yearbooks--have been quick to capitalize on the educational technology craze. Entertainment firms are muscling in as well. Trip Hawkins, chairman of 3DO Co., once declared his firm's advanced video game machine to be nothing less than "the greatest breakthrough in education since the invention of the printing press."

Across the country, schools are leaping aboard the bandwagon. From the elite Dalton School in Manhattan, with its state-of-the-art computer network and in-house software specialists, to scruffy Martin Luther King Elementary School in Oakland, with its shiny new, federally funded "integrated learning system," schools are racing to install new technology before parents accuse them of falling behind.

Yet there is little evidence that computers in themselves lead to sustained improvement in educational performance. American students continue to lag behind counterparts in Japan and Europe, where the computerization of education is far less advanced. Most studies suggest that a range of factors--especially teacher competence--ultimately will determine the effectiveness of computers in the schools.

For veteran educators, today's enthusiasm for computers provokes an uncomfortable sense of deja vu ; they have seen too many technical fixes. In the 1960s and early 1970s, so-called "performance contracting" -- in which corporate management techniques and early educational computer systems were applied to the performance of underachieving students -- was all the rage.

"With the winding down of the military budget ( at the end of the Vietnam War ) , a lot of companies looked to education as a big market," said David Tyack, a Stanford University professor who writes about such educational experiments. "There was an ideology: Business can solve any problem; we can guarantee how much kids will learn."

Pilot programs were set up nationwide, with one of the most prominent experiments in Texarkana, Ark. A company called Dorsett Educational Systems set up a series of "rapid learning centers" where students logged into a centralized computer to practice basic math and language skills, Tyack recounts in a paper on the trend.

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