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COVER STORY : Techno-Education : Area Schools Are Seeking to Expand Computer-Assisted Instruction

October 16, 1994|LOUISE YARNALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the first day of school, a bilingual robot greets second-graders in teacher Audrey Swartz's class, handing out stickers to "good listeners" and pointing out maps and puppets in the classroom.

"Hello boys and girls. Buenos dias. Welcome to Room 15," says the 2-foot-tall robot, called Robie, its mouth blinking and eyes glowing like headlights.

Swartz used the robot to introduce her sneakered charges to the world of educational technology. Within a few weeks, her class at Linwood E. Howe School in Culver City will be programming the robot, creating multimedia reports on a personal computer, and studying the human body and nature by scanning bar codes into a laser disc player.

"I'm trying to be on the cutting edge," said Swartz, 49. "I know that the kids are fascinated by it."

In Culver City and numerous other schools on the Westside, technology is taking root in classrooms, from kindergarten to 12th grade. A move to equip schools with computers stalled in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of funding shortages, red tape and scarcity of teacher training. Today, many schools have developed creative ways to purchase technology and use it to benefit education.

It's an uneven picture to be sure. Some schools have barely moved beyond Apple II labs, but others are installing high-speed data transmission cables to link classrooms and access the Internet, the worldwide information network.

But educators agree that an important new phase of the technological arms race has begun in earnest. With high-tech skills now critically important in the job market, they say, computer technology--once considered a luxury--is viewed as a dire necessity. And educators increasingly value computers as a new way to reach students.

"This is their future," said Lynne Culp, an English teacher at University High School who is taking part in a pilot project to connect schools to the Internet. "Technology can be a route to stimulating learning."

Not long ago, computers were considered exotic in schools. A computer lab usually was reserved for the use of a few gifted mathematics students--the "nerds."

In the mid-1980s, more schools created bigger labs, mostly with a few first-generation Apple computers. The late 1980s brought the advent of on-line computer services and interactive CD-ROM software that features graphics, photographs and video footage, and the appeal of technology rapidly grew.

By then, however, most local schools were confronting budget problems. Many gave up on expanding computer technology programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while others struggled to maintain what they had.

Today, California ranks between 44th and 48th in the nation in average student-to-computer ratio, about 20 to 1, according to the state Department of Education.

Despite that ranking, however, there are signs that Westside schools are once again making technology a priority. This time, they're doing it far more deliberately. In many cases, districts are putting far greater emphasis on planning, teacher training and raising money through parent booster clubs, local businesses and special grants.

All the Westside's school districts--Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, Beverly Hills Unified, Culver City Unified and Los Angeles Unified--have either recently completed or are beginning to draft comprehensive technology plans.

The Santa Monica and Beverly Hills districts have both hired technology coordinators, people who will trouble-shoot and train teachers in the use of computers.

The Culver City district sets aside more than $100,000 a year to buy technology, such as multimedia carts, featuring an overhead projector, liquid crystal display panels, Macintosh computers, CD-ROM drives and speakers, for every school. Ultimately, every classroom will have its own cart. The district is currently equipping each classroom with cable television and telephone lines for voice and modem communications.

Santa Monica, meanwhile, boasts the Westside's most technologically advanced high school library, with several CD-ROM databases, an on-line periodical service and a computerized card catalogue. One of its elementary schools, Rogers, plans to link all its classroom computers by November so that students can collaborate on projects and communicate through electronic mail.

The district also has begun equipping all classrooms with ethernet data transmission lines, which transmit information faster than regular telephone lines but not as fast as fiber-optic lines. Next year, Santa Monica High School plans to open a career technology lab that will include computer-aided design equipment, a computer-controlled lathe and an experimental wind tunnel.

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