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Cyber Teachers

Like other four- to six-year-olds around Florida with learning disabilities, the students who attend prekindergarten class at Webster School in St. Augustine receive a year or more of special instruction before entering the standard public school educational track. Their classroom, however, is very different from any other in the state. Behind the arts and crafts table sits a Power Macintosh 6100 microcomputer; in the far corner, near the building blocks, a Philips compact disk interactive system. Another Macintosh and an older Apple model IIGS sit back-to-back on a low table strewn with story books.

"We've found that the technology helps students become more self-directed, less dependent on teacher assistance, and it lets them work at their own pace," says Ceil Shanahan, Webster's veteran prekindergarten teacher. Indeed, a recent study revealed that students in her class using computer-based learning aids are roughly twice as focused on their exercises - a key measurement of preschool learning behavior known as "time on task" - as students engaged in non-technological activities. "Computers can't replace a teacher," she says, "but they can add an awful lot to the child's learning experience."

To be sure, Webster School is no ordinary public school. Six years ago Webster was selected to participate in a $1 million, state-funded experiment to test and showcase state-of-the-art instructional technology in Florida's classrooms. As one of five so-called "model technology schools," Webster has been hailed by both educators and state officials as an example of how technology can help address Florida's mounting public education crisis.

For years, education reform advocates have touted the benefits of computer-assisted learning: individualized instruction, higher test scores, development of marketable skills, administrative efficiency. "We need to change the system itself," says Mike Eason, chief of the Florida Department of Education's Bureau of Educational Technology. "We need to change the way teachers teach and the way students learn. Computers can help us do that."

Despite a long history of unfulfilled promises, instructional technologies have by now progressed to the point that they deliver impressive results. In 1991, two University of Michigan researchers found a 10-15% increase in achievement scores and a 30% increase in student productivity when computers were used as a teaching tool. Also, early acquisition of keyboard skills (in grades two and three) greatly improves writing skills. "If there are any people who are still unconvinced of the benefits of technology in our schools, they must have their heads in the sand," says Royal VanHorn, a professor of education at the University of North Florida and a nationally known expert in the field of educational technology.

VanHorn cautions that the best indications of success are often difficult to measure. In fact, even in schools where test scores failed to rise, he says, students, parents and teachers overwhelmingly believe that learning has been greatly enhanced through the use of the computers. "You can test for reading and math skills," says VanHorn, "but how do you measure the higher-level thought processes that are improved when technology is brought into the classroom?"

Jim Sheehan, the assistant principal at John I. Leonard High School, a model technology school in Palm Beach County, agrees. He's noticed increased motivation and a heightened concentration level among students using computers. He believes his students have become more creative and more productive, and they graduate with marketable skills.

The co-principal at Webster School says the best use of computers is in identifying and addressing individual student deficiencies. Calling computers "the great levelers," Roger Coffee says so-called Interactive Learning Systems (or ILSs) individualize instructional tracks for each student. For example, if a student answers a question correctly on a computerized exam, he moves on to the next level. If he answers incorrectly, he is asked additional questions until he masters the subject. The Department of Education's Eason says computers can provide individualized instruction for foreign-born students with English-language deficiencies. "Not every school district can afford specially trained teachers," he says. "But with computers, you can offer the same opportunities to all students."

ILSs often are used in remedial education programs. At Project Linkup, an after-school program in Palm Beach County, close to 100 middle school students with learning or behavioral problems receive 12 hours a week of computer-assisted instruction. Executive director Donald E. Gibson says some students improved their reading skills nearly a full grade level after only four months in the program. "It's encouraging and inspirational to see how at-risk street kids can be helped so quickly and effectively through the use of computers."

But the old bugaboo money threatens many of these nascent programs. Much of Gibson's funding has dried up, and the plight of Project Linkup may illustrate a concern increasingly voiced by education reform advocates. Webster has exhausted its state grant money and now must rely on its own cash-starved school district for computer maintenance, hardware and software upgrades and teacher training.

Meanwhile, other schools in Webster's district (and elsewhere around the state) are clamoring for their fair share of high-tech dollars. As a result, the current debate over instructional technology is focusing less on what works and what doesn't, and more on how limited resources can be stretched to benefit the greatest number of students. Predictably, those inside the education establishment reject the idea that computers could actually reduce the need for teachers and administrators, even though computers have dramatically cut labor costs in virtually all other sectors of the economy.

The education establishment also has trouble with the concept that computers can be used as research tools and learning aids, not just as some kind of fancy electric typewriter/calculator. In 1994, there was one computer for every eight public school students in Florida. But while many schools have computers, only about one-sixth have classrooms wired to support them; even fewer have teachers trained to use them as learning aids. Since 1992, the state Legislature has appropriated $75 million to rewire existing classrooms to provide networking capabilities and Internet access. If funding remains at that level, less than one-quarter of the state's schools will have the wiring by 1998.

"Schools that don't have access to the Internet are going to find themselves farther and farther behind," says David Brittain, a 30-year veteran of the Florida Department of Education and now an educational technology consultant with MGT of America in Tallahassee. "Technology can be a great equalizer, but it can also drive a great wedge between the haves and the have-nots."

Under the Florida Department of Education's Schoolyear 2000 program, the state has entered into a co-development agreement with private companies to develop materials, software and products for education which are being tested in Florida schools. The most ambitious co-development project is the so-called Florida Learning Support Systems. This is a massive networking program designed to electronically link students, teachers and parents. The state selected Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation as its principal co-developer.

An additional $55 million state appropriation for hardware, software and teacher training has been divvied up among the state's 67 school districts each of the past three years. Officials estimate school districts are spending another $90 million in local and federal funds each year to start and support high-tech programs.

But that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed. Brittain, who is also the current president of the International Society for Technology in Education, calculated the cost of bringing instructional technology to Florida at $20,000 per classroom. This would include four-to-six student work stations with CD-ROM drives, a teacher work station, a video disk player and Internet access. The total bill for Florida's 108,000 public school classrooms: $2.16 billion.

As staggering as the figure is, many proponents say computers in every classroom is an attainable goal. Districts can divert some funds from their instructional materials budgets (commonly known as textbook dollars); federal sources can be tapped; corporate and community partnerships can be formed. VanHorn urges each district to consider a local sales tax increase. School-by-school initiatives can also help.

Assistant principal Sheehan says John I. Leonard High School saves money by training students to maintain and repair the school's high-tech equipment.

Clearly, computers will change the educator's role, if not render many of today's teachers obsolete. "Technology will force a shift from the ?stand-and-deliver,' teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered one," says Brittain. The teacher becomes less an information dispenser and more a learning coach. Reformers say the shift is inevitable and long overdue. "We can't keep on doing things the way we always have," says Project Linkup's Gibson. "We can't ignore the impact of the resources we now have available to us."

The state requires that one-third of all high-tech funding be spent on teacher training. Teachers go through a comprehensive training program that encourages a thorough reexamination of old roles and stereotypes.

John I. Leonard's Sheehan says that, despite initial teacher reluctance, a recent survey at his school showed that more than 90% of the teachers would not revert to a traditional instructional process. "Computers are not the answer to the education crisis," says Cathy Hutchins, the state's model technology school facilitator at Webster School, "but they are a very good place to start."