Computers and K-12 Education: A Different View

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Improved education and school reform are long-standing goals of the United States government. One of the reasons for United States participation in the 1999 third international math and science study (TIMSS) was a desire to gauge how close the USA was to its objective of ranking first in the world in mathematics and science achievement (Third International Mathematics and Science Study: Repeat).

New technologies, especially personal computers, were perceived as exactly the tools needed to improve education. Schools have added millions of these machines: by 1999, there was one computer for every six children in American schools [What kind of schools? K-12, elementary, high schools?](U.S. Department of Education [USDOE], 2000a).

How successful have computers been in bringing education reform? Two recent reports point up the failure to achieve the desired results. The 1998 TIMSS report showed that the United States ranked ranked 18th in mathematics and science literacy out of 21 participating countries, and in the advanced math test, the USA came in 15th out of 16 (TIMSS, 1998). Moreoever, the National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores for 1999 showed no significant change between 1994 and 1999 in reading, mathematics, or science for any of three age groups: 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds (USDOE, 1999).

To an unbiased observer outside of education, these results are astonishing, especially given the great emphasis on adding computers. Technology has created dramatic changes in other areas of society, but these millions of computers in schools have brought no improvement in test scores.

One reason suggested for these poor results is that teachers have not been properly trained. On June 3, 2000, aware of this apparent need for additional training, President Clinton announced $128 million in grants to train teachers in technology.

Yet considerable teacher training has already taken place. In two surveys conducted in 1999, 33% to 39% of [all teachers, or just primary/secondary/etc.?]teachers claimed to be well prepared to use computers in their classes (Market Data Retrieval, 1999; USDOE, 2000)[Please specify which USDOE source you're referencing here by distinguishing this as either "2000a" or "2000b" (cf. the end references to see which document is which). Please also do this for the next three in-text references to "(USDOE, 2000)."]. Moreover, half of all [again, please specify what kind of teachers] teachers report that college and graduate work prepared them to use computer technology, and, over a period of three years [Which three years?], 77% of teachers [which kind] participated in professional development activities concerned with computers (USDOE, 2000). The level of teacher competency makes it unlikely that insufficient training is the main reason behind the problem.

A more likely reason is revealed by examining another aspect of computerized education: how schools use computers. According to the 2000 report Teachers' Tools for the 21st Century: A Report on Teachers’ Use of Technology, "[T]he advent of computers and the Internet has not dramatically changed how teachers teach and how students learn" (USDOE, 2000). Computer use has focused primarily on trying to overlay this technology on the traditional form of teaching, without making substantial changes in that teaching. This hypothesis is supported by the reasons teachers give for their limited use of computer technology. In 1999, one frequently-reported barrier to classroom use of computers and the Internet was a lack of time in the class schedule (USDOE, 2000). This points to an attitude towards computers as separate from not integral to the traditional educational process.

Is it conceivable that most teachers will never take full advantage of computer technology in their classrooms? Yes, because computers' greatest benefits do not conform to the traditional manner of schooling. The potential advantage of computers in education is interaction—the power of the machine to react continuously to a student's progress, who in turn reacts to the computer. This interaction, incidentally, is the key to the widespread appeal of computer games and we can use it as a potent teaching tool. Computers can make learning enjoyable, can adjust to different students' varied abilities, and are effective with children of all ages.

Unfortunately, this type of interaction is nearly impossible in today's average classroom. In the predominant framework for education, the teacher remains in control and predetermines many aspects of computer instruction, such as how the machines will fit into the overall learning agenda, what the computer will teach and what the instructor will teach, and how much class time will be allocated to computer use. This diminishes interaction between computers and students. If schools want to take advantage of computers' immense power of interaction, then teachers, while remaining essential, may have to modify their role.

Even stronger proof that computers will never succeed in education[most of your article is geared *not* towards arguing that computers won't succeed at all, but, rather, that they won't be used to their greatest potential. We suggest re-writing this sentence.]while being used as they are lies elsewhere: in an area in which computers have an outstanding record. Personal computers have a superb history of teaching children [we suggest "have successfully been used to teach children" -- unless you want to argue that computers teach on their own, which you are welcome to do] who have difficulty in regular schooling—at-risk students who are behind in their work and in danger of dropping out. [You may need to cite a study to back up this claim.]Since these are frequently pupils that teachers find difficult to instruct, some programs[what kind of programs? educational programs? computer programs?]have used computers to teach these students without human instructors playing their accustomed roles.

Plato Learning, Inc., which traces its roots to 1963 when Control Data Corporation and the University of Illinois cooperated with the National Science Foundation to develop the technology and content for a computer-assisted instructional system, today teaches over half a million students. Many of these pupils are at-risk. Plato Learning's Web site [is there a URL?] has extensive research on the success of its programs. Three examples are from Lawrence High School in Indianapolis, Lakeland High School in Florida and Turner High School in Carrollton, Texas. Lawrence implemented an extensive remediation program in 1998-99 to increase the passing rate of students taking the state-mandated competency exam, ISTEP. The number of students who failed either the math or the English component of the test declined from 406, at the beginning of the implementation year, to 74 by the end of the year. In Lakeland, Florida, student FHSCT scores increased dramatically in retests, and a significant positive relationship was identified between some student PLATO performance data and the FHSCT test scores. At Turner, pass rate on TAAS scores reversed a declining trend and improved from 69% in 1998 to 83% in 2000.

NovaNET Learning, Inc. [is there a URL?]has shown similar results. One example is from Dillard high school in Fort Lauderdale. With only three months of computerized education, 123 students who were below the 20th percentile[percentile of what?]achieved impressive results[could you provide more detail on the results?](NovaNET, 1999). Half of the students advanced at least one full grade, and 27 of those pupils advanced either two or three grade levels .

Why do computers bring such astounding gains to pupils who are the most difficult to teach by traditional methods? The answer is pertinent to the general ineffectiveness of computer use in schools. In programs with at-risk students, teachers are still important, but schools use computers to teach children directly preserving a continual interaction between the student and computer.

If it were possible for every student to have an individual human tutor, the need for computers would disappear. It is, of course, impossible to supply each student with a human tutor but we can provide each with a computer. Direct education by computer would give each student a pivate tutor throughout his or her educational career. In this scenario the machine would be programmed to deliver the required learning material when the student was ready. Students, as a consequence, could move at their own pace, rather than having to receive lessons before they were ready, or having to wait for new lessons because others in the class had not kept up. Through constant testing, the machine would be aware of what students did and did not know and would immediately provide material to correct any problems. There would be no embarrassment for the student, because classmates would not be aware of others' weaknesses.

The machine would not demand perfection, but would require a certain level of mastery. When that was achieved, the machine would present new material. If the student had not mastered the material, the computer would repeat or review a lesson as often as necessary. Moreover, the machine would praise each forward step but not criticize failure to advance, providing a powerful incentive for advancement. The computer tutor could adapt to the needs of each pupil instead of requiring individuals to fit into a mold based on the average capabilities of many students.

Sub-par students would not be the only beneficiaries of computerized education. In fact, average and high-achieving students would achieve equal (or even greater) gains, as suggested by a program developed by Carnegie Mellon University to teach high school mathematics using computers. The program was tested in three Pittsburgh high schools, focusing on ninth-graders in the high school algebra program. Approximately 470 students in 21 classes worked through the computer-based curriculum, and a year-end assessment compared achievement for these students with a control group of 170 students in "standard" math courses. On average, the students in computer-driven classes outperformed students in comparison classes by 15% on standardized tests, and were 100% better on assessment questions that focused on mathematical analysis of real-world situations and the use of computational tools. In addition, students who learned algebra through the computer program were much more likely to enroll in Algebra II than a comparable group of students from the same school who took conventional Algebra I (Koedinger, Anderson, Hadley, & Mark, 1997) [Please hyperlink the date "1997" to the article online (cf. our note in the reference section.)]

Although using computers as tutors would obviously change the present role of teachers, human instructors are vital in education and must be retained. There are different ways that human teachers might facilitate and enhance the learning of students taught primarily by computer.

Human teachers would be especially valuable for conducting seminars, workshops, discussion groups, and similar group activities. These duties would be not unlike what many teachers do today. The major differences would be that teachers would have more time to prepare and that activities might encompass many periods or many days. Moreover, students in these workshops would be more equally prepared and would share more similar interests than is often possible today when an instructor must include all pupils in a given class[You'll need to explain, expand upon, and justify this statement.]

Teachers would also be able to take on the role of what I call a “leader teacher” (Bennett, 1999). Under this arrangement, each student would always have one teacher with whom to meet individually on a regular basis. The leader teacher would have time to develop a very close relationship with the student[to what benefit? Even if it's stating the obvious, it needs to be pointed out.]. Leader teachers would also have a thorough knowledge of students' progress from ongoing and always up-to-date computer records, allowing them to provide direction and help during the formative years of a child's education.[The reference to "formative years" makes it sound as though you're writing primarily about elementary school, though the title suggests you mean K-12 education.]

Computers can be effective in teaching, but there is more to education than transmitting information. The term "education" is derived from the Latin educere—to lead out. In the computer-based model I describe, human teachers would lead children out of ignorance into knowledge by helping them take advantage of computer-aided teaching. They would have more time and additional opportunities for their most important task educating children through workshops, seminars, discussion groups, and similar activities. The result will be that machines will teach, but humans will continue to educate.

The potential advantages for American schools are immense if we use computers to tutor every student at every level in K-12 schooling. The advantages for less developed nations may be even more far-reaching. A computer is available for teaching 24 hours a day, seven days a week, adding immeasurably to educational systems that now rely on limited numbers of teachers, each of whom is able to function only a limited amount of time, often under very difficult and disheartening circumstances. Computers neither tire nor become discouraged. The machines could be used not only to instruct children, but also, at other times of day, to advance the learning of adults who often lack education but want and need additional schooling.[This final paragraph contains some assumptions about the 3rd world that, while perhaps true, may cause more controversy than they are worth -- controversy that might detract from attention being paid to the main thrust of your article. Substantiating them could take another entire article, so it might be best to restrict your focus to U.S. schools for now, and cut this final paragraph.]


Bennett, F. (1999). Computers as tutors: Solving the crisis in education. Sarasota, FL: Faben, Inc.

Koedinger, K., Anderson, J. R., Hadley, W. H., & Mark, M. A. (1997). Intelligent tutoring goes to school in the big city. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 8, 30-43. Retrieved March 23, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Market Data Retrieval. (1999). New teachers and technology. Shelton, CT:

Novanet Learning, Inc. (1999). Fort Lauderdale, FL: Case study. Retrieved March 23, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Third International Mathematics and Science Study International Study Center. (1998). Third international mathematics and science study. Chestnut Hill, MA: [Please provide the name of the publisher here.]. Retrieved March 23, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Third International Mathematics and Science Study International Study Center. (1999). Third international mathematics and science study-repeat.[Is this also available in print form? If so, please list the publication info.]Retrieved March 23, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

U.S. Department of Education. (2000a). Teachers’ tools for the 21st century: A report on teachers' use of technology. Washington, DC: Author

U.S. Department of Education. (2000b). NAEP 1999 trends in academic progress: Three decades of student performance, NCES 2000–469. Washington, DC: Author 00469