Computer use in education still evolving


CORVALLIS - The use of computers in education is still being held back by lack of teacher training and support, usage concepts that often are a couple years - or decades - behind the times, and a failure to take advantage of some of what the newest technology can do best.

But the Information Age is just getting started, says one expert, and even students or their parents who aren't all that impressed by computers should learn about their capabilities and how to use them - even if only for self defense in a world that is becoming increasingly computer literate.

And they may find a few things computers can do so well they surprise themselves, he says.

"The Internet and multimedia are the two forces that have really changed the whole face of computing in the past few years," said George Beekman, a leader in undergraduate instruction of computer science at Oregon State University.

Beekman is the author of a book titled "Computer Confluence: Exploring Tomorrow's Technology" that is now used in more than 100 colleges and universities around the nation. From his writing, his travels around the country to see what other schools are doing, and work with almost 1,000 students a year who take an introductory "Computer Science 101" course at OSU, he's developed some ideas about what computers do well, what's not so good, and where the future is heading.

"Since computers started out as institutional number-crunching machines that had to be programmed by users, educators for a long time were hung up on teaching programming," Beekman said. "They finally got past that, and now most schools emphasize software usage and the concept of the personal computer as office tool, for spreadsheets or word processing. That's okay, so far as it goes."

But the third era just getting under way is "interpersonal computing," where e-mail and the Internet link people all over the world. Computers can also process and transmit multimedia documents that add graphics, animation, video and audio to traditional text-and-numbers data. Together, networks and multimedia are sending shock waves through society, Beekman said.

"Computers now are as much about communication as they are data access or document creation," he said. "That's a profound change. Many experts now consider a computer without a high speed modem and connectivity to be an antique."

In his book, Beekman details some of the things computers now can do so well:

  • Personal computers are still invaluable tools for databases, word processing and spreadsheets, and these are skills with which all high school or college students should be familiar.
  • E-mail and the World Wide Web have dramatically changed the ways to find information. Even the nature of some communication is changing, as e-mail cuts through traditional boundaries, lets subordinates in companies talk directly to presidents, and allows messages to be considered more on their merits, rather than the appearance or status of the messenger.
  • Multimedia, with its combination of text, graphics, audio, video and interactive capabilities, is changing the nature of learning and education.

"A lot of people are familiar with e-mail and the Internet, but many haven't yet considered how important of a force multimedia is," Beekman said. "It can provide information in whatever form a person finds most effective for them. A computer is infinitely patient, can go at a very slow or fast pace, and can work with a person until they get it right."

Beekman says he has seen lives changed when computers cut through some of the problems of learning disabilities, and even just make tasks easier for the average student - whether that be learning to type, studying the subtleties of pronunciation in a foreign language, or a fourth grader learning their multiplication tables more easily with an interactive CD-ROM.

"My own son lost interest in piano lessons, but now he uses a computer hooked up to a music synthesizer to compose original music," Beekman said. "Information technology can do a lot of the dirty work and free up a person to emphasize their creativity."

So are computers the cure to all things boring or difficult and must we all rush out to buy every new technology? No, Beekman says. "I'd be the first to say that not everyone need be a big advocate. The biggest mistake most people make is not having a good idea of what they want a computer to help do."

Other problems:


  • Schools often err in buying some expensive technology without providing funding for the necessary software upgrades or teacher training in how to use the new systems effectively.
  • Hardware and software failure is a fact of life, and problems range from crashing all the hard work you put into your homework to messing up life support systems on the space station Mir.
  • Privacy issues on the Internet are still a real concern, and to be on the safe side people should assume that anyone in the world might read whatever they write or communicate.
  • The constant upgrades in technology often antiquate computer systems before they're even paid for, and the intense competition in the industry makes that a reality not likely to change soon.

"One thing I often tell people is they don't need to be the first to buy a new computer model," Beekman said. "Again, determine what you need the system for. Often last year's cheap machine may be quite adequate, or you might be better served with less computer and faster Internet connectivity."

But the level of computer emphasis in schools is not going to change, nor should it, he said.

At OSU, every student has Internet access and most are doing Web pages or studying with multimedia techniques. And at most jobs, some computer familiarity is now often a prerequisite.