September/October 2001 // Commentary
Computers and K-12 Education: A Different View
by Frederick Bennett
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Frederick Bennett "Computers and K-12 Education: A Different View" The Technology Source, September/October 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Improved education and school reform are long-standing goals of the United States government. One reason the United States participated in the 1999 Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) was "a desire to gauge how close the USA was to its goal of ranking first in the world in mathematics and science achievement" (Third International Mathematics and Science Study: Repeat, 1999, ?Ǭ? 1).

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 K-12 schools (Smerdon et al., 2000, p. 5).

How successful have computers been in bringing education reform? Two recent reports demonstrate the failure to achieve the desired results. The 1998 TIMSS report showed that the United States ranked 18th in mathematics and science literacy out of 21 participating countries (TIMSS, 1998, Table 1), and, in the advanced math test, the USA came in 15th out of 16 (TIMSS, Table 4). Moreover, 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 (Campbell, Hombo, & Mazzeo, 2000, Figure 1).

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. However, considerable teacher training had already taken place. In two surveys conducted in 1999, 33% to 39% of all K-12 teachers claimed to be well prepared to use computers in their classes (Market Data Retrieval, 1999; Smerdon et al., 2000, p. iii). Moreover, half of all K-12 teachers reported that college and graduate work prepared them to use computer technology, and, over a period of three years (from 1996-99), 77% of teachers participated in professional development activities related to computers (Smerdon et al., p. iii). 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" (Smerdon et al., 2000, p. 101). 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 (Smerdon et al.). This points to the attitude that computers are separate from, rather than 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 the greatest benefits of computers do not conform to the traditional manner of schooling. The potential advantage of computers in education lies in interaction—the power of the machine to react continuously to the progress of a student, who can, in turn, react 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 and adjust to students' varied abilities, and they 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 often 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 while being used as they are lies in an area in which computers have an outstanding record: teaching at-risk students who are behind in their work and in danger of dropping out. Since these are frequently pupils that teachers find difficult to instruct, some educational programs have used computers to teach these students without human instructors playing their accustomed roles. In these instances, computers have essentially served as the primary means of instruction, not as tools used by teachers.

Plato Learning, Inc. traces its roots back to 1963, when Control Data Corporation and the University of Illinois cooperated with the National Science Foundation to develop a computer-assisted instructional system. Today, Plato Learning teaches more than half a million students, many of whom are at-risk. Plato Learning's Web site has extensive research on the success of its programs. Two examples are from Lawrence High School in Indianapolis and Lakeland High School in Florida. Lawrence implemented an extensive remediation program in 1998-99 to increase the passing rate of students taking the state-mandated competency exam, ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress). 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 that year (Hannafin, 1999b, p. 2). In Lakeland, Florida, student FHSCT (Florida High School Competency Test) scores increased dramatically in retests, and a significant positive relationship was identified between some student PLATO performance data and the FHSCT test scores (Hannafin, 1999a, p. 2).

NovaNET Learning, Inc. 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 on the state standards in eighth or ninth grade achieved impressive results. All students made gains, half of the pupils advanced at least one full grade, and 27 of those advanced either two or three grade levels (NovaNET, 1999).

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 private 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 his or her 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 progress, 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.

Subpar 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. A year-end assessment compared achievement for these students with a control group of 170 students in "standard" math courses. On average, students in computer-driven classes outperformed their comparison group counterparts by 15% on standardized tests and by 100% on questions regarding mathematical analysis 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).

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 not be 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 daysbecause the computer would pick up at the exact point at which it stopped in the previous session. Moreover, since computer classes would provide pupils' required learning, students would be free to choose workshops that interested them. Students in these group endeavors would be more equally prepared and would share more similar interests than is often possible today, when an instructor must address all pupils who happen to be in an assigned class, regardless of the interests of the individual child.

Teachers would also be able to take on the role of a "leader teacher" (Bennett, 1999). Under this arrangement, each student would meet with one teacher on an individual and regular basis. The leader teacher would have time to develop a close relationship with the student, making the child more comfortable with the instructor and the instructor's direction. Leader teachers would themselves acquire a thorough knowledge of the student and of his or her progress through frequent meetings and ongoing computer records. This intimate awareness of the child's strengths, weaknesses, and progress would help the leader teacher provide invaluable assistance during the formative years of a child's 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 lead children out of ignorance into knowledge by helping them take advantage of computer-aided teaching. Teachers have more time and additional opportunities for their most important task?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùeducating children?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthrough workshops, seminars, discussion groups, and similar activities. The result is that machines teach but humans continue to educate.


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Campbell, R., Hombo, C., & Mazzeo, J. (2000). NAEP 1999 trends in academic progress: Three decades of student performance (NCES Publication No. 2000-469). Washington: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved March 23, 2001, from

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