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The Learning Revolution

Special Report


Erin and Jessica Ferguson, 4-year-old twins, crowd into a chair in front of the computer their parents bought last month. Erin is at the keyboard, and the game is Mickey's ABCs. On the screen, Mickey Mouse is sleeping. Erin presses V. "V is for violin," says the computer, and Mickey gets up and plays the violin. She presses O, and he slides down a pole to the kitchen and opens the oven. A blast of hot air from the flames inside send his ears back. "Too hot! He'd probably burn his food if he put it in," says Jessica. Later, Mickey sees a pig. To find out what the pig will do, Erin finds the letter P and presses it. The pig grunts and rolls in a mud puddle. The girls giggle. "This is as much fun as Barbies," says Erin.

Benjamin Newman, a freshman at San Francisco's Lowell High School, steals into his parents' tiny study off the garden to use their personal computer for one of his favorite games, SimCity. After loading the program, he scans the map of the town he has been creating and begins to lay out residential areas, fire stations, airports, and parks. He carefully weighs the health costs of pollution against the expense of nuclear power and railways.

Ben City comes to life, and its 15-year-old creator is pleased: All is going well. Through trial and error, he has learned to weigh the social, economic, and political issues in his metropolis. He has a balanced budget and a firm hold on his electorate. But then, disaster strikes. The program has unleashed one of its half-dozen random events--from an earthquake to a rampage by Godzilla. Mayor Ben is unfazed. With the flick of a button, he deactivates the "acts of nature" module. "I was tired of dealing with tornadoes running rampantly through my city and destroying things that were expensive," Benjamin explains with a shrug.

WESTWARD HO. More fun than Mortal Kombat? Not really. Most kids, especially boys, will tell you that it's a lot cooler to play action-packed video games. But more and more kids are getting a dose of reading, writing, arithmetic, and reasoning along with their electronic fun. Grade-schoolers are spending hours with programs such as Broderbund Software Inc.'s Carmen Sandiego series, in which players must look up answers to geography questions to catch up with a globe-trotting thief. Or Davidson & Associates Inc.'s Math Blaster, in which shooting at space trash is coupled with solving a series of arithmetic problems. Or Oregon Trail, from Minnesota Educational Computing Corp., in which kids have to decide whether to dare to ford a river on their historically accurate trek or pay for a ferry upstream. High schoolers are getting biology lessons from Spirit of Discovery's The Body Illustrated and researching their papers on Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia.

These "edutainment" programs are a driving force behind a new burst of home-computer buying. Where parents of baby boomers paid $1,000 in 36 easy installments for a leather-bound edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, boomers are spending $1,500 to $2,500 for a CD-ROM-equipped multimedia personal computer capable of playing richly interactive programs full of CD-quality sound, TV-like animation, and even snippets of movies. Usually, the PC maker throws in an electronic encyclopedia--recorded on a shiny compact disk. That's not all: In addition to an encylopedia, Packard Bell Electronics Inc. ships a world atlas, San Diego Zoo Presents: The Animals, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and other kiddie titles with its multimedia PCs. Already, some 5 million multimedia PCs are in use in the U.S., according to the newsletter Multimedia Business Report, which predicts an additional 4.5 million such machines will be bought in 1994.

That's creating a boon for the upstart software makers that have been pioneering edutainment. In 1992, retail sales of home learning programs spurted 47%, to $147 million, according to the Software Publishers Assn. (SPA). Sales in 1994 will approach $250 million, estimates San Francisco brokerage Volpe, Welty & Co., which forecasts that by the end ef the decade, parents will be spending $1 billion a year on software for at-home learning.

"DRILL AND KILL." But more important, the tantalizing mix of fun and learning has caught the attention of parents, teachers, and education experts. Maybe, just maybe, this new form of lively, interactive software is what could finally turn the computer into the high-tech learning tool it was always expected to be. The key is the interactivity of the new programs. Until now, most educational programs have been of the drill-and-practice variety--about as much fun as flash cards and known as "drill and kill" among educators. "We've seen a tremendous leap not only in the amount of software but in the kind of software and what it can do," says Terry O'Brien, who teaches fourth and fifth grade at Eastgate Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash. "Before, it was mainly point-and-click, fairly simplistic."

Interactive edutainment programs, on the other hand, can captivate. As in video games, there are levels to conquer, treasures to find, and villains to pursue. But the fun--shooting at a space ship, say--usually comes as a reward for serious work: successfully solving a string of equations or correctly spelling a list of words. "They get so worked up, they can hardly stand it," says Veda Moretti, whose 4-year-old son, Daniel, makes a beeline for the basement after preschool in Bellevue, Wash., to play Millie's Math House by Edmark Corp. "Don't you wish you had had something like that to learn on? It's just criminal they don't have it in his classroom."

Many education experts agree. Starting with preschool programs that make mastering the basics fun, and continuing up through high school and even college, they see interactive multimedia software as a key technology to revamp American education. Programs such as SimCity, which is being used in university urban planning and transportation courses, "are very, very powerful tools for learning," says Margaret Honey, associate director for the Center for Children & Technology, a New York think tank. "They're compelling enough to hold kids' interest, but rich and complex enough to support sustained learning over time in the classroom." Adds Donavan A. Merck, manager of the education-technology office for the California Education Dept.: "We want curriculum reform, and we see no other way to do it than multimedia."

At this point, there's little reliable data to prove that the new educational software can make a quantitative difference. One study, commissioned by the SPA and conducted by Interactive Educational Systems Design, a New York consulting firm, found that interactive software could speed learning by 30% to 50% over conventional methods. But even without hard data, the advantages are clear. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's a more effective way to learn," says Warren Buckleitner, a former elementary-school teacher and now a doctoral candidate in educational psychology and editor of the newsletter Children's Software Revue. "It's why kids are drawn to video games and hate math and reading. The computer gives control back to the kids."

Even the experts who criticize the tilt toward "tainment" in many of today's edutainment titles agree that the interactivity, graphics, sound, and video of multimedia will play an important role in the classroom. Roger C. Schank, director of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, figures that classroom versions of the interactive training systems he is designing for industry could be a big factor in fixing America's schools. How so? "We need a way to economically provide individualized instruction," says Schank. "Computers provide that economy."

If, that is, they can be successfully introduced into everyday schoolwork. And that's a formidable "if," because it implies a major overhaul of curriculum and teaching methods. "You have to marry the new technology with new ways of teaching," says Thomas Liao, chairman of the Technology & Society Dept. at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "You have to say, 'Let's redesign the whole enterprise.'" Without that, computers will continue to be "extras" that sit in the back of the classroom for drill or independent study--or, worse, down the hall in the computer lab. Even now, companies such as Jostens Learning Corp. and Computer Curriculum Corp. are finding that the readiest market for their interactive learning systems, which cost as much as $100,000 per classroom, is in remedial education--where the federal government picks up the tab (page 86).

CURRICULUM COPS. Weaving computer-based learning into the regular curricula could take years. First, there's the cost of equipment. Then there's resistance from the education establishment. Teachers are understandably leery of the promise of a sudden technology miracle after 15 years of frustration with PCs in the classroom. Then there's the question of tearing apart and rebuilding the basic educational process at a time when the nation's public school systems are beset by enormous problems. "It's far easier to get a metal detector approved by the school board than something for instruction," says Proctor H. Houston, executive vice-president of Jostens Learning, the leading supplier of software to schools. "Society is asking extraordinary things of teachers today--to take care of kids from dysfunctional homes, to take care of kids with alcohol and drug problems."

Another obstacle is getting book publishers to create a full range of elec-

tronic texts and course materials. "Our basic premise is that the computer today has not yet found the central role in instruction and is used mostly for remediation and enrichment," says Joseph L. Dionne, chairman of McGraw-Hill Inc., which publishes BUSINESS WEEK and is the leading textbook publisher in the U.S. While McGraw-Hill and other textbook publishers are experimenting with electronic products, Dionne says they won't invest heavily until it's clear these offerings are not simply ancillary products. "Until there is a central role for the computer in the instructional process, it's never going to take off," he says. Still, he's optimistic. By 1997, he figures, states will begin large-scale adoptions of multi-media texts.

The big push is likely to come from parents who have seen edutainment programs excite their kids at home and from a younger generation of teachers brought up with computers. One reason for the success of the Carmen Sandiego series, in fact, has been teachers sneaking the programs into their classes--often past the curriculum cops. "Educators look favorably both on the skills kids acquire and the discrete factual information kids have to unearth to use the program," says Margaret Honey. "It makes use of good inquiry and problem-solving strategies."

Now, teachers' lounges and Parent-Teachers Assn. meetings are abuzz with talk of "learning modalities"--the different ways different people learn. If a child learns verbally, he'll respond well to traditional teaching, with its lectures and texts. But studies show that many children absorb more when the information is visual or auditory--or both, as with multimedia.

The job of providing interactive instructional programming could become a lot easier with the advent of the Information Superhighway. One possible outcome of the new telecommunications regulation under consideration in Washington would be to require cable-TV and local phone companies to wire schools with high-speed communications lines and provide universal interactive TV service to families that can't afford a hookup. That would put interactive education and edutainment programs into homes and could provide a vital link between classrooms and living rooms.

MOUSING AROUND. For now, edutainment will remain largely the domain of the middle and upper classes--families that enthusiastically pay for a personal computer and a collection of edutainment programs costing $30 to $50 each--which they hope will give their kids an edge. "We can make a difference in education, even if we aren't in the classroom," says Bill Gross, chairman and founder of Knowledge Adventure Inc. in La Crescenta, Calif. His company's products let children, using a computer mouse, wander through a virtual-reality-like environment--an undersea world or the human body--going wherever they please and looking at objects from whatever angle they want. "What we're trying to do is to get kids excited about making a discovery. Once they feel that thrill, they'll search for it elsewhere--the park, the museum, the classroom."

Parents are delighted with the results. "Some of the games are very impressive," says Benjamin's father, David Newman, a Federal Trade Commission attorney. Young Benjamin has learned that if you raise taxes too high, the populace votes you out. Lower taxes, and you won't have enough money to pay the police. "The State of California never has figured that out," Newman says. "But kids can by playing SimCity." SimCity is one of a handful of edutainment products that were first aimed at adults, then crossed over to the kid market. A new product for grownups, SimHealth, lets you figure out what the consequences are for various health-care reform scenarios now being debated.

"HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE." As the number of edutainment titles explodes--there are 700 on the market now and an additional 250 coming annually--there will be a program for every age, every skill. Some are creativity tools, such as Broderbund's Kid Pix, a painting program that helps young children draw pictures that they can tell stories around. For older students, there are scaled-down, jazzed-up spreadsheets and word processors, such as Cruncher from Davidson & Associates and Learning Co.'s Children's Writing & Publishing Center. "Research has shown that kids take great pride in work that they can print out that looks professional," says Rosemarie Shannon, producer of the "I-learn" series from Sanctuary Woods Multimedia Corp. "It really motivates them to write."

Kids of all ages are taking to exploratory games that are open-ended--designed for browsing rather than teaching a lesson or completing a quest. They range from simple children's storybooks such as Broderbund's Just Grandma & Me to sumptuously detailed, highly interactive adventures and simulations such as SimCity or Knowledge Adventure's Underseas Adventure.

Admittedly, some titles have scant educational content. Take Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon from Humongous Entertainment in Woodinville, Wash. Ostensibly, it teaches 3- to-8-year-olds problem-solving and critical thinking. But it's mainly for fun, says Ron Gilbert, who along with Shelley Day left LucasArts Entertainment to start Humongous two years ago. "I would rather the computer be viewed as a healthy alternative to TV," says Gilbert. "Our goal is to produce really good, healthy, nonviolent entertainment."

LITTLE DARLINGS. Whatever the educational value, edutainment spells money. And mainstream software makers have taken note. "Two years ago, [edutainment] companies were almost considered a joke--little software companies that everyone regarded as toymakers," says Leigh Marriner, a San Rafael (Calif.) marketing consultant and former Broderbund vice-president. "Now, they're the darlings of the industry." Indeed, on Feb. 9, video-game giant Electronic Arts Inc., after two years of trying to launch a successful education division on its own, announced plans to acquire Broderbund in a deal valued at more than $400 million.

Broderbund, with $95.6 million in annual revenues, is the giant among the edutainment startups. But there are dozens of smaller success stories. Take Bill Gross's Knowledge Adventure. Gross, author of Lotus Development Corp.'s Magellan program, quit three years ago and went to work designing a multimedia learning program for his son David, then in kindergarten. Two and a half years later, the company has 9 similar titles, 100 employees, and revenues in the $20 million range. Investors include Mohr Davidow Ventures, American Telephone & Telegraph, and Paramount Communications.

Similarly, George D. Grayson left Micrografx Inc., a maker of business graphics software that he co-founded with his brother, Paul, to launch 7th Level Inc. His partner in the Los Angeles company is Scott Page, a former saxophonist with the rock group Pink Floyd. Their first product, shipped last month, is Howie Mandel's Tuneland, an interactive, animated storybook with 42 sing-along public-domain songs, such as Old MacDonald Had a Farm and The Itsy-Bitsy Spider. Backers include Michael R. Milken, the infamous junk-bond king. Milken, now a private investor, uants to tap 7th Level to create programming for his Educational Entertainment Network, a planned interactive cable channel.

Now the big names in software are ready to jump in. Microsoft Corp. has set up divisions to develop and sell children's software. Nintendo Co. launched Mario Paint, a TV drawing-and-animation kit whose mouse plugs into its entertainment system. This month, Micrografx forged a deal with Hallmark Cards' Binney & Smith subsidiary to develop Crayola-brand drawing programs, and Sega Enterprises showed up at the annual Toy Fair in New York in February with Pico, a $160 home computer that hooks up to the television to deliver early learning exercises to youngsters.

GOING ON-LINE. In addition to providing fresh growth, edutainment could be more profitable than other software markets. Unlike business software, it hasn't been racked by price wars. Also, customers buy multiple products, not just a spreadsheet and word processor. And unlike the games business, it isn't driven by hits that have a shelf life of less than six months. Another lure: Edutainment provides software makers with a potential on-ramp to the interactive Information Highway. "You might say we're all getting cable-ready," says Norman J. Bastin, executive vice-president of Compton's NewMedia Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif.

Indeed, the Info Highway could spur huge demand for interactive education software. On-line computer services such as America Online Inc. and Prodigy Services Co. offer on-line encyclopedias and other learning programs. Gamemaker Sierra Online Inc. has a joint venture with AT&T called the ImagiNation Network that's aimed at kids. And GTE Corp.'s Main Street interactive cable channel, now operating commercially in suburbs of Boston, Los Angeles, and San Diego, gives TV viewers interactive links to an encyclopedia and the local library's card catalog. From there, it's a small step to the classroom. IT Network in Dallas has tested an interactive setup called Teachers' Assistance Program in Birmingham, Ala. Parents from 40 homes tuned in to see teachers' lesson plans, their children's homework assignments, and even their own kids' work.

"The ability to have a direct home-school connection, with interactive programming that's as attractive as MTV, will make a profound difference in American education," predicts John Kernan, chairman of a tiny Carlsbad (Calif.) startup, Curriculum TV Corp. Kernan, formerly chairman of Jostens Learning, is counting on government-mandated universal access to cable TV for education. His idea? "The teacher presents a lesson in class and says that the homework for that lesson is on channel 163."

Still, the technology is only part of the equation. American schools are already loaded with computers--albeit old ones. Compared with other industrialized nations, U.S. schools have far more computers per pupil, according to a study published by the University of Minnesota in December. But the study also found that there was no widespread use of computers in classroom teaching.

"The history of technology in education is that schools have been relatively impervious to the invasion of technology into the routines of teaching," says Michael W. Kirst, a former president of the California Education Board and now a Stanford University professor. "The software keeps getting better and better, and a little more seeps in every year, but we're not going to see computers teaching kids until we restructure and reengineer the institution."

Slowly, that may be beginning. Some states have started commissioning their own multimedia computer programs. In 1990, the Texas Education Commissioner waived a requirement that multimedia programs could cost no more than the texts they replace, clearing the way for schools to use textbook funds to purchase Windows on Science, a supplemental video-disk-based teaching program from Optical Data Corp. California has since ordered and paid for Science 2000, a seventh-grade science curriculum developed by software maker Decision Development Corp.

SEA CHANGE. That's the most encouraging sign yet, says Jan Davidson, founder and chairman of software maker Davidson & Associates. "Why are school districts and states so anxious for multi-media core curricula that they're going out and funding it?" she asks. "When else in history have states ever funded the development of any educational materials? I just sense a sea change coming on." To capitalize on it, Davidson is now forming alliances with publishers such as McGraw-Hill to add technology to their textbook products.

And the sea change is not just happening in the big states with huge education budgets. West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton pushed through a $200 million, 10-year education-reform package--paid for partly with new taxes--to put computers in every elementary-school classroom by 2000. Caperton, who is dyslexic and couldn't read until the fourth grade, immediately grasped the power of computer learning while observing kids with learning disabilities at work on PCs. "They never fail," beams the boyish 53-year-old. "They can spell 'cat' wrong five times, and the computer never calls them stupid."

If computers can do that for children with problems, imagine their potential for ordinary kids. "Computers can make kids active rather than passive learners," Caperton says. And with kids at the controls, can a learning revolution be far behind?Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles with Dori Jones Yang in Bellevue, Wash., Alice Cuneo in San Francisco, and bureau reports

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