The Next Step: Reengineer The Classroom

The current boom in computer-based teaching products fuels hope that technology has finally reached a point where it can make a difference to education. Cheap, high-powered computers, sharp monitors, stereo sound, and data-packed CD-ROM disks seem to be just the right ingredients for grabbing the TV-shaped minds of today's youngsters. And as digital electronics deliver more bang for the buck--and as schools gain high-speed links to vast libraries of electronic information--the computer's attractiveness as a teaching aid is bound to grow even stronger.

There's a real danger, though, that today's multimedia marvels won't deliver on their promises--any more than computers in the classroom have before. Parents are seeing that the attention-grabbing new technology is a big improvement over the computer-literacy and "drill and kill" programs found in many elementary and secondary schools. But it would be terribly naive and shortsighted to expect that simply dropping better technology into a classroom can better educate children. They may become engrossed in the latest "edutainment module," but improvements won't come unless there's also a broad reevaluation of how teaching is done.

At least, that's the lesson one gleans from the painful struggle by corporations to wring a meaningful payback from their huge investments in computers. For 25 years, it didn't seem to matter that computers could turn out memos or financial analyses faster than by hand or that they were doubling in capacity every two years or so: The growth in productivity for workers surrounded by computers was dismal. The reason? Companies were trying to automate the same old paper processes. Only in the past few years, when businesses began "reengineering" fundamental activities--opening wide swaths of their business to new approaches and reorganization--has the technology begun to pay off.

EMPOWERMENT. Not that education can or ought to be reduced to a scientifically repeatable and endlessly improvable process such as order fulfillment. Indeed, today's stultifying system stems from a 20th century impulse to systematize learning and give the classroom some assembly-line-like efficiencies.

Today, the useful parallel between running a business and running a classroom may be in the way technology can empower individuals. In many corporations, advanced computer networks have given workers at all levels access to critical information. The effects can be invigorating: Employees gain autonomy and take more responsibility, organizational charts flattens, and enterprises becomes more responsive and efficient.

Likewise, computers can help children find and nurture their ability to learn. "We want to have kids perceive themselves as very capable learners and be responsible for their own learning," says Sally G. Narodnick, chief executive of software maker Edmark Corp. "We need to rethink the model, make kids the architects of their own learning, and make teachers the coach." Amen.

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