Teacher Talk: A brush with greatness.

Anyone with a passing interest in physics, a knowledge of bestselling books, or -more important to some- a fanatic devotion to Star Trek: The Next Generation should know who Steve Hawking is. I had the opportunity to attend the lecture he gave on June 29th at the Orpheum. More thrilling for me, I attended the after lecture reception and met Dr Hawking face to face. As both a teacher and a computer connoisseur I think there are several interesting aspects of the lecture. I would like to restrict this discussion to the computer side.
In the field of adaptive computer technology, the common name for computer aided equipment for the disabled, Dr Hawking is an interesting case study. Dr Hawking suffers from ALS the disease most recently made famous by Sue Rodriguez. He communicates with the aid of a Toshiba 386 portable computer and a voice synthesiser. Since he has lost most of his motor control, he creates sentences by clicking a hand paddle that he operates with the one hand that functions well.  When the word he wants scrolls by on a LCD panel in front of him he clicks the paddle. The list that he has to scroll through is basically a dictionary, the same as most people would have with their word processor. Consider having to scroll through thousands of words, waiting for the one you want and you can understand why the system is agonizingly slow. At the end of the presentation, they tried to conduct a question and answer session. The average answer took three to five minutes and was one to three sentences long.
The voice synthesiser is reasonably clear but looses a fair bit of clarity as you get further away. The PA system in the Orpheum also made for a less than optimal presentation. After struggling with a wireless mike that picked up interference from Dr Hawking’s computer equipment for several minutes, the organizers finally had to resort to a basic floor mike. Evidently the voice synthesiser did not have a mike jack. At the same time that they are struggling to hear the words, the sold-out crowd seemed to be transfixed by the message. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Here was someone using rather inadequate technology while dealing with the fundamental nature of the universe.
You would think that if there was better technology available that someone of the stature of Dr. Hawking would be the first person to have it. The technology is amazing in the sense that it make communication possible but as a triumph of technology over a physical handicap it has a long way to go.

Bill Kempthorne is a high school science and math teacher currently completing a Master’s Degree in Computer Science Education at UBC. Comments are requested by email to kempw@unixg.ubc.ca or on the First Class systems at Apples B.C. or Sunshine

Teacher Talk:Computers in the Secondary Classroom.

The following is part of my current research for my Thesis. Flames, barbs, bouquets, etc. are excepted in the form they are offered.
The curriculum for computers in the high school setting has not changed significantly since the introduction of microcomputers in the late seventies or early eighties. Computer curriculum still follows the pattern  that saw computing as something that was done in a white air conditioned room in the basement. The idea that curriculum is something that changes slowly is nothing new. The fact that new technology takes years to be integrated does not shock anyone anymore. I would like to present the following additional concern for your consideration. The issue is equity.
In recent years equity has become a fashionable topic for discussion. It normally is followed by knowing nods of agreement and mutters of “of course we believe in equality”. Equity can be a term that is thrown out in many instances.  I use equity to address the situation where educational opportunities are available to those that have the technology to access them.
The computer as a tool and a technology is the most powerful to join the educational system in recent years. The question we should be asking ourselves is, now that the initial euphoria has ended, what will computers in schools look like in the next five to ten years. As I mentioned before, the curriculum of computers in high school has followed an industrial model that no longer exists. It comes from a time when most computer users had pocket protectors, multicolour pens, and talked in a language that mixed binary, hexadecimal, and English in roughly equal amounts. Take a look at where the computers are the average school. Computer Rooms are areas  with two locks and only a “computer teacher” will ever access it.  Computer labs are the goal of most administrators and school architects. By segregating the computers within the school you ration their use. If computers are only used for “computer classes” this practice might be acceptable.
Students and teachers use computers in all ways they can be used. Look at  English essays, Social Studies reports, and the Science projects. How many teachers look at the nice laser printed documents and compare them to the handwritten pages?   By limiting the ways in which the computer is used in schools you open a rift between the students that have access to one at home and those that don’t. Before you parents who bought a computer for your children feel too happy think about this; does your son or daughter have access to systems like Dialog, CompuServe, Genie, or America Online? How can you compare the research that can be done on those platforms to  that of your son or daughter who is using an encyclopedia at home? I don’t even mention the vast content of cyberspace available through the Internet. Internet allows me to asks friends in Kentucky and Prince George to proof this article by interconnecting many computer networks. (For those of you that are not familiar with Internet I suggest Michael Scott’s column in the weekend magazine of the Vancouver Sun).
Inequities on the basis of family resources are hardly new. When some parents started buying magazine subscriptions and encyclopedias, their children had an advantage also. The difference between encyclopedias and computers is that the school could easily even the field by stocking the library with dozens of encyclopaedias and hundreds of magazines. The schools do not have the money or the mandate to provide the volume of computer resources that would level this field. This is what I mean when I talk of equity.
I don’t believe that schools can address all the inequities in society but the education system should strive to minimize the results of inequities. We can’t buy computers for every student. The school system should move to have computers as part of the regular course of studies. In the same way that businesses no longer have separate computer departments and only the computer people can use the equipment, schools should use computers as part of all the subjects of study. If English classes have access to computers for typing then the laser printer at home doesn’t matter as much. If the libraries at schools have CD-ROM, and telecommunications facilities then the modem at home doesn’t have as big an effect. The development of multimedia tools and more highly developed network systems could provide the opportunity for schools to take the technological advantage back. Teachers, students, and parents need to look at this problem and make their own judgments.
Bill Kempthorne is a high school science and math teacher currently completing a Master’s Degree in Computer Science Education at UBC. Comments are requested by e-mail to kempw@unixg.ubc.ca or on the First Class Systems at Apples B.C. or Sunshine.