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So You're On-Line Now What to Do?


As far as computers are concerned, I'm a "tweener." Too old to use them as unconsciously as I use the telephone. Too young to decide I can simply avoid them for the rest of my days.

For a long time, my computer abilities consisted of knowing how to write and save stories on the terminals in the newsroom. I rarely touched the old IBM clone that came with my husband. I refused to play "Leisure Suit Larry" with him. I hated writing on it. I wasn't sure what the Internet was.

But several months ago we bought a new, super-duper, state-of-the-art computer, and, lo and behold, I've entered a whole new world. Why, I'm becoming downright cyber-savvy! Clicking my way through Windows like a pro, balancing my checkbook with a nifty little calculator hidden beyond that magic screen, talking on a computer speakerphone, looking up words in a computer dictionary, drawing pictures on a computer canvas.

You can do everything on that thing but bake a meat loaf.

The computer came loaded with software for various on-line services, so soon after we bought it we decided to hop on the Infobahn and get where the action is. It felt like a momentous occasion. "Honey," he said, as he signed us up to America Online, "you should be in here for this."

I think I was expecting to be whisked into some magical computer wonderland. I thought this would be the technological equivalent of putting the top down on the convertible and cruising, effortlessly, through a fantabulous landscape.

Alas, being on-line looked just like all the other computer programs! There's lots and lots of text. The directions for sending E-mail are as convoluted as the assembly instructions for the baby's crib.

Nonetheless, I was amazed. The sheer wealth of stuff that's in a computer these days -- well, I didn't know where to begin. I downloaded a picture of the Kentucky Derby favorite, checked out a chat room where a couple of guys were insulting each other, played around with some old Time magazine articles. It was fun. But one thing quickly became clear: Having a lot of neat-o technology is pretty pointless unless you know what you want to do with it.

That's my problem with the Anne Arundel school system's plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on the Advanced School Automation Project, a network of computers linking all county schools and putting kids on the Information Highway.

Parents and educators want to get where the action is. They know all this wonderful technology exists, and they want students to have it. But no one seems to have a clear sense of rTC what students should do with it once they have it. Nor have we reached a consensus on the ultimate goal of all this technology.

The question is: What, exactly, should children leave high school knowing about computers?

Should graduates enter the real world equipped with basic computer skills and possessing a general sense of how computers can be used? Or, does sophisticated computer literacy now rank up there with reading, writing and 'rithmetic?

Many parents and educators seem to believe so. In a Sun story last week, one Anne Arundel teacher said there's no point in having kids draw maps with pencil and paper any more, even in elementary school; they ought to do it on computer, since that's what they'll be doing when they go out to get a job.

If you accept this view -- that computer proficiency is now as basic as the three Rs -- then a computer lab in every school isn't enough. A computer ought to sit on every child's desk. Of course, the expense would pose an enormous problem for local government.

Most people do recognize that computers have a role in public education. But it may be senseless and wasteful to try to make every student an Infohighway-hopping techno-wizard. We expect every graduate to know how to read; we do not require every graduate to know how to read Chaucer in Middle English.

Whether the public ultimately demands state-of-the-art computer access for each child or a less glitzy system that guarantees basic computer skills, officials should not spend one dime on high-tech equipment until that choice has been made. As it is, a real debate on the computer issue hasn't even occurred.

I love my computer; it's made life a lot easier. And I can't imagine going back to the days when reporters pecked out copy on typewriters. But newspapers and other companies buy computer systems specifically designed to their tasks. When I bought a personal computer, I made sure I got one that suited my needs. I'm currently debating whether to keep paying America Online to have all that information for the sake of having it, or cancel until I have a reason for using it.

Of course, an on-line subscription only costs $9.95 a month; I can afford to buy the latest, coolest technology just because it's out there and I want it. The school system doesn't have that luxury.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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