After 'Gatornet,' Where Next?


Gatornet isn't a new sports drink. It's the name of the computer network at Youth's Benefit Elementary School, the first in Harford County to electronically link all terminals school-wide.

The Fallston school proudly unveiled the system to the public last month, sending through the fiber-optics network a fifth grader's report on reptiles that included voices of classmates and computer graphics.

The network consists of 35 terminals, one in every other classroom. It cost two years of volunteer work from the community and educators, valued at $100,000, and $67,000 in cash, 60 percent of which was donated by a parent-community-business foundation.

Next step? Double the number of computer terminals and then hook up Gatornet with the Internet, the information supermaze linking to computers around the world.

Largely through the efforts of the Youth's Benefit education foundation, a sort of super-PTA, this school is farther down the road of computer learning than the rest of the county's schools. And yet there's not even one networked computer per classroom, let alone one per desk.

It's fine that one student could prepare a multimedia, computer-drafted report with all the bells and whistles, something that even a lot of long-time home computer users haven't yet learned to master.

But what happens when one teacher with 35 kids assigns a report that's due in two or three weeks? Where will these youngsters find the computer time to even keyboard their handwritten findings, let alone look up articles in the CD-ROM encyclopedia or consult the hypertext World Wide Web research documents from Internet libraries?

Commendable as it is, the Youth's Benefit experience illustrates the problems facing schools and school boards as they struggle to implement a workable, modern computer technology in education.

It is incredibly costly, and must be done in stages, resulting in years of uneven capability within the system. If networking is a goal, then the terminals must be compatible and equal in their receiving-sending capabilities. Both of these goals can be easily thwarted by the rapidly changing leap-frog technology. And schools are not likely to ever have enough computers for extensive individual use.

Most importantly, any school system has to ask itself what the ultimate goal should be? Why do students need these machines and what should they be able to do with them? Is it for familiarity with a keyboard and terminal, an introduction to basic types of programs and hardware? Or is it to develop technologically literate, fully functional, everyday computer users?

It's not enough to say, as a home computer buyer might, "I'd like to be able to do a little bit of everything and a lot of anything that particularly interests me." The prospect of ongoing change should not result in paralysis of decision. But the cost and need to provide for an entire school system require more selective, planned choices.

The Harford school board recognized this dilemma last month in freezing the spending of $650,000 for computers until a system-wide plan is developed.

As President Ronald Eaton noted, various schools have been accumulating computers without even a school-wide plan (Youth's Benefit excepted.) PTAs, local businesses, parents and friends have been the source of this melange of microchips. Supermarket chains give computers to schools in exchange for mountains of sales receipts from supporters.

The result is certainly inequity between schools today, but also incompatibility of equipment and a lack of defined goals even within a single school.

No one is saying that all the computers in the entire Harford school system have to be networked or linked, or that all the

hardware and software have to be the same. Mr. Eaton was careful not to criticize local efforts to provide computers to community schools, while pointing out that this method creates educational disparities throughout the county that will have to be addressed by the central school board.

An office to coordinate this educational technology has been created and a supervisor was hired. But the supervisor took eight months to leave her former job.

That delay is one reason why the school board simply froze computer purchase funds, even though the $650,000 in play this year wouldn't take the county program very far in any case. Another reason is that County Executive Eileen Rehrmann earmarked $400,000 in the budget for school computers, after the school board insisted it wanted that money to use for other things.

While Mrs. Rehrmann's instincts were certainly on target, the board must first adopt a computer education plan.

Computers cannot replace basic learning skills; they enhance the learning experience. You still have to be able to read, write in longhand and understand math before you can effectively use a computer.

Typewriters were around for a long time as writing tools, but they weren't required for every desk or classroom. Slide rules predated hand calculators, but they weren't taught to everyone as an essential skill. Printed encyclopedias are still a faster way to get basic information about a subject than using a computerized version.

Thinking is still a cerebral function. There's a lot of that needed to design a far-sighted plan for computer education in Harford schools.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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