Life in an electronic classroom


WHEN STUDENTS arrive early for Henry Linck's freshman composition course at Howard Community College, they don't shuffle their feet and chit-chat until the professor arrives.

Instead, they slide out their computer keyboards and enter Dr. Linck's electronic classroom. They sign in and download, check to see if there's e-mail from the professor or from each other, then tap out a short answer to a brain tickler the professor has left.

When he arrives, the class might be divided into four segments, with students in each reading each other's completed writing assignments on the computer screen and offering criticism. Or they might criticize the professor's criticism.

Students can print out their work, take it home and consider it. What worked? What didn't?

They can send each other messages to which their professor has no access. They can call him a jerk if they want, though the class has agreed from the outset to use civil language.

If anonymity seems in order, Dr. Linck can run an occasional session in which students use pseudonyms. Because the computers are hooded, privacy is assured.

"This allows for everyone to get involved," said Dr. Linck, chairman of Howard's English and foreign language division. "Even the shy ones will participate if they can remain anonymous, which is something you can't do in a regular classroom."

The teacher's computer is hooked to an overhead projector, so everyone can see what's on his screen. But there are days, he said, "when we just slide the keyboards in and talk to each other."

Howard is the first community college in Maryland to teach all of its writing courses in electronic classrooms. More than 1,000 students keep the Columbia school's computer labs busy from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"It's changed the philosophy of how to teach," Dr. Linck said. "We used to spend about 70 percent of class time lecturing and 30 percent on some kind of student work. Now that ratio is reversed."

But is Howard's approach the way to go? Each one of those stations, including its desk, represents an investment of more than $1,500. The software, developed in Texas, may be as outdated next year as a Beta video. Should Howard be commended for taking the bold step, or pitied for its foolishness? And if this is the wave of the future, how are the less wealthy community colleges in Baltimore County and Baltimore City to afford electronic classrooms in an era of budget cuts?

At the elementary-secondary level, how will city and rural schools catch up with, much less keep pace with, their wealthier suburban brethren in buying and using expensive education technology? And because there has been little reliable evaluation of education technology, just how how cost-effective is it?

Everyone in education, higher and lower, is stumbling blindly down the path of technology. A national panel appointed by President Clinton is expected to make recommendations early next year. A panel of Maryland educators and business leaders has released a broad "vision" for 2003: " every learner in the state will have access to database information and communication resources in classrooms, workplaces, homes and communities." The price tag for the public schools: a minimum of $150 million over five years.

At a conference in Baltimore yesterday sponsored by the Milken Family Foundation, an expert on technology -- he teaches about it and started a company that sells it -- advised educators to quit groping for the magic "program" and begin seeking ways to marry education with the entertainment industry.

Dale Mann of Columbia University Teachers College said entertainment has replaced health care as the "growth industry of the '90s," an industry that through television and video games has made media experts of a generation. Why not acknowledge, he asked, that "play is child's work" and get on with it?

Giant entertainment companies such as Viacom and Time Warner already control much of the education publishing business, Dr. Mann said. Meanwhile, 60 percent of American homes with adolescents in residence have Nintendo, and the best seller in the entertainment field last year was neither Barbra Streisand nor "Forrest Gump." It was a perfectly awful (and violent) video game called "Mortal Kombat."

The entertainment industry "doesn't have the content, and they know it, and they're worried about it. You have the content." You can't beat 'em; join 'em, Dr. Mann advised a roomful of educators and business people. "Link education with entertainment and make it worthwhile to all the players."

New York appointment has Baltimore connection

Rudy Crew began work Monday as New York City school chancellor, the latest in a succession that makes Baltimore look the model of stability.

Dr. Crew, 45, is younger than most previous chancellors and has been a school chief only since 1989. But he managed to avoid political land mines in Boston, where he was an administrator, and in Tacoma, Wash., where he was superintendent.

Yes, he's a cousin of John L. Crew Sr., Baltimore superintendent from 1975 to 1982. "He sent me a note saying, 'Hey, John, it's lonely out here,' " Baltimore's Dr. Crew said last week.

It won't be lonely in New York.

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