Computerizing the nation's classrooms -- far from being all fun and games -- poses difficult questions of social equity and massive teacher training, educators were warned today.
The admonition came at the end of a three-day Harvard University symposium seeking ways to use video-game fascination to improve education.
The 200 social scientists, psychologists, educational researchers and product developers at the symposium agreed that youngsters can be motivated to learn by specially designed instructional games. But several pointed out that teaching by computer carries special problems with it.
Herbert Kohl, a New York teacher and writer, said that social science research has an obligation to make certain that instructional games are not geared to teach youngsters to score well on tests that have been proved racially and culturally biased.
"Is this going to be a tool to divide the poor from the rich?" he asked.
Kohl said that wealthy children play with Apple IIs at home, while poor children spend quarter after quarter in video-game arcades. The rich are being taught to program, he said, and the poor to spend money.
"Fairness and equity must be a part of what we do if we're going to be decent people," Kohl said.
Linda G. Roberts, a specialist on new classroom technology for the Department of Education, agreed.
"We can't ignore the fact that there are tremendous diverse needs," she said, "and we cannot allow the technology to become elitist . . . ." Roberts also that said educators are feeling pressure from parents to use the new technologies but must balance that fact against their need to learn how to use the computers and identify the best uses of them.
Unlike other innovations introduced in schools, she said, this is a bottom-up phenomenon. Faculty are being exposed to computers and video games outside the school and are taking their interest back to their schools. Other teachers get interested in computers as they have the opportunity to use them. Group support among teachers is essential to avoid resistance to technology, she said.
"Sometimes they're embarrassed because they're learning," Roberts said. "It puts them in an unusual position.They're very much partners with their students and the people in their community."
Arcade video games came under attack for their violence, but most of the speakers said that what makes the games fascinating -- the challenge, fantasy, curiosity and control -- will motivate learning. If games are fun, said University of Kansas professor Jerry Chaffin, "children will work at their other tasks in order to get to work on their math" on the computer.
The games also allow children to make errors and take risks because it will lead to improvement, Chaffin added.
"I don't see children get discouraged when they make errors in arcades, but in school they get embarrassed because we make them embarrassed," he said.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education sponsored the conference with a $40,000 grant from Atari Inc.