Bring a Candle, Not a Sparkler

By Barry Kort

President Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology recently held a session dealing with Educational Technology, during which the committee first heard a report saying that no evidence could be found that computers are beneficial in education. A reporter turned to another attendee for comment, who in turn posted a call for responses on an educational policy mailing list operated by the non-profit Consortium on School Networking.

Here are the comments I posted back to the list regarding the benefits of computers in education...

From: (Barry Kort)
Date: Mon, 17 Mar 1997 08:36:18 -0500 (EST)
To: (CoSN Discussion List)
Subject: Measuring benefits of educational technology

After 10 years of research, I have one durable finding on this point.

What works in education (regardless of the medium of communication) is intelligent, caring adults spending lots of quality contact time with children in a close one-on-one setting.

Computer communications networks enable more adults (Hillary Clinton's "Village") to spend quality time with individual children, through technologies such as E-Mail Mentoring and Online Learning Communities.

My own personal work in MicroMuse, at the Museum of Science, in E-Mail Mentoring, and through Internet Conferencing all reinforce this finding. Technology all by itself isn't the answer. What ended up mattering was whether I and others like me bothered to pay attention to individual students, to work with them over extended periods of time in cooperative and collaborative learning activities.

Whenever I harness Communications Technology to support Learning Communities and Learning Environments, the Magic happens. It also happens when I show up at a school or at the Science Museum and engage in the same kind of quality interaction -- coaching, mentoring, challenging and paying attention to kids and their learning.

It's a lot easier for me to do this in Cyberspace than in face-to-face venues because I can do it at odd hours of the day and night, sometimes for brief moments with any one child. But I can do this consistently over protracted periods because the cost of adult participation in cyberspace learning environments is essentially zero to all participants.

So if you throw computers at children and leave them to fend for themselves, nothing much will come of it. But if you use computers to make it easier for intelligent caring adults to spend quality time with children, doing interesting, engaging, and educationally meaningful things, then you are using technology wisely and appropriately.

Barry Kort, Ph.D.
Consulting Scientist
Educational Technology Research
BBN/GTE Learning Systems and Technologies
Cambridge MA

Gwen Solomon, Editor of the Well Connected Educator, has asked me to gather up some examples of One-On-One and Small-Group Interactions from E-Mail and MicroMuse. Here they are...

Examples of One-On-One and Small-Group Interactions

Over the years, I've engaged children (and adults) in a very special kind of One-On-One and Small Group Interaction in a format that I like to call Rabbinic/Talmudic Philosophy 101 Discussions. Online, I began these with E-Mail and UseNet, then extended the format to newer media, including the Muse and Cafe Utne.

E-Mail Mentoring

Some years ago, Media Technologist and Librarian, Jan Wee, advertised through a K-12 teachers mailing list for a correspondent to exchange E-Mail with one of her brighter students. My E-Mail correspondence with Lolly Fletcher remains one of my brightest memories.

Muse Mentoring

On MicroMuse, I've led inquiries and discussions in that same spirit in both private conversations and public seminars and discussions. MicroMuse is an Online Learning Community governed by a Social Contract, in which participants adopt fanciful names and identities in an informal and playful setting. Such online identities are called 'Avatars' and they represent one's Persona or Character in the Muse. In the transcripts below, I appear variously as Moulton the Schmeggegy Scientist or as Mymosh the Self-Begotten . Mymosh purports to be an Artificial Intelligence Robot (like Artoo Detoo or See Threepio of Star Wars fame). Through the use of such 'Puppet' avatars, I can engage discussants in the charming tradition of the the pioneering 1950's children's television puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom (Kukla, Fran and Ollie ), or the 1970's Sesame Street puppeteer, Jim Hensen (Kermit the Frog ). My normal avator of Moulton, the Schmeggegy Scientist is based on my real life role as a weekend volunteer in the Children's Discovery Center at the Boston Museum of Science.

My correspondents are young people on MicroMuse, speaking through their own avatars. Two of the Muse transcripts below feature one-on-one conversations with Kalany and Sear. Both are exceptionally gifted students, and both were about 13 years old when these conversations were logged. Most of the remaining participants in the group discussions are teenagers, but now and then an adult participant appears briefly. The tenth transcript below is different from the others in that it records an actual Judicial Hearing in which a young participant incurred the wrath of the MicroMuse Community after violating the terms of the MicroMuse Social Contract.

The diligent reader who has looked at the above transcripts and abstracted out their essence will note that the particular topics of discussion were chosen not so much for their pure academic value, but because the discussants found them engaging. The entire point of these exercises is to stimulate thinking for its own sake and for the joyful pleasures of learning. Note that all of this is accomplished with retrograde, low-bandwidth technology using junk computers. No glitz, no high-tech sparklers, just a lone schmeggegy scientist carrying a candle.

Spark or Sparkler?

Finally, by way of comparison, I include a transcript of a recent School Network Event which pushed the technology envelope with Internet audio, video, and high-fidelity audio. This last transcript represents both the excitement of high-bandwidth technology and the real problems that arise when the technology interferes with the educational content.

The Story of MicroMuse and MuseNet

A few years ago, Rob Reilly, a pioneering teacher-technologist from western Massachusetts organized an Internet Mailing List aimed at the K-12 Community. At one point, he invited me to be the guest discussant for a week. Here is my 6-part Articles on EdNet in which I journalize my adventures in crafting an unfunded, non-profit online learning community on the Internet.

Additional Reading

Some of the articles below originally appeared in print, others are only available via the Web. Some are written by professional journalists, others are contributed by teachers, parents, and students. Note -- as time goes on, some of these documents will begin to disappear from the Web, or may end up in archives elsewhere.

See also:

MicroMUSE / MuseNet has been awarded the 1996 NII Children Award for pioneering innovation in children's educational computer networking.

MuseNet is the flagship activity of The Orenda Project.