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Bob Albrecht
Andrew Hunt
Dr. Patrick Suppes
Tom Snyder

A Knapsack Full of Ideas

Bob Albrecht, now in his 70s, was on the ground floor of school computing in the 1960s. An energetic transplant from the Midwest to California's Silicon Valley, Albrecht helped start a great many of California's irreverent high-tech ventures, whose mission was curiously compatible with the iconoclastic culture of the period. These ventures included one of the first journals for computer hobbyists (called Dr. Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics: Running Light without Overbyte); the first textbook on BASIC, the granddaddy of computer programming languages; and some of the first organizations that worked to spread computers in schools.

One afternoon, Albrecht was treating me to a cornucopia of academic possibilities with today's computer technologies—spreadsheet activities, the latest website—building software, and documents overflowing with hypertext links, which let students, as he put it, "just click and go, click and go." After listening for a while to Albrecht's world view, I pulled out a quote from Alfred North Whitehead, the late great mathemetician, logician, and philosopher. "The best education is to be found in gaining the utmost information from the simplest apparatus," Whitehead wrote in 1929. "The provision of elaborate instruments is greatly to be deprecated." Albrecht heartily agreed, with one caveat. An extra phrase should be added to the first sentence, he suggested, so it read, "... the simplest apparatus that is capable of doing the job."

Albrecht's revision wouldn't add much complication, at least not in his mind. Whenever he volunteers in schools, which he still does regularly, Albrecht arrives with an unusual assemblage of materials, the primary piece of which is a knapsack full of gizmos and gadgets. He also packs sets of documents on computer disks, which he calls his "backpacks." (There's an "Algebra Backpack," a "Physics Backpack," a "Measurement Backpack," and several others.) The disks carry all those files and articles that he litters with hypertext links. Yet when it comes to teaching, say, the laws of probability, Albrecht pulls out a Tupperware container full of dice. Some are standard, six-sided dice; some are "dodecahedral" (with 12 faces, each of which is shaped like a pentagon), some are "icosahedral" (with 20, tiny, triangular faces). "Here," he says, waving his dice box in the air, "this is educational technology." Cost? About $10. Another one of Albrecht's favorite pieces of technology is "base 10 blocks," used to teach math to very young children. "I do a lot more of that than I do with computers. Because they are powerful and they are cheap. And teachers can learn to use them."

Albrecht's point about blocks is more profound than it seems. A good many schools, including those considered models of intelligent computer use, have enthusiastically bought computer programs that simulate blocks and beans and other physical materials that have long been staples of math instruction in the early grades. "That," Albrecht argued, "is not appropriate technology." (Child-development experts fervently agree with him. "Hands-on learning" is critical in their eyes; they believe it imprints knowledge deeply into a young child's brain, transmitting the lessons of experience through a variety of sensory pathways.) Even now, with computers in almost every school, the product exhibits at math education conferences feature table after table of blocks in different colors and patterns, counting chips, fraction tiles, puzzles, building kits, and assorted other manipulatives —"manippies," in teacher lingo. "I could harp about tool selection all day," Albrecht told me. "If we could teach teachers appropriate tool selection, we wouldn't have these problems. You're beating your head against the wall to teach teachers programming." Then, leaning in for emphasis, he said, "Today's hot programming language is tomorrow's forgotten dialect."

Toward the end of one conversation with Albrecht, I got nervous about drawing too much meaning from his arguments. Albrecht is obviously not your average instructor. He's rarely seen without a shirt emblazoned on the front with a large dragon, his lifelong icon; one of his hobbies is fatiguing much younger friends on hikes in the California woods. This childlike energy travels with Albrecht whenever he visits schools. (Even his face gives it away. One of his ears is curiously misshapen—by birth, one presumes. But it curls in at the top into a slight point, much like a dragon's.) All of this moved me to ask him if he thought it realistic to expect average teachers to duplicate his experiences. "If you really want to solve this problem," he said, "double the teachers' salaries."

Above: Bob Albrecht prefers not to go by something as terrestrian as his own human likeness, but is instead widely known by his lifelong icon: a dragon.


High-Tech Guinea Pig

Now a college junior, Andrew Hunt graduated from Hundred High School, a tiny but very high-tech public school in the hardscrabble hills of West Virginia. During his tenure at Hundred, Andrew was clearly one of the school's stars. He was active in student government, wrote for the school paper, was a lead musician in the school band, played lead roles in school plays, was a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship, and won first place in extemporaneous speaking in a statewide contest. Because of his achievements, Andrew qualified for a special English class during his senior year—an online "distance learning" course, taught by a professor from a neighboring college. Classes of this sort are one of the latest crazes (and one of the hottest commercial opportunities) in high-tech schooling. And they are expressly designed to break the isolation of ambitious but isolated students like Andrew Hunt, who perfectly fits the profile of the sort of student who excels in distance learning: He is smart—and extremely self-motivated. Yet Andrew hated the experience. "I would really rather have a real teacher," Andrew said. Interestingly, Andrew's primary frustration with his online class was how much it actually increased his sense of isolation, from both his teacher and his fellow students. "I'm a really interactive person," Andrew said—an ironic comment, since the computer's great selling point is that it is supposed to be the ideal interactive device.

Andrew Hunt now looks back on his experience with extra bitterness. After graduating from Hundred, Andrew found that in college English courses he had to repeat things that he'd studied in his high school distance-learning class because he'd learned so little online. "I feel like I'm learning it all now for the first time," he told me in 2003. In the intervening years, Andrew had traveled to Ukraine, done an internship with West Virginia's House Education Committee, and had majored in political science (with a minor in philosophy) in preparation for law school. By this point—six years after the laptop system was introduced at Hundred—Andrew thought he'd be hearing tales from friends and his younger brothers, who were still there, about the school finally making advances with the system. Instead he heard the reverse: The laptops had become gradually less important; students didn't take them home very often anymore; and teachers slowly reverted to pre-digital teaching methods—all of which left Andrew with a sense that he'd been somewhat used by his old high school to justify its investment in distance learning. "I really feel like I bought those course credits," Andrew told me.

Above left: Andrew Hunt at Bluestone Dam, Hinton, W. Va.
Above right: In London with fiancee, Vera Pogrebraya


The "White Knight of The Behaviorists"

In the summer of 1983, a peak moment in the nation's first wave of fervor over personal computers, an innovative software product called "Dial-A-Drill" hit the stores. The product was released by a company called Computer Curriculum Corporation, a firm that was and would continue to be one of the biggest players in the national educational software market. As CCC's first commercial offering in 16 years, Dial-A-Drill was a little different from most of its competitors. It was delivered as an automatic recording, over the phone, which students (or adults) could pick up at appointed times. They'd then hear a computerized voice that would put them through reading, spelling, and arithmetic drills, which they'd then answer by punching buttons on the phone's keypad. As students recorded their answers, the phone-bank computer responded with occasional hints and words of praise ("Excellent work!"). It also adjusted the drill as the phone call progressed, delivering harder problems for skilled children or easier ones for those who were struggling. That made Dial-A-Drill "computer adaptive," as testing experts call it, a feature that would become all the rage many years later.

Dial-A-Drill was developed by CCC founder and president Dr. Patrick Suppes, another legend of the academic computing movement. In the 1960s, while in his 40s, Suppes became one of the earliest and most fervent advocates of computer-aided instruction (CAI), the family of computerized drill and practice routines that became widely popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. (School costs for CAI packages started at around $100,000, with $800,000 price tags being typical; some cost well over $1 million.) One of the things that put Suppes on the map in this field was an influential article he wrote in 1966 for Scientific American entitled "The Uses of Computers in Education," in which he predicted that it would not be long before we had computers that could talk to children—a theory that Dial-A-Drill tried to put into practice. The article was widely reprinted and translated into at least four languages.

Suppes approached CAI like a science, which he intensely studied and promoted through an unusual double career. During his 24 years as CCC's president, Suppes also served as a professor of mathematics and philosophy at Stanford University and director of its Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences. In 1990, Suppes sold CCC to Simon & Schuster. But he stayed at Stanford and, as of 2002, he was still affiliated with the university, teaching classes as a retired professor of philosophy, emeritus. By this time, Suppes' curriculum vitae was as distinguished as his web-site portrait, in which a lean and tanned Dr. Suppes gazed contentedly at his readers, his fine, patrician features and wavy, graying hair nicely crowning the accomplishments underneath. Those accomplishments run for approximately 50 pages. There is a C.V. with scores of academic honors and appointments; a 27-page "intellectual autobiography;" and lists of hundreds of related papers, from 1951 to present, in six different categories: "Methodology, Probability, and Measurement;" psychology; the brain; the "Foundation of Physics;" "Language and Logic;" and "Computers and Education." This last category is Suppes' most extensive, numbering 146 different journal articles and conference presentations over a 40-year period.

To read through even a slice of Suppes' material is to be treated to a world view that, while appearing archaic, has cropped up repeatedly in modern times. It is the scientist outlook in the extreme—the assumption that anything worth bothering with can be objectively identified, consciously induced, tightly controlled, and empirically measured. This outlook has often shaped the way society works—how it evaluates children, as well as adults, and how it awards merit to each of us. Indeed, the recent enthusiasm for standardized academic testing, spawned by George W. Bush's administration, is but the latest example of the modern appetite for such endeavors. Years earlier, one of the most influential proponents of this philosophy was James B. Conant, the midcentury Harvard chemistry professor and, later, university president who created the Scholastic Aptitude Test. (Conant, widely regarded as the father of standardized testing, also brought the nation its modern culture of large, "consolidated" high schools, as well as a system for labeling student abilities. Such a system, Conant believed, would help society "track" students, steering them into high scholarship on one extreme or vocational education on the other—a habit that educators are still trying to outgrow.) An equally famous adherent of the ultra-scientist view was a Conant contemporary, the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose view that people were essentially trained like animals ultimately fell into disrepute. While Suppes took pains to point out his differences with Skinner, he sometimes sided with the old man, describing himself at one point as "the White Knight of the Behaviorists."

If Suppes was right, Dial-A-Drill was going to be his white horse. When the program was released in 1983, Suppes called it part of a "broad societal response" to the need for computer-assisted instruction. The telephone drills, he said, created "a regular and organized time, in clear contradistinction to what you can do with a home computer." The product did have economy on its side. Courses cost $15 to $18 apiece (less with bulk purchases). That fee bought three to five calls a week, with each call estimated to take only six to 10 minutes. It also brought monthly reports in the mail, and an "overlay" card, which turned the phone's keypad into a simplified calculator. The voice system was a special innovation—"a bit-sliced machine of our own design," CCC said. If students dodged the machine's calls, their parents would hear about it in the monthly reports.

As strange as this product sounds, Suppes based it on a set of purposeful learning theories, some of which he had articulated a decade earlier, in a conversation with the editors of Saturday Review. Pictured then as an earnest, young, fuzzy-headed professor in heavy black-rimmed glasses and a dark ascot, Suppes faced off in the magazine's pages with Bob Albrecht, whose open-ended approach to computer programming clearly irritated the Stanford professor. "One of our most important concerns," Suppes said, "is the people who say that because they have all these facilities and technology, teachers will write their own courses. I think that's no more true than it's been in publishing—that the average teacher would write a textbook. I think it's less true." What particularly irked Suppes were the idealistic celebrations of the computer as a creative tool. "The real problem with romantics," Suppes said, "is that their intellectual level is so poor... Nobody says that you can produce a first-class basketball or football team just by horsing around. Or suppose we trained pilots that way: let's take an airplane and horse around—it's a nice technological device; you don't need any training—just play around with it, take it up, and see how you like it. That's crazy!"

...Curiously, in Patrick Suppes' C.V., there is no mention of the company that he led for nearly three decades. And, despite his voluminous papers on computerized instruction, there is only the briefest discussion of this work in his lengthy "intellectual autobiography." There's an even shorter reference to his tenure with CCC; not until page 22 does he even bring it up. (In so doing, Suppes notes that he founded CCC, in 1967, with several partners, one of whom was Richard Atkinson, who went on to become the president of the University of California system. Strangely, Atkinson is as reluctant to talk about the company's history as Suppes was in his autobiography. When I called Atkinson to talk about CCC, he sent word that he did not want to discuss that phase of his history.) Suppes does, however, thank Stanford for assisting his work with CAI. "Without the sophisticated computer facilities at Stanford," he writes, "it would not have been possible for me to pursue these matters in such detail and on such a scale." More than anything, Suppes emphasizes his prodigious efforts to improve student performance, and its evaluation.

How does he think he did? Like Seymour Papert, MIT's guru of computer programming for children, Suppes accepts the academic community's grim verdict of his programs. And, like Papert, he blames the schools' weak bureaucracy for these failures. When asked, in 2001, about his prediction in the 1960s that computers would soon talk to children, Suppes acknowledged that he "was too optimistic" about the proximity of that development. "That's a tough problem."

In these latter years of his life, Suppes is still publishing and teaching, and still trying out new ideas with CAI. His latest is a program that would let gifted students from kindergarten through high school try their hand at advanced work in math and the sciences. Like most of his CCC products, the program wasn't heavy on teacher interaction. "It was designed not to require a tutor," Suppes said. "They're just for trouble-shooting"—that is, responding largely through e-mail. Suppes does differ from Papert, however, in that he has no illusion that his products will revolutionize education. He's simply trying to find a way around weak teachers, which he seems to regard as education's Achilles heel. "There's a lot of bullshit about teachers. Let's not think they're all beautiful flowers about to bloom. We'd all like to be tutored by Aristotle. But that's not possible."

Above: Dr. Patrick Suppes of Stanford University


"Slogging Through"

Tom Snyder used to make educational software through his former company, Tom Snyder Productions. But Snyder approached this market very differently than other companies do. He created intricate intellectual inquiries—in history, science, and other subjects—that dared to require a tremendous amount of teacher supervision. Snyder knew he would get that supervision, because the software was designed to be used on only one computer—the teacher's. The teacher would then use this inquiry for an extended group discussion. This approach made Snyder the champion of what he called "the one computer classroom." And the experience of watching schools use his products, often after struggling fruitlessly with more typical computer activities, left Snyder with some unusual views about education and its endless romance with technology. "Schools may be the last place," Snyder says, "where the government is funding us to gather together into public forums to have conversations. We have got to protect that." Snyder fears that in 10 or 15 years, employers will increasingly ask whether applicants were computer trained or teacher trained. Those who were computer trained, he believes, will be left out, because "they won't be able to make sense of the world." What's missing among many graduates of today's classrooms is a capacity for concentration and perseverance—what Snyder calls an appetite for "slogging through." Surveying the schools' current obsession with the Internet, and its myriad seductions for informational surfing, Snyder says, "Let's not come back in 10 years having spent the last decade congratulating kids for leaving ideas."

Above: Tom Snyder in a non-digital moment with his wife, Anne


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