Periodically, I visit my parents' house and pick through the material vestiges of my childhood. Old toys, broken knickknacks, and drawings rendered in crayon litter their dusty attic. My mom, being the mother she was, tucked them away as small monuments to her child's journey through life. I'm happy she did.
During one of these visits in 2008, I ran across this curious artifact of my early education. It's one of my kindergarten spelling workbooks, still filled out in my meandering 5-year old hand all these years later.
As I flipped through its pages, memories of my kindergarten year — 1986 — began to bubble up from the deepest corners of my brain. I remembered the workbook's contents surprisingly well: it contained simple words with letters omitted, replaced with blanks in which I scrawled awkward glyphs.
I recalled having my spelling knowledge put to the test on primitive PCs of the day, which I had always assumed were Apple IIs in retrospect. But when my eyes fell upon the famous IBM logo printed on the cover, a strange realization washed over me: IBM taught me how to read.
Behind the Curtain
Once a week, my kindergarten teacher made our class form a single-file line. She'd lead us down the hall and into the school's auditorium. There, we'd march up the steps and duck behind a velvety curtain to find a row of five or six IBM PCs positioned against the back wall of the stage. The fabric partition dampened any chance of an echo, and it made the tall, narrow space feel like a large coat closet. I still recall the smell of ancient dust and floor wax that seemed to permeate every crevice of that building.
A single line of dim, low-wattage bulbs lit the backstage area with an orange glow. The darkness emphasized the iridescent green of the PCs' monochrome monitors, which cast a soft light on anyone sitting before them.
Other kids usually went first, stepping up to the computers and slipping on headphones. When it was my turn, the teacher would guide me to an unoccupied PC and help me get started. I'd begin my weekly spelling test, which would be officiated by software specially designed by IBM. Synthesized speech would issue forth from my headphones — usually a word at a time — and my task was to type out those words properly. When I was done, I'd surrender the computer to another student and wait. We'd all return to the classroom together.
Here's a shot from my elementary school yearbook showing the whole system in action, albeit not in the auditorium as I experienced it:
IBM's Writing to Read Program
It turns out I was part of a much larger social experiment taking place in the 1980s that sought to answer this question: can computers help children learn?
The question was further narrowed, in this case, to the subject of reading by both IBM — who was eager to outfit schools with scores of its computers — and a zealous education specialist named John Henry Martin. Martin's approach at promoting literacy emphasized learning to write and read at the same time, so he called his method "Writing to Read." In his plan, computers would only be one part of the educational equation; he envisioned the PC as a technological delivery vehicle for his methods — an "individual tutor" that would carry out his curriculum exactly, without deviation, every time.
Their combined mission was to help kids learn to read — and, of course, to make money. IBM especially targeted impoverished areas with low rates of student literacy. It's always convenient when community outreach includes the sales of $20,000 to $65,000 worth of your product per school.
So did it work? According to some studies, the IBM Writing to Read program provided no advantage over traditional non-computer techniques, and it added significant (and unnecessary) cost to the process. Come to think of it, what role did the computer play in the program that a human teacher couldn't easily replicate?
Sharman Ramsey was especially critical of the program when writing about it in 1995:
One wonders at administrators' eagerness to spend great sums on an ineffective gimmick. But, grants and federal funding make this tempting technology accessible to impoverished school districts. Then, in spite of gleaming new computer labs, they are no better off academically than before. In fact, with the high cost of upkeep putting demands on scarce local funds, the new technology actually prevents districts from contracting with those companies with successful methods to produce literate children. As one principal put it, "We've got too much invested in this to change."
Others, especially IBM and Martin, emphasized whatever minimal benefits they could extract from academic studies of the program, and some teachers swore by its efficacy.
From my personal experience as part of the program (for one year), I did learn to read at the right age — and I enjoyed the process — but I can't say I learned to read any better than I would have without the computers around. After my kindergarten year, I switched schools, and I used old fashioned books from then on. They did the job just fine.
As far as I know, the Writing to Read program continued into the late 1990s. I'm not sure if schools still use computers to teach reading to kindergarten-level kids anymore, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were still plenty of companies around to capitalize on educational fads that happen to involve expensive, emerging, and barely understood technology. There's good money in it, you know.
Discussion Topic of the Week: Did you use educational software in school as a kid? Tell us about it.