The Buddy System Project encourages parents to become involved in making technology available to students at home.
Credit: The Corporation for Educational Technology
You've heard it all before. Taxpayers and legislators complaining about public education and demanding that schools do more with less. Parents opting for private schools, often at considerable personal sacrifice. Entrepreneurs claiming they could do a better job of teaching our kids, and make a profit in the bargain. Teachers on the verge of burnout, carrying an ever-increasing share of parental responsibilities. Curriculums continuing to expand, with new things piled on top of the old. And, worst of all, pundits who espouse glib answers and quick fixes for complex problems that have evolved in our public schools over several generations.
What you don't hear much about are the exemplary public schools that operate in virtually every region of the country. You don't hear about motivated teachers working with children who are eager to learn, demonstrating results that compare favorably with the very best that private schools have to offer.
Parents as Report Cards
What makes these schools work? I have found that you don't need the complex evaluation formulas used by state departments of education to identify good schools. All you have to do is see how many parents are involved in the school -- the more parents you see, the better the school is likely to be. Listen to the conversations between parents and teachers; if they are truly listening to and responding to each other, you can be assured your child is in an exemplary environment where children's learning comes first.
When children spend less than 30 percent of their waking hours in schools where student-teacher ratios often exceed 25 to 1, common sense should tell us that most learning is going to occur outside of the formal school day. How then, do we equip and support children to become active learners outside the classroom, while at the same time encourage parental support and participation in the learning experience?
In Indiana, we have taken a small but meaningful step in this direction by implementing the Buddy System Project, which uses technology to extend learning beyond the classroom and into the home. The project equips families with the same personal computers, printers, and modems found at school, which encourages students to spend more time learning and helps parents develop new links with teachers (and also to the world at large). Started in 1988 with 500 families of fourth graders, Buddy now serves 6,000 families of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders throughout the state and is projected to reach more than 10,000 by 1997.
Helping Families Help their Children
Study after study shows that children do measurably better in school when their families create a home atmosphere conducive to learning, have high but realistic achievement expectations, and are active in school and community learning programs.
Our goal is to foster an environment in which families and educators work together to help learning flourish, both at school and at home. Most children enter the Buddy program with minimal computer skills, yet when they "graduate" to middle school, tests show they are proficient at using word processing, spreadsheet, database, and drawing software; more proficient, even, than computer-literate high school seniors.
Their skills are developed while using the computer as an integral part of learning activities occurring in every fourth- and fifth-grade classroom in the state. Teachers can assign complex homework, knowing that each child has the same tools available as those in the classroom. The result is more time spent on learning at home, as well as the acquisition of information processing skills that permit Buddy Project students to stay a step ahead of their contemporaries throughout their school experience.
Providing the computer hardware for each child's home is only the first step. An intensive staff development program operates year-round for Buddy educators. This year, the Corporation for Educational Technology (CET), the not-for-profit home of the Buddy Project, has partnered with the Indiana Department of Education and Butler University to create a fully-equipped technology training facility for educators and families. Starting this year, the Buddy Project will employ "circuit riders" to travel the state and assist sites by conducting family technology training sessions on evenings and Saturdays.
And, over the past two summers, CET has operated a Buddy Leadership Camp for students, parents, and teachers. These camps have provided a healthy combination of outdoor fun and technology. Teams of participants document what they learn during camp by creating multimedia projects using video, graphics, and animation.
After placing computers with families, CET does everything possible to ensure that they don't gather dust in a closet. Statewide licenses have been negotiated with major educational software publishers, and the savings are passed on to Buddy families and teachers. As a result, high-quality educational software is available for purchase by participants at approximately 25 percent of the retail price. To encourage further home use, activity kits in mathematics and language arts (and soon, science) have been created to engage Buddy students and their parents in technology-based projects that directly complement fourth- and fifth-grade curriculums.
Business Lends a Hand
Telecommunications is an integral component of the Buddy System Project. A new bulletin board system, accessible to every family via a local telephone call, will be phased in this year. A full-time systems operator is responsible for securing age-appropriate content for the bulletin board and responds to technology questions via a toll-free telephone number or over the network.
Indiana businesses are finding their own ways to support the Buddy initiative. SAM'S Clubs, for example, offer Buddy families the opportunity to purchase their own computer hardware, peripherals, and software at discounted prices, and Fifth Third Bank of Central Indiana provides low-cost, unsecured financing for these purchases.
The CET Board of Directors is made up of leading legislators, educators, business people and parents from around the state who have successfully lobbied for continued and expanded funding for the Buddy Project. Buddy students, parents, and teachers lend their support by traveling en masse to the state house armed with computer exhibits to impress upon lawmakers the impact Buddy has had around the state.
Where does the project go from here? Our focus for the next evolution will be extending our outreach to additional families by leveraging services and support structures already in place. Since more than one-third of U.S. homes are now equipped with personal computers, we are looking for ways to facilitate their use for home-based learning. We are also working with the growing number of free community networks to ensure that support materials and training are available to an ever-widening audience. And as prices for computers continue to drop, we may become a rare example of a program that can realistically do more with less. The project will be testing a sub-notebook machine this year that comes equipped with built-in, tool-based software on a ROM chip and sells for under $400.
Using technology to extend learning into the home won't solve all the complex problems affecting the nation's public schools. But the Buddy Project -- and programs like it -- that enlist parents as partners and provide the tools and support to facilitate learning beyond the classroom are a giant step in the right direction.
Alan Hill was president of the Corporation for Educational Technology when he wrote this article.