Tutor by Computer

By Carl ZimmerSep 1, 1993 5:00 AM


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The growing power of computing has been harnessed to provide a patient, high-tech teacher for the illiterate.

The big players in the computer industry have spent millions in recent years on the development of multimedia technologies--hardware and software that combine video, photographs, graphics, text, and stereo sound. One offshoot of these systems has been a new way for students to learn; while reading about John F. Kennedy, for example, a student can point at the word speeches on a computer screen to see and hear the president at his inauguration.

Now multimedia innovations are being applied to help the growing number of adults who are struggling with the most basic tool of education, literacy. In May inmates at Rikers Island prison in New York City started using a multimedia computer to learn how to read. The program’s director, Beverly Hemmings, had studied the impact of technology on minority education while a graduate student and had come to recognize its potential usefulness in fighting the adult illiteracy plague. I wanted to use technology for the abjectly illiterate, she says, the people who can’t even read signs or medicine bottles.

Teaching an adult to read is often harder than teaching a child. It can be a source of humiliation for the student and frustration for the teacher. But a computer doesn’t humiliate and is never frustrated. Hemmings began working on the project two years ago and had a program running by January 1992. Using a computer equipped with a touch-sensitive screen, the program takes a student through a series of lessons. In one, the letter A appears while a recorded voice says, A. Apple. Then the word appears, along with a photograph of the fruit. In one corner some video footage shows a hand writing the letter, so the student can practice by imitation. Finally the student must identify the lowercase a from a group of letters by touching the screen, which drives home how the same letter can come in different shapes.

If a question is answered incorrectly, the computer shows the right answer, then returns to the lesson. As performance improves, the computer moves the student on to more complicated spelling lessons and then to reading full sentences. The recorded voice continues pronouncing the words--say, subway--which continue to be illustrated with still pictures or short sound videos, such as a train pulling into a subway station.

In the early 1980s people like Hemmings could only dream of doing this with computers. Back then video and sound technology existed in separate worlds. Those worlds merged as engineers designed equipment that could convert a movie or a song into a digital code, but this conversion taxed computer memory. Video and sound are dense forms of information: the same space of computer memory that can store 13,824 pages of text can fit only two and a half minutes of music or a mere second of digital video.

Multimedia computerization thus comes down to a problem of plumbing. You can accommodate the huge flow of data by making bigger pipes- -inventing denser memory and more powerful chips. Or you can make the flow smaller by compressing information--instead of having the computer continually record, for example, every color in every frame on its monitor, you can have it note only when a given pixel on screen changes color. Using both of these approaches has made it possible for Hemmings’s programming team to build a tutoring system with a price tag of only $3,000--a cost that will certainly plunge in the near future.

Hemmings hopes eventually to develop a commercial system, but for now she needs to prove it can work. Last year she ran a demonstration project for 60 people at her Street Literacy Clinic in Harlem. No one dropped out, and many enrolled in basic literacy courses afterward.

The program at Rikers also appeared to be working. Everybody who participated seemed fascinated; it seemed to make a dent in everyone’s imagination, says program monitor Nancy Jacobs. Adds Hemmings: The machine never gets tired, and it doesn’t make judgments about you. And it gave the inmates the opportunity to have privacy while they were learning.

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