Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly They CAN Learn

By Gia Miller

An inner-city student walks into his Algebra I class, turns on his computer, and begins his lesson on chapter seven. The girl on his right is taking a test on chapter nine, and the boy on his left has already completed the course and now is enrolled at Stanford University, taking a college-level math course. For some freshmen at McDonogh 35 in New Orleans, this is a typical day in math class.

McDonogh 35 is the pilot school for a computerized math program called I CAN Learn (Interactive Computer Aided Natural Learning). The program contains a full curriculum (Algebra I at McDonogh 35) converted into a multi-media presentation. The computer is the teacher, but each student controls the presentation.

The McDonogh 35 classroom contains 30 computer work stations enabling each student to work at his own pace. Live teachers can work one-on-one with students who are having problems with a lesson while the rest of the class learns without being distracted or slowed down.

Businessman John Lee created the program after winning a large judgment in court from corporate giant Mitsubishi. Until 1986, Lee had an international trade company, which he lost after Mitsubishi used some of his railroad cars near Galveston, Texas, without authorization. One of the cars exploded, killing an operator standing on top of the car and injuring another. Mitsubishi and the other companies involved in the accident signed a contract agreeing to blame Lee for the mishap -- which ruined his business.

Lee sued Mitsubishi, and in 1990 he was awarded a multi-million dollar judgment, the largest in Galveston to that date.

As he was leaving the courtroom, a juror approached Lee and said that he hoped Lee would use the money to give something back to the community. He did. In fact, Lee anticipated the juror's sentiment, having developed the concept for I CAN Learn a year earlier. He had been waiting for money to launch the program, and the judgment provided the "seed money" to get it started.

Lee, who lives in New Orleans, now runs his own software development company, JRL Enterprises Inc.

"I was listening to the radio back in September of 1989 when they announced the Goals for 2000" national educational program, Lee said. "One of the goals was to introduce technology into every classroom. Suddenly, the idea popped into my head that each kid should be allowed to work at his own level by using computers."

A Vanderbilt University study showed that at-risk students can learn best from screen-based instruction. Lee's I CAN Learn program is the first to put that conclusion to the test in classrooms.

Lee says that students in the program learn 53 percent faster and retain 37 percent more knowledge than those taught by the traditional blackboard presentation.

Dorelia Harrison, who teaches McDonogh's pilot program, has been using Lee's method for three years and has seen many benefits. She believes it interests the students more and gives them a better opportunity to demonstrate their math abilities.

"In a traditional classroom, everybody is kept on the same page at the same time," Harrison said. "Students are never given the opportunity to show what they can do because they are kept within the limitations of the class. But, in a situation like this, students are challenged to work at their own pace. Now they can demonstrate what they can and cannot do and what they do and do not know."

In addition, students are always learning, she said, and the teacher's back is never turned to the class. If a teacher must leave the classroom, students continue with their lessons. If a student is called out of class or misses school, he or she can pick up where the last lesson ended. Students no longer have to "make up" missed work, and there is no struggle to "keep up."

Harrison believes the program has changed some of her students' lives.

"I had students that were not good math students along with students who were behavior problems," Harrison said. "One of the students who was a behavior problem was a girl named Katasha. She had no interest in mathematics and no interest in studying. All she wanted to do was come to school and create for herself the reputation of being the class clown. Even after we exercised all the consequences with Katasha, we were never successful.

"When we had just about given up on her, I CAN Learn was introduced into the classroom. It was so noticeable after Katasha began working with the program that even in that first week I thought, `Katasha must be absent, because I don't hear her.' Then, by the second week, not only did I not hear her, but Katasha was telling everyone else to be quiet. And that, for me, was the beginning of believing that there was something here. Katasha went from failing to making As and Bs."

Other students had similar experiences.

Damien James had very little experience with computers before the I CAN Learn program, but now he is considering a career in computer engineering. James completed his scheduled Algebra I curriculum at the beginning of the fourth quarter and then became one of six students enrolled in Stanford University's Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY). He studied Algebra II and qualified for college credit.

"I have always liked math," he said. "It has always been one of my best subjects. In the computer [class], I have learned a lot more than in a regular classroom. I don't think I would ever have learned the quadratic formula in a regular class. I have also learned a lot about computers."

Steven Goodly is another McDonogh 35 teacher involved in the pilot program. Since he began using ICAN Learn a year ago, all of his students have passed the course. Goodly believes the program has benefited every student in the class.

"This program should be everywhere, because right now, with the way society is changing, technology is everywhere," Goodly said. "We are becoming a computer world, and these students need to at least have some type of dealing or association with computers. With this program, they are learning [about computers and math] at the same time. Also, we now offer access to the Internet for those who have completed the course."

An added bonus for the students comes when they get their scores immediately after taking a quiz or test. Harrison says this shows them that they can perform at a higher level.

If a student does not understand the lesson the first time and fails the quiz, he must go through the lesson again. He then retakes the quiz, and the two grades are averaged together.

Student L'erin London explained that after completing a quiz or test, the computer offers the option of proceeding to the next lesson or playing a game such as Solitaire or Minesweeper.

"It is much easier than sitting in class waiting for the teacher to catch up to where you are," London said. "The computer also goes more into detail. A teacher might not do that if she thinks that you already understand it."

Lee notes that cheating is minimized because tests are randomly generated from a test database. No two students receive the same test. Homework assignments also are generated by the computer -- from the student's textbook. Lessons are specific to each child, and the teacher has full control of the program. Random homework checks by the computer make sure students complete their assignments.

Chriseil Hackett, another I CAN Learn student, believes the program is better than having a teacher. He had never used a computer before.

"I was pretty nervous at first, but in time I got over it because I realized that I was learning at my own ability," he said. "It is so much easier [than having a teacher] because if I don't understand something, and I look in the book and I still don't understand it, then the teacher will come by and explain it a little more. Before, I made Cs. I now make As and Bs."

Lee sees the program as a national trend, one that ultimately will teach students in all major subject areas from kindergarten through college.

"When [students] start in kindergarten, they can go at their own pace all the way through school," he said. "One sixth grade student could be doing calculus while the other could be working on long division. Students won't have to take remedial courses in college. Most will have freshman math and English course credits by the end of high school."

Margeaux Randolph enrolled in Stanford University's program through I CAN Learn and likes the challenge.

"It was a different experience," she said. "I am now being tested for the gifted program because of how far I have excelled as a freshman. I would recommend it to every student in America. It is an excellent program."

Harrison says the program could be a revolution that will change many aspects of education, including teaching. While she is certain that a machine could never replace a human, this program could well change many teachers and students.

Lee currently is seeking funds from the federal Department of Education to begin the next phase of his program. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee noted in its 1997 Appropriations Bill that I CAN Learn is "a particularly effective computerized teaching program for teaching Algebra I. ... The committee strongly urges the department to support the demonstration and technical assistance necessary to allow programs such as `I CAN Learn' to be more widely adopted."

In the next school year, Lee hopes to supply Washington Parish with three classrooms of the program and Jefferson and Orleans Parish with nine classrooms each. By putting this program in rural, suburban and inner-city areas, he aims to prove that I CAN Learn will work in any school.

"I think once people recognize the effectiveness of this tool, we'll expand throughout the state, throughout the country and probably internationally," Lee said. "We are working right now on college-level courses. Some schools in Texas, Michigan and Chicago have asked about the program. Next year I expect to have at least half a dozen classrooms in those three areas."

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