The Silicon Review
The last half of the 20th century saw developments in computer systems advance from stand-alone early mainframes to time-sharing systems that supported multiple users at distributed CRT terminals – developments that soon led to early applications of time-sharing systems for student instruction. The advent of personal computers in the late 1970s enabled lower-cost stand-alone student stations, and greatly accelerated the implementation of personal computers in school districts throughout the 1980s.
Today school districts are spending a large amount of money on software, computers, and technical support. The computer revolution in schools succeeded originally mostly in drill-and-practice exercises and early concepts of interactive workbooks. For an overview of how computer learning gained prominence, and for a glimpse of the origins of newer instructional approaches, we have to look back a few years.
In March 1995, William Gattis, founder of New Intelligence Inc., happened to see a Newsweek Magazine article about Dr. Arthur Whimbey and the remarkable success of Whimbey’s instructional methods in an extensive special project in a large school system in the Eastern U.S., and in Project SOAR (Stress on Analytical Reasoning), a special project at Xavier University in New Orleans on which Whimbey consulted. Responsible for several computer-based instruction development projects in the Dallas Schools during the 1970s, and later Vice President of the Education Division at Tandy Corporation / Radio Shack during the 1980s, Gattis was very aware of the promise of small computers in improving education. He was also keenly aware of the successes and failures in the implementation of instructional systems in K-12 school systems and on many university campuses. Gattis was intrigued by the Newsweek article, titled “Teaching Kids to be Smart – Is there a method for producing achievers?” Over the course of the next few months, he proceeded to learn more about the project in the school system from some of the individuals involved in the planning and operation of the program. And as Chairman of the International Conference on Technology and Education, then planning its 1996 annual Conference in New Orleans, he was able to learn more first-hand about the Xavier University Project SOAR. Impressed with the consistent success of Whimbey’s approach, Gattis contacted Whimbey and his associate, Dr. Myra Linden, then located in Albuquerque, New Mexico where they authored textbooks, conducted their research at the TRAC Institute, and published their research and produced articles for education journals.
Non-Traditional Computer-based Instructional Methods
Gattis proposed that he develop software for personal computer systems to implement the instructional methods of Whimbey and Linden for education and training markets. When Whimbey and Linden expressed interest, Gattis incorporated New Intelligence Inc., concluded a typical author royalty agreement with Whimbey and Linden, and with Dr. Eugene Williams, one of the key architects in the implementation of the school system project described in the Newsweek article. The new company began the design and development of new software for Windows-based personal computer systems to implement the Whimbey and Linden methods, while the authors themselves started the task of developing the content for a series of programs for the new system. Instruction in reading and writing, and in building reasoning skills, was the initial focus.
After three years of development and testing, the TRAC Structures for Learning software system was introduced to the education market in late 1999. By the 1999-2000 school year, New Intelligence software using the Whimbey approach to instruction was available and selling to schools in the U.S. The New York City school system, the largest in the U.S., evaluated the New Intelligence software and placed the titles under contract, rapidly becoming the largest educational customer for the company. The Chicago schools, the Washington, D.C. schools, and numerous school districts in the Eastern and Southern U.S. followed. The Window on Diversity series, based on the Whimbey instructional methods and designed to help businesses address diversity issues and to help create inclusive workplace environments, followed a few years later. The series provides private, interactive, and non-threatening sessions designed to broaden employees’ understanding with respect to issues of racism and to develop an appreciation of other cultural perspectives and other experiences. New Intelligence and the authors received an InfoWorld 100 award for Diversity Insights for “…an innovative and unique software-based instructional system to meet diversity objectives in business and education.” Interactive History of the United States for grades 7-9 was added to the TRAC Structures for Learning series a few years later, followed by advanced TRAC content titles for grades 9-12. A native American series is also being planned.
Changing Market for K-12 Technology
The New Intelligence TRAC series, based on the Whimbeyand Linden TRAC “Text Reconstruction Across the Curriculum” approach, originally was Windows-based. Gattis notes that the makeup of computer systems in schools was undergoing a change that was becoming significant by 2015, with Chromebooks growing rapidly in popularity. Today, the Chromebook dominates the K-12 market for instructional systems, with Windows systems representing a fast-shrinking percentage of the systems used for instruction in K-12 schools. With the Chromebook platform dominating the K-12 market today, the challenge facing existing Windows-based applications is reminiscent of the problem of cross-platform incompatibility among computer systems – Radio Shack, Apple, Commodore, Atari, etc. – faced by school systems and educational software developers in the early years of the personal computer era. Fortunately, options regarding compatibility are available. New Intelligence is moving to cloud-based services that host TRAC Windows-based applications running in Windows on a server that allows remote access to these applications by students using Chromebooks, tablets, and Windows stations in classrooms. Remote Desktop Hosting, or Terminal Server Hosting, enables users to share files and run the programs over the internet.
Other prospective markets for New Intelligence software include the U.S. military services in addressing discrimination issues, and in education programs in prison systems in several states. Gattis described a pilot test that the company supported with the prison system in one of the larger states. The TRAC series was installed in a computer classroom at the facility with individual networked computer stations. The facility’s education coordinator enrolled a selection of participants with limited reading and writing skills in the TRAC system. An assessment following the program, including interviews with the participants, was very positive. The major challenge an individual will face after release is to find productive employment. A prison record is one strike against any individual who is released, and someone with limited reading or writing skills has an even bigger challenge in finding a job. The state prison system New Intelligence worked with during the test was considering providing an instructional program designed to help those inmates who will be released in the next few years improve their reading and writing skills; otherwise, many of these individuals face dismal prospects for productive employment, and a high percentage can end up back in the prison system. Although future plans for the program have not yet materialized, Gattis believes that the effective instructional methods of the TRAC system offer significant promise for participants throug him proving limited reading and writing skills.
Gattis’ priority remains on continuing to build an educational software publishing organization that addresses serious problems in K-12 schools in teaching reading, writing, and reasoning skills. He points out that in the National Assessment of Educational Progress released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2018, sixty-five percent of the eighth-graders in American public schools were not proficient in reading, and sixty-seven percent were not proficient in mathematics. And the results were far worse for students enrolled in some urban districts. “We will proceed as we have since 1995,” Gattis states, “and we will continue to build an institution that is focused on addressing the critical needs in American education, and on corporate diversity initiatives, based on proven approaches such as the TRAC series of concepts and methods – while expanding the capabilities of the TRAC system with respect to content, distribution, and participant engagement and interaction.”