Tuesday, September 21, 2004

(Second in a five-part series)

Nationally-known education leader William J. Bennett pulls no punches about the waste of money that computers in the classroom can be. In his book, The Educated Child, he writes, ‘’When you hear the next pitch about cyber-enriching your child’s education, keep one thing in mind: so far, there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.’’ (Touchstone Books, 1999, p. 619)

Most school board members, school administrators and the general public seem to believe that, when it comes to educational technology, more is better. But that doesn’t change the fact that actually, in this emerging controversy, less is better, and more people are beginning to say that out loud.

The point is on center stage in Nebraska this week as one of the state’s most prominent high schools, Omaha Westside, has just given $3.3 million worth of taxpayer-provided, free laptop computers to its high-school students. The move comes amid questions over whether that expense will be justified in future learning gains.

In his book, Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, summarized years of research that show that computers are no more effective than pencils, paper and books in teaching children the academics that they need, and, in fact, ed tech ‘’can actually deter learning.’’

Hazards that computers create:

-- colorful, fast-changing computer images can make reading assignments harder for kids who already hate to read more than one sentence per hour and would rather ‘’look at pictures’’ or play games;

-- more difficulty for students who already have trouble paying attention to adults or their peers in class, but addictively hyper-focus on electronic screens for TV, video games and computers;

-- more pleasure-oriented, time-draining distractions, such as jokes, sports pictures, watching movies and listening to music, that erode time and attention away from straightforward academic learning;

-- distortions and inaccuracies in Internet content and computer software that parents and teachers can’t screen and may never discover and correct;

-- glitzy flashing images that merely seduce the child’s attention instead of encouraging serious, thoughtful concentration and analysis;

-- dumbed-down writing that comes in pre-engineered, canned snippets that stifle the student’s imagination and creativity;

-- a scatter-shot approach to ‘’research’’ where students are left to the four winds to grab the first ‘’answer’’ they can find even if it’s not relevant or coherent;

-- a failure to teach students how to skillfully sift through facts and opinions in the Information Ocean the way you have to pan for gold.

At best, the judicious use of technology can improve teacher productivity, which in turn will improve the learning curve for all students. No one denies that technology has been of tremendous value in special education and higher-level science, for example. There’s no question computers are capable of making great strides in relieving bureaucracy and providing better accountability to the public, if they are used right.

But in the main, computers in public-school classrooms have been neglected for lack of time and training on the part of staff. The reason for this obvious waste of money: lack of outside pressure to make schools efficient, since there are no stockholders in public education who demand effectiveness. Consequently, in large part, computers have been reduced to highly expensive, glorified typewriters or calculators, used only for video arcade-style gaming, or used as tools of not-so-amusing hijinks like downloading pictures of human posteriors and replacing teachers’ mugshots on the school webpage with them. Note to any kids reading this: you did NOT hear that from ME. :>)

In private enterprise, computers have been repeatedly shown to make businesses more competitive in a variety of ways: replacing human labor for rote tasks, expanding sales areas, and doing work more cheaply, more efficiently, or both. But few people argue that those benefits transfer to human service endeavors such as public education, where the desired end ‘’product’’ is a thinking, feeling, productive human being, not a widget.

But it’s hard to resist the materialistic pull of ed tech. Despite the lack of evidence that it is a wise move to spend big bucks on electronics, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the ratio of students to computers in schools dropped from 12.1:1 in 1998 to 4.8:1 in 2002. Meanwhile, the nation has spent more than $20 billion hooking up schools to the Internet, with little or nothing to show for it in terms of improved instructional outcomes.

And at the same time that more computers were being added, more school staff was being added, too -- negating any chance of a productivity gain, but adding greatly to the financial burden of K-12 education.

What is all of this doing to the actual learning process? There’s some good news . . . and some bad. Point and click Go Big Ed tomorrow, for more on that key question.

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