Monday, September 20, 2004

(First in a five-part series)

The big news in Nebraska K-12 education is that students at Omaha Westside High School all got Apple iBook laptop computers free of charge last week.

The move was thanks to a $3.3 million expenditure of tax dollars spent by a school board and staff intent on keeping enrollment stable by attracting more students from outside the district’s tax base. Nothing draws attention like the latest gizmo, kids want to be where the action is, and Westside is No. 1 in the state at offering the latest, coolest thing.

Each student was given a wireless laptop with a replacement cost of nearly $1,000. The high school’s desktop computers were all handed down to the middle and elementary schools. There are three new technical help centers for staff and students. There’s an Internet Café open weekday evenings at school for kids who don’t have Internet access. Although there won’t be the popular chat service known as Instant Messaging available at the start, and porno sites will be filtered out, students will still be able to access every other feature of the Internet, including downloading music

Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it great? Isn’t it just the best?

No. No. And no.

But nobody local is saying that -- because nobody, apparently, knows or will admit that there’s a mountain of evidence that lots of high-priced technology like this is actually bad for kids.

Go Big Ed begins a five-day series today with the straight scoop on computers in the classroom. It will point out the many shortcomings of this popular new investment in educational technology. Actually, the computerization of K-12 education poses grave dangers to students and taxpayers, and has not been shown to improve the learning process or educational productivity in any significant way.

Curiously, we’ve known this for a long time. The National Science Board reported in 1998 that costly educational strategies such as increased technology, smaller class sizes and other extras do not appear to enhance student achievement with any degree of cost-effectiveness that approaches good, old-fashioned, solid, traditional curriculum and instruction. There’s no replacement for quality interaction between students and teachers. That’s the key.

Researcher Larry Cuban, an expert on educational technology, also reports that more than 30 years of studies show only one sure benefit of computers in the classroom: a modest improvement in test scores from “drill and practice” type computer programs. Significantly, though, those improvements are not as great as the higher test scores that are attained when the students are given one-on-one tutoring, which is significantly cheaper than computers as well.

But what may be of more concern to mothers and fathers is the impact of tethering children to computers, as the Westside laptop program is doing. There are hazards that range from eyestrain and obesity to cheating, social isolation, aggressive behavior and anxiety. There are issues with the overstimulation of the vision, the narrowing of the knowledge base, and the hyperfocusing of the child’s thinking patterns into one mode: tight, deductive reasoning.

Gone will be spontaneity, imagination, creativity, analytical curiosity, and persistence; in place will be the stimulus-response mode of thinking – “get it now or forget it.”

Taxpayers also should know that there don’t appear to be any positive independent studies about the impact and value of computers in the classroom that have been done by disinterested parties. Instead, these studies are almost always proprietary in nature – in stark language, hyped by the computer industry -- with results tweaked or fudged to make it look as though expensive items like a computer in every lap is the Holy Grail that will get every kid into Harvard.

All of us should note that there’s a growing corps of experts in child development, education, health and technology who are calling for an end to the commercial pressures that are bringing all this technology into the schools, and for far more cautious and thorough research into the long-term implications, before we spend these millions, and not after.

See, for example, www.AllianceForChildhood.org for the report, “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood.”

Another good resource: the book, “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds -- and What We Can Do About It” by Jane M. Healy (Touchstone Books, 1999). She wrote another great one along these lines, “Endangered Minds” (Simon & Schuster, 1999). And there’s a 25th anniversary paperback out for the classic book, “The Plug-In Drug,” about what happens to the mind when the eyeballs are fastened onto a cathode-ray tube instead of the real world.

But all you really have to know is this:

What’s the first thing the kids downloaded with their taxpayer-provided, $1,000 machines?

The beheadings over in Iraq, reportedly.


Let’s keep our heads on straight, and think hard about this. Computers and technology are great, in their place . . . but a lot of smart people are saying that place is not so prominently in school.

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