Chapter 5: Will Computers Transform Education?
Computers and Education: An Overview
The idea of linking schools to the computer network known as the Internet has become one of the hottest education topics of the 1990s. President Clinton has said the U.S. should set a national goal of connecting every school to the information superhighway by the year 2000. “I want to get the children of America hooked on education through computers,” Clinton said in a speech in California September 21, 1995, adding, “we must make technological literacy a standard.”
The Cost of Computers for Schools
But Clinton’s networking goal almost certainly is beyond reach. Currently, just 3 percent of the nation’s elementary, middle and high school classrooms have Internet connections, and only about 16 percent of teachers use the Internet or computer-based communication services like America Online, CompuServe or Prodigy, according to the Denver research firm Quality Education Data, Inc. Linking the remaining classrooms could cost $30 billion or more, plus at least $5 billion in annual operating expenses. Currently, schools spend under $3 billion of their $249 billion annual budgets on all forms of technology, according to McKinsey & Co., a New York–based consulting firm.
Some critics question whether the current fascination with computer networking is blinding us to more pressing needs. “Our schools face serious problems, including overcrowded classrooms, teacher incompetence and lack of security,” notes Clifford...
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Computer Education Is Vital for Students of the Future
Some years ago, a business leader reminded me that the adventurers who set out for the New World were able to smell land long before they caught sight of it. Like those mariners, said this businessman, today’s leaders have to be able to “smell the future.” They have to be able to think long term and see beyond the horizon. I believe that the future beckons America. It promises rewarding jobs. It offers to diminish the drudgery and toil of daily labor. It opens prospects of abundance and rising standards of living for every American. All of these things are possible if our children are prepared, if they are provided with the tools they need to adjust to new circumstances and changing times. The wealth built by our forebears from coal, steel, oil, concrete, and brawn can be built tomorrow from silicon chips, integrated circuits, digital networks, computers, and raw intelligence.
In a larger sense, all of these things are possible because Americans have always understood that the future is not something that simply arrives but something that is created by the actions that we take today to secure our children’s tomorrow. Throughout history, the march of human progress has been marked by milestones in science and technology. Gutenberg’s creation of movable type in the 15th century laid the foundation for universal literacy. Watts’ invention of the steam engine in the 18th century launched the Industrial...
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Computers Are a Necessary Resource for Schools
Before I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, I had a respectable job. I was a school teacher.
Unfortunately, I was not a particularly good school teacher. I say that not with any sense of false modesty. It was definitely not something that I had a gift for, and it takes a gift.
Schools Lack Resources
In addition to my lack of the gift for teaching, I was put in an impossible situation, the type of situation that so many teachers face every day.
This was before the communications revolution and we suffered a major deficit in information technology—we had only books.
Before my first class on the first day, someone came by and gave me 35 textbooks, which I handed out to everyone in class. After a few minutes of calm, the bell rang and everybody except me raced to squeeze through the door simultaneously. After about half had escaped, I realized that they had taken their books with them. However, I had four more classes arriving and was down to 11 books. These did not survive past lunch.
The rest of the year, I taught with purple-stained fingers as I distributed wrinkled mimeo-papers. I had to make up the lessons because I had not even kept one textbook for myself.
It was no fun for those kids to have no books—to have nothing. And I had to go home at night knowing that they were not getting the education they needed.
Today, the children of the kids I...
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Computers Will Not Transform Education
On practically every issue of import—Medicare, tax cuts, welfare reform— you’ll find the President and the Speaker of the House bitterly and diametrically opposed. But when it comes to the future of education, the two enthusiastically agree: America’s schools belong in cyberspace. Every classroom in the country should be wired to the Internet.
Excitement over the Internet and Education
“By being technologically smart . . . we can open up for these young people a very different future,” asserted House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at a newly wired elementary school in Washington, D.C., in May 1995. Speaking at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum in September 1995, President Clinton heralded a public-private initiative to link the state’s 12,000 elementary and high schools, comparing it to a “high-tech barn-raising.” The Internet was cited as essential to bringing California’s classrooms into the next century.
No, it’s not. Sadly, the networks to educational hell are wired with good intentions. America’s top two politicians are peddling a techno-vision that has virtually nothing to do with making schools better. The Internet is a fantastic, vibrant and evolving medium that will no doubt change the world. However, it is not a technology destined to improve our schools. This Internet infatuation offers a pathetic but telling symbol of just how badly the history and role of technology in education is...
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Computers Cannot Replace Good Teachers
Remember filmstrips? I used to look forward to Wednesday afternoons when our fifth-grade teacher would dim the lights, pull down the screen and advance the projector to an electronic beep. All the pupils loved filmstrips. For the next hour, we didn’t have to think.
Filmstrips and Learning
Teachers liked them, too. With arms folded in the back of the class, they didn’t have to teach. The principal approved. Filmstrips were proof that Public School 61 in Buffalo was at the cutting edge of educational technology. Parents demanded filmstrips, the modern, multimedia way to bring the latest information into the classroom. It was a win-win approach that bypassed textbooks and old-style classrooms. But no learning took place.
You’ve likely seen as many filmstrips as I have. O.K., name three that had a lasting effect on your life. Now name three teachers who did.
Yesterday’s filmstrip has morphed into today’s school computer. Promoted as a solution to the crisis in the classroom, computers have been welcomed uncritically across the educational spectrum. So uncritically that, astonishingly, school libraries, art studios and music rooms are being replaced by computer labs.
President Clinton promotes the wiring of the nation’s high schools. Elementary schools seek grants for hardware and software. Colleges invest in video teaching systems. Yet the value of these expensive gizmos to the classroom is unproved...
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Computers Cannot Teach Children Basic Skills
Over the last decade an estimated $2 billion has been spent on more than 2 million computers for America’s classrooms. That’s not surprising. We constantly hear from Washington that the schools are in trouble and that computers are a godsend. Within the education establishment, in poor as well as rich schools, the machines are awaited with nearly religious awe. An inner-city principal bragged to a teacher friend of mine recently that his school “has a computer in every classroom . . . despite being in a bad neighborhood!”
Computers Teach Some Things Well
Computers should be in the schools. They have the potential to accomplish great things. With the right software, they could help make science tangible or teach neglected topics like art and music. They could help students form a concrete idea of society by displaying on-screen a version of the city in which they live—a picture that tracks real life moment by moment.
In practice, however, computers make our worst educational nightmares come true. While we bemoan the decline of literacy, computers discount words in favor of pictures and pictures in favor of video. While we fret about the decreasing cogency of public debate, computers dismiss linear argument and promote fast, shallow romps across the information landscape. While we worry about basic skills, we allow into the classroom software that will do a student’s arithmetic or correct his spelling.
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