Computers in the Classroom: Uses, Abuses, and Political Realities
Of course, nothing of the kind happened. No one developed a nationwide system of televised courses for elementary and secondary school students. Televisions did enter classrooms, but they were used for little more than showing an occasional documentary film or a movie version of a Shakespearean play. Meanwhile, students weaned on television at home developed habits of passive noninteraction that actually had a negative impact on education. So much for the first great technological revolution in schools.
The NEXT BIG THING in educational technology was supposed to be the language lab. Schools invested heavily in such labs during the 1970s, installing rows of cubicles with headphones for skill and drill instruction in Spanish, French, and German. Again the technology proved to be a failure. Students learned languages more effectively when they interacted with real people in immersion environments than when they listened to bits of canned speech and made rote responses. In retrospect, the outcome seems obvious, but technology has a way of turning peopleís heads. Eventually, most of the expensive high school language labs were dismantled.
Recently, politicians and some educators have begun touting computers as the next technological panacea, the one that will turn classrooms into cybernetic gardens for growing young minds. The difference, this time, is that the technologists might be right. As we shall see, computers do have the potential to revolutionize teaching and learning, but only if in implementing their use in classrooms we take seriously the lessons learned from the failure of educational television and of the language lab. Before considering these lessons, however, and their implications for using computers in education, it will be useful to consider the general political climate driving educational reform today.
The Politics of Education ìReformîAs certain as death and taxes, when election time rolls around, politicians will begin giving speeches about education reform. These days, of course, politicians never stop running for office, and so they never stop talking about reforming schools. The typical education reform soapbox speech runs something like this: ìOur schools are failing. They arenít doing their job. Test scores are falling. We need to get tough with teachers and teacherís unions. The American people demand some accountability. Throwing money at the problem isnít going to solve it. We need fundamental change. We need reform. We have to stop fooling around and get back to basics.î Such speeches play well with the electorate, but they paint an excessively dire picture of the state of American education, fail to characterize in a useful way the challenges facing educators, and lead to ìsolutionsî that simply compound the problems that do exist with elementary and secondary schools today.
It is true that average scores on such standardized tests as the SAT fell during the 1980s. It is also true, however, that the falling SAT scores largely reflected the increased socioeconomic diversity of the student population taking the tests and thus were a positive rather than a negative indicator. Furthermore, in recent years standardized test scores have actually been improving. The average score, nationwide, on the verbal component of the SAT increased from a low of 424 in 1980-81 to a moderately better 428 in 1994-95, while the average score on the mathematics component improved from 466 in 1979-80 to a three-decade high of 482 in 1994-95. So, what politicians typically say about falling test scores is false. But even if it werenít, even if those scores were falling slightly, this would not be reason to indict the educational system, because standardized tests are a poor measure of the success or failure of education in general. Such tests measure studentsí ability to perform isolated, mechanical operations but tell us nothing about their ability to apply these operations in real contexts. For example, research has long shown that there is little correlation between a studentís ability to identify and correct errors in capitalization, punctuation, usage, or grammar on so-called ìobjective testsî and the frequency of such errors in their speech and writing. The problem is that skills taught in isolation from real contexts, those in which students have some goal-oriented investment, are not then transferred to such real contexts. Furthermore, standardized tests do not measure higher-order skills such as the ability to work successfully in collaboration with others or to behave in a goal-oriented manner when undertaking a project or solving a problem. Consider, for example, the objective of teaching students to communicate effectively in writing. Standardized tests do nothing to measure a studentís ability to identify an audience and purpose, formulate a topic, gather relevant information, organize that information, draft, edit, revise, proofread, and prepare the final copy for publication or sharing with others.
What the standardized tests do not show is the unmeasured successes that are occurring throughout the United States as a result of the widespread adoption of writing process and integrated mathematics instruction. Writing process instruction breaks writing down into partsóprewriting, drafting, revising, proofreading, and publishingóand teaches students useful rules of thumb for carrying out each part of the process. Integrated mathematics instruction is a collaborative approach to mathematics instruction that makes use of teams who apply higher-order thinking strategies to real-life mathematical problems that require application of skills in the formerly separate disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. Teachers using these approaches know their effectiveness, but the general public hears little about them, especially not from politicians.
The ìletís get toughî talk of politicians points education away from the quiet, positive reforms being made, reforms that are producing real results, and back toward rote memorization; instruction in isolated, nontransferable skills; and standardized testing. Under political pressure, nearly every state in the union has instituted new standardized tests, which encourage teachers and administrators to give up new curricular approaches in favor of teaching isolated facts and skills to prepare students for these tests. The problem with the old teaching methodsórote memorization and instruction in isolated skillsóis that they do not adequately prepare students for the lives that they will actually lead.
Lessons from the Language LabThe Clinton/Gore administration has set as one of its major educational goals providing computers and Internet hookups to every school in the country. We are on our way toward implementing the next massive introduction of technology into classrooms. But if this latest innovation is to work, we must learn the lessons taught by the failure of educational television and language labs.
Assuming that the political will can be found to fund the computerization of our classrooms (and that is a big assumption, given the cost), there still remains the larger issue of how, precisely, those computers might be used. In a political climate in which people are calling for more standardized testing and more skill and drill, computers might well be used for purposes that will undermine the kind of learning that is necessary for success in an information-age economy. Educational television and language labs failed because they promoted passivity and were used for rote memorization or skill and drill. Computers have the potential for similar misuse. On the one hand, they can become mere entertainment machines, like television, providing lots of appealing graphics and sounds but little genuinely instructive interaction. On the other hand, they can be used simply to drill students, over and over, in repetitive, isolated skills. Computers used in these ways would prove no more valuable than previous unsuccessful technologies were.
Unfortunately, most educational software available today fails in one of these two ways. The software amounts to little more than ìedutainment,î to use Bill Gatesís apt coinage, or ìworksheets on a screen.î The potential exists, however, for computers and the Internet to be much, much more.
What Computers Might Do for ClassroomsOne excellent reason for introducing computers into schools is that, according to the authors of the Education for the Twenty-First Century Act, 60 percent of jobs in the next century will require computer skills. So, on the most obvious level, computers can make classrooms more relevant. Of equal importance is the fact that if used correctly, computers can facilitate training of students in the modes of action and interaction that twenty-first century lives will require.
Computers as ExploratoriaOne of the problems often confronted by educators is the difficulty of getting students to envision what is being described by all those words in textbooks. What is the structure of a DNA molecule? What did the universe look like seconds after the Big Bang? Just where was Crete, and how was Minoan civilization destroyed? How does the heart work? How did Heinrich Schliemann figure out from reading the Odyssey where the ruins of Troy were buried? What is the water cycle? What does the interior of the earth look like? Computers can show students these things, not passively, in the mode of television, but interactively. A student can call up a map of ancient Greece and follow the path of Odysseus through the Mediterranean from Troy to Ithaca or can pretend to be a water molecule, enter a root hair, travel up the stem of a plant, and evaporate into the air. Computers can take students where they otherwise could not go and make learning into a thrilling, self-directed journey.
|Questions for Discussion and Review
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7. What will have to happen if students in the United States are to get the computer training that they need? What political obstacles stand in the way of putting computers in the schools and connecting these computers to the Internet?