Readings Index

Computers in the Classroom: Uses, Abuses, and Political Realities

The Failure of Technological Panaceas in Education

In the 1950s, many people thought that educational television was going to be the answer to the woes of our schools. Visionaries proclaimed that in the future, when people were traveling to work via jet pack and having their homes cleaned by robots, every classroom would have a television set. Lessons, given by the best teachers in the country, would be beamed by satellite to the nationís students. The magic of televisionópictures and sounds traveling through the airówould make ordinary classroom teachers obsolete. 

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 ìReformî

As 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. 

Almost all the jobs in the United States in the twenty-first century will be in the service or information sectors. These jobs will require the students to have ability to 

  • communicate effectively in speech and in writing
  • work collaboratively
  • use technological tools such as computers
  • analyze problems, set goals, and formulate strategies for achieving those goals
  • seek out information or skills on their own, as needed, to meet their goals
The real problem facing our schools is how to reinvent themselves to ensure that students will develop these abilities. Important steps are already being taken to do just that. In addition to implementing new curricular approaches, such as process writing and integrated mathematics instruction, many schools across the country are adopting new scheduling and assessment techniques that encourage project-based collaborative learning. Modular scheduling, widely adopted throughout the United States, makes possible fewer, longer classes in which students and teachers actually have the time to carry out projects that provide real contexts for learning skills. Students work collaboratively to complete these projects, formulate goals and strategies, take responsibility for learning what they need to learn to carry out their strategies, and then are assessed based on their project performance. Project-based, integrated curricula, combined with modular scheduling and performance assessment, are beginning to change schools in positive ways. Using these approaches, educators will be able to produce citizens capable of the collaborative effort, higher-order thinking, and independent, self-directed learning required of citizens in a service- and information-based economy. But even as this quiet revolution occurs in classes throughout the country, it is being undermined by the politiciansí insistence on standardized testing, rote memorization in the name of cultural literacy, and back-to-basics skill and drill instruction. If education reform means more standardized testing, more rote memorization, and more isolated skills instruction, then the reforms will be the beginning of a long, hard slide. 

Lessons from the Language Lab

The 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 Classrooms

One 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 Tools for Self-Directed Learning
At one time it was possible to train young people to perform tasks that they could then apply throughout a lifetime. The apprentice blacksmith would learn and use the same techniques used by his father, his grandfather before him, and so on back through the ages. Today, however, the pace of technological change is so great that a set of skills learned yesterday can be obsolete in a year or so. Therefore, to be successful, people have to be able to teach themselves, to retool, to find for themselves the resources that they need for learning new skills to keep pace with their changing environments. All too often, however, our schools encourage students to think of learning not as something that they do but as something that is done to them. Schools also teach, incidentally, covertly, that learning is something that one does at some particular time in oneís lifeóduring the time that one is in schoolórather than something that is done continually, throughout oneís life. Computers can help to change that mindset, that paradigm of externally motivated, one-time learning. Computers allow students to take charge of their own learning and to proceed at their own pace. Starting with a general interest in space or rainforests or Egyptian mummies, a student can get online, track down hundreds of sources of information, follow that information where it leads, and formulate his or her own curriculum under the direction of a general project goal and the guidance of a teacher/facilitator. Such experiences teach students more than specific information about space or rainforests or mummies. They teach students how to learn, how to direct their own learning, and how to find and discriminate among sources of information. They also teach students that learning can be an exciting pursuit of oneís own interests. 
Computers as Tools for Collaborative Project Work
Information and service workers, those who will make up the vast majority of the twenty-first century workforce, typically operate in project teams. They need to be able to communicate effectively with one another, to establish project goals, to plan strategies for attaining those goals, to break up the work among team members, to report their progress to one another, to evaluate this progress, and to synthesize their individual efforts into a final product. Networked computers are excellent tools for such collaborative project work. Students can use scheduling software to plan their projects, communicate over networks about their projects, store project components in a central place, use individual software tools (such as word processors, Internet browsers, and graphics programs) to carry out specific project tasks, evaluate their progress using online evaluation forms, and design elegant final products for sharing with their teachers and classmates. 
Computers as Research Tools
An information-age job, by definition, requires that one be able to gain access to information, and computers are unparalleled tools for doing just that. In the past, a student with a research project was limited to the few resources available in his or her school or community libraryóall too often a few aging encyclopedias and a handful of tattered books on a handful of school-related topics. Today, the resources of the world are a keystroke away. Homework help, vast libraries, reference works, museums, government and educational archives, news reportsóthese are but a few of the many resources available on the Internet. Instantly, and with little effort, the student has access not just to local resources but to the resources of the globe. 
Computers as Exploratoria
One 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. 

Making It All Happen

For this vision of the future of computing in education to become a reality, a lot will have to happen. First, governments, federal and state, will have to come up with enormous amounts of money. Most schools today have only a few computers and very little software. The computers that are now in schools tend to be ancient models with little capability, most are not networked, and as often as not, no one in the school knows how to operate them. There are a little more than 82,000 elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Supplying each school with 50 personal computer systems at $1,200 apiece (a woefully inadequate number) would cost $4.92 billion dollars. Purchasing a few standard software packages, Ethernet cards, and cabling for those machines would cost, conservatively, another $4.1 billion. Providing high-bandwidth Internet connections for all those computers might cost another $2.3 billion. Providing minimal training to teachers and administrators so that they would at least know how to turn on those computers and operate a few standard software programs would cost at least half a billion more. That comes to a total of about $11.82 billion, and this price does not include routine maintenance, upgrades, peripheral devices such as printers and scanners, funds for purchasing special-purpose educational software, or money to replace obsolescent software and hardware every three years or so. In addition, new computers will bring about little change without new curricula and teachers trained in these curriculaóteachers who know, themselves, how to harness the research and project potential of these machines. President George Bush was fond of saying that ìyou canít solve the education problem by throwing money at it,î which was a lot like saying that you canít solve a personal transportation problem by buying a car. Obviously, buying the car (or coming up with money for bus fare) is a necessary but insufficient solution. If you buy the car, then you have to know how to drive it. If we want to prepare students for life in the twenty-first century, if we want to maintain our economic edge, then we had better find the money to buy them computers and to hook them up to the Internet. But we need also to pay for the training and the curricular development necessary to fulfill the promise of this technology. Will we bite the bullet and make such an investment in our children?  We canít afford not to. 
Questions for Discussion and Review 

The following questions are based on the preceding text. Clicking on a question will take you to the place in the text where the question is discussed. To return to these questions, simply click the "Back" button in your browser. 

1. What technological solutions have in the past been touted as answers to the ills facing American education?  

2. What is a "knowledge worker"? What skills will be required of knowledge workers in the future? 

3. What are some wrong ways to use computers in classrooms? What is wrong with using computers in these ways? 

4. What is "self-directed learning"? How can computers be used to encourage students to become self-directed learners? 

5. Why is being good at collaborative work important in an information age? How can computers be used to train students to work well on collaborative projects? 

6. Why is being good at research important in an information age? How can computers be used to train students in research? 

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? 


 EMCParadigm Publishing