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  • Do Computers Benefit Education?

    A New Paradigm Needs More Than Glamor

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    I don't doubt that computer networks are revolutionizing education. The question is whether education is benefiting from them.

    Probably the most vigorously promoted classroom use of the computer today is typified by students collaborating on opposite sides of the globe to gather and compare local environmental data. Science combines with cross-cultural experience.

    What is valuable in this is the opportunity for students to get out into their local settings and come to know those settings. One thinks here, for example, of the way native Americans once knew the land in its complex, nurturing, and instructive immediacy. Without a love for the environment just outside the window, the student will never help to heal the earth as a whole.

    But, of course, computers promote neither the love nor the knowledge. Rather, they encourage students to enter data into a database as quickly as possible, so that it can be analyzed by software, visualized (the data, not nature!), and then compared, in this abstract form, with what comes from the collaborating class. It is the computer that dominates this scenario, not the natural world.

    As to the cross-cultural collaboration, it is usually presented in images of sugar-coated fantasy. To train children as world citizens, there is little need to look beyond the immediately surrounding communities -- or even beyond the classroom. If you want to find the pressing opportunities for Johnny, just look for the kids Johnny dislikes. Such challenges, of course, aren't as glamorous or as easy as reading messages that magically show up -- without any discomfort of human proximity -- from Africa.

    Moreover, no region of our country is without its remnant of native peoples. Fortunately, there's a lot of work being done these days to understand the ecological wisdom of indigenous cultures -- for example, their management of forests for long-term sustainability. This wisdom, based on a deep, reverential observation of the world at hand, compares most favorably to the policies pursued by laptop- burdened technicians gathering data about a landscape that remains alien to them.

    The comparison is instructive for educators. After all, the shortcomings of the technician are the characteristic shortcomings of our day. If we don't overcome them during the child's primary schooling, it's probably too late.

    In sum: everything good about these collaborative educational ventures is available locally, without huge expenditures for high-tech equipment. When purchased, the equipment will very likely vitiate the educational promise in the projects.

    But what, you might ask, about the valuable exchange of email between American and French students learning each other's language? Valuable, perhaps; but this opportunity has long been available -- again, without massive capital outlay -- courtesy of the postal system. Students who send and receive one email message per day can just as easily send and receive one letter per day. That email has suddenly given new life to the idea is certainly owing to the computer's glamor. But if glamor is the substance of the new educational paradigm, then we're in trouble.

    Computer networks are also applauded as ways to put students in touch with well-known scientists. Sometimes the students are allowed to interact with scientific equipment remotely -- the favorite gambit here is to invite students to program and direct a robot. One research organization, for example, lets students drive a robot called "Nero" around the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds, London.

    The first thing that needs recognizing is that such programs do not make scientists into teachers. If one scientist can efficiently spread himself around a lot of classrooms, it is precisely because he doesn't really have to be there. It is no accident that robotics should be a common focus, because the real effect of these projects is to direct children increasingly toward instrument-mediated information. A thousand children cannot all interact with the scientist personally; what they can do is interact with software.

    So the students come away with a few scattered, undigested facts about the operation of remote-controlled vehicles, and no knowledge at all about the more approachable engineering principles upon which modern society is based. Do they know how a house is constructed? An upper-grade student might better spend time apprenticed to a local carpenter or metalworker or auto mechanic. A lower-grade student would do better to visit a farm and tug a few times on a cow's udder.

    You may reply, "Today's city children don't have access to dairy farms -- or at least not frequent access." But the question, then, is this: if we really want to do something radical about education, should we be investing our resources in expensive, high-tech "access" equipment, or reconceiving the failed relation between schools and the larger society as a result of which access has been lost?

    As it happens, I live down the street from a school and farm that were started together over twenty years ago with a view to serving each other's needs. And the house I live in was visited during its construction by several classes at the school. This school -- which does not employ computers in its curriculum -- would be considered backward by many technology-intoxicated educators today.

    Why is it that learning how a house is constructed is less educational, less beneficial to the student, and less future-oriented than downloading a program into a robot five hundred miles away?

    If we ever find it within ourselves to face this question, we will provoke the real revolution in modern education.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: Do Computers Benefit Education? :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/educ.html

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