The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Home computers are being called upon to perform many new functions, including the consumption of homework formerly eaten by the dog." ... ...Doug Larson ...

Commentary of the Day - February 5, 2006:  The Silicon Bullet.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Last summer The New York Times headlined that teachers were "coming to terms with computers."  This reassuring bulletin arrived at the Times by way of CNET, which initially published the results of a study conducted by Quality Education Data for CDW Government.

News, education, government.  Sounds official, doesn't it.  It's helpful to know that CDW Government has nothing whatsoever to do with the government except it's the part of CDW, Inc.,  a company that sells CDW technology products to the government.  This is just CDW's generous way of "meeting the unique needs" of the public sector, including schools.  QED specializes in "marketing solutions" for corporations trying to sell their technology products to schools.  QED promises to "improve sales results, increase brand awareness, and maximize your sales and marketing investment."  CNET, meanwhile, modestly describes itself as the "gold standard" for Internet publishing, proud of its "leading role in the advancement of online advertising," which naturally includes ads selling technology products to schools.

According to this combine of less than disinterested parties, "sixty-one percent of teachers said there were not enough computers in their classrooms."

I'm not one of those teachers.  I'm also not one of the respondents in an online 2004 NetDay survey who "consider technology important to their value as teachers," a poll which proved conclusively that people willing to vote in online surveys don't mind wasting time online.

I'm taking a risk confessing my lack of enthusiasm.  Teachers who sound less than passionate about silicon tend to get labeled "stuck in the twentieth century."  Of course, when it comes to academic achievement, there are worse places to be stuck than parts of the twentieth century.  I'd also rather jog a few laps behind the cutting edge than be mistaken for a cyberapostle.

Consider, for example, data released by the U.S. Department of Education, which estimate that twenty-three percent of preschoolers have used the Internet "before they can even read."  This makes preschoolers "the largest group of new users," a distinction which thrills the Department's technology overseer.  She's especially pleased that "young students don't differentiate between the face-to-face world and the Internet world."

Excuse me, but don't we want small children to recognize the difference between a picture and a real person?  That used to be an important stage in cognitive development.

Sympathetic boosters like the director of one Washington, D.C., preschool center chime in that computers teach toddlers problem solving, hand eye coordination, and "the social component of working together."  Come on. Does anybody seriously pretend that crowding around a computer monitor is the best or only way to teach that stuff?  Do we really need a keyboard and a mouse to teach a three-year-old how to use his fingers or how to get along?  And is it an altogether good thing if the Internet induces young children to "become more relaxed, more adventurous, and more willing to take risks" if they apparently can't tell the difference between the cyberworld and reality?

At the undergraduate level a new device, the wireless clicker, is debuting in classes.  With this gizmo the professor asks a question, and the students press their "yes," "no," or multiple choice answer buttons.  A few minutes later their votes materialize as a bar graph on an overhead screen.  According to an Associated Press report, clickers "ease fears of giving the wrong answer" or "expressing unpopular opinions."  According one Brown University sophomore, a clicker "forces you to be active in the discussion because you are forced to make a decision right off the bat."

First of all, making a decision right off the bat so you're in time for the class graph doesn't always yield the soundest decisions.  Second, what's the value of expressing an opinion in class if you don't have to explain it or even admit that it's yours?  Third, pressing your clicker doesn't mean you've been  "active" in a discussion.  The clicker option helps ensure that there won't be a discussion.  Just sit back anonymously and let your multiple choice speculations fly.

Sounds perfectly twenty-first century to me.

By the way, clickers aren't just for the Ivy League.  They're headed for elementary schools, too.  Except why not just raise your hand.  It's low tech, but it works.

Students at any level can 'video conference by emailing their compositions to a "mentor" for comments.  Sometimes the mentor is their teacher at the front of the room.  You know, the guy they used to hand their papers to.  One booster, featured in NEAToday, enthuses that the "most important lesson" students learn by videoconferencing "isn't structure or mechanics" but ďa sense that writing is a process."

You don't need email to engage in the process of writing.  All you have to do is write something over and over till you get it right.  Also students might write better if they spent more time on structure and mechanics and some teachers weren't so thrilled that they don't.

True cyber fans hype virtual schools where students and instructors do all their communicating online.  One virtual administrator crows that these cyber programs are "changing the fundamental way that teachers and students interact."  Interact?  We're talking about electronic correspondence courses.

It doesn't take an online chat to learn something.  Face to face classroom chats work even better.  We need to be more concerned with the quality of what students and teachers say instead of obsessing about how far away they can be from each other when they say it.

We're looking for a magic silicon bullet that doesn't exist.  Illinois' lieutenant governor has joined other politicos from Maine to South Dakota by calling for laptops for every middle and high school student.  He sees laptops as the "textbooks of tomorrow."

Excuse me again, but the problem across the nation, including in Illinois, isn't that too many students don't get to read the "textbook of tomorrow."  The problem is that too many can't read.  What possible difference will it make if the words they can't read appear on a video screen instead of on paper?

The fact is that two years and $34 million worth of laptops later, Maine's math scores improved only slightly, while writing, reading, and science scores either dropped or didn't change.  A University of Chicago report found "no evidence" that the Internet has "any measurable effect on student achievement."  An extensive German study concluded that students who use computers at school several times a week actually perform "sizably and statistically worse" as a result.  That's because computers and the Internet commonly distract students from the task of learning.

Don't misunderstand.  Computers can be useful tools.  I agree that we need to come to terms with them.  Sometimes that means recognizing what they can do.

But it also means acknowledging what they can't, and shouldn't do.

© 2006, Peter Berger..
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP responds:  Poor Elijah raises a number of excellent points.  Too many educators and politicians have viewed computers in the classroom -- particularly in elementary school classrooms -- as some sort of magic bullet that will solve most, if not all, the ills that afflict education today.  The reality, of course, is that computers don't teach, teachers teach.  With the help of a skilled teacher, computers in the classroom can help students learn.  But, by themselves, computers can't make up for poor teaching, as those Maine math scores show.

However, the IP is not as negative about using computers in K-12 education as Poor Elijah.  Computers are a part of modern life, and students need to know how to use them.  Using a computer to write an essay won't necessarily make the student a better writer.  However, if the student can revise his or her essay in response to the teacher's suggestions more easily using a computer, that might help.  And, those "instant response" systems might not force students to become engaged in classroom discussions; but, they can be of value to the instructor who can use the feedback to determine if the majority of the class is understanding key concepts.

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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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