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Published in Print: April 21, 1982, as The Educational Revolution Is Not 'In the Chips'


The Educational Revolution Is Not 'In the Chips'

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Recently, I received a breathless letter from the editor of one of the most widely read magazines in education informing me that "the computer revolution is taking American classrooms by storm." The evidence? Current sales figures and recent market projections of how much money school consumers are going to be spending on microcomputers and microcomputer courseware by 1985. Warming to its real purpose, the letter rushed on to inform me that anybody who wanted to capitalize on this imminent electronic revolution in education would, of course, want to advertise in that particular magazine.

Had I bought the logic and the ad space it was designed to sell me, I doubt that my message would have been welcomed by the magazine or, for that matter, by many of it readers. I say this because the desire to sell ourselves the idea that we can purchase educational change in the form of a new technology seems as unshakable as it is wrong. A quarter of a century of technological innovation in education has taught us very little.

Despite all of the "technological breakthroughs" of the 1960's and the 70's, the textbook, along with its satellite workbooks and "Rexos," remains the dominant technology in U.S. classrooms. How did this happen? Why is it that instead of educational change, all schools have got to show for all those breakthroughs is a residue of hardware? But now we are told, "Forget all about those unused language labs, teaching machines, 8 millimeter projectors, magnetic card-readers, and TV monitors. The microcomputers are different. Micros are a real breakthrough, a true innovation; they are radical machines that are so general in their application that they will not only change schools, schooling, teaching, and learning, but the way we live.

Well, Lord knows, I'm for changing the way we live. We might begin by not overselling everything--particularly to our schools. But I know I'm expecting too much. Right now schools seem so caught up in buying the promise of this new hardware that no one has the time or the inclination to do the hard work of shaping that promise to meet the needs of learners. The result is both indiscriminate selling and indiscriminate buying of still more hardware for delivering educational messages that, in many cases, we'd do well to stop sending.

Typical of such messages is one currently being delivered in living color via full-page ads in just about any educational magazine you are apt to pick up. It pictures a math class with a youngster happily punching away at a microcomputer keyboard and studying its visual display. On the screen is a lesson on long division complete with fractional remainders. Now, whether or not you agree that microprocessors will ever change the way we live, you know that about 10 years ago microprocessors--in the form of hand calculators--began changing the way most of us divide two numbers. As a result, most of us no longer have any reason to do long division--at least not in real life. Still, I suppose one could make a reasonable case for continuing to teach kids how to work out long division with a fractional remainder on paper. But the idea of teaching them to do long division with expensive "courseware" using a device that is many times more sophisticated than the hand calculator that has made such paperwork obsolete, seems plainly ludicrous. Yet, this sort of indiscriminate selling and uncritical buying of courseware is characteristic of the electronic revolution that, we are told, "is taking American classrooms by storm."

This same ad makes much of the fact that, unlike most other microcomputer software currently on the market, the software is not drill and practice. "It makes students think," reads the ad. One wonders if what some of these students are thinking is: "If I had the manual to this system, I could probably figure out how to get rid of this program, put the machine in 'compute' mode, and do these dumb exercises in seconds. Then, if I could get hold of a word-processing program, I'd type a memo to the Curriculum Director recommending that long division be shifted from this math course into a history course where it belongs."

Nonetheless, there is something positive to be said for this particular bit of software: It goes beyond the plethora of multiple choice, drill-and-practice microcomputer software currently flooding the school market. Most of such software can be got through quite easily by simply punching every choice, without even knowing which choices are correct, or why, while errors go uncorrected.

But the criticism of the current overkill and oversell of such multiple-choice drill-and-practice microcomputer material is something that neither educational sellers nor buyers want to hear. Recently I have heard public statements from otherwise responsible educators to the effect that schools should willingly spend their money on drill-and-practice courseware for their microcomputers, because, if they don't, the companies marketing this dreck will direct their programming expertise to fields other than education. "If schools buy what's on the market today," they say, "companies will be encouraged to stay in the educational marketplace because they can make a profit. Then, when the companies see they are making money from schools, they will begin to develop better programs."

This, of course, is just what happened in the automobile industry, isn't it? It was only because the consumers were willing to buy gas-guzzlers that American car makers were able to invest their profits in making more efficient automobiles, right?

But we need not look beyond the education market to see the wrong-headedness of such reasoning. The school market has long been habituated to the indiscriminate selling and buying of more of whatever is already selling. Publishers make more of what's selling, and school consumers keep buying it, because other schools are buying it. This has been the established pattern for years with textbooks and workbooks. Why should it suddenly change for electronic workbooks?

If anyone doubts how ingrained this pattern has become in those American classrooms that are about to be revolutionized by electronics, a look at Professor Dolores Durkin's study of elementary-school reading classes will set the record straight. As Durkin puts it: "They use exercises [drill] to teach, and if they don't work, the solution seems to be to have the pupils do more exercises [practice]." Durkin goes on to point out that teachers are extremely dependent upon the teachers' manuals that encourage this pattern. And although these manuals tell teachers how to carry out a great many procedures that keep pupils busy, Durkin asks, "Why do so many procedures stop just short of teaching how to read?" This pattern didn't start yesterday, and it's a pattern we are now seeing perpetuated via electronics.

It's time we realized that no improvement in education will come "by storm." It's also time we began to figure out why all of these technological innovations of the 60's and 70's failed to produce any significant improvements in teaching and learning. I know the answer sounds too simple--even too familiar--to be true. But it is true, nonetheless. Schools bought the hardware and needed software. They bought what was available assuming that the software would get better whether or not they demanded it. When the software didn't improve, they cooled on both the hardware and the software.

The result was that schools used all that technology as fancy packaging for largely thoughtless pedagogy--a pedagogy that has become gradually debased as educators, for whatever reasons, have become less and less discriminating purchasers and more and more dependent users of every type of educational technology from textbooks to microcomputers.

In 1925, I.A. Richards, co-author of the landmark, The Meaning of Meaning, defined a book as "a ma-chine to think with." Too many of today's textbooks, and practically all of today's electronic courseware and the drill-and-practice workbooks that are spawning it, are intellectually bankrupt by that definition. Mental chewing gum instead of protein. And the kids know it. Wouldn't you?

The trouble--and it's a big trouble--is that the people who publish and the people who purchase educational materials are indiscriminately publishing and purchasing the same old stuff that looks new because it's "in the chips." But both sides of the market are simply investing in the same old "books" instead of investing in making what's inside those books a better "machine to think with."

All of this speaks to the tragedy of technology in American education. This tragedy is that although we live in the most educationally and technologically advanced country in the world, we haven't yet educated ourselves to a full understanding of what technology is. We seem stuck at the technology-as-hardware stage. We don't yet understand that all hardware is the result of a unique human ability for producing external support systems for software that has been designed inside some person's head. Some of that software (long division, for example) doesn't require very much in the way of external hardware (paper and pencil will do just fine). While some (like the multiplication table) require no hardware at all.

The marvelous thing about the microcomputer is not that it can be used to teach kids long division or multiplication. Children don't really need microcomputers to learn that type of software. The marvelous thing about the microcomputer is the kind of software it could contain, if educators were willing to demand that it be designed for learners. If educators demanded it, schools could have software that would meet individual learners where they are and enable them to go as far as they can go individually, by thinking their way through whatever they need to learn. The software that learners need is software that will exploit fully the microcomputer's educational potential. Clearly, that potential is enormous. But it will not be fulfilled automatically.

Using the microcomputer to house software that doesn't live up to that potential will not only perpetuate, but exacerbate the present problem with educational materials. This is not a problem that will be solved after publishers make a large enough profit. It is a problem that educators must start solving right now (for themselves, for the publishers, and for the learners) through a consumer demand for software that lives up to--and that stretches--the capabilities of the hardware they are buying.

If, and only if, they voice such a consumer demand, do schools stand a chance of getting learning materials that will both live up to and stretch the capabilities of their students and their teachers.

I strongly suspect that the alternative to an unremitting consumer demand for the development and marketing of such learner-teacher-stretching software will be to use the microcomputers schools are buying to count the days when we are no longer the most educationally and technologically advanced country in the world.

Vol. 01, Issue 30, Page 24,20

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