Commentary

Managing Knowledge in the Information Age: Could Computer Use Be a Form of Tracking?

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At a local high school the other day, I watched as a friend of mine who teaches there unpacked a brand new CD-ROM drive to add to the Macintosh SE and laser printer she already has in her classroom. I couldn't help but notice that the drive, like the other pieces of the Macintosh equipment, was by district policy reserved for use by the gifted and talented program. And I know that almost all the students who make up the gifted and talented program are the children of parents who are fairly affluent, many of them faculty members at nearby Clemson University, where I work. By district policy, then, the sons and daughters of the significant population of poorer parents in the area are not to have access to the best of the school's equipment. My friend, like many of the best teachers, ducks policy. ''Have you ever seen a student who isn't gifted?" someone once asked her. "Never," she said. Even so, even with the best of intentions on the part of teachers, the district policy is an obstacle.

Recently, I walked through another teacher's "basic" class (read "children of poorer parents") to a small room in the back, where the teacher and a few Advanced Placement students were producing a school publication on one of the district's Macintoshes. The "basic" students, waiting patiently for the teacher, had probably never used the computer, and knew they never would.

Like tracking, computer use divides along socioeconomic lines. But, because mastering the machines has become essential to success in the world beyond school, computers complicate the question of which kids will eventually make it. Though the issue is more complex than we'd like to believe, we can tell ourselves that with perseverance any student can do well in school. At least the tools for success--books, pens, and paper--are cheap. But we can't even make the pretense about computers: Poor people cannot afford them.

On the other hand, many students grow up with computers at home, computers they use for everything from electronic games, to word processing, to computer-based telecommunications. Just as children surrounded by books at home are at an advantage when they come to school, the students with computers at home obviously have an advantage over students whose parents can't afford the machines.

The issue of how computers are used at school, then, is pressing. But according to the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition in a 1989 article in the Harvard Educational Review--and as expected, given schools' tendency to track students along socioeconomic lines--poorer students are allowed neither the quantity nor the quality of access to computers as are more affluent students. Surprisingly, the relative prosperity of the district makes little difference: Poor students in wealthy districts get little access to the machines, just as they would in poor districts with fewer computers.

But even when poor kids are given access to the machine, the ways they are allowed to use them differ radically from their use by more affluent students. While advanced students use desktop-publishing software to produce literary publications, for instance, in low-track and remedial classes, populated mostly by poorer students, kids who use computers use them largely for so-called "skill and drill."

In his book Insult to Intelligence, Frank Smith has made the case against skill-and-drill computer work far more completely and eloquently than I can. "Drill and kill," as it's justifiably nicknamed, whether on worksheet or computer screen, teaches little that it's supposed to teach. A computerized vocabulary test, for instance, may or may not prepare students for standardized tests by which the school and district will be judged, but it has almost no relationship to real language use. As theorists of language and learning from James Britton on have known, students doing such work learn nearly nothing that will transfer to the real spoken and written language of their lives.

What skill-and-drill software does teach is more frightening than what it doesn't. Students performing exercises involving isolated skills are not the masters but the slaves of the computers. I’ve often seen students with programs that tell them things like: "John, you're a genius. Now try the next question." With such software students learn, for one thing, to be obedient to a machine, a machine that, like something out of 1984 impersonates a human being. But even without the bells and whistles, students who do computer multiple-choice exercises for countless hours of their school lives learn not to be critical thinkers. They learn not to wonder why the world of the computer screen has no relationship to their world.

That for poorer students skill and drill is often the only exposure to computer technology should disturb us deeply. As Technology and the American Transition, a report by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, points out, business will adjust to the workforce it has available. If a segment of the working population has not learned the flexibility and creative thinking necessary for the ideal economy of the very near future, business will just have to make do with what it has, creating tracks for the workforce available. People who grew up poor and were badly served by schools will find jobs that ask for little talent and offer little reward. I can't help imagining that such jobs might well involve obedience to machines--one skill the workers will have learned well.

Kids, in short, who had no chance to use current technology for their own purposes at school will likely not have the chance at work. They'll have low-paying jobs, and they'll be unable to afford to expose their children to technology in constructive ways. Thus, schools are probably helping to cement in place an underclass, subservient to technology instead of mastering it.

But if we want to, we can give all students access to powerful technology that is not expensive. Several interactive educational networks, such as BreadNet, a network for teachers and students sponsored by the Bread Loaf School of English, require only the cheapest machines (I use a $500 clone). And though on-line time is not free, teachers who have been given the time and the support necessary to learn to use networks wisely themselves can give their students inexpensive experiences, rich in reading, writing, and thought.

BreadNet supports, for students and teachers, what is called asynchronous computer conferencing, which simply means that a number of sites send writing to a central “conference” to be read by all members of the conference at their convenience. Unlike electronic pen-pal systems, such conferences allow a great deal of collaboration, among classes and groups within classes, before writing is sent—and a great deal of communication, oral and written, for the amount of writing actually transmitted.

In one short-term conference on BreadNet, called “World Class,” students and teachers in all parts of the globe—from Wilsall, Mont., to London, to Lima—described for others on the network environmental problems in their country and region, and then discussed global problems and possible solutions. In addition, students composed questions for U.S. Senator Albert Gore’s senior legislative assistant on global environmental issues, Rick Adcock, and sent those questions to the computer conference. Mr. Adcock answered the questions on tape, and his answers were transcribed and posted on the network.

Here is a description of local problems from Randy Boyd, Chad Hall, and Greg Johnson, students in Wheelwright, Ky., a town in one of the poorer regions of the United States: “Much of our water is being destroyed or harmed by people and major corporations here in Kentucky. The problem is a difficult one because the pollution comes from several sources. Because of all the mining that takes place here, when we have hard rains, we also have mud slides, like those that occur in California… Other substances are washed into the creeks with the dirt. The sediment has lots of organic and inorganic matter in it, along with pesticides and other pollutants. Probably the most harmful is acid from pit and strip mines…”

These students are communicating knowledge to a wide and diverse audience, and in the process are probably synthesizing information they had not fully formulated for themselves before. In addition, they are learning infinitely more about the basic skills thank basic-skills programs teach. And they are learning computer technology--very cheaply.

Most importantly, from their work on “World Class,” students from all tracks and all socioeconomic backgrounds learned that their learning and their writing could not only affect their lives, but also had the potential to change the world. After intensive reading and writing about global environmental problems, students in many schools began to take action, starting recycling centers and lobbying at the local level.

This is only one example of the kind of learning students can do cheaply with the power of technology. Every district in the United States could probably afford to make work like this available to all students. And students who have learned to be the masters of computers, to use them for their own purposes, will not only be better prepared to enter the Information Age, they will have the power to make the world more humane.

But if we don’t treat them humanely, if we prevent a segment of the population from exposure to technology for such uses, that power will be lost, for this generation and for generations to come.

Vol. 10, Issue 30, Page 32, 26

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