In their recent book, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, two Stanford University education professors, David Tyack and Larry Cuban, discuss the impact of technology on American education. They point out that many technical inventions, such as radio, film, and television, all heralded as panaceas, never lived up to their billing. Under pressure from experts to accept these technological advances into their classrooms, teachers responded by ignoring or subverting them.
Tyack and Cuban argue that the computer revolution, despite its high promise, has suffered a similar fate in the classroom. Assessing the role of computer technology in public education, the authors conclude that computers play only a marginal role in regular instruction. They offer this epitaph, "Computers meet classroom; classroom wins."
This is a fitting description of our school's first experience with computers. I teach at a small, alternative school in East Harlem, N.Y., that was founded to serve low-achieving students, including students who were unsuccessful in traditional school environments. Last year, we received a grant that allowed us to purchase eight computers. The current educational literature suggests placing computers in the classroom rather than in a lab setting. It emphasizes that a computer is simply a tool, albeit a sophisticated one, and belongs in the classroom along with other learning tools, such as chalkboards, books, and VCRs. Proponents of the classroom approach worry that computers placed in a lab will become an end in themselves. They say the message will become lost in competition with the medium--in this case, the bright, flashing monitors.
So we placed our new computers in four classrooms, and theory soon met reality. While several teachers and students have done incredible things with the computers, we have experienced problems. The biggest problem was the lack of basic computer experience among most teachers and students. Unlike children from more privileged backgrounds or wealthier districts, most of our students come to school with little previous computer experience. The social studies teacher cannot ask a student who has never seen a "mouse" to use the computer to research the Civil War. Similarly, the literature teacher cannot ask students to compose stories on the computer without first teaching them how to use a keyboard and word processing software.
Teachers' inexperience presented obstacles just as formidable. We soon realized that finding ways to truly integrate computers into the curriculum in meaningful, practical, and interesting ways is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. Several teachers had little experience with computers; the rest of us were unfamiliar with applications appropriate for middle school students. When we did come up with interesting ideas, we had to struggle to obtain the necessary software. We found that creative, in-depth uses require a lot of planning time and knowledge.
Since this is a small school, all of us wear multiple hats--administrator, counselor, and tutor, to name but a few. With numerous meetings, sessions, and programs to attend, we are often at school until 5 p.m., only to spend evenings and weekends preparing for classes, calling parents, and grading papers. Frankly, many of us are too exhausted and overworked to even think about the computers. They become just one more thing left undone on our to-do lists: "Have I really made use of the computer this week?"
If time is one pressure, curriculum guidelines are another. We all feel an obligation to teach students fundamental concepts and skills that will be important in schooling and life. While computers can provide excellent motivation as well as unique ways of developing and displaying knowledge, they also require a trade-off. Time spent teaching the mechanics of a spreadsheet, graphing program, or word processor is time not spent teaching percentages, algebra, or fractions. Time spent typing an essay into the computer is time not spent reading and discussing literature.
Finally, we consistently encountered technical problems with the computers. A student gets into the hard drive and deletes parts of the operating system; extensions and printer settings get changed or deleted; "frozen" computers get shut off incorrectly, causing subtle but lasting damage. While most of these problems are relatively minor, they require an experienced user to diagnose and correct them. For lack of such a troubleshooter, some of the machines were left inoperative for days at a time.
So we learned that you can't just stick computers in a classroom and expect them automatically to enhance student learning. Giving schools and districts money for computers will not, in itself, magically increase student motivation and achievement. Like putting any other curricular or teaching strategy in place, computers require trained, motivated, and experienced teachers as well as supportive and flexible administrators.
This is not to say that we need more of the standard "The Computer Is Your Friend" in-service workshops. In fact, computer training should not be training per se but rather professional development or curriculum planning that focuses on the use of computers. I recently read about a school in Los Angeles that had successfully integrated computer technology into classrooms. The principal credited much of the school's success to teachers' professional development. At times, she opted to spend grant money not on new equipment but on workshops that help teachers become more comfortable with the technology and on in-school planning sessions where teachers have time to create real-life classroom activities. The most productive activities, she said, were when teachers had the time to brainstorm, experiment, reflect, and revise.
We now see that integrating computers into the school involves thinking more carefully about how we currently teach and about how we could teach.
Chalkboards and overhead projectors are "technologies" that have been fully integrated into classroom life. They are ingrained because they make existing practice--teacher presentation--easier. Regardless of what you think about this teaching style, the chalkboard and overhead projector certainly help the practice. In thinking about how to integrate computers in education, we must ask, "How do we want to do our jobs? What do we want students to do? What keeps them from performing well, and how could computer technology help?"
To answer these questions, teachers must take a hard look at their schools and classes. Looking back on our first year with computers, I think we might have been better off placing our machines in a traditional computer-lab setting instead of in individual classrooms. Each student would have had time set aside to learn the basics. One teacher with the time and expertise to maintain the computers in this more controlled environment might have had greater success than the four of us attempting to go it alone. The teacher and students would have had the flexibility to work on longer, more in-depth projects.
Most of all, though, our year with computers has driven home the point that we need to rethink some of our traditional assumptions about teaching and learning. No one can use computers well when he or she only has 45 minutes to accomplish some dictated curricular task that stresses calculation over critical thinking and memorization over meaning. Indeed, computers will only be successful in an education system that emphasizes depth over breadth along with a liberal dose of flexible scheduling.
The traditional classroom, as Tyack and Cuban point out, has been amazingly resistant to change. But this must not deter us. After all, teachers create classrooms, so teachers can change them.