Computers: A Change of Course?

By William Snider — January 22, 1986 11 min read

Just when states and school districts have begun to commit themselves to increasing students’ “computer literacy,” a growing number of dissenters are arguing that the emphasis on programming instruction typical of such efforts is misplaced.

Their views are supported by new research findings that appear to undercut two long-standing arguments for programming: that it enhances students’ higher-order thinking skills and that it will be an essential employment skill.

''We may well have peaked in terms of how much programming will be taught at the precollegiate level,” said David Moursund, chief executive officer of the International Council for Computers in Education.

''That was a phase we went through,” he added, “but that’s not the best way to use students’ time or resources. As we get applications packages and realize their power, we’re switching away from using programming as the primary vehicle for getting students involved in computing.”

“It was convenient to create something called ‘computer literacy’ that didn’t require computers,” said Christopher J. Dede, a futurist at the University of Houston. “You could talk about the history of computers and the impact of computers on society. It became a way to involve districts with computing without requiring large amounts of hardware.”

Today, however, with more than one million computers in U.S. schools and sophisticated, pre-packaged software available at relatively low cost, educators can put computers to work performing such specific tasks as word-processing, statistical analysis, and design, such critics say.

''We ought to be thinking about how the computer can be used as an effective tool in other courses of study,” said Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. ‘1t’s as if the pencil had just been invented and the response was: ‘Gee, how do we construct a course on pencil?’ ”

Yet a knowledge of programming has been a principal element in most definitions of “computer literacy"--definitions that state policymakers are using as a guide in their efforts to assure that students become competent computer users.

“This is a critical time because a number of states are beginning to codify what they think is important,” said Martin B. Schneiderman, director of the Computer Education Program at the Educational Testing Service.

“If they’re not forward-thinking,” he added, “they’re going to be in trouble.”

Research Findings

Those who favor integrating computers throughout the curriculum, rather than teaching computer-competency as a separate subject, contend that programming is ineffective in developing students’ analytic and problem-solving skills. I Current research findings appear to substantiate this view.

Although little research has been conducted on the long-term effectiveness of different instructional approaches, numerous studies have examined the cognitive effects of learning to program.

A review of more than 100 computer-use studies conducted by the Washington-based Center for Research into Practice found “little evidence to support the widely held view that learning to program will develop students’ abilities to solve problems.”

In fact, note the authors of the review, “studies show that most students enrolled in programming courses are not even learning how to program.”

Research sponsored by the U.S. Education Department has reached similar conclusions.

“There is very little evidence that learning to program transfers to being able to use higher-order thinking skills in other subject areas, such as math and physics,” said Gerald Kulm, senior research associate in the department’s office of educational research and improvement.

Even instruction in the use of LOGO, a programming language developed for children, has failed to demonstrate any significant gains in problem-solving skills.

“It was expected that learning LOGO would lead to more general sorts of transfer effects, such as enhancing a student’s planning, reasoning, and ability to break problems into sub-parts,” said Mr. Kulm. “But those effects just haven’t been found.”

“Computers can be used to enhance problem-solving skills,” he said, “by using software that explicitly gives practice in doing those sorts of things.”

Career Training

Critics of the emphasis on programming also argue that the commonly cited rationale for such instruction--that programming will be an essential job skill in the future--is baseless.

''The vast majority of computer users are not computer programmers,” Mr. Tucker said. ''The world has changed dramatically. To continue to emphasize computer programming is out of step with what is important for kids to learn.”

A recent study sponsored by the National Commission for Employment Policy, an independent government agency that advises the President and the Congress on employment issues, concurs. “Although computer use is widespread and growing rapidly,” it states, “relatively few workers need extensive education or training in computer-related skills; most learn their skills in brief, on-the-job training. Young workers need not fear being frozen out of the job market because they have not learned about computers.”

At the same time, student interest in computer-related careers appears to be declining sharply. The annual survey of entering college freshmen, conducted last fall by the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and by the American Council on Education, noted that the percentage of students planning careers as computer programmers or systems analysts dropped more than 50 percent in two years. (See Education Week,Jan.15, 1986.)

State Directives

Meanwhile, 26 states and the District of Columbia have established guidelines for computer literacy, according to a recent survey by Electronic Learning magazine. Two years ago, only six states had taken such action.

In nine of those states, the laws require schools to offer specific courses, usually including lessons in computer languages such as BASIC, LOGO, and PASCAL.

Only Arkansas, Vermont, and the District of Columbia require schools to integrate computers into their general curriculum, according to the survey.

Five states require schools to offer an optional computer-literacy course, according to the survey, while nine allow local districts to decide whether to meet the state’s minimum-competency requirements through a separate computer course or by working in computer training across the curriculum. (See related story on opposite page,)

Other Considerations

State policies on computer instruction often reflect economic concerns as well as educational ones, according to the final report of the federally funded State Leadership Assistance for Technology in Education (SLATE).

When the policies are crafted by governors hoping to attract “high-tech” industries, the report notes, “computer literacy has taken on a distinct definition closely related to computer programming.”

Many of the nine states requiring computer-literacy courses--including New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas--have actively courted high-technology industry to enhance the state economy.

On the other hand, in states where computer literacy has largely been defined by educators, the report said, “the definition is broader, with an emphasis on information-age communication and personal survival skills.”

Because the pace of change in computing is so rapid, state policymakers should make mandates flexible and adaptable, advises Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“As technology develops, not only does it make present equipment obsolete, it could make present laws obsolete as well,” he said. “It would be dangerous to come up with policies that freeze schools into the 1985 state of technology.”

Critics of programming cite, for example, mandates to teach specific computer-programming languages. Many industry experts predict that within a decade, computers will be programmed using standard English grammar, relayed either by typing on a keyboard or by voice.

Changing Views

Although a majority of secondary-school educators still regard the computer primarily as a mechanism for “learning about computers,” two recent studies indicate that interest in other computer uses is growing. In his “Second National Survey of Instructional Uses of School Computers,” Henry Jay Becker of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University found that teachers in areas other than mathematics and programming have begun to use computers more. (See Education Week, Aug. 28, 1985.)

The survey indicated a clear increase in word-processing applications in English and business-education classes and more usage of computers for drafting, diagramming, and calculating in vocational-education classes.

While drill-and-practice uses still dominate in the elementary schools, and programming activities dominate in secondary schools, a growing number of teachers said the computer’s primary usefulness is as a tool to accomplish certain tasks, Mr. Becker found.

Mr. Becker’s findings were confirmed by a survey of schools recently completed by TALMIS Inc., a market-research firm based in Chicago.

According to its survey, “teachers and administrators alike are expressing growing interest in software that is closely correlated to the daily curriculum and that supplements the ongoing teaching activity of the classroom in a regular and systematic fashion.”

“Though high-school machines are still used most frequently for computer programming and computer-literacy purposes, the stranglehold that computer science has held over high-school machines appears to be weakening,” the survey noted.

‘Coming Backlash’

The experts who see that as a good thing point out that courses on computer programming place an added curricular burden on schools at a time when computers could be better used to help meet well-defined educational needs.

And some argue that unless computers prove their usefulness, money for educational computing will be diverted into other areas.

Computer-industry analysts agree that now that the majority of districts have made an initial investment in computers, future purchases will depend on whether the machines are perceived as effective tools in the learning process.

In his book, Computer Decisions for Board Members: Getting the Most From What Your District Selects, Stanley Pogrow advises school officials to concentrate computer use on areas that can produce measurable improvements in student learning.

“If you don’t,” Mr. Pogrow has warned, “you’ll soon see a severe backlash against educational computing from parents, administrators, and teachers.”

Programming Defended

Amid this changing climate of opinion, programming still has its staunch defenders.

“Fads come and go. At the moment programming is out and applications are in, but that will change again,” said Martha Ramirez, president of Computer Literacy, a partnership formed in Berkeley, Calif., to write textbooks on computers.

It is important for students to study programming, she said, to learn the structure of logic inherent in all computers, so that they can modify existing software to meet their specific needs.

Ms. Ramirez said she is “disappointed” that current research has not demonstrated the effectiveness of programming instruction. And she contended that the arguments used by opponents of programming could as easily be applied to subjects such as algebra.

“I don’t use algebra in my work,” she said, “but I still think learning it helped me.”

Historically, she said, “it’s been impossible to show the transfer of problem-solving skills from other disciplines.”

Defining Literacy

In Schools of the Future, published by the American Association of School Administrators, Marvin Cetron suggests that schools adopt a definition of literacy common among businesses—"knowing how to make a computer go and performing routine maintenance chores for the computer in much the same way as we do for a car.”

“We do not have to know how it works,” he added. “We do not have to know how to write a computer program.”

A benchmark of computer literacy will be established this spring when the National Assessment of Educational Progress conducts the nation’s first assessment of computer competency. (See Education Week, Dec. 5, 1984.)

Mr. Tucker of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, who chairs the committee charged with designing the assessment instrument, said students will be asked questions in three major areas: computer programming in BASIC, PASCAL, or LOGO; computer applications in such areas as word processing, graphics, telecommunications, and database management; and computer knowledge and attitudes in such areas as the history of computers, parts of computer systems, and computer ethics. While schools might use this as a definition for computer literacy, Mr. Tucker and others warn that the definition should not be cast in concrete.

“We are clearly still going through a period of trying to decide how best to use this machine for instructional purposes, and I expect that to go on for quite awhile,” Mr. Tucker said.

''Because people have different experiences, because the situations they face are different in terms of the amount of resources they have and their needs, and partly because the state-of-the-art in computing is changing, I don’t look to any time in the near future when there’s going to be substantial agreement as to what it means to be a competent computer user and how to produce that competence.”

Linda Chion-Kenney contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1986 edition of Education Week