Computers Are the Current Fad, 'But Are They Doing Any Good?'

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Classroom computers are the current fad. Pick up any education journal and you will find scores of articles devoted to "computer literacy," as well as full-page ads hawking computers produced by Texas Instruments, Commodore, Atari, and other companies. A sizable portion of school districts' budgets is being allocated for the purchase of computer hardware.

And, although computer use tends to be associated with mathematics instruction, programs for use in all curricular areas are being developed at a feverish rate. Everyone seems to be leaping aboard the computer bandwagon.

But a nagging question remains unanswered: "Do computers raise student-achievement scores?" We must discount the research that has been generated by the makers of computers and their sales forces, for it is hardly unbiased. And other research projects are so poorly designed and conducted that one cannot draw generalizations from them.

An Ad Hoc Committee on Basic Skills, formed in California and composed of educators and private-industry executives, is currently fighting the use of computers in the classroom. The committee's chief complaints are that computers are expensive and ineffective; it maintains that money spent on the purchase of computers should be used to strengthen teachers' skills. A. Daniel Peck, a member of the committee and an education professor at San Francisco State University, maintains that elementary school pupils are too young to use computers properly.

The complaints provoke thought. As an educator, I have two concerns: Computers restrict a student's use of language, and they minimize the desirable interchange between teacher and pupil.

The current use of computers in classrooms reminds me of the Science Research Associates (SRA) Kit, in which a pupil reads a story printed on a card (Power Builder), completes the accompanying exercises, corrects the answers alone, and then willy-nilly goes on to the next card or level. I also see in computer-assisted instruction vestiges of the Programmed Reading method, in which pupils are presented with packages of material of increasing difficulty with answers covered by a marker on the right side of the page. The student answers the question, then pulls down the marker to see whether the answer is correct so he or she can go on to the next frame.

My own experience with these types of materials fuels my skepticism of their merits. The initial student response to them is positive. Pupils are motivated to do the work. A short time later, however, the whole enterprise becomes deadly dull and boring to them. The same thing is likely to happen with computers.

Also, there are some skills that the computer cannot teach very well. For example, many students--especially those in urban areas--have poor vocabularies, reading-achievement scores suggest. Students need instruction that emphasizes dialogue, the understanding of concepts, and the richness of our language. They need to use words in conversations and in writing assignments--something the computer cannot help them do.

Equally disturbing is the minimal interaction computers foster between teacher and pupil. The teacher is the missing link in computer use. As is the case when they are using an SRA Kit or programmed-reading lesson, students are left to their own devices. Classroom teachers are catalysts for learning, yet it's not too far-fetched to envision a classroom of the future in which the student, yoked to his or her inanimate computer, rarely speaks to the teacher. At present, the benefits of putting computers in a classroom are questionable. They can never replace teachers and should be restricted to a "Computer Center" that is staffed by a teacher who works with a small group of youngsters.

Perhaps my concerns are unjustified, but I don't think so. Maybe computers will meet the same fate as the many other new ideas and programs that sweep onto the educational scene, only to be quickly discarded.

A classroom may have three or 20 Apple II's, but the question must be asked: "Are they doing any good?" I'd feel more comfortable about the use of computers if computer analysts and manufacturers would deal with these concerns. Until they do, I'd like to see us spend our limited dollars for textbooks and programs that upgrade teacher competencies in order to provide a curriculum that ensures high-quality instruction for all children.

Vol. 03, Issue 06, Page 20

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