Four Million Computers Can Be Wrong!

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Our society uses the computer as its central tool for communicating and creating knowledge. Public schools do not. Most public schools misuse computers, and some cannot use them at all. Three significant obstacles stand in the way of the technological revolution schools desperately need: inappropriate teaching methods, stereotyping of students, and obsolete facilities.

"We have to teach children about computers. After all, computers are the future." The teacher's voice trembled slightly, and for a minute I was afraid she was going to cry. We were sitting in her 5th-grade classroom in an elementary school in the Queens borough of New York City, finishing an interview for a PBS documentary on technology. Her emotion notwithstanding, her comments were misguided in two important ways.

First, I doubt if she has to teach her students about computers; in all likelihood they already know more about modem technology than she does. That "bank deposit" approach to teaching (teacher as "depositer" of knowledge into students) may have been appropriate years ago, but it is certainly obsolete today, particularly where technology is concerned.

She was upset because her class's ambitious project, a multimedia yearbook, was stalled in midstream, because the itinerant instructor who had been visiting her school regularly had been laid off. The teacher felt abandoned. "I know there's lots of information, like the folk songs the children recorded at home, in this computer, but I don't know how to get it. And now I'll never learn."

Sadly, it had not occurred to her to ask her students, because that's not the way she had been taught to teach. But teachers won't survive, and school will become increasingly irrelevant, if teachers don't change their style of teaching.

Her second statement, "Computers are the future," is also incorrect. Computers are the present, and that's a fact. The high-tech, information-age parade is well under way. We're living in the digital age now ... can you even remember when you had to wait in line at the bank to get some cash? Everywhere we go today--offices, shops, hotels, the supermarket, the dry cleaner, and banks--technology is there.

Schools haven't joined the parade. For years they've used computers as a management tool, largely ignoring its remarkable capacity for creating knowledge and stimulating learning.

Technology has been promising to revolutionize education for years, but none of those promises have been kept. Thomas Edison's film projector was introduced in 1896 with the promise that it would make school so attractive that "a big army with swords and guns couldn't keep boys and girls out of it." That didn't happen.

Then came "radio schools of the air" in the 1930's. Enthusiasts predicted this new technology would soon "be as common in the classroom as the blackboard." Wrong again.

In the 1950's it was television's turn to promise a revolution in the way children learn. But that promise was also broken.

New technology--and new promises--kept coming throughout the 1960's: language labs, teaching machines, 8mm filmstrips, large-screen multimedia presentations, and finally the earliest computers. All those promises notwithstanding, not much has changed. Schools still look pretty much the same.

Remember Vice President Gore's clarion call: "We now have a new generation of educational hardware and software that can really make a revolutionary difference in the classroom, and it's time to use it."

The new technology the Vice President was talking about is built around the modern, high-speed computer, and includes modems, cd-rom's and the Internet, the worldwide computer network. This technology is fundamentally different from yesterday's slide projector or filmstrip. Those were one-dimensional tools, the schoolhouse equivalent of a hammer.

Think of it this way: A hammer can increase your ability to drive in nails, but that's it. It's just a tool for your hand. It cannot tell you where to drive in the nails, or which size nails to use, or whether they're going in straight. A hammer can't design a house, or work out a table of mortgage payments you'll have to make to pay for the house. The computer, a tool for your mind, can do all these things, and more.

Of course the computer can be used as a simple tool: to practice math skills, or for word processing. But students using computers can also design cities, compose their own music, or browse through a library in Japan or London. Students not only learn more, but, using the computer, they can also create their own knowledge. Quite naturally, they take ownership of what they create, and become more interested, more motivated learners.

Most students, unfortunately, don't get to do all those exciting things in school, but that's not because schools don't have computers--they have four million of them. Public schools have been buying computers for a dozen years or more, using them to drill students, and to keep track of grades and attendance. Most of the computers in schools today are out-dated, incapable of running today's complex computer programs. Schools are now buying more powerful machines, but they still have trouble keeping up with their students. As Linda Roberts, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's technology adviser, says: "Kids come to school today very much in tune with computers, video, the electronic games. They know that world."

Most teachers--like that 5th-grade teacher in Queens--do not know the world of computers, because from the very beginning, schools have kept computers in the administrators' offices and in special "laboratories." That unfortunate policy has kept teachers away from technology, kept them technologically illiterate.

Even today, schools provide little in the way of help for teachers who are unfamiliar with computers. Fewer than half of the schools in this country report having a basic computer class available for teachers, but formal training isn't essential if teachers see themselves as learners. Jill Livoti had had almost no exposure to computers when she was hired to teach at a middle school in Columbia, S.C., last year. Her principal told her, "Relax, let the kids show you." She describes what happened:

"When we started on our first computer project, I said, 'I'm not all that familiar with this, so if you have some ideas please come to me and we will work something out.'"

And her students, how have they reacted?

"They love the fact that I don't know too much about it, because they love to teach me, and it's fun for me because they really are good teachers. Some kids aren't as strong on the computer as others, and it helps when they see that I'm learning too. It's not as intimidating for them."

Ms. Livoti is comfortable with the idea of teacher-as-learner. "I think it's important for children to know that a teacher doesn't know everything," she says. "With technology changing and knowledge expanding, teachers have to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing. What's sinful is not seeking to know, or not caring."

Other capable teachers deliver the same message. Yvonne Andres, a teacher in San Diego, expresses it this way: "We're all in this together, and if we don't start learning side by side, it's going to pass us by. I think it's a very sharing, symbiotic relationship."

And Carla Shutte, an elementary school teacher in Arlington, Va., adds: "I don't have to be the one who is the giver of all knowledge, the adult who knows it all. I realize that technology and knowledge are changing daily, and so we're learning side by side."

Giving up control may be the first step. As Ms. Andres says: "What I do, really, is model for them. So when we have a new piece of hardware or software, we attack it together. And they watch me learning. And they learn problem-solving skills and trouble-shooting skills. And sometimes they learn it first, and they teach me. And that's great."

She's right, of course. Young people enjoy being challenged, particularly when the work is meaningful. One middle school student compared two of his classes: "It's sort of like going from the future to the Stone Age. We have all these computers in this class, and it's really fun, because you get to explore on the computers and you know what you're doing half the time, the other half you're just exploring. But when the bell rings, it's back to the Stone Age. You just sit there and work in the book for 30 or 40 minutes, and you're just so bored of it that you want to scream and leave."

A second obstacle that must be overcome is the persistent stereotyping of children that has led to very different uses of technology for poor and well-to-do children.

Basically, schools use technology to control disadvantaged students. Many schools in poor neighborhoods have computer laboratories equipped with drill-and-practice tutorial programs called integrated-learning systems. Students sit in front of these computers and follow the programmed routine, typing in answers to problems like "12 + 4 - 2 =?" Critics call this the "drill and kill" approach, and it would be hard to find a student who would disagree.

In contrast, in many suburban schools, students are likely to be able to manipulate computers, databases, spreadsheets, and drawing programs--all of which allow them to create. They are able to express themselves and their thoughts and share that information with each other.

In other words, middle-class students are using technology in ways that will make them controllers of their lives, while poor children are being denied that power. Practices like these serve to divide our society. They also contradict our American myth of public education as the great equalizer, the road to advancement.

Outsiders often assume that lack of money is a major obstacle to a technological revolution in schools, but that is not correct. Last year schools spent $2.4 billion on technology--computers, laser discs, cd-rom drives, and the like. Advance planning must not be our educators' strong suit, because all too often someone discovers that they can't run their new equipment without blowing a fuse or burning down the building.

Sad to say, school buildings themselves are a major obstacle: Around 31 percent of our public schools were built before World War II. Another 43 percent went up almost overnight during the baby boom of the 50's and 60's. These are yesterday's buildings, but they're trying to run today's technology. James Mecklenburger, the president of the Global Village Schools Institute, notes: "You're dealing with buildings that were built in the 1870's and the 1910's and the 1940's when the electrical connections that you needed were likely to be one or two plugs for a classroom, if that. There was no thought of telephone systems or other kinds of electronic connections."

When the two worlds meet, bad things can happen. Clark High School in New Orleans caught fire and burned last April when the demand for power to run the new computers caused a short circuit. In New Orleans, which has 124 public schools, the average school is 55 years old, and the basic wiring inside can't satisfy technology's thirst for electricity. In fact, only 10 of that city's public schools are properly wired for, and equipped with, today's technology.

Kenneth DuCote, the director of facilities for the schools in New Orleans, feels students are being shortchanged. "We have gone in the last 200 years through a tremendous shift in society. We were an agricultural society where the main power base was in land. Then we went to an industrial society where the main power base was in capital and money. Now we're in the information age where knowledge and access to technology determines power, and our schools don't have the electrical power to give our kids the power they'll need to succeed."

Mr. DuCote took me to schools with fully equipped computer labs that have remained locked and unused for two years because the schools' wiring was inadequate. Those years represent lost opportunities for young people.

Recent federal legislation authorized money for facilities repair and upgrading, but the amount set aside, $100 million, is woefully short of what's needed--billions, not millions.

In the past, schools have resisted technology successfully, but that's no longer possible. Our children swim in a sea of technology outside of school. If schools resist technology and its opportunities, young people will simply turn off. That means more discipline problems, a higher dropout rate, and greater waste of human potential. In other words, schools must adapt, or they will die a lingering death.

"Adapt or die" may seem harsh, but it's not the grimmest prospect. Today's technology is truly democratic: The computer doesn't know whether the person sitting at the keyboard is rich or poor, male or female, black, brown, or white--only how competent that individual is. If our schools don't give all young people a fair chance to become competent, then the gulf between the haves and the have nots will grow wider. That prospect should frighten us all--and persuade us to help teachers and schools transform themselves.

Vol. 14, Issue 27, Pages 38, 52

Published in Print: March 29, 1995, as Four Million Computers Can Be Wrong!
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