Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Jumping Off the Computer Bandwagon

By Douglas D. Noble — October 03, 1984 10 min read

After reviewing the majority of these assessments, however, I find it puzzling that their findings are exactly the opposite of what one would expect from some of the nation’s most ardent promoters of computers in education. Astonishingly, these articles all agree that the current situation in computer education is decidedly bleak.

The quality of educational software, the articles state, is deplorable. Representative Albert Gore Jr., sponsor of the National Educational Software Act of 1984, says in Personal Computing that “high-quality educational software is almost nonexistent in our primary and secondary schools.” While P. Kenneth Komoski, executive director of Educational Products Information Exchange, estimates in Psychology Today that “only about one in four products meets minimum technical and instructional standards,” the director of software evaluation for the New York City Public Schools, quoted in Personal Computing, has identified only 200 programs as useful out of the 10,000 available. In short, as Jack Kleinman of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education says in Psychology Today, “There’s a lot of junk out there.”

The current picture of teacher training for computer instruction is just as bleak. “Most teacher training now is positively harmful,” said Alfred Bork, a prominent computer educator, in an address at a recent instructional-computing conference at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Mr. Bork, calling the teaching of BASIC programming in teacher workshops a “disaster,” said the majority of the master’s-degree programs in instructional computing, which will be the basis for certifying computing teachers, “are taught by people who don’t know what they’re doing.”

And such commentators are hardly alone. Even Paul Horwitz of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman Inc., which developed LOGO, says in Personal Computing, “We don’t know very much about how to use computers to teach. ... That is why there is so little good software out there--we don’t yet know how to produce good software. ... It is hard to learn how to teach with a computer.”

“Simply put,” concludes Representative Gore, “our schools are being swept up in a tidal wave of technology without any idea of how to make wise use of it.”

Now in light of this bleak survey of what has been accomplished with computers in education, and in recognition of how little is known about how to proceed, it would seem logical to propose a moratorium on new computer investments--except for small research-and-development projects--until advocates have something of educational value to offer America’s students and teachers.

Ironically, however, in every article I read and at every conference I attend, exactly the opposite conclusion is drawn from the identical set of unimpressive facts: The entire educational apparatus, from Washington to my kids’ school, is saying, in effect, full steam ahead. They’re calling for more of everything: computers, community support, teacher training, software evaluation, and, of course, money. Representative Timothy E. Wirth’s Computer Literacy Act of 1984 even calls for a blank check: “such funds as may be necessary.”

It is time to ask: How does this dubious enterprise possibly justify such uncritical endorsement? What is it that allows this massive, self-proclaimed experiment to stumble expensively onward by trial and error, free from all accountability?

The answer can be found in Mr. Bork’s injunction: “Nothing we are doing today can be taken as characteristic of instructional computing in the future.” In other words (as I heard a speaker at an instructional-computing conference implore), “Judge us by our intentions, not by what actually happens.”

Promoters of computer education are asking us to ignore the facts and share a vision--a mythology--that shapes their intentions and legitimates their activities. If we understand the mythology, then we can also understand what really generates the momentum of the computer-education bandwagon.

Myth 1: Computers will revolutionize education. Rhetorical allusions to the “revolutionary” educational potential of computers are common fare, from Representative Gore’s unoriginal claim that “the potential for computers to improve education ... is more dramatic than any invention since writing,” to Mr. Bork’s articulation of the futurism at the core of the enterprise: "[Computers] will change the very nature of our educational process, and we have to use this prediction [emphasis added] to determine how we develop instructional computing uses today.”

Indeed, some computer educators express fear that computer education, judged by today’s poor showing, will be abandoned before its potential is tapped, and the present push for massive support, we are told, is explicitly designed to solve the “problems” that have slowed the effective use of computers in schools or, in other words, kept computers from fulfilling their manifest destiny to revolutionize education.

But is it impolitic to ask what rationale, if any, exists to substantiate this prediction? Mr. Bork suggests that the “interactive” nature of computer instruction, and its capacity to “individualize” instruction, are what make this innovation different and special. He even uses the image of Socrates-with-pupil as his paradigm. But there is no reason to expect that canned interaction, however sophisticated, will ever begin to approach Socratic spontaneity and uniqueness.

Mr. Komoski, more realistically, takes training in industry and the military--as with flight simulators--to be his paradigm. Thus, he envisions a day when parents will be able to say: “I want my child to be able to do this; give me software guaranteed to teach it.” Such reduction of the educational process to skill delivery and information retrieval is, perhaps, what enables many enthusiasts to envision the pervasive computerization of education. But for those with less restricted perceptions of education, talk of “a revolution” remains puzzling.

The possibilities for long-distance schooling, instant access to information, learning writing on word processors, and so on, have all generated considerable excitement. Yet while it is important to keep an open mind about these possibilities, openmindedness works both ways. We must not permit ourselves to be blinded by a futurism that tends only to conform the ends of education to new, more convenient means, adding less to the substance of education than to its technique. The effectiveness of these new techniques remains to be shown; whatever the case, this is hardly the stuff of revolutions.

Myth 2: Computer education is necessary education. This claim that individual opportunity or national stability depends on computer education is just as enigmatic despite the barrage of rhetoric about the 21st-century “Computer Age.” Sober reflection suggests that, in fact, very few people will need to know anything about computers at work, home, or anywhere else, and that “familiarity” with applications is most easily acquired as needed. Despite some present shortages of engineers and programmers, the country’s future economy hardly depends for its stability on a sizable cadre of “computerists.”

Perhaps recognition of these realities is behind the recent talk of switching the focus from “computer literacy” and programming (education about computers) to the “integration” of computers into the traditional curriculum (education with and by computers). But interestingly, a 1983 Johns Hopkins University survey cited in Psychology Today shows that schools with computers have over time moved away from the difficulties inherent in teaching subjects with computers, back to the more familiar, though ill-defined, terrain of computer literacy and programming. Because so little is known about how to integrate computers into the curriculum, such talk simply assuages traditionalists who fear that computers will truncate the existing curriculum.

Myth 3: Computer education is quality education. At this juncture, we hardly need to argue that computer education is not quality education: Its advocates, as we have seen, readily concede the point. The only explanation for this assumption is that computers are taken as symbols of wealth, intellect, and innovation, which are in turn indicators of quality education for most people. This common perception has unfortunately given rise to a particularly insidious pseudo-issue--computer equity--that is paraded constantly by promoters, legislators, and even teachers’ unions looking for support or funding.

Those concerned with computer equity argue that we must be sure that computer technology and know-how are distributed equitably among both rich and poor schools. Despite the apparent common sense of such appeals, it seems clear that, if computer education is neither necessary nor quality education, the distribution of this paraphernalia and “expertise” is largely irrelevant to the futures of rich and poor students alike. Unfortunately, however, new and unjustified requirements of computer credentials for graduation and job entry have now created an artificial “need” for computer education, thereby making “equal access” an issue and deepening still further the commitment to computers among schools whose students can least afford, both literally and figuratively, this expensive diversion.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all, though, is that teachers, traditionally a conservative and underpaid group who were there-fore expected to resist the ill-conceived, professionally threatening changes wrought by computer education, have instead endorsed the entire enterprise--so far as I know, without a printed word of protest. In fact, teachers’ unions, eager to benefit from the new technological prestige, are offering their members software evaluations and computer subsidies. They are not providing information on how computers are replacing union workers in industries nationwide.

This is because the threat of computers replacing teachers is remote (even though Mr. Bork wants to substitute masterful programs for incompetent teachers, and Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell wants to reduce the labor intensiveness of education). But the real threat to teachers is more subtle, in the form of computer requirements for new teachers, pressures on experienced teachers to learn how to deal with computers, and insinuations that teachers who remain ignorant of computers are guilty of professional stagnation, pedagogical conservatism, even incompetence.

There are, of course, many teachers seeking a more tangible sense of competence--even a new career--who have willingly hopped onto the bandwagon, including 11,000 new “computer coordinators” in the nation’s schools counted by InCider, Apple Computer’s magazine. There is also considerable excitement. According to Mr. Komoski, “computers have generated an enormous amount of energy in a social institution that has become almost moribund,” or, says Mary Alice White of Columbia University’s Teachers’ College in Personal Computing, "[Computer education] is good, ... it makes us question all kinds of things.”

Ironically, as we have seen, the one thing that is not questioned is the bandwagon itself, and this is really the most serious threat to the teaching profession. Despite the new attention, opportunity, and leverage that the embrace of this enterprise affords the profession, teachers’ uncritical endorsement of this massive boondoggle will ultimately erode the reputations of those who profess to cherish and preserve the value of education as opposed to skills training.

Choosing not to resist, or even critically examine, the myth-driven momentum of computer education, almost all teachers have become de facto participants in the irresponsible dissemination of its futuristic mythology. Although Ernest L. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is right to urge in Personal Computing that the first priority of computer education should be for teachers to educate their students about how computers are changing their world, he is apparently unaware of how ill-informed the majority of teachers are about such things. By and large, their information comes from half-truths discussed in computer workshops, and the futurist propaganda in the popular press. To assume a critical perspective and adopt an unpopular stance take effort and courage; no wonder, given the pressures of teaching in America in 1984, that few have bothered.

But it would be well worth the bother. Everyone agrees that the lack of teacher training is the greatest obstacle to the entire enterprise. It follows that teachers could have a significant impact if they were to call its bluff and refuse to participate in its escapist “excitement.” Furthermore, since most home and school computer purchases result from parents’ educational concerns for their children, teachers should take the time and energy now wasted in computer workshops to explore their intuitive disquiet and to educate themselves about what is really going on. The result could be a saner, more considered, and more truly exciting alternative for education in a computer-filled world.

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 1984 edition of Education Week as Jumping Off the Computer Bandwagon


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