Computers and Education in America
In the last decade, computers have invaded every aspect of education, from kindergarten through college. The figures show that schools have spent over two billion dollars installing two million new computers. Recently, with the explosive increase of sites on the Internet, computers have taken another dramatic rise. In just five years, the number of Internet hosts has skyrocketed from 2 million to nearly 20 million. It is not uncommon for 6th graders to surf the Net, design their own home pages, and e-mail their friends or strangers they have "met" on the Web. Computer literacy is a reality for many junior high students and most high school students.
In the midst of this technological explosion, we might well stop and ask some key questions. Is computer technology good or bad for education? Are students learning more or less? What, exactly, are they learning? And who stands to benefit from education's current infatuation with computers and the Internet?
In the debate over the virtues of computers in education, the technological optimists think that computers and the Internet are ushering us into the next literacy revolution, a change as profound as Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. In contrast, a much smaller but growing number of critics believe that cyberspace is not the ideal classroom. I agree with the critics. If you consider your own experience, you'll agree that the benefits of computer literacy are at best wildly overrated. At their worst, computers and the Internet pander to the short attention spans and the passive viewing habits of a young television generation.
The technological optimists sing a siren song of an enchanted new land where the educational benefits of computers and the Internet are boundless. First, they boast that children can now access information on every conceivable subject. If little Eva or little Johnny wants to learn about far-away cultures, they can access sites from their own homes that will teach them about the great languages and cultures of the world. Second, these starry-eyed optimists warble about how the Internet has created a truly democratic space, where all children--rich, poor, black, white, and brown--have equal access to information and education. Third, they claim that computers will allow students to have e-mail conversations with experts on any subject around the world. No longer will students be limited by their own classroom, their teacher, or their environment. Distance learning is the wave of the future, and classrooms will become obsolete or at least optional. In the words of John Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer, the new technologies have created an "avalanche of personal creativity and achievement" and they have given students the "ability to explore, convey, and create knowledge as never before." Children who used to hate going to school will now love to learn to read and write, to do math and science. They will voluntarily spend hours learning on the Web instead of being bored to death by endless books and stodgy teachers.
Sound too good to be true? Let's examine these claims, one by one. First, promoters of computer learning are endlessly excited about the quantity of information available on the Internet. The reality, however, is quite a different story. If you've worked on the Internet, you know that finding and retrieving information from a Web site can sometimes be tedious and time consuming. And once you find a site, you have no idea whether the information will be valuable. Popular search engines such as Yahoo! are inefficient at finding relevant information, unless you just want to buy a book on Amazon.com or find a street map for Fargo, North Dakota. Information is definitely available on the Web, but the problem is finding relevant, reliable, and non-commercial information.
Next, the optimists claim that the Internet is truly a democratic space with equal access for everyone. Again, the reality falls short. First, access to an Internet provider at home costs over a hundred dollars a month, once you add up service and long distance fees. And then there's the technology barrier--not every person has the skills to navigate the Web in any but the most superficial way. Equal access is still only a theoretical dream, not a current reality.
Finally, computers do allow students to expand their learning beyond the classroom, but the distance learning is not a utopia. Some businesses, such as Hewlett Packard, do have mentoring programs with children in the schools, but those mentoring programs are not available to all students. Distance learning has always been a dream of administrators, eager to figure out a cheaper way to deliver education. They think that little Eva and Johnny are going to learn about Japanese culture or science or algebra in the evening when they could be talking with their friends on the phone or watching television. As education critic Neil Postman points out, these administrators are not imagining a new technology but a new kind of child: "In [the administrator's] vision, there is a confident and typical sense of unreality. Little Eva can't sleep, so she decides to learn a little algebra? Where does little Eva come from? Mars?" Only students from some distant planet would prefer to stick their nose in a computer rather than watch TV or go to school and be with their friends.
In addition to these drawbacks are other problems with computers in education. There is the nasty issue of pornography and the rampant commercialism on the Internet. Schools do not want to have their students spend time buying products or being exposed to pornography or pedophiles. Second, the very attractiveness of most Web sites, with their color graphics and ingenious links to other topics, promotes dabbling and skimming. The word "surfing" is appropriate, because most sites encourage only the most surface exploration of a topic. The Internet thus accentuates what are already bad habits for most students: Their short attention spans, their unwillingness to explore subjects in depth, their poor reading and evaluation skills. Computers also tend to isolate students, to turn them into computer geeks who think cyberspace is actually real. Some students have found they have a serious and addictive case of "Webaholism," where they spend hours and hours on the computer at the expense of their family and friends. Unfortunately, computers tend to separate, not socialize students. Finally, we need to think about who has the most to gain or lose from computers in the schools. Are administrators getting more students "taught" for less money? Are big companies training a force of computer worker bees to run their businesses? Will corporate CEO's use technology to isolate and control their employees?
In short, the much ballyhooed promise of computers for education has yet to be realized. Education critic Theodore Roszak has a warning for us as we face the brave new world of computer education:
Like all cults, this one has the intention of enlisting mindless allegiance and acquiescence. People who have no clear idea of what they mean by information or why they should want so much of it are nonetheless prepared to believe that we live in an Information Age, which makes every computer around us what the relics of the True Cross were in the Age of Faith: emblems of salvation.
I think if you examine your own experience with computers, you'll agree that the cult of computers is still an empty promise for most students. Computers, the Internet, and the Web will not magically educate students. It still must be done with reading, study, good teaching, and social interaction. Excellence in education can only be achieved the old fashioned way--students must earn it.
--Dudley Erskine Devlin