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Computers In Schools

Many believe that the future of education includes a laptop in every child's bookbag. But teachers, parents, and students are paying a price for the emphasis on technology in the classroom.
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Three years ago an article appeared in the education section of Newsweek magazine under the title: "We Have Seen the Future: It is in Iowa." I don't know if it surprised anyone else, but it sure shocked a lot of us teachers in Iowa. The article was, of course, about technology: specifically, the Iowa Communication Network (ICN), a fiber optic network the state was building to provide high speed computer communication among all schools in the state. It turns out that the ICN has not been the panacea many thought it would be, and it is rarely spoken of as a model for the future of education in this state, much less the country. But that hasn't stopped us from taking our new role as cutting-edge educators seriously; in fact, the governor's commission on education recently proposed putting a laptop in every student's book bag.

Though I am a computer teacher, it is becoming obvious to me that this constant effort to infuse technology into education is more likely to harm than help our children. My argument has two parts. The first part is simple and obvious: Computers make some kinds of learning easier and less painful by externalizing some human skills. We hear some variation of this statement every day, and it is promoted as a great advance in education. The second part of the argument has to do with the fact that there is always a price to be paid when a tool makes a job easier.

The new "hidden curriculum"

At least one of the prices we pay for the employment of these external cognitive tools is the arrested development of many of our students' internal resources. Des Moines Public Schools is in the midst of the third year of a substantial expansion of computer technology. Already it is absolutely clear to everyone dealing with computers in the district that supporting them devours resources, especially money and time. Business solutions to financing computer technology don't work for schools: at least not schools like mine, where a computer is viewed as an adjunct to teacher, not a replacement. Businesses have financed large-scale computer operations primarily through work-force reductions, replacing white collar staff with fewer technicians. My school already has too many students for too few teachers.

We've had to find a different way, which in our case has been a massive mobilization of staff to keep the machines running. Everyone, from staff development personnel to classroom teachers to secretaries, has been enlisted in this effort. Since human time is finite - and few teachers are underworked - it has meant a major shift of emphasis in what we pay attention to in the district.

Our last technology plan involved a year of hard work by hundreds of staff. The plan was finally approved by the school board last April. Just six months later, all of the committees were reconvened - there were new software problems, new information, new computer products, new network opportunities - in short, everything had changed, and everyone in the district had to reconsider the technical issues. This last initiative has met with resistance by teachers tired of being drawn away from their students. But as one principal told me: "We've invested so much money in technology, we have to make it a priority."

This sort of technological fatalism is widespread. Having made a huge investment in machines, we now seem to have no choice but to constantly tend to their demands. Nearly half of the staff development courses are now computer training classes. As I listen to teachers and administrators discussing educational issues now, as opposed to three years ago, I hear much less attention directed toward what is going on inside our students, and much more toward what goes on with the tools they use.

Utopian Visions

I think there is a parallel between this organizational externalization and the way educators have begun to look at learning experiences themselves. Let me give you an example from my own classes.

Central Campus, where I teach, isn't a school in itself; we provide special services to all of the five district high schools. One of the programs is the Academy, a high school gifted and talented program that attracts about 200 students. Another is the beginning English as a Second Language, or ESL program, which also serves about 200 students. Until recently, the Academy and the ESL program shared one floor of our building.

For the last four years, I've helped coordinate a series of Internet projects called Utopian Visions, in which students from the Academy discuss their views of an ideal society with students from various parts of the world. During one of these projects, I happened to be standing outside my room, just down the hall from the doors opening into a Gifted and Talented Language Arts room and an adjacent ESL room, when the bell rang to end classes. I watched the G/T students, many of whom were involved with the Utopian Visions project, walk to their lockers. What caught my attention was that right next to them were walking, just as they had all year, the ESL students from next door. No one from the Utopian Visions project - no one from the G/T class at all - even looked at the ESL students, much less talked to them. Here we had been exchanging ideas about cultures with students on the other side of the planet for months, and it had never dawned on these students (or their teachers) to merely turn their heads 90 degrees and talk to students from Bosnia, Somalia, the Sudan, Russia, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and half a dozen other nations.

Of course, the students have an excuse. It's difficult in the best of circumstances for young people to initiate new relationships. With ESL students, language is an additional hurdle. So their reluctance is understandable. But if what young people needed to learn was easy, we wouldn't need teachers or schools. The teacher's responsibility begins really where the ease ends. And in terms of multicultural education, the ease ends where the flesh-and-blood begins. Learning about cultures is just a matter of gathering information - it's easy and relatively painless. Coming to terms with other cultures is not. It only happens when customs, manners, and beliefs collide in the flesh and force us to dig inside ourselves and wrestle with our own innermost beliefs.

It is just this most crucial, often very painful part of learning that can lead to real tolerance and understanding. It is just what the Internet - which eliminates the necessity to deal with those messy, complex, irritating relationship problems - shields us from. I realized in that moment in the hallway what a disservice I was doing my students by focusing their attention outside their own community when so much more important multicultural business required my, and other teachers', help inside the school. It also made me wonder how many other teachers have been seduced by the ease of flinging disembodied text all over the world and passing it off as multicultural education.

Developing children's inner strength

I teach Advanced Computer Technology classes - the most advanced applications classes the district offers. I often accept students into my class who have very little computer knowledge for the simple reason that the computer skills themselves are really fairly easy to teach. In fact, the prerequisites for success in my class have little to do with the computer itself. What students need to bring to the class are rich ideas and firsthand experiences that give them something to apply those skills to. Abstract concepts like "multicultural" or "community" or "bigotry," or even more concrete terms like "forest" or "garden" won't come to life when they show up as isolated images and abstract text on the computer screen unless there is a long history of firsthand experience to which they refer. I have also decided that along with experiences and ideas, students must bring at least a budding sense of humaneness to the classroom so they can tell the difference between using the computer for society's benefit or for its exploitation. And more than anything, they need moral and ethical strength to resist abusing the machine's enormous power. These qualities take a great deal of time and effort to develop in a child, but I've come to believe they ought to be as much a prerequisite to using powerful computer tools as learning how to type. Trying to teach a student to harness and use appropriately the power of computer technology without those cognitive and social traits is like trying to build a skyscraper without steel.

None of this is new insight. The problems I see in my classroom today are ones that Joseph Wiezenbaum warned us about 20 years ago when he wrote that the computer "enslaves the mind that has no other metaphors and few other resources to call on." He also pointed out that as the machines that we put in our children's hands become more and more powerful, it is crucial that we help them recognize the immense responsibility they have to use them for the good of humanity.

Yet at the very time that we most need to nurture the inner resources of our children out of which this sense of responsibility might emerge, we are neglecting them, if not actively emptying them out. We externalize education by handing our youth machines that focus their energies outward long before they have developed the inner capacities to discipline the power they put at their service. Making learning easy and painless at the cost of our children's inner strength is no bargain.

Lowell Monke is a teacher with the Des Moines Public School District in Iowa.

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