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The New Media and Learning
A series sponsored by The American Prospect magazine, including commentary by Sherry Turkle, Paul Starr, and others.
Learning in the Real World
The Web site of an organization dedicated to examining the costs and benefits of education technology.
If history really is repeating itself, the schools are in serious trouble. In
Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of
Technology Since 1920
(1986), Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University and a
former school superintendent, observed that as successive rounds of new
technology failed their promoters' expectations, a pattern emerged. The cycle
began with big promises backed by the technology developers' research. In the
classroom, however, teachers never really embraced the new tools, and no
significant academic improvement occurred. This provoked consistent
responses: the problem was money, spokespeople argued, or teacher
the paralyzing school bureaucracy. Meanwhile, few people questioned the
technology advocates' claims. As results continued to lag, the blame was
finally laid on the machines. Soon schools were sold on the next generation of
technology, and the lucrative cycle started all over again.|
Today's technology evangels argue that we've learned our lesson from past
mistakes. As in each previous round, they say that when our new hot
technology -- the computer -- is compared with
yesterday's, today's is better. "It
can do the same things, plus," Richard Riley, the U.S. Secretary of Education,
told me this spring.
How much better is it, really?
The promoters of computers in schools again offer prodigious research showing
improved academic achievement after using their technology. The research has
again come under occasional attack, but this time quite a number of teachers
seem to be backing classroom technology. In a poll taken early last year U.S.
teachers ranked computer skills and media technology as more "essential" than
the study of European history, biology, chemistry, and physics; than dealing
with social problems such as drugs and family breakdown; than learning
practical job skills; and than reading modern American writers such as
Steinbeck and Hemingway or classic ones such as Plato and Shakespeare.
In keeping with these views New Jersey cut state aid to a number of school
districts this past year and then spent $10 million on classroom computers. In
Union City, California, a single school district is spending $27 million to buy
new gear for a mere eleven schools. The Kittridge Street Elementary School, in
Los Angeles, killed its music program last year to hire a technology
coordinator; in Mansfield, Massachusetts, administrators dropped proposed
teaching positions in art, music, and physical education, and then spent
$333,000 on computers; in one Virginia school the art room was turned into a
computer laboratory. (Ironically, a half dozen preliminary studies recently
suggested that music and art classes may build the physical size of a child's
brain, and its powers for subjects such as language, math, science, and
engineering -- in one case far more than computer work did.)
after a New Technology High School opened in Napa, California, where computers
sit on every student's desk and all academic classes use computers, some
students were complaining of headaches, sore eyes, and wrist pain.
Throughout the country, as spending on technology increases, school book
purchases are stagnant. Shop classes, with their tradition of teaching children
building skills with wood and metal, have been almost entirely replaced by new
"technology education programs." In San Francisco only one public school still
offers a full shop program -- the lone vocational high school.
"We get kids who
don't know the difference between a screwdriver and a ball peen hammer," James
Dahlman, the school's vocational-department chair, told me recently. "How are
they going to make a career choice? Administrators are stuck in this mindset
that all kids will go to a four-year college and become a doctor or a lawyer,
and that's not true. I know some who went to college, graduated, and then had
to go back to technical school to get a job." Last year the school
superintendent in Great Neck, Long Island, proposed replacing elementary school
shop classes with computer classes and training the shop teachers as computer
coaches. Rather than being greeted with enthusiasm, the proposal provoked a
Interestingly, shop classes and field trips are two programs that the National
Information Infrastructure Advisory Council, the Clinton Administration's
technology task force, suggests reducing in order to shift resources into
computers. But are these results what technology promoters really intend?" You
need to apply common sense," Esther Dyson, the president of EDventure Holdings
and one of the task force's leading school advocates, told me recently. "Shop
with a good teacher probably is worth more than computers with a lousy teacher.
But if it's a poor program, this may provide a good excuse for cutting it.
There will be a lot of trials and errors with this. And I don't know how to
prevent those errors."
The issue, perhaps, is the magnitude of the errors. Alan Lesgold, a professor
of psychology and the associate director of the Learning Research and
Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, calls the computer an
"amplifier," because it encourages both enlightened study practices and
thoughtless ones. There's a real risk, though, that the thoughtless practices
will dominate, slowly dumbing down huge numbers of tomorrow's adults. As Sherry
Turkle, a professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and a longtime observer of children's use of computers, told me,
"The possibilities of using this thing poorly so outweigh the chance of using
it well, it makes people like us, who are fundamentally optimistic about
computers, very reticent."
Perhaps the best way to separate fact from fantasy is to take supporters'
claims about computerized learning one by one and compare them with the
evidence in the academic literature and in the everyday experiences I have
observed or heard about in a variety of classrooms.
Five main arguments underlie the campaign to computerize our nation's
Computers improve both teaching practices and student achievement.
Computer literacy should be taught as early as possible; otherwise
students will be left behind.
To make tomorrow's work force competitive in an increasingly high-tech
learning computer skills must be a priority.
Technology programs leverage support from the business
community -- badly
needed today because schools are increasingly starved for funds.
Work with computers -- particularly using the
Internet -- brings students
valuable connections with teachers, other schools and students, and a wide
network of professionals around the globe. These connections spice the school
day with a sense of real-world relevance, and broaden the educational
Filmstrips of the 1990s"
LINTON's vision of
computerized classrooms arose partly out of the findings
of the presidential task force -- thirty-six leaders from
and several interest groups who have guided the Administration's push to get
computers into the schools. The report of the task force, "Connecting K-12
Schools to the Information Superhighway" (produced by the consulting firm
McKinsey & Co.), begins by citing numerous studies that have apparently
proved that computers enhance student achievement significantly. One
"meta-analysis" (a study that reviews other studies -- in this
case 130 of them)
reported that computers had improved performance in "a wide range of subjects,
including language arts, math, social studies and science." Another found
improved organization and focus in students' writing. A third cited twice the
normal gains in math skills. Several schools boasted of greatly improved
Unfortunately, many of these studies are more anecdotal than conclusive. Some,
including a giant, oft-cited meta-analysis of 254 studies, lack the necessary
scientific controls to make solid conclusions possible. The circumstances are
artificial and not easily repeated, results aren't statistically reliable, or,
most frequently, the studies did not control for other influences, such as
differences between teaching methods. This last factor is critical, because
computerized learning inevitably forces teachers to adjust their
style -- only
sometimes for the better. Some studies were industry-funded, and thus tended to
publicize mostly positive findings. "The research is set up in a way to find
benefits that aren't really there," Edward Miller, a former editor of the
Harvard Education Letter, says. "Most knowledgeable people agree that
most of the research isn't valid. It's so flawed it shouldn't even be called
research. Essentially, it's just worthless." Once the faulty studies are weeded
out, Miller says, the ones that remain "are inconclusive" -- that
is, they show
no significant change in either direction. Even Esther Dyson admits the studies
are undependable. "I don't think those studies amount to much either way," she
says. "In this area there is little proof."
Why are solid conclusions so elusive? Look at Apple Computer's "Classrooms of
Tomorrow," perhaps the most widely studied effort to teach using computer
technology. In the early 1980s Apple shrewdly realized that donating computers
to schools might help not only students but also company sales, as Apple's
ubiquity in classrooms turned legions of families into Apple loyalists. Last
year, after the San Jose Mercury News (published in Apple's Silicon
Valley home) ran a series questioning the effectiveness of computers in
schools, the paper printed an opinion-page response from Terry Crane, an Apple
vice-president. "Instead of isolating students," Crane wrote, "technology
actually encouraged them to collaborate more than in traditional classrooms.
Students also learned to explore and represent information dynamically and
creatively, communicate effectively about complex processes, become independent
learners and self-starters and become more socially aware and
Crane didn't mention that after a decade of effort and the donation of
equipment worth more than $25 million to thirteen schools, there is scant
evidence of greater student achievement. To be fair, educators on both sides of
the computer debate acknowledge that today's tests of student achievement are
shockingly crude. They're especially weak in measuring intangibles such as
enthusiasm and self-motivation, which do seem evident in Apple's classrooms and
other computer-rich schools. In any event, what is fun and what is educational
may frequently be at odds. "Computers in classrooms are the filmstrips of the
1990s," Clifford Stoll, the author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on
the Information Highway (1995), told The New York Times last
recalling his own school days in the 1960s. "We loved them because we didn't
have to think for an hour, teachers loved them because they didn't have to
teach, and parents loved them because it showed their schools were high-tech.
But no learning happened."
Stoll somewhat overstates the case -- obviously, benefits can
strengthening a student's motivation. Still, Apple's computers may bear less
responsibility for that change than Crane suggests. In the beginning, when
Apple did little more than dump computers in classrooms and homes, this
produced no real results, according to Jane David, a consultant Apple hired to
study its classroom initiative. Apple quickly learned that teachers needed to
change their classroom approach to what is commonly called "project-oriented
learning." This is an increasingly popular teaching method, in which students
learn through doing and teachers act as facilitators or partners rather than as
didacts. (Teachers sometimes refer to this approach, which arrived in
classrooms before computers did, as being "the guide on the side instead of the
sage on the stage.") But what the students learned "had less to do with the
computer and more to do with the teaching," David concluded. "If you took the
computers out, there would still be good teaching there." This story is heard
in school after school, including two impoverished schools  --
Clear View Elementary School, in southern California, and the Christopher
Columbus middle school, in New Jersey -- that the Clinton
Administration has loudly celebrated for turning themselves around with
computers. At Christopher Columbus, in fact, students' test scores rose
before computers arrived, not afterward, because of relatively basic
changes:longer class periods, new books, after-school programs, and greater
emphasis on student projects and collaboration.
During recent visits to some San Francisco-area schools I could see what it
takes for students to use computers properly, and why most don't.
On a bluff south of downtown San Francisco, in the middle of one of the city's
lower-income neighborhoods, Claudia Schaffner, a tenth-grader, tapped away at a
multimedia machine in a computer lab at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School,
one of half a dozen special technology schools in the city. Schaffner was using
a physics program to simulate the trajectory of a marble on a small roller
coaster. "It helps to visualize it first, like 'A is for Apple' with
kindergartners," Schaffner told me, while mousing up and down the virtual
roller coaster. "I can see how the numbers go into action." This was lunch
hour, and the students' excitement about what they can do in this lab was
palpable. Schaffner could barely tear herself away. "I need to go eat some
food," she finally said, returning within minutes to eat a rice dish at the
Schaffner's teacher is Dennis Frezzo, an electrical-engineering graduate from
the University of California at Berkeley. Despite his considerable knowledge of
computer programming, Frezzo tries to keep classwork focused on physical
projects. For a mere $8,000, for example, several teachers put together a
multifaceted robotics lab, consisting of an advanced Lego engineering kit and
twenty-four old 386-generation computers. Frezzo's students used these
materials to build a tiny electric car, whose motion was to be triggered by a
light sensor. When the light sensor didn't work, the students figured out why.
"That's a real problem -- what you'd encounter in the real
world," Frezzo told
me. "I prefer they get stuck on small real-world problems instead of big fake
problems" -- like the simulated natural disasters that fill one
educational game. "It's sort of the Zen approach to education," Frezzo said.
"It's not the big problems. Isaac Newton already solved those. What come up in
life are the little ones."
It's one thing to confront technology's complexity at a high
school -- especially
one that's blessed with four different computer labs and some highly skilled
teachers like Frezzo, who know enough, as he put it, "to keep computers in
their place." It's quite another to grapple with a high-tech future in the
lower grades, especially at everyday schools that lack special funding or
technical support. As evidence, when U.S. News & World Report
published a cover story last fall on schools that make computers work, five of
the six were high schools -- among them Thurgood Marshall.
Although the sixth was
an elementary school, the featured program involved children with
disabilities -- the one group that does show consistent benefits from
ONSIDER the scene at
one elementary school, Sanchez, which sits on the edge
of San Francisco's Latino community. For several years Sanchez, like many other
schools, has made do with a roomful of basic Apple IIes. Last year, curious
about what computers could do for youngsters, a local entrepreneur donated
twenty costly Power Macintoshes -- three for each of five
classrooms, and one for
each of the five lucky teachers to take home. The teachers who got the new
machines were delighted. "It's the best thing we've ever done," Adela Najarro,
a third-grade bilingual teacher, told me. She mentioned one boy, perhaps with a
learning disability, who had started to hate school. Once he had a computer to
play with, she said, "his whole attitude changed." Najarro is now a true
believer, even when it comes to children without disabilities. "Every single
child," she said, "will do more work for you and do better work with a
computer. Just because it's on a monitor, kids pay more attention. There's this
magic to the screen."
Down the hall from Najarro's classroom her colleague Rose Marie Ortiz had a
more troubled relationship with computers. On the morning I visited, Ortiz took
her bilingual special-education class of second-, third-, and fourth-graders
into the lab filled with the old Apple IIes. The students look forward to this
weekly expedition so much that Ortiz gets exceptional behavior from them all
morning. Out of date though these machines are, they do offer a range of
exercises, in subjects such as science, math, reading, social studies, and
problem solving. But owing to this group's learning problems and limited
English skills, math drills were all that Ortiz could give them. Nonetheless,
within minutes the kids were excitedly navigating their way around screens
depicting floating airplanes and trucks carrying varying numbers of eggs. As
the children struggled, many resorted to counting in whatever way they knew
how. Some squinted at the screen, painstakingly moving their fingers from one
tiny egg symbol to the next. "Tres, cuatro, cinco, seis ... ," one
little girl said loudly, trying to hear herself above her counting neighbors.
Another girl kept a piece of paper handy, on which she marked a line for each
egg. Several others resorted to the slow but tried and true  --
their fingers. Some just guessed. Once the children arrived at answers,
they frantically typed
them onto the screen, hoping it would advance to something fun, the way
Nintendos, Game Boys, and video-arcade games do. Sometimes their answers were
right, and the screen did advance; sometimes they weren't; but the children
were rarely discouraged. As schoolwork goes, this was a blast.
"It's highly motivating for them," Ortiz said as she rushed from machine to
machine, attending not to math questions but to computer glitches. Those she
couldn't fix she simply abandoned. "I don't know how practical it is. You see,"
she said, pointing to a girl counting on her fingers, "these kids still need
the hands-on" -- meaning the opportunity to manipulate physical
objects such as
beans or colored blocks. The value of hands-on learning, child-development
experts believe, is that it deeply imprints knowledge into a young child's
brain, by transmitting the lessons of experience through a variety of sensory
pathways. "Curiously enough," the educational psychologist Jane Healy wrote in
Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It
(1990), "visual stimulation is probably not the main access route to nonverbal
reasoning. Body movements, the ability to touch, feel, manipulate, and build
sensory awareness of relationships in the physical world, are its main
foundations." The problem, Healy wrote, is that "in schools, traditionally, the
senses have had little status after kindergarten."
Ortiz believes that the computer-lab time, brief as it is, dilutes her
students' attention to language. "These kids are all language-delayed," she
said. Though only modest sums had so far been spent at her school, Ortiz and
other local teachers felt that the push was on for technology over other
scholastic priorities. The year before, Sanchez had let its librarian go, to be
replaced by a part-timer.
When Ortiz finally got the students rounded up and out the door, the kids were
still worked up. "They're never this wired after reading group," she said.
"They're usually just exhausted, because I've been reading with them, making
them write and talk." Back in homeroom Ortiz showed off the students' monthly
handwritten writing samples. "Now, could you do that on the computer?" she
asked. "No, because we'd be hung up on finding the keys." So why does Ortiz
bother taking her students to the computer lab at all? "I guess I come in here
for the computer literacy. If everyone else is getting it, I feel these kids
should get it too."
Some computerized elementary school programs have avoided these pitfalls, but
the record subject by subject is mixed at best. Take writing, where by all
accounts and by my own observations the computer does encourage
practice -- changes are easier to make on a keyboard than with an
eraser, and the
lettering looks better. Diligent students use these conveniences to improve
their writing, but the less committed frequently get seduced by electronic
opportunities to make a school paper look snazzy. (The easy "cut and
paste"function in today's word-processing programs, for example, is apparently
encouraging many students to cobble together research materials without
thinking them through.) Reading programs get particularly bad reviews. One
but carefully controlled study went so far as to claim that Reader Rabbit, a
reading program now used in more than 100,000 schools, caused students to
suffer a 50 percent drop in creativity. (Apparently, after forty-nine students
used the program for seven months, they were no longer able to answer
open-ended questions and showed a markedly diminished ability to brainstorm
with fluency and originality.) What about hard sciences, which seem so well
suited to computer study? Logo, the high-profile programming language
Seymour Papert and widely used in middle and high schools, fostered huge hopes
of expanding children's cognitive skills. As students directed the computer to
build things, such as geometric shapes, Papert believed, they would learn
"procedural thinking," similar to the way a computer processes information.
According to a number of studies, however, Logo has generally failed to deliver
on its promises. Judah Schwartz, a professor of education at Harvard and a
co-director of the school's Educational Technology Center, told me that a few
newer applications, when used properly, can dramatically expand children's math
and science thinking by giving them new tools to "make and explore
conjectures."Still, Schwartz acknowledges that perhaps "ninety-nine percent" of
the educational programs are "terrible, really terrible."
Even in success stories important caveats continually pop up. The best
educational software is usually complex -- most suited to older
sophisticated teachers. In other cases the schools have been blessed with
abundance -- fancy equipment, generous financial support, or
extra teachers -- that
is difficult if not impossible to duplicate in the average school. Even if it
could be duplicated, the literature suggests, many teachers would still
struggle with technology. Computers suffer frequent breakdowns; when they do
work, their seductive images often distract students from the lessons at
hand -- which many teachers say makes it difficult to build
with their students.
With such a discouraging record of student and teacher performance with
computers, why has the Clinton Administration focused so narrowly on the
hopeful side of the story? Part of the answer may lie in the makeup of the
Administration's technology task force. Judging from accounts of the task
force's deliberations, all thirty-six members are unequivocal technology
advocates. Two thirds of them work in the high-tech and entertainment
industries. The effect of the group's tilt can be seen in its report. Its
introduction adopts the authoritative posture of impartial fact-finder, stating
that "this report does not attempt to lay out a national blueprint, nor does it
recommend specific public policy goals." But it comes pretty close. Each
chapter describes various strategies for getting computers into classrooms, and
the introduction acknowledges that "this report does not evaluate the relative
merits of competing demands on educational funding (e.g., more computers versus
smaller class sizes)."
When I spoke with Esther Dyson and other task-force members about what
discussion the group had had about the potential downside of computerized
education, they said there hadn't been any. And when I asked Linda Roberts,
Clinton's lead technology adviser in the Department of Education, whether the
task force was influenced by any self-interest, she said no, quite the
opposite: the group's charter actually gave its members license to help the
technology industry directly, but they concentrated on schools because that's
where they saw the greatest need.
That sense of need seems to have been spreading outside Washington. Last summer
a California task force urged the state to spend $11 billion on computers in
California schools, which have struggled for years under funding cuts that have
driven academic achievement down to among the lowest levels in the nation. This
task force, composed of forty-six teachers, parents, technology experts, and
business executives, concluded, "More than any other single measure, computers
and network technologies, properly implemented, offer the greatest potential to
right what's wrong with our public schools." Other options mentioned in the
group's report -- reducing class size, improving teachers'
facilities, expanding hours of instruction -- were considered
less important than
putting kids in front of computers.
knowing firsthand how families were burned by television's
false promises, may want some objective advice about the age at which their
children should become computer literate. Although there are no real
guidelines, computer boosters send continual messages that if children don't
begin early, they'll be left behind. Linda Roberts thinks that there's no
particular minimum age -- and no maximum number of hours that
spend at a terminal. Are there examples of excess? "I haven't seen it yet,"
Roberts told me with a laugh. In schools throughout the country administrators
and teachers demonstrate the same excitement, boasting about the wondrous
things that children of five or six can do on computers: drawing, typing,
playing with elementary science simulations and other programs called
The schools' enthusiasm for these activities is not universally shared by
specialists in childhood development. The doubters' greatest concern is for the
very young -- preschool through third grade, when a child is most
Their apprehension involves two main issues.
First, they consider it important to give children a broad
base -- emotionally,
intellectually, and in the five senses -- before introducing
technical and one-dimensional as a computer. Second, they believe that the
human and physical world holds greater learning potential.
The importance of a broad base for a child may be most apparent when it's
missing. In Endangered Minds, Jane Healy wrote of an English teacher who
could readily tell which of her students' essays were conceived on a computer.
"They don't link ideas," the teacher says. "They just write one thing, and then
they write another one, and they don't seem to see or develop the relationships
between them." The problem, Healy argued, is that the pizzazz of computerized
schoolwork may hide these analytical gaps, which "won't become apparent until
[the student] can't organize herself around a homework assignment or a job that
requires initiative. More commonplace activities, such as figuring out how to
nail two boards together, organizing a game ... may actually form a better
basis for real-world intelligence."
Others believe they have seen computer games expand children's imaginations.
High-tech children "think differently from the rest of us," William D. Winn,
the director of the Learning Center at the University of Washington's Human
Interface Technology Laboratory, told Business Week in a recent cover
story on the benefits of computer games. "They develop hypertext minds. They
leap around. It's as though their cognitive strategies were parallel, not
sequential." Healy argues the opposite. She and other psychologists think that
the computer screen flattens information into narrow, sequential data. This
kind of material, they believe, exercises mostly one half of the
brain -- the
left hemisphere, where primarily sequential thinking occurs. The "right brain"
meanwhile gets short shrift -- yet this is the hemisphere that
works on different
kinds of information simultaneously. It shapes our multi-faceted impressions,
and serves as the engine of creative analysis.
Opinions diverge in part because research on the brain is still so sketchy, and
computers are so new, that the effect of computers on the brain remains a great
mystery. "I don't think we know anything about it," Harry Chugani, a pediatric
neurobiologist at Wayne State University, told me. This very ignorance makes
skeptics wary. "Nobody knows how kids' internal wiring works," Clifford Stoll
wrote in Silicon Snake Oil, "but anyone who's directed away from social
interactions has a head start on turning out weird.... No computer can teach
what a walk through a pine forest feels like. Sensation has no
This points to the conservative developmentalists' second concern: the danger
that even if hours in front of the screen are limited, unabashed enthusiasm for
the computer sends the wrong message: that the mediated world is more
significant than the real one. "It's like TV commercials," Barbara Scales, the
head teacher at the Child Study Center at the University of California at
Berkeley, told me. "Kids get so hyped up, it can change their expectations
about stimulation, versus what they generate themselves." In Silicon Snake
Oil, Michael Fellows, a computer scientist at the University of Victoria,
in British Columbia, was even blunter. "Most schools would probably be better
off if they threw their computers into the Dumpster."
Faced with such sharply contrasting viewpoints, which are based on such
uncertain ground, how is a responsible policymaker to proceed? "A prudent
society controls its own infatuation with 'progress' when planning for its
young," Healy argued in Endangered Minds.
Unproven technologies ... may offer lively visions, but they can
also be detrimental to the development of the young plastic brain. The cerebral
cortex is a wondrously well-buffered mechanism that can withstand a good bit of
well-intentioned bungling. Yet there is a point at which fundamental neural
substrates for reasoning may be jeopardized for children who lack proper
physical, intellectual, or emotional nurturance. Childhood -- and
the brain -- have
their own imperatives. In development, missed opportunities may be difficult to
recapture.The problem is that technology leaders rarely include
these or other warnings in their recommendations. When I asked Dyson why the
Clinton task force proceeded with such fervor, despite the classroom computer's
shortcomings, she said, "It's so clear the world is changing."
Real Job Training
N the past decade,
according to the presidential task force's report, the
number of jobs requiring computer skills has increased from 25 percent of all
jobs in 1983 to 47 percent in 1993. By 2000, the report estimates, 60 percent
of the nation's jobs will demand these skills -- and pay an
average of 10 to 15
percent more than jobs involving no computer work. Although projections of this
sort are far from reliable, it's a safe bet that computer skills will be needed
for a growing proportion of tomorrow's work force. But what priority should
these skills be given among other studies?
Listen to Tom Henning, a physics teacher at Thurgood Marshall, the San
Francisco technology high school. Henning has a graduate degree in engineering,
and helped to found a Silicon Valley company that manufactures electronic
navigation equipment. "My bias is the physical reality," Henning told me, as we
sat outside a shop where he was helping students to rebuild an old motorcycle.
"I'm no technophobe. I can program computers." What worries Henning is that
computers at best engage only two senses, hearing and sight  --
two-dimensional sight at that. "Even if they're doing three-dimensional
computer modeling, that's still a two-D replica of a three-D world. If you took
a kid who grew up on Nintendo, he's not going to have the necessary skills. He
needs to have done it first with Tinkertoys or clay, or carved it out of balsa
wood." As David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University,
puts it, "A dean of the University of Iowa's school of engineering used to say
the best engineers were the farm boys," because they knew how machinery really
Surely many employers will disagree, and welcome the commercially applicable
computer skills that today's high-tech training can bring them. What's striking
is how easy it is to find other employers who share Henning's and Elkind's
Kris Meisling, a senior geological-research adviser for Mobil Oil, told me that
"people who use computers a lot slowly grow rusty in their ability to think."
Meisling's group creates charts and maps -- some computerized,
some not -- to plot
where to drill for oil. In large one-dimensional analyses, such as sorting
volumes of seismic data, the computer saves vast amounts of time, sometimes
making previously impossible tasks easy. This lures people in his field,
Meisling believes, into using computers as much as possible. But when
geologists turn to computers for "interpretive" projects, he finds, they often
miss information, and their oversights are further obscured by the computer's
captivating automatic design functions. This is why Meisling still works
regularly with a pencil and paper -- tools that, ironically, he
interactive than the computer, because they force him to think implications
"You can't simultaneously get an overview and detail with a computer," he says.
"It's linear. It gives you tunnel vision. What computers can do well is what
can be calculated over and over. What they can't do is innovation. If you think
of some new way to do or look at things and the software can't do it, you're
stuck. So a lot of people think, 'Well, I guess it's a dumb idea, or it's
I have heard similar warnings from people in other businesses, including
high-tech enterprises. A spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard, the giant California
computer-products company, told me the company rarely hires people who are
predominantly computer experts, favoring instead those who have a talent for
teamwork and are flexible and innovative. Hewlett-Packard is such a believer in
hands-on experience that since 1992 it has spent $2.6 million helping
forty-five school districts build math and science skills the old-fashioned
way -- using real materials, such as dirt, seeds, water, glass
magnets. Much the same perspective came from several recruiters in film and
computer-game animation. In work by artists who have spent a lot of time on
computers "you'll see a stiffness or a flatness, a lack of richness and depth,"
Karen Chelini, the director of human resources for LucasArts Entertainment,
George Lucas's interactive-games maker, told me recently. "With traditional art
training, you train the eye to pay attention to body movement. You learn
attitude, feeling, expression. The ones who are good are those who as kids
couldn't be without their sketchbook."
Many jobs obviously will demand basic computer skills if not sophisticated
knowledge. But that doesn't mean that the parents or the teachers of young
students need to panic. Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor emeritus of computer
science at MIT, told the San Jose Mercury News that even at his
technology-heavy institution new students can learn all the computer skills
they need "in a summer." This seems to hold in the business world, too. Patrick
MacLeamy, an executive vice-president of Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum, the
country's largest architecture firm, recently gave me numerous examples to
illustrate that computers pose no threat to his company's creative work.
Although architecture professors are divided on the value of computerized
design tools, in MacLeamy's opinion they generally enhance the process. But he
still considers "knowledge of the hands" to be valuable  --
just have to develop it in other ways. (His firm's answer is through building
models.) Nonetheless, as positive as MacLeamy is about computers, he has found
the company's two-week computer training to be sufficient. In fact, when he's
hiring, computer skills don't enter into his list of priorities. He looks for a
strong character; an ability to speak, write, and comprehend; and a rich
education in the history of architecture.
The Schools that Business
sections carry almost daily pronouncements from the
computer industry and other businesses about their high-tech hopes for
America's schoolchildren. Many of these are joined to philanthropic commitments
to helping schools make curriculum changes. This sometimes gets businesspeople
involved in schools, where they've begun to understand and work with the many
daunting problems that are unrelated to technology. But if business gains too
much influence over the curriculum, the schools can become a kind of corporate
training center -- largely at taxpayer expense.
For more than a decade scholars and government commissions have criticized the
increasing professionalization of the college years -- frowning
at the way
traditional liberal arts are being edged out by hot topics of the moment or
strictly business-oriented studies. The schools' real job, the technology
critic Neil Postman argued in his book The End of Education (1995), is
to focus on "how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a
living." Some see the arrival of boxes of computer hardware and software in the
schools as taking the commercial trend one step further, down into high school
and elementary grades. "Should you be choosing a career in kindergarten?" asks
Helen Sloss Luey, a social worker and a former president of San Francisco's
Parent Teacher Association. "People need to be trained to learn and change,
while education seems to be getting more specific."
Indeed it does. The New Technology High School in Napa (the school where a
computer sits on every student's desk) was started by the school district and a
consortium of more than forty businesses. "We want to be the school that
business built," Robert Nolan, a founder of the school, told me last fall. "We
wanted to create an environment that mimicked what exists in the high-tech
business world." Increasingly, Nolan explained, business leaders want to hire
people specifically trained in the skill they need. One of Nolan's partners,
Ted Fujimoto, of the Landmark Consulting Group, told me that instead of just
asking the business community for financial support, the school will now
undertake a trade: in return for donating funds, businesses can specify what
kinds of employees they want -- "a two-way street." Sometimes the
traffic is a
bit heavy in one direction. In January, The New York Times published a
lengthy education supplement describing numerous examples of how business is
increasingly dominating school software and other curriculum materials, and not
always toward purely educational goals.
People who like the idea that their taxes go to computer training might be
surprised at what a poor investment it can be. Larry Cuban, the Stanford
education professor, writes that changes in the classroom for which business
lobbies rarely hold long-term value. Rather, they're often guided by
labor-market needs that turn out to be transitory; when the economy shifts,
workers are left unprepared for new jobs. In the economy as a whole, according
to a recent story in The New York Times, performance trends in our
schools have shown virtually no link to the rises and falls in the nation's
measures of productivity and growth. This is one reason that school
traditionalists push for broad liberal-arts curricula, which they feel develop
students' values and intellect, instead of focusing on today's idea about what
tomorrow's jobs will be.
High-tech proponents argue that the best education software does develop
flexible business intellects. In the Business Week story on computer
games, for example, academics and professionals expressed amazement at the
speed, savvy, and facility that young computer jocks sometimes demonstrate.
Several pointed in particular to computer simulations, which some business
leaders believe are becoming increasingly important in fields ranging from
engineering, manufacturing, and troubleshooting to the tracking of economic
activity and geopolitical risk. The best of these simulations may be valuable,
albeit for strengthening one form of thinking. But the average simulation
program may be of questionable relevance.
Sherry Turkle, the sociology professor at MIT, has studied youngsters using
computers for more than twenty years. In her book Life on the Screen:
Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) she described a disturbing
experience with a simulation game called SimLife. After she sat down with a
thirteen-year-old named Tim, she was stunned at the way
Tim can keep playing even when he has no idea what is driving
events. For example, when his sea urchins become extinct, I ask him
Anecdotes like this lead some educators to worry that
as children concentrate on how to manipulate software instead of on the subject
at hand, learning can diminish rather than grow. Simulations, for example, are
built on hidden assumptions, many of which are oversimplified if not highly
questionable. All too often, Turkle wrote recently in The American
Prospect, "experiences with simulations do not open up questions but close
them down." Turkle's concern is that software of this sort fosters passivity,
ultimately dulling people's sense of what they can change in the world. There's
a tendency, Turkle told me, "to take things at 'interface' value."Indeed, after
mastering SimCity, a popular game about urban planning, a tenth-grade girl
boasted to Turkle that she'd learned the following rule: "Raising taxes always
leads to riots."
Tim: "I don't know, it's just something that happens."
ST: "Do you know how to find out why it happened?"
ST: "Do you mind that you can't tell why?"
Tim: "No. I don't let things like that bother me. It's not what's
The business community also offers tangible financial support, usually by
donating equipment. Welcome as this is, it can foster a high-tech habit. Once a
school's computer system is set up, the companies often drop their support.
This saddles the school with heavy long-term responsibilities: maintenance of
the computer network and the need for constant software upgrades and constant
teacher training -- the full burden of which can cost far more
than the initial
hardware and software combined. Schools must then look for handouts from other
companies, enter the grant-seeking game, or delicately go begging in their own
communities. "We can go to the well only so often," Toni-Sue Passantino, the
principal of the Bayside Middle School, in San Mateo, California, told me
recently. Last year Bayside let a group of seventh- and eighth-graders spend
eighteen months and countless hours creating a rudimentary virtual-reality
program, with the support of several high-tech firms. The companies' support
ended after that period, however -- creating a financial speed
bump of a kind
that the Rand Corporation noted in a report to the Clinton Administration as a
School administrators may be outwardly excited about computerized instruction,
but they're also shrewdly aware of these financial challenges. In March of last
year, for instance, when California launched its highly promoted "NetDay '96"
(a campaign to wire 12,000 California schools to the Internet in one day),
school participation was far below expectations, even in technology-conscious
San Francisco. In the city papers school officials wondered how they were
supposed to support an Internet program when they didn't even have the money to
repair crumbling buildings, install electrical outlets, and hire the dozens of
new teachers recently required so as to reduce class size.
One way around the donation maze is to simplify: use inexpensive, basic
software and hardware, much of which is available through recycling programs.
Such frugality can offer real value in the elementary grades, especially since
basic word-processing tools are most helpful to children just learning to
write. Yet schools, like the rest of us, can't resist the latest toys. "A lot
of people will spend all their money on fancy new equipment that can do great
things, and sometimes it just gets used for typing classes," Ray Porter, a
computer resource teacher for the San Francisco schools, told me recently.
"Parents, school boards, and the reporters want to see only razzle-dazzle
T is hard to visit a
high-tech school without being led by a teacher into a
room where students are communicating with people hundreds or thousands of
miles away -- over the Internet or sometimes through
(two-way TV sets that broadcast live from each room). Video conferences,
although fun, are an expensive way to create classroom thrills. But the
Internet, when used carefully, offers exciting academic
prospects -- most
dependably, once again, for older students. In one case schools in different
states have tracked bird migrations and then posted their findings on the World
Wide Web, using it as their own national notebook. In San Francisco
eighth-grade economics students have E-mailed Chinese and Japanese businessmen
to fulfill an assignment on what it would take to build an industrial plant
overseas. Schools frequently use the Web to publish student writing. While
thousands of self-published materials like these have turned the Web into a
worldwide vanity press, the network sometimes gives young writers their first
The free nature of Internet information also means that students are confronted
with chaos, and real dangers. "The Net's beauty is that it's uncontrolled,"
Stephen Kerr, a professor at the College of Education at the University of
Washington and the editor of Technology in the Future of Schooling
(1996), told me. "It's information by anyone, for anyone. There's racist stuff,
bigoted, hate-group stuff, filled with paranoia; bomb recipes; how to engage in
various kinds of crimes, electronic and otherwise; scams and swindles. It's all
there. It's all available." Older students may be sophisticated enough to
separate the Net's good food from its poisons, but even the savvy can be
misled. On almost any subject the Net offers a plethora of seemingly sound
"research." But under close inspection much of it proves to be ill informed, or
just superficial. "That's the antithesis of what classroom kids should be
exposed to," Kerr said.
This makes traditionalists emphasize the enduring value of printed books,
vetted as most are by editing. In many schools, however, libraries are fairly
limited. I now volunteer at a San Francisco high school where the library
shelves are so bare that I can see how the Internet's ever-growing number of
research documents, with all their shortcomings, can sometimes be a
Even computer enthusiasts give the Net tepid reviews. "Most of the content on
the Net is total garbage," Esther Dyson acknowledges. "But if you find one good
thing you can use it a million times." Kerr believes that Dyson is being
unrealistic. "If you find a useful site one day, it may not be there the next
day, or the information is different. Teachers are being asked to jump in and
figure out if what they find on the Net is worthwhile. They don't have the
skill or time to do that." Especially when students rely on the Internet's
much-vaunted search software. Although these tools deliver hundreds or
thousands of sources within seconds, students may not realize that search
engines, and the Net itself, miss important information all the time.
"We need less surfing in the schools, not more," David Gelernter, a
professor of computer science at Yale, wrote last year in The Weekly
Standard. "Couldn't we teach them to use what they've got before favoring
them with three orders of magnitude more?" In my conversations with
Larry Cuban, of Stanford, he argued, "Schooling is not about information. It's
getting kids to think about information. It's about understanding and knowledge
It may be that youngsters' growing fascination with the Internet and other ways
to use computers will distract from yet another of Clinton's education
priorities: to build up the reading skills of American children. Sherry
Dingman, an assistant professor of psychology at Marist College, in
Poughkeepsie, New York, who is optimistic about many computer applications,
believes that if children start using computers before they have a broad
foundation in reading from books, they will be cheated out of opportunities to
develop imagination. "If we think we're going to take kids who haven't been
read to, and fix it by sitting them in front of a computer, we're fooling
ourselves," Dingman told me not long ago. This doesn't mean that teachers or
parents should resort to books on CD-ROM, which Dingman considers "a great
waste of time," stuffing children's minds with "canned" images instead of
stimulating youngsters to create their own. "Computers are lollipops that rot
your teeth" is how Marilyn Darch, an English teacher at Poly High School, in
Long Beach, California, put it in Silicon Snake Oil. "The kids love
them. But once they get hooked.... It makes reading a book seem tedious.
Books don't have sound effects, and their brains have to do all the
Computer advocates like to point out that the Internet allows for all kinds of
intellectual challenges -- especially when students use E-mail,
or post notes in
"newsgroup" discussions, to correspond with accomplished experts. Such experts,
however, aren't consistently available. When they are, online "conversations"
generally take place when correspondents are sitting alone, and the dialogue
lacks the unpredictability and richness that occur in face-to-face discussions.
In fact, when youngsters are put into groups for the "collaborative" learning
that computer defenders celebrate, realistically only one child sits at the
keyboard at a time. (During my school visits children tended to get quite
possessive about the mouse and the keyboard, resulting in frustration and noisy
disputes more often than collaboration.) In combination these constraints lead
to yet another of the childhood developmentalists' concerns  --
encourage social isolation.
Just a Glamorous Tool
T would be easy to
characterize the battle over computers as merely another
chapter in the world's oldest story: humanity's natural resistance to change.
But that does an injustice to the forces at work in this transformation. This
is not just the future versus the past, uncertainty versus nostalgia; it is
about encouraging a fundamental shift in personal priorities -- a
the real, physical world in favor of an unreal "virtual" world. It is about
teaching youngsters that exploring what's on a two-dimensional screen is more
important than playing with real objects, or sitting down to an attentive
conversation with a friend, a parent, or a teacher. By extension, it means
downplaying the importance of conversation, of careful listening, and of
expressing oneself in person with acuity and individuality. In the process, it
may also limit the development of children's imaginations.
Perhaps this is why Steven Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Computer and a
man who claims to have "spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to
schools than anybody else on the planet," has come to a grim conclusion:
"What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology," he told Wired
magazine last year. "No amount of technology will make a dent.... You're
not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can
put a Web site in every school -- none of this is bad. It's bad
only if it lulls
us into thinking we're doing something to solve the problem with education."
Jane David, the consultant to Apple, concurs, with a commonly heard caveat.
"There are real dangers," she told me, "in looking to technology to be the
savior of education. But it won't survive without the technology."
Arguments like David's remind Clifford Stoll of yesteryear's promises about
television. He wrote in Silicon Snake Oil,
"Sesame Street"... has been around for twenty years. Indeed, its
idea of making learning relevant to all was as widely promoted in the seventies
as the Internet is today.
Computer enthusiasts insist that the computer's "interactivity"
and multimedia features make this machine far superior to television.
Nonetheless, Stoll wrote,
So where's that demographic wave of creative and brilliant students now
entering college? Did kids really need to learn how to watch television? Did we
inflate their expectations that learning would always be colorful and fun?
I see a parallel between the goals of "Sesame Street" and those of
children's computing. Both are pervasive, expensive and encourage children to
sit still. Both display animated cartoons, gaudy numbers and weird, random
noises.... Both give the sensation that by merely watching a screen, you can
acquire information without work and without discipline.
technology critic Neil Postman put it to a Harvard electronic-media conference,
"I thought that television would be the last great technology that people would
go into with their eyes closed. Now you have the computer."
The solution is not to ban computers from classrooms altogether. But it may be
to ban federal spending on what is fast becoming an overheated campaign. After
all, the private sector, with its constant supply of used computers and the
computer industry's vigorous competition for new customers, seems well equipped
to handle the situation. In fact, if schools can impose some
limits -- on
technology donors and on themselves -- rather than indulging in a
frenzy, most will probably find themselves with more electronic gear than they
need. That could free the billions that Clinton wants to devote to technology
and make it available for impoverished fundamentals: teaching solid skills in
reading, thinking, listening, and talking; organizing inventive field trips and
other rich hands-on experiences; and, of course, building up the nation's core
of knowledgeable, inspiring teachers. These notions are considerably less
glamorous than computers are, but their worth is firmly proved through a long
Last fall, after the school administrators in Mansfield, Massachusetts, had
eliminated proposed art, music, and physical-education positions in favor of
buying computers, Michael Bellino, an electrical engineer at Boston
University's Center for Space Physics, appeared before the Massachusetts Board
of Education to protest. "The purpose of the schools [is] to, as one teacher
argues, 'Teach carpentry, not hammer,'" he testified. "We need to teach the
whys and ways of the world. Tools come and tools go. Teaching our children
tools limits their knowledge to these tools and hence limits their futures."
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; The Computer Delusion;
Volume 280, No. 1; pages 45-62.