by David T. Gordon

Education Needs Computers—and Humans

Jun 15, 20016 mins
IT Leadership

SOMETHING HAPPENED TO Gary Potter (the lost brother of Harry) when he reached the fourth grade. After school he would retreat to his closet and spend entire afternoons curled up with a mystery book.

Wedged into uncomfortable positions, Gary craned his neck and back to see the small type by the dim light. As the 8-year-old’s eyesight worsened, he required thicker lenses for his eyeglasses. In time, his sedentary afternoon regimen caused him to hate exercise and become obese.

Perhaps the saddest part of Gary’s story is that it didn’t have to happen. His normal, healthy childhood fell victim to powerful corporate interests which, backed by phony studies and grants from the U.S. Department of Education, manipulated Gary’s school principal and teachers into believing that books, pencils and notebooks belong in the elementary school classroom. Those corporate sponsors?the multinational publishing companies and stationery conglomerates?donated books and supplies, all in an effort to get kids such as Gary hooked on reading so that they could lock up lifelong customers for their wares.

These con artists knew that if kids were exposed early and often to books, they would inevitably come to regard books as indispensable tools for learning. If only someone had stopped the introduction of books, pencils and notebooks into the classroom, perhaps Gary would have been spared such a joyless, unhealthy childhood of reading and writing.

I recently imagined this story of Gary Potter while reading “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood,” a report published last September by the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, Md. The report warns that introducing technology into classrooms at an early age poses risks to children’s emotional, social, intellectual and even physical development. According to the report, too much computer use may hamper kids’ creativity, blunt their interest in real-world experiences, make them antisocial and cause other health problems.

Despite scores of footnotes in the 100-page report, no real evidence is provided to substantiate this doomsday scenario. Facts about current brain research or early childhood development are tenuously linked to the underlying prejudice of the report: That technology is, prima facie, a corrupting and dangerous influence. “Fool’s Gold” demands a “comprehensive report by the U.S. Surgeon General on the full extent of physical, emotional and other developmental hazards computers pose to children.” This of course assumes that the Surgeon General would find only hazards, not benefits.

“Fool’s Gold” does raise some important questions. It reminds us that machines can never replace capable teachers, that children need to have a variety of learning experiences, and that technology is no magic cure for struggling schools. It sounds an appropriate warning that the high-tech industry should be cautious of making claims it can’t substantiate, especially about our children’s future. Furthermore, it points out some of the dangers young children might face if they spent entire school days glued to computers. The report rightly recommends more research on the effects of new technologies on learning. These are all points with which the vast majority of educational technology enthusiasts already agree.

“Fool’s Gold” treats for-profit IT companies as though they intentionally make and market dangerous products for kids. Similarly, it regards corporate-run nonprofits such as TechCorps or the CEO Forum on Education & Technology?groups that aim to help bridge the digital divide by helping to equip and wire schools?as wolves in sheep’s clothing. “The press frequently quotes such organizations without mentioning their close links to companies with a financial interest in high-tech schools,” says the report. That may be true. Ironically, the Alliance for Childhood benefits from the same kind of journalistic oversight. When it was released, dozens of newspapers and magazines were attracted to the gleam of “Fool’s Gold.” U.S. News and World Report splashed the story on its cover. Only The New York Times picked up on the fact that the Alliance for Childhood has its own ideological and perhaps even financial interest in torpedoing high-tech schools. That group is closely aligned with the Waldorf schooling method, a movement based on the writings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Steiner/Waldorf schools emphasize a less structured approach to learning that encourages children to develop skills at their own pace. They eschew new technologies.

“Fool’s Gold” exhibits Luddite views that take an all-or-nothing approach to computers in the classroom. In doing so, it ignores the many benefits of using new technologies in schools. Visually rich multimedia presentations can help capture the imagination of students whom otherwise might not be engaged in their studies. Distance learning connects children across the globe in collaborative projects that teach the value of cooperation.

A Better Balance

What is needed, of course, is balance and a sensible approach to learning. Which brings us back to the story of Gary Potter. He should have been encouraged to do more with his afternoons than go to his closet to read and write. He should have collected seashells, created fingerpaint masterpieces and climbed trees. He should also have tried a software program such as Kid Pix to make a creative presentation for school on, say, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In short, he should have been encouraged to engage in a variety of learning activities.

The answer to long, arduous sessions with books is not to declare a moratorium on the use of books, but to restore a balanced use of books in conjunction with other learning and recreational tools. Likewise, if certain children spend too much time in front of a computer or watching TV, they may well exhibit many of the problems foreshadowed in “Fool’s Gold.” It is wrong to blame new technologies themselves, as they are technologies that will inevitably be a part of kids’ everyday, 21st century lives?both as children and as adults.

As for the educational effectiveness of computers, in touting “Fool’s Gold,” the U.S. News and World Report cover blared: “Why Computers Fail as Teachers.” That raises a question no reasonable person I know has asked. Of course computers are not teachers; neither are books, pencils and paper. They are tools. Absent quality instruction by competent teachers, new technologies will provide no advantage to kids’ learning.

As a society, we need to accept that as new technologies change our ways of communicating we have to invest more money, time and effort to educate ourselves and our children in how to make the best use of these tools. Should we cut art programs to fund computer labs? Of course not. Should we put computers in classrooms without training teachers how to use them? Not at all. Does it have to be an either/or situation? No. We can?and should?provide Gary Potter with a whole range of exciting ways and opportunities to learn.