Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Myth of Computers in the Classroom...

Reading an older article by Yale professor David Gelernter (from 1994), he puts forth the argument that, while teachers and school administrators tout their merits, computers in the classroom are highly overrated and actually have the potential to do far more harm than good.

As both computers and internet access have become integral parts of the nation's classrooms in the 15 years since the article was written, the question still applies... Do computers and the internet do more to help or hurt students' educations?

To be fair, Gelernter does explicitly recognize the value of computers and states that they definitely should be in schools. However, he writes,

In practice, computers make our worst educational nightmares come true. While we bemoan the decline of literacy, computers discount words in favor of pictures and pictures in favor of video. While we fret about the decreasing cogency of public debate, computers dismiss linear argument and promote fast, shallow romps across the information landscape. While we worry about basic skills, we allow into the classroom software that will do a student's arithmetic or correct his spelling.

In a fantastic line, he admits that, "On the other hand, I ran this article through a spell-checker, so how can I ban the use of such programs in schools? Because to misspell is human; to have no idea of correct spelling is to be semiliterate".

The onus certainly is on the teachers. A recent 2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that:

  • 66% of teachers reported using computers or the Internet for instruction during class time.

  • 41% reported assigning students work that involved computer applications such as word processing or spreadsheets to a moderate or large extent.

  • 31% reported assigning practice drills.

  • 30% reported assigning research using the Internet to a moderate or large extent.

So how can we strike a balance between empowering students with computer skills that are vital in the modern workplace while still ensuring that basic academic skills do not suffer in the process?

Gelernter offers three suggestions. First, children's software that is used in the classroom should be more substantive and not only demonstrate the glitzy technical capacities of new media. Second, computers should be used only during recess or relaxation periods because they are not "surrogate teachers". Third, educators and parents should remember that "you cannot teach a child anything unless you look him in the face".

Computers, indeed, are no panacea. They cannot form an effective substitute for good teachers, and education policies should not conceive of them as such. However, the truth is that failing to include computer training and basic internet awareness in curriculums does our kids a great disservice. Make no mistake, everyone fundamentally needs these skills to function in the modern workplace and simply to participate, to a large degree, in contemporary culture. Again, it is a balance that is needed.

This blog post was written by a PhD candidate who uses spell-check religiously :-)


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