BISSEX: Click Here for Learning
I closed last weekÕs column with the suggestion that perhaps we have seen no clear productivity boom from computers because itÕs just too early. As a culture -- largely, still, a culture of adults who had relatively little exposure to computers in school -- we have a lot to learn about how to best use this technology. ThatÕs why many hopeful minds are turning to the primary and secondary schools, where our next generation of super-productive high-tech workers -- oops, I mean citizens! -- is being trained. Approximately half of the jobs in our nation require computer knowledge, and the percentage is rising yearly. A school system that did not expose children to computers would be doing a disservice -- especially to families who canÕt afford a computer at home. The schools have an important role in making this technology available to all. Many educators are understandably excited about using computers in their classrooms. A majority of teachers, according to one survey conducted for a national education conference, would like to see schools adopting computers at a faster pace. But in schools where computers are already in use, the results are reportedly mixed. The July cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, ÒThe Computer Delusion,Ó gave voice to educators who are less than sanguine about the current role of computers in education. Earlier in the year, Samuel Seva, head of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, told USA Today, "If computers make a difference, it has yet to show up in achievement." Steve Jobs of Apple Computer (a company with a long history of donating to schools) is on record as saying that whatÕs wrong with AmericaÕs schools will not be fixed by technology.Ask any career teacher about educational trends and you will learn that the computer has its predecessors. Radio, the filmstrip, and television were all supposed to revolutionize classroom education. The filmstrip!? (Beep.) How could anyone think of that as a revolutionary medium, you ask? (Beep.) You might also ask how we can define pushing buttons as Òinteractivity.Ó Adult computer enthusiasts, who enjoy sitting for hours on end, have done a good job of forgetting that their exciting multimedia universes are trapped in a small glass rectangle. They are astonished with how quickly their children learn to manipulate the computer. Parental pride notwithstanding, this is an indicator of the machineÕs essential triviality rather than of a mysterious new generational genius. The computer does not listen to voices, rub shoulders, or notice when itÕs time for snack. For all its intellectual benefits, it isolates the student from the physical and emotional stuff of life. This is especially worrisome with regard to preschool and elementary-aged children. Is job training really appropriate for five-year-olds?Some observers believe that our psychological standards are outdated. Douglas RushkoffÕs book Playing with the Future argues that computer use is transforming todayÕs kids into a breed better adapted to our media-saturated society. They are better at Òmulti-taskingÓ and will grow up to efficiently and simultaneously read e-mail, surf the Web, and watch CNN. Others call this phenomenon the Òhypertext mind.Ó While from the long cultural view these guys may be onto something, in the eyes of the beleaguered classroom teacher thereÕs too much ÒhyperÓ going on already. Kids may be breaking out of familiar linear psychological modes, but for good reason promoting this is far from educational policy.It is now an American truism that our education system is in crisis, and so we are looking for saviors. Sure, we need to expose kids to technology. If we look to it to redeem an under-funded, under-prioritized educational system, however, we will be sorely disappointed. That path is doubly dangerous, because it also teaches by its very example a passive and uncritical attitude toward technology. LetÕs help kids not just use computers, but think about why theyÕre using them. That kind of understanding will serve them long after the particulars have passed into irrelevance. (Beep.) ***Sites in my SightsOne of my favorite sources of high-tech news is Edupage, an e-mail newsletter from the publisher Educom. While Edupage gives you the newsbriefs, their paper publications treat education and technology at greater length. Details, and back issues of Edupage, are available on their web site (www.educom.edu). Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingIf you have technical skills and would like to be connected with a school that needs your help -- or if youÕre an educator looking for assistance -- there are a growing number of organizations ready to help you. Most prominent among them is California-based CompuMentor (www.compumentor.org), which has been helping schools and non-profit organizations for over ten years.Should the schools be relinquished to private control and the Òhypertext mindÓ? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).[SUGGESTED PULLQUOTE] Many hopeful minds are turning to the schools, where presumably our next generation of super-productive high-tech workers -- oops, I mean citizens! -- is being trained. [SUGGESTED PULLQUOTE] Parental pride notwithstanding, childrenÕs easy fluency with computers is an indicator of the machineÕs essential triviality rather than of a mysterious new generational genius.