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					The Mad Dash to Compute

Jane M. Healy

“I feel as if we’re being swept down this enormous river—we don’t know where we’re
going or why, but we’re caught in the current. I think we should stop and take a look
before it’s too late.”
    This comment about the use of technology in schools was voiced plaintively by an
assistant superintendent from Long Island, N.Y. It was typical of many I collected
recently in a three-year investigation of our heavily hyped technological revolution.
    Having started this saga as a wide-eyed advocate for educational computing, I now
must admit that the school official was right. New technologies hold enormous potential
for education, but before any more money is wasted, we must pause and ask some
pointed questions that have been bypassed in today’s climate of competitive technophilia
(“My district’s hard drives are bigger than yours!”).
    Educators, who are seen as one of the ripest growth markets in hardware, software
and Internet sales, have been carefully targeted by an industry that understandably wants
to convince us that its products will solve all our problems. (Did you ever previously see
multiple double-page ads in Education Week for any educational product? Have you been
offered “free” equipment—that eventually demands as much upkeep and fiscal lifeblood
as the man-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors”?). The advertising’s thrust to both
educators and parents is that you should invest in as much technology as early as possible
or students will be left hopelessly behind. The parents, failing to appreciate the nonsense
inherent in this assumption, in turn put additional pressure on schools to “get with the
program.”
    As educators, we should have the wit to evaluate these pressures, resist public opinion
and shun manipulative marketing. It also becomes our obligation to interpret to the public
what we know is really good for kids. Yet three major issues are being largely overlooked
as we rush to capture the trend. I will call them (1) trade-offs, (2) developmental
questions and (3) winners in the long run.

The Trade-Offs
During my recent research, which involved visits to dozens of elementary and secondary
schools across the United States, I was invited to observe the flagship elementary school
of a district that prides itself on the scope of its technology budget. Yet I had difficulty
finding students using computers. Many expensive machines were sitting idle (and
becoming increasingly obsolete) in classrooms where teachers have not learned to
incorporate them into daily lessons. (“When they break, I just don’t get them repaired,”
one 1st-grade teacher confided.)
    Finally, in the computer lab, I found 32 5th-grade students lined up at two rows of
machines and confronted the following scenario: The technology coordinator—
technologically adept but with virtually no background in either teaching or curriculum
development—explains that this group comes four times a week to practice reading and
math skills. Many students are below grade level in basic skills.
    I randomly select a position behind Raoul, who was using a math software program.
The director, now occupied in fixing a computer that eager young fingers have crashed,
hastily reminds the students to enter the program at the correct level for their ability, but I
begin to suspect something is amiss when Raoul effortlessly solves a few simple addition
problems and then happily accepts his reward—a series of smash-and-blast games in
which he manages to demolish a sizeable number of aliens before he is electronically
corralled into another series of computations. Groaning slightly, he quickly solves these
problems and segues expertly into the next space battle.
     By the time I move on, Raoul has spent many more minutes zapping aliens than he
has in doing math. My teacher’s soul cringes at the thought of important learning time
squandered. I also wonder if what we are really teaching Raoul is that he should choose
easy problems so he can play longer or that the only reason to use his brain even slightly
is to be granted—by an automaton over which he has no personal control—some
mindless fun as a reward. I wonder who selected this software or if any overall plan
dictates the implementation of this expensive gadgetry.
     Moreover, this computer lab, like so many others, has been morphed from a music
room. In this school system, cutbacks in arts, physical education and even textbooks are
used to beef up technology budgets.
     The trade-offs inherent in this all-too-typical situation should be troubling to all of us:

   Haste and pressure for electronic glitz. These should not replace a carefully designed
    plan based on sound educational practice. Grafting technology onto schools without
    good curriculum or excellent teaching guarantees failure. First things first.
   Money on hardware, software and networks instead of essential teacher education.
    Informed estimates suggest it takes five years of ongoing in-service training before
    teachers can fully integrate computer uses into lesson plans. They must also have
    solid technical support so that instructional time is not spent repairing machines.
   Technology coordinators without adequate preparation in education. Rather, the key
    instructional decisions should be made by teachers who are adept in linking computer
    use to significant aspects of curriculum. “The 3rd-graders made T-shirts in computer
    lab today,” one techie boasted during one of my school visits. “Why?” I asked. “Well,
    we can—and besides, the kids just loved it.” If this sort of justification prevails in
    your schools, don’t be surprised if your test scores start to drop!
   Cuts in vital areas used to finance technology purchases. Computers, which have as
    yet demonstrated questionable effects on student learning, must not be bought at the
    expense of proven staples of mental development, such as art, music, drama, debate,
    physical education, text literacy, manipulatives and hands-on learning aids. One
    teacher in a Western state told me her district “could be IBM for all the technology
    we have,” yet she was refused money to purchase a set of paperback literature books
    for her classroom. Why? “The money had all been spent on the machines,” she
    sighed.
   Pie-in-the-sky assumptions. Don’t be misled by claims that computers, instead of
    proven interventions, will remediate basic skills. Many of today’s youngsters need
    solid, hands-on remediation in reading and math delivered by teachers trained in
    established programs such as Reading Recovery. Don’t forget that those “proven
    studies” about the impact of electronic learning systems and their cost effectiveness
    were financed by people with products to sell.
   Installing computers instead of reducing class size. To my surprise, I found that good
    technology use is actually more teacher intensive than traditional instruction and
    works best with smaller classes! Research also is beginning to show the skill/drill
    software that manages learning for large groups actually may limit students’
    achievement once the novelty wears off. We need good, objective long-range data
    before committing money and growing minds to such programs.
   Funding electronic glitz instead of quality early childhood programs. Again, we must
    weigh a large expense of unproven value against proven upstream prevention of
    academic and social problems. Ironically, estimated costs for connecting all
    classrooms to the Internet also could provide every child with an adequate preschool
    program.
   Time wasted vs. productive learning. Without good planning and supervision,
    youngsters tend to use even the best educational programs for mindless fun rather
    than meaningful learning. Moreover, if you do not have a district policy on selecting
    software, implement one today. Poorly selected “edutainment” and drill-and-practice
    programs actually can depress academic gains, whereas well-implemented
    simulations and conceptually driven programs may improve learning—if a good
    teacher is in charge.

Engaged Learning
Consider a different scenario that I observed at a middle school in a suburban school
district. A small group of 12-year-olds eagerly surround a computer terminal but don’t
complain about the slightly fuzzy image. They are too busy following the action on the
screen where a disheveled-looking young man in bicycling clothes stands in a jungle
talking earnestly with someone in a bush jacket who appears to be a scientist.
     One of the students giggles, pokes another and attempts a whispered comment, but he
is rapidly silenced. “Shush, Damon. Don’t be such a jerk. We can’t hear!” hisses his
neighbor.
     What has inspired such serious academic purpose among these kids? They and their
teacher are involved in directing (along with others around the globe) a three-month
bicycle expedition, manned by a team of cyclists and scientists, through the jungles of
Central America in search of lost Mayan civilizations. At the moment, they are debating
the possibility of sending the team through a difficult, untravelled jungle track to a
special site. How fast can they ride? How far? What obstacles will they encounter? What
are the odds of success? What plans must be made?
     Like others in a new breed of simulations, this activity uses on-line and satellite
phone communications to establish real-time links between students around the world
and the adventurers. Because students’ votes actually determine the course of the journey,
they must problem-solve right along with the scientists. To acquire the necessary
knowledge, the class also has plunged into a variety of real-life, hands-on learning:
history, archaeology, visual arts, math (e.g., Mayans calculated in base 20), science of
flora and fauna, Mayan poetry, building a miniature rain forest, reading the daily journals
of the adventurers, researching, developing theories and debating about why the
civilization collapsed.
     This example is only one of many powerful supplements to a well-planned
curriculum. New technologies can be used wisely—or they can be a costly impediment to
educational quality. As you debate the trade-offs of your technology choices, you might
keep these questions in mind:

1. What can this particular technology do that cannot be accomplished by other less
   expensive or more proven methods?
2. What will we gain—and what will we lose?
3. How can we sell wise educational decisions to a public foolishly buying the message
   that computers are a magic bullet for education?

Developmental Questions
A question too rarely considered is what effect extended computer use will have on
children’s developing bodies and brains. Moreover, it is imperative to ask at what age this
technology should really be introduced. My observations have convinced me that
normally developing children under age seven are better off without today’s computers
and software. Technology funds should be first allocated to middle and high schools
where computer-assisted learning is much more effective and age-appropriate.

   Physical effects: Too little is known about technology’s physical effects on digitized
    youngsters, but troubling evidence of problems resulting from computer use include:
    vision (e.g., nearsightedness), postural and orthopedic complaints (e.g., neck and back
    problems; carpal tunnel syndrome), the controversial effects of electromagnetic
    radiation emitted from the backs and sides of machines and even the rare possibility
    of seizures triggered by some types of visual displays. Administrators should be on
    top of this.
       Nonetheless, I found a woeful disregard in schools of even the basic safety rules
    mandated for the adult workplace. Clear guidelines exist, and before you consign all
    your 3rd-graders to laptops you would be wise to check the suggestions out.
   Brain effects: In terms of what happens to children’s cognitive, social and emotional
    development as a function of computer use, even less is known. The brain is
    significantly influenced by whatever media we choose for education, and poor
    choices now may well result in poor thinkers in the next generation.

    In my book, Failure to Connect, I trace the course of brain development with
technology use in mind, and one thing is clear. Computers can either help or hurt the
process. For younger children, too much electronic stimulation can become addictive,
replacing important experiences during critical periods of development: physical
exploration, imaginative play, language, socialization and quiet time for developing
attention and inner motivation. For children of any age, improper software choices can
disrupt language development, attention, social skills and motivation to use the mind in
effortful ways. (The next time you see a classroom of students motivated by computer
use, be sure to question whether they are motivated to think and learn—or simply to play
with the machines.)
    By mid-elementary school, students can start to capitalize on the multimedia and
abstract-symbolic capabilities of computers—if an effective teacher is present to guide
the learning. For middle and high school students, new technologies can make difficult
concepts (e.g., ratio, velocity) more accessible and provide new windows into visual
reasoning, creativity and the challenges of research. Yet the first step must still be the
filtering process: What is worthwhile in support of the curriculum, and what is merely
flashy? Districts that take this job seriously and gear computer use to students’
developmental needs are beginning to show real benefits from technology use.

Winners in the Long Run
“Kids need computers to prepare them for the future.”
     Like so many advertising slogans, this one bears closer examination. First, learning to
use a computer today is a poor guarantee of a student’s future, since workplace
equipment will have changed dramatically for all but our oldest students. Moreover,
because so much current use is harming rather than helping students’ brain power and
learning habits, the computer “have-nots” today actually may end up as the “haves” when
future success is parcelled out.
     But even more important is the question of what skills will really prepare today’s
students for the future. Surely the next decades will be ones of rapid change where old
answers don’t always work, where employers demand communication and human
relations skills as well as the ability to think incisively and imagine creative solutions to
unforeseen problems. Many of today’s computer applications offer poor preparation for
such abilities.
     One skill of critical importance in a technological future is symbolic analysis, with
reading and writing the common entry point. Yet while cyberspace may be filled with
words, “a growing portion of the American population will not be able to use, understand
or benefit from those words,” contend Daniel Burstein and David Kline in their book,
Road Warriors. “Some of these people may be digitally literate, in that they feel at home
with joysticks and remote controls and are perfectly capable of absorbing the sights and
sounds of multimedia entertainment. But if you are not functionally literate, your chances
of getting a significant piece of the cyberspace pie are slim, even if you have access to
it.”
     Our future workers also will need other abstract-symbolic skills. As the creation of
wealth moves farther and farther away from raw materials and hands-on labor, successful
workers will need to synthesize information, judge abstract numbers and acquire
multiple-symbol systems in foreign languages, math or the arts; they will also need a
familiarity with new digital languages and images. As software improves, computers will
doubtless help with such preparation, but the key will continue to lie in the quality of the
teachers who plan, mediate and interpret a thoughtful curriculum.
     The future also will favor those who have learned how to learn, who can respond
flexibly and creatively to challenges and master new skills. At the moment, the computer
is a shallow and pedantic companion for such a journey. We should think long and
carefully about whether our purpose is to be trendy or to prepare students to be
intelligent, reasoning human beings whose skills extend far beyond droid-like button
clicking.
     If we ourselves cannot think critically about the hard sell vs. the real business of
schooling, we can hardly expect our students to do so.

Jane Healy is an educational psychologist and author of Endangered Minds, Your Child’s
Growing Mind and Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds for
Better and Worse. Reprinted with permission from the April 1999 issue of The School
Administrator magazine.


POSTNOTE
Jane Healy is a deep thinker on the topic of educational technology and its effect on
children’s learning, earning her article a spot among our Classic selections. In this article,
she raises a number of valuable points concerning education’s embrace of technology.
Two points seem particularly significant: teacher education and trade-offs. Citing
research that indicates teachers need five years of in-service training before they can
successfully integrate technology into the curriculum, Healy deplores the vast
expenditure on hardware and software without concomitant spending on teacher training.
The second important point revolves around the question of how else the money might be
spent. What are schools not doing in order to buy technology? These are good issues
worth thinking about.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1. What arguments would you state to counter Healy’s concerns?
2. In your opinion, is the technology emphasis in schools here to stay or just a fad? Why
   do you think so?
3. Do you think there is an appropriate age at which to introduce children to computers?
   How would you address Healy’s concern about the potential physical effects of using
   technology at too young an age?


Reflection Assignment

Describe a lesson in which computers could be used effectively in the classroom. What

conditions are necessary for effective use of computers in your lesson? For example, how

old should students be? What instruction and support do teachers need? What kind of

preparation and follow-up are required for this lesson to succeed?



Web Links

Visit the following websites for more information on the potential drawbacks of

technology in schools, or to gather background information for the discussion questions

or reflection assignment.
Digital Edge Learning Interchange

http://ali.apple.com/ali_sites/deli/index.shtml

This site offers an online library of videos showcasing best practices for teaching

with technology, to help both current and aspiring teachers use technology in the

classroom more effectively.



Educational Technology

http://ericir.syr.edu/cgi-bin/res.cgi/Educational_Technology

The educational technology area of AskERIC is a handy collection of recent

articles and links to publications and organizations dealing with educational

technology, selected from the vast resources available about this topic on the

World Wide Web.



ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology

http://ericit.org/

This portion of ERIC provides a searchable database of journal articles focused on

educational technology, as well as access to current issues of journals, lesson

plans, projects, and more.



Learning and Teaching Information Technology Computer Skills in Context

http://www.ericit.org/digests/EDO-IR-2002-04.shtml

This 2002 ERIC Digest by Michael B. Eisenberg and Doug Johnson provides one

model for integrating technology skills into teaching general information skills.
Cybercheating: A New Twist on an Old Problem

http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0110gar.htm

In this 2001 article from Phi Delta Kappa’s journal, the Phi Delta Kappan, the

author describes how he discovered students using the Internet to cheat, and

provides some tips for preventing and dealing with cybercheating.



Enriching Your Classroom Through Equitable Technology Integration

http://www.idra.org/Newslttr/2001/May/Jack.htm#Art3

This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural

Development Research Association. The article focuses on the use of technology

as a tool for teaching and learning, and includes benchmarks and key indicators

that teachers and campus instructional leaders can use to assess and improve

technology integration in diverse classrooms.

				
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