By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
On Tuesday, December 9, 2008, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Obama wants to put more computers in classrooms, an old idea with dubious educational merit”.
It’s true that people have been putting computers in classrooms for many years. It’s also true that the impact of these computers has often been less than wished. However, neither of those facts tell us that we should stop. Rather, they tell us to review how and why computers are being used in those classrooms.
In my own visits to schools across the country, I have seen those computers being both underutilized and over-utilized. In some schools, the computers sit idle while traditional instruction continues. Occasionally, students are allowed to use the computers, and they get to use the standard business tools available such as spreadsheets and word processors. Sure, it’s nice that the students are learning to use those tools, but are they helping students learn their subject? I think not.
In other schools, I’ve seen computer rooms fully booked so that some teachers are unable to use them at all for their students. Upon inquiry, I discovered that math and English classes have priority because of high-stakes testing. The computers have various programs on them that drill the students on concepts required on those tests. In my opinion, these schools are wasting a valuable resource.
Computers slowly and quite certainly have revolutionized many businesses. Lawyers, among the last to succumb, now cannot live without their word processors with the ability to rewrite accurately, insert boilerplate, and check spelling and grammar. Software has been created to support the advances in productivity that we’ve seen in many industries. So, what’s the matter with education?
The larger class sizes we see in schools are not the result of improved worker productivity; they’re caused by budget shortfalls. Clearly, computers have not improved teacher productivity. Students aren’t learning better. Just look at any number of international measures of student success in mathematics and science. We (the United States) are losing.
At least in traditional classrooms, neither the quantity nor quality of product has improved in this age of technology. Charter schools are making some headway mostly because their employees work multiple job descriptions and long hours. Generally, online education works because students self-select based on study skills, and teachers have tools to allow them to have slightly larger numbers of students. Those tools come with “learning management systems” (LMS) that online schools use to handle administration of classes.
To be fair, the United States has over 50 different sets of standards for education and administers those standards from a very large number of individual school districts. That fact makes creating software usable across the entire country quite difficult. Turkey has committed its education system to online learning and doesn’t have the same problems. The software I’ve seen from Turkey is first-rate and shames our own home-grown efforts.
If we don’t get moving on real innovation in education right now, we may find our children learning from online schools headquartered in Turkey, Israel, and Singapore quite soon. Teachers, like factory workers, will see their jobs disappear overseas.
Instead of waiting, as the automobile industry did, until it’s too late, begin today by merging the various state standards, requiring teachers to use good computer-based learning tools, and having our federal government support innovation that uses technology to make a real difference and that’s not just drill repackaged or textbooks converted to online format with animations and sound or other similar old methods with new facades.
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