Technology is not a magic bullet

Last month, there was an article in the NY Times about a study of  computers in the home, and their effect on educational achievement for lower-income students.  What the authors of the study found surprised them:

Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.

Slashdot also had a long discussion about this as well.  It’s probably shocking to a lot of people, but not to those of us who could be called the “gray geeks.”  It’s something we thought about years ago, and it’s mostly just a confirmation of our skepticism.   It’d be tempting to call us anti-technology, except you don’t find people like that on places like Slashdot.  We’re the people who got our start in computers decades ago, and we’re the people who might, to a disinterested observer,  be the ones pushing the hardest.  But we’re weren’t.

What the studies are showing is that computers aren’t producing the educational results that people thought they would, but are instead having a negative impact.  While it may be  tempting to point to the “educational establishment” as being to blame for this – and yes, they do share a portion of the blame – it’s the result of a broad spectrum of well-meaning people pushing for it, as well as a number of businesses who had a vested interest in pushing it.  Parents were equally jumping on the bandwagon, as they bought into the relentless drumbeat that children needed to be “technology literate” to be competitive in life.

Computers – and the Internet – have been promulgated as a “magic tool” to educators.  They were going to revolutionize education, to place vast quantities of information at teachers and student’s fingertips.  Computers in the classroom – and for every child (or family) were going to make our children smarter, more educated, and able to compete in the 21’st Century global economy.  That’s what the promise was.

What I have noticed is that a lot of people in the younger generation have become totally helpless when the technology fails or isn’t available. What appears to have happened is that all the technology they had didn’t teach them anything except which buttons to push. It didn’t teach them the actual skill. I’ve watched people struggle to add a simple column of numbers or make change when a calculator wasn’t available. Something I consider trivially simple – even do in my head – they can’t do without technological help.   Over the same time, I’ve noticed a lot of  sloppy writing and organizational skills, along with a lack of reasoning.  If you’re used to depending on the computer to correct your grammar and spelling, as well as accepting the information you see on the Internet as “true,”  you are less likely to have learned grammar, spelling, and consider whether something is actually true or not.

I’m of the age where I went to school before computers, or even calculators,  were used in schools. Amazingly enough, somehow I managed to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic (and later on advanced mathematics) without them.  Are they handy and useful? Yes, absolutely. The advent of relatively cheap calculators made my college years a lot easier than they would have been otherwise.  A calculator was a time-saver over the pencil and paper, which meant more time for concepts.    Even in college though, computers weren’t something that people had on their desks.  A term paper meant hours in the library, searching through various indexes to find the references you needed to write the paper.  It was onerous, time-consuming, and often frustrating.  Typing (yes, typing) the paper was something you did only after you’d finished writing it – by hand.  Computers have made a lot of that a breeze.  I can do the literature search in minutes,  and putting together a paper is still a mental exercise, but a lot faster using word processing software.   That’s just a small sample of what is today versus the past.  Yes, I appreciate it a lot, because I had to do it the “old fashioned way.”

So why would I have been so skeptical of computers in the classroom?  For a number of reasons.  The first is that no one really knew what to do with them, including the teachers.  There were lots of capabilities, but no one ever sat down and said “OK, this is the way we can use them effectively, and when.”   The equivalent I think of is someone in the 1910’s saying that automobiles are going to revolutionize society, and getting everyone a car.  They were right in the long run, but all the things that go with using a car effectively weren’t around, and most people didn’t have a clue as to how to drive one in the first place at that time.

The second reason was that it seemed to me that everyone was  focusing  on the technology, not the literacy.  I said earlier that I grew up without all those things, but having them at various points in my life has given me an appreciation for when the technology is appropriate.  Let’s take something simple:  Calculators.  They made my life much easier in college.  Why?  Because they saved me a lot of time in math, chemistry, and biology courses.  All of them required me to do a good deal of arithmetic  – whether it was calculating a standard deviation, a mean, concentration, or something.  But I wasn’t learning arithmetic in them – it was something I already knew.  The calculator just saved me a lot of time doing the necessary arithmetic while I was learning something else.   It was a tool.  Rather than add, subtract, multiply, or divide a column of figures, just punch the numbers in, get the result and move on to the important stuff.   But when you’re supposed to be learning arithmetic, it’s not a tool – it’s a crutch.  I don’t learn that 10X15=150, I learn that if I hit the 1, the 0, the “X”, the “1”, the “5”, and then the “=” I get a number to write down.  I don’t know if it’s correct – I may have hit a wrong number in the sequence, or I may have a bad calculator – but I have a number.

My final qualm was because of the very thing that is the hallmark of the Internet:  Information.  In this case, too much information.  If I’m interested in learning about George Washington, I can find a huge amount (over 59 million hits) of information about him  on the Internet.   Articles, book excerpts,  videos, you name it.  I might end up learning a lot about him, but at the same time, I’m going to spend a lot of time looking at things that may (and probably aren’t)true or which make questionable assertions.  There’s also the distractions of the “related links” which  may not even be close – or related – to the subject you’re supposed to be looking into.  While I may have fun looking at all of that, I’m not really learning as much about the subject as I might have.

What the recent studies are showing is that my – and a number of other people’s – qualms were justified.   Computers and technology are wonderful things, with huge potential.  But there’s a time and a place for them to be used in the educational process, and it’s apparent that we – as a society – haven’t figured out the best way to do it.  In the meantime, we’re throwing money at it, and it isn’t working.  It might be better to stop and think about it first, before we put children even further behind the curve.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Technology is not a magic bullet

  1. NYCO

    I agree with much of what you’re pointing out. Many young people use “technology” all the time, but without much curiosity about it – just like 1950s kids who liked to watch TV had no idea what made them work. As for information, sometimes my response to something I read on Wikipedia is “Whaaat? I never heard THAT about George Washington. I need to double-check that somewhere else.” That double-checking instinct comes naturally to me only because I knew a little something about Washington in the first place… but if your only exposure to George Washington is through Wikipedia in the first place… well, I don’t know.

    • What I have also noticed is that they’re not aware of the process or the concepts to begin with. It’s “easy.” I just type in “George Washington” on Google and information magically appears. I have no way of verifying the trustworthiness of the information retrieved, or think about how to focus my search. Having done it the old fashioned way, I learned very quickly the idea of separating the wheat from the chaff at the very beginning. Even when computer literature searches first became available, they cost money to do, and if you didn’t want to blow your budget, you made it a point to think about what you needed to search for. So when I do a search today, I still have that habit. I think about what I need, how to structure the search, and more often than not I only have to look through 10 or 15 results, instead of 50 million. The concepts I learned by having to manually go through indexes and card catalogs still apply.

  2. Technology does has benefits, which when used – like anything else – properly is great to have. We home school our daughter through a state education approved curriculum (she is actually enrolled in a public school). Her whole course of study is done using both online materials and materials sent to use each school year. We not only help her with her school lessons where necessary (with an assigned credentialed teacher available if we need further assistance) but we take on the responsibility to teach her how to use the technology properly and appropriately.

    That’s the daunting task where technology is concerned. It jumped out at my generation (I’m 50) and ran so fast that most of us learned only the very rudiments of how to use the computer, unless we have invested the time in learning about it all ourselves. So how can we teach our kids the proper use?

    Home computers started out as great toys. Kids found the explosion in game playing and entertainment wonderful. But like all good things there is a dark side to it, one that makes the idea of television turning kids brains to mush a small issue.

    • I think you just pointed out the problem I had with computers in education – “Home computers started out as great toys. Kids found the explosion in game playing and entertainment wonderful. ” That’s just it. It’s not “educating them,” it’s a toy, and in many ways, it still is to them. Since many in my (our) generation really aren’t used to them, it’s difficult to determine just how to integrate them into the process to begin with, let alone figure out what your children were doing. As NYCO pointed out, we now have people who know how to use technology, but don’t have a clue about how it works – which is not being technology literate.

      Although, I find it amusing at times. There are people who come up here on vacation who belong to organizations which advocate against building cell towers. Then they gripe that their cell phones don’t work. They can’t seem to grasp the concept that cell phones need cell towers to function.