Vol 7|No 1|September|1997
Responding to the LA Times
Authors: Sandy Banks and Lucille Renwick
The LA Times article on computers reminds me that it is usually OK for a parent to criticize his or her child, but if another person criticizes little Joe or Judy, watch out. This article, and the others of its ilk, points out all the ways that computers have not "fulfilled" their educational potential.
We may want to dismiss the criticisms with easy excuses, but if we think about the issues that are raised, and think about them without whining or raising our defenses, then we can honestly say that the article makes many valid points. We would go one further to say that the criticisms have sparked many vigorous debates among those of us who have been using computers with children for many years.
If we were even a bit more honest, as users and believers that these technologies can and do provide important positive benefits for children, we would agree that we have not done a good job of presenting the issues to the public. Nor have we done a good job of organizing the computers to make positive educational changes.
Through a variety of examples and quotes, they demonstrate that teachers are generally not prepared to use computers in classrooms; they lack support and educational guidance, and, though the computers may be motivational and children may enjoy using them, the results have not resulted in better scores.
They conclude that there are perhaps better ways to spend our educational dollars. In addition, the writers discuss the fact that high pressure sales tactics of hardware and software companies tend to drive the
Computers and books are different animals; both should be used, and each in their right place. Books should never be compromised for the sake of computers. But teaching and learning with computers is different.
Computers provide students with an environment to model ideas and test theories. They are able to connect to resources, and to find answers that may not be in the books that are currently in the room. Computers assist students so they may model behaviors and learn more about them.
Stores no longer close for extended periods of time to "take inventory," rather it is done at the moment of sale. In the past, inventory once lived on the shelves of 7-11 stores for as many as 45 days. Store owners used their gut instinct to make purchasing decisions and there was no point of sale information.
Today, using computer models and data from the store, 7-11 store owners make informed decisions that have increased sales per store by 2 to 3 times. These changes require owners to operate in new ways and to learn from data and from models of customer decision making.
Computer technology needs support to be worthwhile - but so does a library, and so does a music program, and so does an art program and so does a drama program. And we know that a football team will not be successful without coaches, proper practice equipment, a stadium and knowledgeable, supportive fans.
The school must identify measurable goals for the use of computers, determine what will be learned, provide training and time for teachers to understand how best to reach these established goals, and then provide the support to carry out the plan. When a school buys computers just for the sake of a high computer count, or when they connect to the Net, without evaluating the purpose in terms of student learning, they have little chance to show much gain.
Further, the support for teachers and students, once the computers are in classrooms, can be put in place. Teachers can receive support and can focus on the key goals, not on every new thing. If the goals are to improve writing, then that is the focus.
Teachers need not worry about new ways to use computers for math or to find the neatest multiple- media reading program, or even how to search the Internet. The focus is on writing.
In this way, the computers are never obsolete, as the Times article, and so many others have described. Today's computers may not be right for future goals, but a computer purchased today with appropriate software designed to improve students' ability to write, will not become obsolete - unless we
If the educational goal is to have students learn a variety of scientific concepts, learn to analyze data and draw conclusions about the data, and demonstrate a number of other cognitive skills, then they may do so with much more sophisticated equipment.
They could communicate with children and adults around the world to collect data on river water quality and to compare water samples and rain ozone factors in various industrial sites around the world. They may then compare the weather patterns and the pollution levels of manufacturing plants to determine why
When students are preparing the local service club's annual 24 page, multi color holiday brochure with pictures and other visual images, then a Timex Sinclair will not do. But in preparing the written materials they do not need a $2,000 machine, when a $200 Dreamwriter or other simple text processor will do.
The same is true with computers - pick reasonable goals, measure your success against those goals, communicate the results to the public, and build slowly as everyone on the staff learns new skills and applies them in the classroom. School district personnel also must assess and reassess every year to keep what works and improve on it, while getting rid of those strategies and practices that do not work.
Learning requires good teaching. Computers can simulate multiple behaviors - a computer can become a musical instrument, and it gives learners the ability to manipulate graphical images, to edit and change words, to create animated objects, and to communicate with people around the world.
Computers can be used by students to search for and analyze data or to write a report that uses visual images. But alone, a computer will not make students smarter, or better able to score higher on standardized tests.
All kids should have the opportunity to play a musical instrument, to conduct authentic scientific research in a lab , to play a competitive sport, to spend time deep in the stacks of a library, and to search the net to find a copy of a book on a computer in some other world computer.
And these need to be done under the guidance of a teacher who has learned how to integrate assignments in such as way as to produce student learning that matches already determined educational needs and assessments.
If a part of that improvement means to motivate students to come to school early and stay late, then let's state this, measure it, and share it with the public. If a step on the way to improved student communication is to have students collaborate on a research project where information is gained over the Net, then let's state this, measure it and share it with the public.
Further, let's ensure that teachers have the learning time and the support to enable them to make the changes in their classrooms, and in their teaching styles to foster the growth and learning that we know computers, in whatever form we use them, can provide our children.
They created not only a new car, but a new way to think about building, selling and supporting the manufacture of a car. They designed a team system for manufacturing and the structures to support team development.
They understood that learning new skills and the application of those skills was a key, so now each employee spends no less than 7 percent of the work time in paid, ongoing training to upgrade manufacturing and people skills. Each employee must upgrade their skills and abilities continually.
As the makers of the Saturn cars focus on established goals for design, manufacturing and customer satisfaction, they consistently seek to improve, using public opinion, manufacturing and repair data.