The Mad Dash to Compute

A respected educational psychologist raises questions about the trade-offs, developmental issues and long-term ramifications of technology use in schools by 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 mislead 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 theirteacher 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, juggle 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 design 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. She can be contacted at 4266 Columbine Drive, Vail, CO 81657. E-mail: janetomh@vail.net