The Social Impact of Technology

This year we'll spend some $3 billion to wire our nation's classrooms, bringing students into the Internet era with computers, multimedia and Web connections. On the surface that may seem like a worthy effort. But as information executives know, technology is not an end in itself. Rather, its value comes from solving real problems. So what pressing issues are computers solving in education?

Among the challenges confronting our elementary and high school students today, one might list short attention spans, lack of discipline, cynical attitudes, too much television, low regard for teachers or little interest in reading. OK: Which of these problems are solved by a classroom computer? Which, on the other hand, are made worse?

The one thing that the networked computer does well is to give our kids more information, faster. But lack of information simply isn't a problem in any school I've visited. Indeed, most teachers complain that they haven't enough time to teach the information that's already available.

Some might argue that the goal of wiring schools is to replace outdated textbooks with the latest information from the Net. But most subjects don't change that quickly. The core of physics and chemistry, for example, evolves slowly. Schools certainly don't need the Internet to teach poetry or literature. And only a fool would teach current events from a textbook--that's the purpose of magazines, newspapers and the daily news.

Maybe we're wiring our classrooms to promote computer literacy. But how much computing does a student need to be taught? I'd say that a high school graduate oughta be able to use a word processor, manipulate a spreadsheet, know what a database does, use e-mail, browse the Web and use a search engine. OK, how long did it take you to learn to use a word processor? A day? Maybe three? Did it take you a week to figure out how to surf the Web? Aside from the mechanical typing lessons, this just isn't challenging stuff. And whatever the problems confronting our students, fear of computers isn't one of 'em. Nor is the inability to use the Internet. Quite the opposite: Kids quickly take to computers and will happily spend hours sending e-mail, logging into chat rooms and generally fooling around online.

Computer literacy doesn't demand the same level of instruction as English, American history or physics. Spending semesters teaching computing simply subtracts time from other subjects. It's one more way to dumb down the school, giving the appearance of teaching futuristic subjects while dodging the important topics. You can learn how to use computers anytime in life, but some subjects really are best learned when you're young--foreign languages, musical instruments, just to name two.

The fact is, computers don't belong in the classroom. Not only do they not help solve any educational problems, but they very often make existing problems worse.

Whenever I point out the dubious value of computers in schools, I hear the comment, "Look, computers are everywhere, so we have to bring them into the classroom." Well, automobiles are everywhere too. They play a damned important part in our society, and it's hard to get a job if you can't drive. But we don't teach "automobile literacy." Nor do we make cars a central part of the curriculum--indeed, many schools are now dropping driver's ed, recognizing that teenagers can learn to drive without intensive schooling.

And yes, computers seem ubiquitous, but that's no reason to bring them into the classroom. Television is certainly omnipresent, but it's been relegated to a fairly minor role in schools. I don't hear politicians worrying about some "television divide" separating those with the tube from those without.

Computers encourage students to turn in visually exciting hypermedia projects, often at the expense of written compositions and hand-drawn projects. Pasting a fancy graphic into a science report doesn't mean an eighth grader has learned anything. Nor does a downloaded report from the Internet suggest that a student has any understanding of the material.

Instead, the emphasis on professional reports sends students the message that appearance and fonts are more important than content. Indeed, for most schoolwork, searching online source materials not only isn't necessary, it's often counterproductive. Computer-enabled students spend more time preening their reports than understanding the subject matter.

By wiring our schools we make a funding decision about what's academically important. Next time a principal or school-board member shows off a modern computer lab, ask 'em this: "What was in this room before these computers?"

I asked that question recently and got the following answers:

* "We converted the library into the computer lab. With the multimedia encyclopedias, we no longer need as many books."

* "Oh, we used to teach art in this room."

* "This used to be our machine shop."

* "A music studio...."

And if you think technology cuts into only school libraries and music programs, you should check out high school chemistry labs. The days of test tubes and Bunsen burners are disappearing fast as school districts get scared of students handling chemicals. Too easy to spill acid, burn a finger or build a bomb. As safety concerns drive up the cost of real labs, schools turn to high-tech solutions: computer simulations. Like learning to drive a simulated car, it's fun, but it sure ain't the real thing.

Politicians tell us to wire our schools so that graduates will be prepared for jobs. But by focusing on computers, plenty of technical jobs are being bypassed: High schools are slyly dropping courses in plumbing, auto mechanics, carpentry and cooking. Do we really expect a future without pipes, cars and restaurants?

Shouldn't computers reduce school costs by making administrative activities more efficient? I wish it were so. As computers become widely adopted in elementary and high schools, they add a whole new layer of school administrators and middle managers. These include content administrators to watch over what the students view and technology specialists to show teachers how best to use the digital machines.

And don't forget that school computers need technical support--it's silly to expect English teachers to install and maintain the high school's file servers. In business, you figure one full-time support person for every 20 or 30 workstations. The tech folk aren't cheap, and they don't teach. Each program--even the simplest--requires someone to get the computers ready. Inevitably, it's the teacher. The dirty secret of educational technology is that computers waste teachers' time.

Around the country, communities float 30-year bond issues to buy computers that will be obsolete within five years. Wiring a school typically costs thousands of dollars per classroom, and evolving communications systems will mean that the work will have to be redone within a decade. Classroom software has a surprisingly short life as the curriculum, computer and educational climates change. Educational technology saves money? Nah.

In short, no amount of Web searching can make up for a lack of critical thinking or communication skills. No microprocessor can replace the creative interplay of hand, clay and art teacher. No online astronomy program can engender the same sense of awe as first seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope. No computer will encourage a budding athlete to run faster, kick harder or jump higher. With or without a computer, a mediocre instructor will never kindle a love for learning. And a good teacher doesn't need the Internet to inspire her students to excellence.

Want a nation of dolts? Center the curriculum around technology--teach with videos, computers and multimedia systems. Aim for the highest possible scores on standardized tests. Push aside such less vocationally applicable subjects as music, art and history. No doubt about it: Dolts are what we'll get.

Do you think education needs computers? Let us know at Clifford Stoll is author of High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian (Doubleday, 1999).

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