The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Computers in Schools
History Repeating Itself
Technological innovation has been a driving force in education since Gutenberg developed his printing press. In 1922, Thomas Edison said that motion pictures would revolutionize American education; he even went so far as to predict that they would "supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks." And although many of us remember those supplemental film strips, textbooks certainly have not become obsolete.
Today it is the computer that is both at the forefront of educational debate and often, at the front of the classroom. While it used to be a shiny red apple that sat on a teacher's desk, today it's more often a dull gray Apple with a capital "A." Computers have, no doubt, created the potential for new methods of teaching and new styles of learning. They have made possible cyber-connections, both within individual schools and across continents. These are advancements that ultimately can only broaden students' horizons.
Making the Grade
The question though, is whether this technology is being properly used. Some studies have shown that the use of computers in schools improves everything from academic performance to classroom attendance. And while some of those studies, you may not be surprised to learn, are sponsored by technology companies anxious to validate the use of their equipment in schools, it does appear that computers do result in some positive outcomes.
At one California cutting edge technology school, the Silver Oak elementary school in San Jose, math scores have improved; reading and writing skills, however, have not enjoyed the same techno-boost. And the improvement has not come cheap. The school's state-of-the-art equipment costs $15,000 per classroom; and that's just for the hardware, let alone the million dollar raised floor and invisible wiring designed to offer teachers greater flexibility in their classrooms. You would think teachers would be clamoring to come to Silver Oak; and yet, some teachers working in other schools rejected the idea of working there. Said one, "You couldn't pay me to come to your school. It's just too overwhelming. There's too much to learn and do."
What Are the Kids Really Learning?
It's not easy to truly touch, feel, and manipulate pixels on a screen; this despite the fact that much of today's educational software is designed to allow kids to mold the learning experience to their own interests and skills. Even the best software, however, may not have all the answers. I'm encouraged when my 4 1/2 year-old daughters choose a reading program like Reader Rabbit instead of, say, Toy Story. Perhaps I should reconsider. One study recently suggested that Reader Rabbit, currently used in more than 100,000 schools, accounted for a sharp drop in students' creativity.
So what's the problem? Some experts believe that computers are replacing hands-on learning, viewed by many as a critical path to long-term understanding, with a technical and one-dimensional model of reality. Jane Healy, an educational psychologist, wrote in 1990, "visual stimulation is probably not the main access route to nonverbal reasoning. Body movements, the ability to touch, feel, manipulate, and build sensory awareness of relationships in the physical world, are its main foundations."
Teaching the Teachers
A second concern is how technology is used. A cutting edge software program cannot replace a great teacher. And technology can only benefit teachers who use it to its best advantage. Researchers, however, have found few cases where teachers have been trained to maximize the use of technology in their classrooms. Technology that's offered to teachers who are not given proper training -- or forced on teachers who are technophobic -- will never result in an environment that's conducive to learning. Above all, teachers need time to familiarize themselves with the workings of the computer; and they need a supportive and collaborative environment in which they can share their expertise with other teachers.
Even after initial training, teachers must be given the technical support to deal with inevitable equipment breakdowns and software glitches. Ideally, this might take the form of a school technology coordinator, who could address a range of school-wide technical issues, thus freeing up individual teachers from having to fix machines during class time.
Who Has Access?
Another concern about the use of technology in schools is "who gets it?" Some kids come to school with a technological familiarity that's been developed by using computers at home. According to a 1994 study done for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, students from lower income homes and ethnic minorities are less likely to have a home computer than more affluent white students. And, even in homes that do have a computer, boys are more likely to have more access to the computer than girls. Schools must be sensitive to insuring that all students get equal access to the machines, and that kids who haven't used computers at home be given the chance to catch up to their more computer-literate peers.
Investing for the Future
Just as important, though, is the question of what's lost if technology wins out over traditional elective programs such as art, music, and shop. Shop classes were one subject the Clinton Administration's technology task force suggested reducing in order to be able to allocate more resources to computer technology. Perhaps that's fine for the student who is bound for a four-year liberal arts college. But what about the kid who's looking to process something other than words, or the student who wants to paint with actual brushes, not by using Adobe Photoshop? What happens to those kids when technology starts devouring more and more of a school's resources, and the programs that were once the areas where students could develop their self-esteem and self-expression are pared back to make way for ever-more powerful machines?
Buying a computer is a lot like buying a car. Once you drive it off the lot, it's yesterday's model. And while you might expect to get seven or eight years out of a car, that's often pushing it in the rapidly changing world of computers. Speed, memory, expansion. These are variables that change faster than the rate at which schools can afford to keep pace. Five years from now, many schools will be stuck with a computer that's obsolete.
Investing in technology is a major decision for schools, who worry that without a solid technological footing, their students won't be able to compete in the computer-driven workplace of the 21st century. There is no doubt that computers will play an ever-increasing role in our children's lives. Hopefully so will music, art and dance. We mustn't mortgage a richer tomorrow to pay for the fastest microprocessor or must-see software program today.
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