The folks at Microsoft aren't going to tell you. Neither are the guys at Dell. Bill and Mike didn't get rich and famous by talking about the limitations of technology. But the truth is, computers in the classroom don't have much of an effect on student achievement. And protests among some local teachers notwithstanding, cutting out Internet access from schools isn't going to do much to students in Tennessee, except to make their parents' tax burdens lighter as our governor tries to find ways to trim our very bloated budget.
Zealous advocates of computers in the classroom cloak their ideas in a number of assumptions, all designed to make us tremble at the prospect that "technology" might disappear from our classrooms: one, computer skills are essential to functioning in a high-tech society; two, there is a "digital divide" that keeps poor children impoverished if they do not have access to technology over the span of their school career; and three, computers "facilitate" learning in a way that causes students to be engaged in their education.
It is true that some computer skills are necessary in almost any job. Even counter help at fast-food restaurants are expected to "interface" with computer programs (that the leading purveyors of fast food have installed pictograms of the menu items will tell you something about the level of skill necessary and the obvious lack of literacy, but that's a topic for another time). But beyond basic job-related skills associated with computer use, what is there to this "functioning in an information age" thesis?
Not much if you list the mostly peripheral uses of computers for those of us who are not subscribers to Wired magazine: e-mail, word processing, spreadsheet, database and the Internet. That's about it, really. Unless you're a network administrator, or a programmer, or a member of some other profession whose very existence revolves around technology, these five functions form a very short list of "essential" skills. Now, how long did it take you to learn how to use e-mail, type a document, create a spreadsheet, form a database, or surf the Internet? A few minutes, hours, even days? That's what I thought. And have these skills remained constant since you learned how to perform them? The answer of course, is no. Which makes the expenditure of billions of dollars on skills that are learned in a few hours but that will be obsolete in a few months, a very questionable investment indeed.
And what about this much vaunted digital divide? Does it exist? And do computers "facilitate" anything except the "fun" quotient in the classroom, and the bottom lines of hardware manufacturers and software designers? Not as far as I can tell. When I did my student teaching four years ago in two city schools whose students mostly qualified for free lunch (a major indicator of poverty), I had not one student who did not know how to download information from the Internet, including "research" that they copied and pasted into papers they wished me to accept as their "work." They could not, however, pick out key facts in the paragraphs they submitted. They were intimately familiar with simulation games like "The Oregon Trail" but when asked to transfer this "technology experience" to a study of the real pioneers who traveled westward, they were unable to make the connection that there were real provisions that spoiled, and real wagons that became disabled and that there were no convenience stores or wagon repair shops to solve these problems. In other words, they spent years playing a game that was designed to simulate "real" life, yet they had not even a clue as to what this game represented in terms of the struggle in which real humans engaged to colonize the western reaches of this country. Digital divide? No, my friends, what we have is a literacy and knowledge divide. And computers, at least as they are currently being used, can't fix that no matter what the technology titans tell you.
Are there legitimate uses for computers in the classroom? Yes, but they aren't very glamorous and they sure aren't fun. Drilling and rote memorization of multiplication facts or vocabulary words are a good use--a quicker and more efficient version of the old flashcard technique. Of course, such activity doesn't "stimulate" a child's "creativity" but it does make him able to move on to more complicated numeracy concepts and verbal skills. Which, as far as I can tell, are still very much needed. Learning mathematics didn't seem to cramp DaVinci's style and much of his creative genius grew out of his educational foundation. Another use would be testing of objective facts--the kinds of examinations that Scantrons perform today, or teachers take home to grade. Quick, efficient, and properly written, the program could correct the answer for the student after completion, showing him why his answers were incorrect. And teachers could definitely use them for e-mail, word processing, spreadsheet, database and surfing the Internet.
If computers can't solve the problems of poor student preparation, what can? The three constants in any educational program: teachers who are allowed to teach, parents who support the aims of education, and kids who are motivated to learn. These are the only real and lasting solutions to the low achievement that the principal at Caldwell sought to hide by cheating. It is not testing that should be faulted, nor a lack of technology, but our desire for a quick fix that does not involve human struggle. Testing a child to determine if he can read, or identify a place on the map or compute a math problem is neither unfair nor unrealistic. What is unfair and unrealistic is to expect teachers to do more every year, with fewer resources and for less compensation--and to expect almost no sacrifice on the part of parents and students who believe that thirteen years in a classroom will magically and painlessly confer upon them a quality education that is "fun."
If, instead of trying to bridge some imaginary digital divide, we had spent the last decade and its billions of dollars on improving working conditions for teachers and demanding discipline and dedication on the part of our children, we would be richer today in both monetary and societal terms. And Bill and Mike might not be household names.