Info Underload 

It isn't computers that our children need; it's basic education.

The folks at Microsoft aren't going to tell you. Neither are the guys at Dell.

But the truth is, computers in the classroom haven't had much of an effect on student achievement.

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:

1) Computer skills are essential to functioning in a high-tech society.

2) 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.

3) 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. 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 existence revolves around technology, these five functions form a very short list of essential skills. 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?

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 own 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, that real wagons 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 what this game represented in terms of the struggle real humans engaged in 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.

If computers can't solve the problem of poor student preparation, what can? The three constants in any educational program are 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 low achievement.

It is not testing that should be faulted or a lack of technology but rather 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 13 years in a classroom will magically and painlessly confer upon them a quality education that is "fun."

Ruth Ogles has been a substitute teacher in the Memphis city schools since 1998; she ran for the city school board in 2000.

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