Do computers teach?

Thomas R. Temin

As associate editor Trudy Walsh details in this month's cover story, the job of delivering computers to classrooms has advanced so far that the education establishment can declare the public schools' digital divide nearly closed. Even schools near the Bering Strait have wireless Internet connections.

But another gap is not so easily bridged: Do computers contribute measurably to learning, or are they simply updated versions of the audiovisual tools of yesteryear?

Most classroom instruction still is based on the pedagogical model: a teacher leading the class. That doesn't blend well with computers, which are tools for individuals. So the most important teaching tool remains the blackboard.

Educators, school districts, parents and pupils shouldn't rush to judge the value of computers. Not quite 20 years have passed since the first IBM Corp. PC, and PCs still are clunky, unreliable and intuitively hard to use. Public education, despite its ever-changing fads and trends, still is a conservative institution, one for which change comes slowly.

But schools are not alone in seeing glacial progress with computers. For years, economists puzzled over why white-collar productivity didn't increase even as millions of PCs were deployed. Analysts now believe it took the networking of computers before we could see any measurable value from them.

For schools, no one knows what will unlock the computer's potential. There might never be a definite way to measure the value of computers in the classroom, as there never was for movies, filmstrips, records, audiotapes and pull-down maps.

Everyone has vivid memories of things that sparked learning. More often than any mechanical medium, it is likely to have been a teacher. Twenty-five years after graduating, I remember the difference between a Federal fanlight and an Adams fanlight over a doorway, thanks to a college professor's enthusiasm for architecture.

Anyone looking for computers to cure the ills of public education is sure to be disappointed. One key to effective deployment of technology in a classroom, or anywhere, is to set specific goals and measure performance against them. That goes hand in hand with keeping expectations realistic.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: [email protected]


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