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Education Reporter
Skeptics Challenge Value of
School Spending on Technology

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Backers of education technology face increasing skepticism as research fails to support the notion that more computers will solve public education's problems. Speakers at an education technology conference in Florida in March vigorously attacked media reports that are questioning the wisdom of spending billions of dollars to beef up classroom technology.

These news accounts point out the dearth of reliable research to show that computer technology improves education. "There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs that enrich children's lives for this dubious nostrum," trumpeted the July 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The Nov. 10, 1997 issue of Education Week reported, "There is no guarantee that technology improves student achievement. Research in this area has produced little hard evidence, and few studies have yet examined the kinds of technology use that experts believe are most valuable to learning."

The assertion that education technology research is flawed is a common theme in these articles. According to Education Week, the rapid changes in technology make controlled studies difficult, and "in addition to a lack of research, the nation also has a dim picture of the amount of technology that is already in the schools and the way it is used." Pointing to the lack of scientific controls in many studies and inattention to differences in teaching methods in others, The Atlantic Monthly notes that "Most knowledgeable people agree that most of the research isn't valid. It's so flawed it shouldn't even be called research. Essentially, it's just worthless."

Gore's Expensive Folly

Nonetheless, as American students' test scores continue to decline (see Education Reporter, April 1998), the Clinton Administration, with many members of Congress and many of the nation's Governors in agreement, proposes spending $40 to $100 billion over five years to equip all the nation's classrooms with computers. Vice President Al Gore has pledged "a computer on every student's desk," and many parents, teachers and business leaders have bought into the promise of academic improvement via technology. A poll taken in early 1997 showed that U.S. teachers rank computer skills higher than knowledge of European history, biology, chemistry, physics, and modern and ancient classics.

Of primary concern to many educators, however, is that valuable programs and courses of instruction are being eliminated to free up funds for technology. Music, art, physical education, and shop classes are feeling the budget axe so that schools can buy more computers. Meanwhile, recent studies are providing preliminary indications that courses such as music and art "actually increase the physical size of a student's brain and its powers for subjects such as math, science, and engineering - in one case, more than computer work did." Schools that rely extensively on computer use are reporting student complaints ranging from eye strain and headaches to sore wrists.

Many experts agree that technology's complexity is better suited to students at the high school level than in the elementary grades. Last fall, an article in U.S. News & World Report cited six schools that were "making computers work," five of which were high schools. The lone elementary school was chosen because its computer program involved children with disabilities, the group that appears to benefit most from computerized instruction. The downside is that, while computers have enabled many disabled students to be assimilated into regular classrooms, the practice of "full inclusion" also places students with behavior problems in regular classrooms, sometimes with tragic results (see Education Reporter, Feb. 1995, and update on page 2).

Some educators say younger children need the "hands-on opportunity to manipulate physical objects" that computers cannot offer, though others observe that computer monitors tend to capture and hold a child's attention better than teachers can. A 1996 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) study lends some insight as to the reason: the study found that the most common use of computers by 4th graders is to play games.

Will Textbooks Become Obsolete?
With increased spending on education technology has come the stagnation of textbook purchases, despite the fact that, according to author and education researcher Sam Blumenfeld, "Books still remain the chief depository of human existence, the chief means of learning anything in depth."

Both Blumenfeld and author Clifford Stoll, who in 1995 wrote Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, compare today's use of computers in the classroom to the use of the motion picture a generation ago. "If we review the edufads of yesterday, we recall that educators once believed the motion picture would be the great tool of teaching," says Blumenfeld. "But sitting in the dark put too many kids to sleep, and most of that expensive equipment wound up in closets."

The Atlantic Monthly quoted Stoll's recollection of the use of films when he was in school: "We loved them because we didn't have to think for an hour, teachers loved them because they didn't have to teach, and parents loved them because it showed their schools were high-tech. But no learning happened."

As Blumenfeld concedes, computers do have the ability to teach, providing they have the right software. But therein lies the dilemma. Software programs, especially at the elementary school level, have produced mixed results at best, and Logo, the highly-touted programming language that was supposed to expand children's cognitive skills, has not lived up to expectations. With the complexity of both hardware and software, teachers often spend more time trying to solve technical problems than teaching. And many parents worry about the potential of software programs to indoctrinate.

In a copyrighted story for World-NetDaily, Trudy Thomas describes a computer "game" distributed free of charge to schools by Microsoft, in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund. The program is called "Deadliest of All," and according to Thomas, "its subliminal message is - do the earth a favor and 'off ' yourself before you grow up to harm planet earth." It shows a human baby crawling about, with arrows that take children to frames called "Poor land management, Habitat destruction, Too many visits (Sometimes people damage wild places just by visiting them too much), The problem with cars, No harassment, please!, Big game hunters, a price on their heads, Accidental deaths, Bad habits," and "Deadliest of All (The people are crowding out the wild animals!)." The game then proceeds to praise the World Wildlife Fund for its work in areas such as the reintroduction of predators.

Teaching Attitudes

Tom DeWeese, of the American Policy Center, warns of another software danger. "Education software programs are designed to drill and remediate students in the areas of values, attitudes and beliefs," DeWeese claims. "They are not 'value neutral.' Students are asked specific questions designed to evaluate their ideas. If these ideas and values differ from the 'outcomes' dictated by the education establishment, the student is separated from the group and given 'personalized' attention. A computer program is created to specifically address the noted 'deficiency' of that student."

Amid all the confusion and controversy over the quantity and quality of classroom technology and how best to use it, some educators worry about where, or if, the basics fit in. Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, told Education Week, "I'm very concerned over the rush to purchase hardware when we do not have enough evidence on how best to use computers to help youngsters achieve in reading, mathematics, writing, et cetera."

Sam Blumenfeld cautions, "First we must make sure children can read, write and do arithmetic, then teach them to use the computer as a window to the world." He further warns that today's education reformers are likely to use computers to enhance their power, and gives as an example the Student Data Handbook, which describes the scope of the information that will be gathered on every student who enters the public school system (see Education Reporter, Feb. 1998).

As one of the first companies to donate computers to schools, Apple Computer set the tone for the technological evolution in education. But Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, said in an interview in Wired Magazine, "I used to think technology could solve the problems in education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet, but I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. No amount of technology will make a dent.

"It's a political problem. The problems are socio-political. The problems are the unions - plot the growth of the NEA and the dropping of SAT scores, and they're inversely proportional. The problem is bureaucracy. There are solutions to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn't it. We can put a website in every school. None of this is bad. It's bad only if it lulls us into thinking we're doing something to solve the problem with education. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology."

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