Column: Computers not a classroom cure-all

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It’s pop quiz time. Fill in the blanks: What technological advances are these people talking about?

1. “I believe that _________ is destined to revolutionize our educational system.”

2. “The time may come when a _________ will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.”

3. “In our schools, every classroom in America must be ________.”

Put your pencils down. The answers: 1. “The motion picture” (inventor Thomas Edison, 1922). 2. “Portable radio receiver” (educator William Levenson, 1945). 3. “Connected to the information superhighway” (President Bill Clinton, 1996).

My point? Every few decades, some new device comes along promising to be a cure-all for our educational ailments. And in just about every case, the results have fallen short of the revolution promised.

For the last decade, that can’t-miss technology has been computers. Last year, Texas’ public schools spent $300 million to $400 million on computer technology and training, according to Anita Givens, the state’s director of educational technology. These days most classrooms have at least one computer, and some have one for every student.

But some critics are starting to wonder whether the enormous investment has, again, been a waste of time and money.

“The computer culture has essentially polluted the culture of education,” says journalist Todd Oppenheimer.

Late last year, Mr. Oppenheimer published the stimulating book The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved.

I’m sure you can deduce from the title where he stands. But for folks on either side of the debate, it’s a provocative read that gets at a core issue: What, exactly, do we want our children to learn in school?

Here’s a summary of some of Mr. Oppenheimer’s claims:

*Computers encourage shallow, superficial work. Writing a 10-page report takes research, thought and hard work. But making a PowerPoint presentation on the same subject takes only cursory knowledge.

He quotes one high school student who spent 17 hours on a major civics presentation: seven hours on research and writing, 10 hours finding the right clip art and fonts for his PowerPoint.

“Some kids think you can find two Web sites about your topic on Google and they’re done with their research,” he says. “That’s where your work should be starting, not when it ends.”

*Computers break down too often, and schools don’t have staff trained to fix them. As a result, teachers end up getting distracted from their jobs, reinstalling broken device drivers when they could be teaching. (I can verify this one; I’ve seen many dozens of classroom computers “resting” while awaiting repair.)

*Kids need to learn how to do things the hard way before they do them the easy way. There’s a reason we learn our multiplication tables before we’re handed a calculator; we need to understand how things work before we start taking short cuts. For that reason, Mr. Oppenheimer is passionate about taking computers out of elementary schools, where he believes hands-on, nondigital learning is essential.

“The computer world is all about speed, quick and easy,” he says. “The school world is all about slowing things down, not skipping steps.”

In sum, he wants computers out of elementary schools, limited in middle schools, and pulled out of high school classrooms and put into special computer labs.

Even ed-tech’s biggest proponents agree with some of what Mr. Oppenheimer argues. “I think he’s right that teachers need more training and support to be able to use the tools they have,” said Alice Owen, executive director of technology for Irving schools. “It’s a difficult change for teachers. It changes your classroom dramatically to bring in computers.”

Irving now gives laptops to all its high school students, at a cost of more than $10 million. Dr. Owen says computers in the classroom aren’t the magic potion some hyped them up to be in the 1990s. But used effectively, she says, they can do wonders.

“We’re giving kids an opportunity to do things they wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” she said. “Kids have a greater appreciation for school. Those kinds of motivational gains you just can’t deny.”

In any event, Mr. Oppenheimer is about to get his wish.

State budget problems have forced cutbacks on technology spending across the country. One national survey found that funding for an average state ed-tech program dropped 25 percent from 2002 to 2003.

The Texas Legislature killed one of its major technology grant programs last year, and Ms. Givens said some schools could cut back tech spending by 50 percent or more.

“Yes, there are teachers who use computers pointlessly,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean you get rid of the computers. You teach teachers how to use them better.”

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at