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Author Says Technology Brings False Promises to Schools


When it comes to technology, too often educators think the more the better, the sooner the better, according to author Todd Oppenheimer. He argues that the current emphasis on technology use in schools drains resources from other subjects and prevents students from developing critical and creative thinking skills. Included: Views on why schools should de-emphasize technology use.

Todd Oppenheimer, the author of THE FLICKERING MIND: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved, is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who works at the Grotto, a writers' collective.

THE FLICKERING MIND, Oppenheimer's first book expands on the article "The Computer Delusion," his July 1997 cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, which won the year's National Magazine Award for public interest reporting.

The book's title refers to the developmental crossroads that Oppenheimer says technology has brought young people to: "We are breeding generations that are teetering between two possible directions. In one, today's youngsters have a chance to become confident, thoughtful masters of the modern tools of their day. They also can become the victims of commercial noveltieswhose ability to reason, to listen, to feel empathy, among other things, quite literally is flickering."

Todd Oppenheimer

He has been working as a journalist since the late 1970s, writing for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek (where he served as associate editor of its new-media division for electronic publishing), The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and an assortment of local newspapers.

Oppenheimer also has a long history of volunteering in schools. In 1998, he was honored as San Francisco's School Volunteer of the Year. He also is Robin Williams' former mime partner.

Oppenheimer recently shared with Education World his concerns about how technology use is negatively impacting education.

Education World: How might educators have approached technology better when it first came on the scene?

Todd Oppenheimer: In a word: skeptically. As trustees of an institution that is responsible for the nation's children, but that is extremely under funded, educators have a special duty. They must be unusually cautious consumers of all the new tricks that are sold to schools. It's fine to test out new products, but schools must do so slowly and warily. They never should make big, school-wide investments in anything before they are absolutely certain that results will match the salesmen's hype.

EW: How does spending money on computer equipment limit students' learning in other areas?

Oppenheimer: That happens in three ways. First, the plain cost of school computers and Internet systems -- running at roughly $80 billion in the last decade -- is so heavy that schools must cut other programs to finance the technology. Those programs typically include physical education, music, art, shop classes, science laboratory materials -- all areas that have been proven to build much broader intellectual skills than computers do. (There is robust scientific evidence, for instance, that learning to play a musical instrument physically expands important quadrants of the brain.)

Second, once a school has invested in computers, it's very difficult to keep the technology in its place as an occasional supplement. So much money and time and effort has gone into setting up the new systems that everyone immediately makes the technology a high priority -- much higher than it should be.

Third, computers tend to shift learning values from quality to quantity. In high-tech schools, what matters is the great amount of information suddenly available on a given subject on the Internet. What should matter is how students think about information, not the quantity of information sources. And one good book or article that stimulates a good discussion will teach a lot more about quality of thought than 20 Internet sites that no one, especially the teacher, has time to analyze. For older students, a multitude of varying sources obviously is important in research. But students have to first learn how to weigh differing sources -- a form of analysis that is generally lacking in high-tech classrooms.

EW: Do you think that as computers and Internet usage have become more common, technology is becoming less of a distraction and more of an educational tool? If not, why not?

Oppenheimer: In some ways, we are getting more used to computers and the Internet. Certainly, the constant technical problems that plagued classrooms throughout the 1990s seem to be diminishing. But as we have grown accustomed to computers, we have also grown accustomed to the superficial values they have brought to our classrooms. The scattered, superficial approach to research and analysis that I described previously is increasingly becoming the norm.

EW: What do you see as the ideal application of technology in classrooms?

Oppenheimer: One of the best is in shop classes, where older students can take computers apart and learn how modern electronics and digital programming actually operate. Another strangely missed opportunity is to use computers to teach students how to actually compute. Some of the best software offers great tools (again with older students) for expanding understanding of sophisticated mathematical procedures such as scientific modeling. And obviously, the Internet offers valuable resources for research projects. The key is to use computers as a supplement in each of those areas, not as a replacement for traditional studies.

EW: How can the trend to put technology ahead of substance be reversed?

Oppenheimer: The tide could be turned on two fronts. First, if parents started confronting these issues with their schools and school boards, things would change very quickly. Right now, most teachers and principals believe parents want their children to be exposed to as much computer technology in school as possible. In truth, school is the one place where students can be protected from the onslaught of commercial technology. A school's job is to build every youngster's imaginative foundation; his or her capacity for discussion and reflection and creativity. If parents told principals and school board members that they want children kept away from computers at school until, say grade six or seven, that there is enough of that at home, matters might start improving.

Second, the education community would do well to remember the basics of learning, or what I call the "enlightened basics." For young children, these start with the fundamentals of play and creativity -- not with simulated images, but with real people and real things. ("The more muscle the more memory," as one teacher told me.) As students grow older, the basics grow into what best can be described as the art of inquiry -- the ability to investigate a complex question in your own way, drawing on a broad base of knowledge.

Another obvious but missing basic is a national collection of truly qualified teachers: people who not only are well trained, but also are sufficiently well paid to attract the world's best and brightest. Our political leaders must start to build an education culture that is first and foremost about people -- and that trusts people, rather than numbers, to be the primary judge of a youngster's progress.

EW: Why do you think access to technology does not shrink the digital divide between low-income and other students?

Oppenheimer: Teachers in poor schools often are under-trained and overburdened. When computers arrive on the scene, the teachers typically see them as a savior; devices that will finally command their students' attention. The reality is that the computer's conveniences become a shortcut around the carefully layered intellectual work -- with books and test tubes and pencil and paper -- that are education's fundamental building blocks.

"There is no greater hoax in this story than the rush to put young children on computers, in the belief that it will prepare them for tomorrow's jobs. It won't," says Todd Oppenheimer, author of THE FLICKERING MIND: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved.

Inspired learning comes out of a relationship with a teacher, not out of solitary work with a machine. As an editor at Forbes magazine once said, "In the end, it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers." Unfortunately, teachers who realize that often can't do much about it. In poor schools, most of the time in computerized classes must go to managing technical hassles that the schools can't afford to fix, and watching for cheating, instant messaging tricks, and illicit material -- to say nothing of the ongoing challenge of just maintaining order.

Education World: You list several "false promises" used to sell technology to schools. What would you say is the most damaging one?

Oppenheimer: There is no greater hoax in this story than the rush to put young children on computers in the belief that it will prepare them for tomorrow's jobs. It won't -- in fact, doing so may well put them at a professional disadvantage. One expert, who used to make educational software, suspects that employers of the future will actually steer away from applicants who were "computer trained." My favorite quote on this comes from the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), which represents employers in a range of fields that use high technology. "Want to get a job using technology to solve problems?" an ITAA report asks. "Know something about the problems that need to be solved."

Education World: What can be done to reduce the influence of technology companies on education policies?

Oppenheimer: The most obvious answer is to make technology companies jump the same bureaucratic hurdles that textbook companies do. Schools, and even school districts, should not be free to buy significant amounts of computer gear -- or any commercial products -- without getting those purchases approved by their state education departments. And those departments ought to demand rigorous proof of two things: first, that the products work; and second, that the benefits they bring can't be achieved through simpler methods.

This last point is important. Educational software companies often trot out scientific "research" that supposedly proves that their products significantly improve academic achievement. Unfortunately, those claims frequently are exaggerated, derived from biased research. Even when some achievement gains are possible, similar or greater gains can be had through very old-fashioned teaching techniques, which generally are low-tech and thus less expensive.

This e-interview with Todd Oppenheimer is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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