Giving Up—Or Doubling Down—on Computers in School


Is it time to give up on computers in schools? That provocative question was the title of one widely discussed sessions at this year’s ISTE conference. Panelist and education blogger, Audrey Watters, summarized her thoughts here, examining how the ideology imbued in computers can reinforce inequities in education. We shared her post in our weekly Instruct newsletter and asked our readers the same question. We found these comments to be most thoughtful.

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University

I don’t think we should give up on computers in schools.

It’s perfectly valid to harbor concerns about the collection of student data and what’s being done with that data. And it’s reasonable to wonder how students’ minds are being affected by the hour-upon-hour of interaction with technology devices; even if we remove computers from the classroom, many students will still be carrying powerful, network-connected computers in their pockets all day.

In the academic library where I work, it wouldn’t matter if we took computers out of the classrooms. Virtually every student has a laptop or tablet. Even faculty who don’t want students using computers during class have to battle to get the students to stop using them. It’s gratifying to know a student has the capacity and power to learn just about anything with that computer. They don't have to wait for a teacher to explain it. Then again, I lament that students are glued to screens while there is no curiosity driving them to the stacks to explore all the information contained in those books. They are likely not even aware of the bubble in which their Google searching traps them.

We seem to be in a period of increasing backlash against edtech. Take the Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece from a few weeks ago where Kentaro Toyama (associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information) flat out said technology won’t fix education. That attitude gets at the core of the backlash movement. Computers, software, networks—they are all just tools that we control. It’s up to us to use technology wisely to support learning and to be wise enough to know that edtech isn’t going to make what ails education go away.

I’d like to think that a skilled instructional design and technology specialist can work with educators to continue to apply edtech in thoughtful and productive ways to enhance learning—not simply to put tablets in students’ hands because an administrator wanted to avoid falling behind another district or was hooked by a salesperson’s pitch.

When it comes to computers and edtech we are still early in the game. We’re still learning more about how to make the best use of the technology. We need to learn with our students so that we understand how edtech can best help them learn—and when it can’t. I don’t know what the other panelists had to say, but I sure hope there were some good conversation around why we can't give up on computers and edtech just yet.

Robert Clegg, CEO, Knoverse

In our struggle to break free from the industrial age model of education, wouldn’t it be ironic if it were a machine that was the key to our escape?

I’d like to point out a few truly transformative capabilities computers have that cannot be imitated or accomplished by traditional teaching methods, while also decreasing cost and being done at scale.

I learned photography in high school in 1979. After getting a handle on the basics, the advanced class focused on darkroom procedures. It was an arduous process to learn how to do a “tone line.” Today, it’s a menu choice in Photoshop. Why is that transformative? Because it shifts that technique from being a technical skill to a highly creative one. It used to take me hours to get results on a single photo. Now I can experiment with hundreds of options, many of which would have been impossible to do in a high school darkroom or even art class. I believe this shift from technical skill to creative process is transformative, especially since we are no longer in the industrial age.

When I was even younger—fourth grade to be exact—I began building my own model railroads in our basement. It felt torturous to have these grandiose plans in my head but not the budget, tools or ability to make them happen. Thank goodness my mother allowed me to have a corner of the basement where sawdust, strewn track, and paper plans could rest in unkempt chaos.

Nowadays, the rise of simulation gaming has given birth to a whole host of fascinating sandboxes, project-based computer tools, and yes, train simulators. Why is this transformative? Because these tools shift the focus from hammering and sawing to thinking about the strategy of running railroad logistics and operations (or any other industry, for that matter). To say the train doesn’t just go around in a “figure eight” anymore would be an extreme understatement! You can’t have this experience the old-fashioned way. You need a CPU.

Now let’s dig in deep to the emotionally transformative power of game-based learning, especially for those in underserved communities. I taught algebra in a NYC public school and confronted the classic problems of the opportunity and achievement gaps. These gaps were so large that many of the students had checked out and lost hope of simply passing—much less mastering—the material.

When presented with a 3D-action adventure video game (with algebra embedded in the adventure story, missions and objectives), however, these kids all of a sudden woke up as if someone were finally speaking their language. As students dove into the simulations and started to play and learn, years of negative feelings about algebra class were somehow bypassed or forgotten.

This goes way beyond “engagement.” The use of story combined with GPU-generated graphics creates an immersive experience similar to what we experience during movies, a state called “suspension of belief.” This brain state allows all kinds of abstract and idiosyncratic things to occur. In movies, time is compressed, disjointed, flashed back, dissolved and cut. Relationships are accelerated, emotions are heightened, choices and consequences happen immediately. Yet we are willing to believe all this for two hours so we can experience the story on the big screen. It’s this powerful state that I attribute to the students mentioned above being able to instantly let go of the years of negativity. They went along with the story. They believed without hesitation they could do what the game asked of them—even if it involved algebra that had previously stumped them.

Now, add interactivity, the ability to get feedback, make your own choices, multiplayer teams, or even control the environment itself. Tell me that’s not transformative. It requires a CPU.

There are a number of transformative innovations in education that only the CPU can embody. Going backwards and getting rid of computers will leave you behind. Looks like the key to getting out of the industrial age just might be a machine after all.

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