Does Johnny Need a Computer Now?
What role is the computer playing in the education of our children?
How good a teacher is it?
JOHNNY’S mother sat listening soberly to his teacher. The teacher told her that Johnny was not doing very well in school.
“Well,” asked the mother, “what do you suggest?”
“Have you thought of a home computer?” responded the teacher.
Advertisements depicting a scene like the one described above have done much in making many anxious parents believe that to assure the proper education—and future job prospects—of their children, they must see to it that their children learn everything they can about computers. Furthermore, computers are appearing in classrooms at a rapidly increasing rate.
Certainly the computer has the potential to teach and to develop creativity and problem-solving abilities in ways that were previously not thought possible.
For instance, one computer program allows the student not only to dissect a frog but also to reassemble it. If the student performs the “operation” correctly, he is rewarded by seeing the frog come to life and hop off the screen. Other programs simulate the motion of the planets, portray the geography of the earth, or enable the student to fly a plane, drive a car, or perform chemical experiments.
Another way in which the computer is used is generally called computer-assisted learning. The computer asks a question. If the student answers correctly, it moves on to the next question. If not, it prompts the student with clues. This gives the student a one-on-one learning experience and allows him to proceed at his own pace. Besides, a computer has infinite “patience” and does not get “upset” with the student when wrong answers are given, as a teacher might. This too is conducive to learning.
Most schools now have computer-literacy classes. These classes teach students how to operate and program the machine. For those who are interested in a career in the computer field, this could be very important. Proponents of this type of curriculum strongly feel that all students should have some knowledge of computers. Job prospects, real or imagined, also give such classes strong appeal.
Writing and research are other useful applications of school computers. Teachers in writing classes often find that students using computers as word processors are more willing to rewrite and edit their own material—an essential part of good writing—because they always have in front of them a finished, neat-looking product.
The computer can also open up a vast source of information for the student. Using the appropriate equipment, students in one school can communicate with students in other schools for special projects. They can also tap into large central libraries and data banks, gaining access to up-to-date information on a wide range of subjects that the library of their own school could never afford to maintain.
Clearly, when properly used, the computer is a teaching aid. The hands-on experience and the one-on-one situations made possible where there are enough computers are valuable for younger students. Older ones can go beyond the textbook-based curriculum and benefit from the new ways of learning made possible by the computer.
All of this certainly sounds wonderful. But how are things working out in reality? Has the computer lived up to expectations?
Up to Expectations?
Making computers in education a success is really no different from making any school curriculum a success. What is needed is the right kind of programs taught by competent teachers. Have these criteria been met?
Some schools, in their rush to purchase computer technology, went ahead and bought computers without carefully considering how they were going to be used and what the needs of the students were. The result is that many schools are stuck with the unpleasant task of finding worthwhile uses for their computers.
This state of affairs is reflected in how school computers are currently being used. While there are fascinating programs and ingenious ways of teaching, surveys have found that such programs constitute only a minimum of the total being used in schools. Most of the programs used in the classrooms are either for practice and drill or for teaching computer literacy.
Practice and drill, of course, have their place in school. But it is hard to refute the logic in the question raised by a schoolteacher and computer-literacy instructor: “Why spend $2,000, or $1,200, or even $600 for an electronic workbook when a plain old $2.95 workbook with lots of drill and practice sheets will do just as well?” Furthermore, some educators feel that such applications defeat the whole purpose of using computers in classrooms because they reduce learning to seeking right and wrong answers rather than stimulating thinking and creativity.
As for the need of computer literacy, many feel this is a clever gimmick of the computer makers and related industries. Because of advertisements like the one cited earlier, and perhaps because of their own fear of this new machine, many parents feel that their children will be failures if they do not have a working knowledge of computers. In reality, few future jobs require computer literacy, that is, knowledge of programming, computer languages, and so forth. Rather, computers will be used as tools, much as calculators or electric typewriters are commonly used today. Certainly it is an asset to know how to use these machines, but no one worries about not knowing how they work unless one is interested in a vocation in this area. The prevailing view is that computer literacy should be taught but only as an option.
Since computers are relative newcomers to the classroom, they often appear as unfathomable to teachers without the technical background as they do to the students. Thus, resistance to change, school officials find, is a major obstacle in raising the level of computer instruction.
“Many teachers feel uncomfortable with computers,” said a school principal. “They know that computers are here and that they ought to be interested. But staff training is still the biggest problem.” To reeducate the teachers takes time and money. However, school authorities are hopeful that as teachers gain more experience and more computer-literate teachers join their forces, more effective use can be found for this tool.
What Parents Need to Do
So does Johnny really need a computer now? The answer may well depend on you, the parent. If your concern is that your child will be a failure if he does not have a computer, then perhaps the foregoing will allow you to see the picture in a more balanced way.
Educators generally agree that schoolchildren should have some exposure to computers. To this end, most public schools today have some type of program to teach students about computers, introducing them to the basic elements of the hardware—the computer, keyboard, disk drive, printer, and so on—and to elementary programming. The schools usually provide the necessary equipment in computer classes, and students are given hands-on experience. Those interested in the computer field can choose special classes in later years in the same way that other students may choose art, accounting, secretarial, or other courses.
There are, of course, some schools in which computers are used more extensively and innovative programs are utilized to teach a variety of subjects. But because such curriculum is still relatively new, no one is quite sure if it is better than conventional methods of education.
Perhaps the words of a high school junior in a New York Times article serve to summarize the situation. He writes: “Computers have a place in education as tools, but they are not a form of social insurance against incompetence and woolly thinking.” Emphasizing the importance of teaching students how to think, he concludes: “There is no technological short-cut to that goal.”
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“The child will benefit far more from an hour spent with an interested parent than from an hour spent in front of a beeping box.”—Personal Computers column, The New York Times