NO SURPRISE

12/20/04

   A recent German study of the effects of computer use on the academic performance of school age children should have surprised no one. The study found that both easy access to a computer at home and using a computer several times a week in school tend to lead to poorer math and reading performance. The study suggests a digital divide we haven't thought about. 

   It is very tempting to ridicule the need for such a study as the mystification of the obvious. Some of us have been trying to warn of the dangers of what one writer termed "silicon snake oil" for years.   However, the study offers us some hope that school districts and education policy makers can rethink what has been taken to be axiomatic - that computers are essential to the education of the young.

    Perhaps these findings will contribute to a slowing of the furious pace of computer acquisition.  Perhaps they will trigger a debate about the wisdom of schools sitting young children before a computer screen - children with minds numbed by TV and computer games - rather than having them engaged and challenged by their teachers. We may even dare to hope that this study causes school decision makers to re-examine the dangerously arrogant belief of some that students donít need to know things like how to do tedious mathematical operations because they will always have machines to do them - or donít need to know how to ferret information from the stacks of books and periodicals in a library because they have access to the Internet. The study may stimulate these and other important questions, but there are powerful reasons for guarding oneís optimism.

    The leadership of too many school districts have their self-interest tied to ignoring the study or discounting its findings. It was they who pushed their boards of education to sign the expensive contracts with Dell, Compaq and IBM. It was they who proposed bond referenda to raise the money necessary to wire school buildings, install computer laboratories and other modern technological contrivances of enormous power and cost and frightened the residents of their communities into incurring twenty years of indebtedness for equipment that will either wear out or become obsolete long before the bonds are paid off - frightening them by conjuring up the image of their children being left hopelessly behind academically and economically in an ever more competitive, computer savvy world. How do these leaders, themselves the purveyors of the "snake oil," how do they who in some cases built careers preaching the virtues of computer technology for everything ailing our modern public schools, how do they now raise these questions? There is substantial risk in it for them and very little to gain.

    Those in districts like our own who have lamented not having as much computer technology as they thought they wanted or needed can take comfort in the knowledge that our students may well have been the beneficiaries of the unintended positive consequences of tight budgets.  They may have had many hours of direct instruction their more affluent peers lost to school computer work.

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