From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 19, 1998*Make Learning ... A Copywriter's Paradise?

This month's column was originally conceived as part of last month's, but that was before my AltaVista search on "makes learning fun" showed such a high correlation between computers and kids' enjoyment at school - at least in the eyes of copywriters. Of course making fun of copywriters is much too easy, and it's really not fair to wax profound simply by knocking their platitudes. Sometimes, however, it's unavoidable, and what's more, when those platitudes become standard fare we have no real choice but to knock them at every chance we get. Which of course brings us to Microsoft's Anytime-Anywhere campaign: What a wonderful world it would be. Being considered a relatively imaginative person myself, I figure I can catch the spirit: Believe me, I'm all for it, and it's really quite easy once you get the hang of it. But sometimes, that lurking and bothersome adversary, reality creeps in and you get a slightly different scenario: Truly, what a wonderful world it would be.

As I noted in last month's column, computers have been around the classroom long enough for us to start to get a picture of how they can be integrated into the educational process, or to see how their use changes and enhances traditional pupil/teacher interactions. Yet what we seem to get most of is simply more of the same.

This favorite cartoon sadly depicts that most expected scenario: nothing will change. Yes, we'll integrate the computer (and the internet) into our classrooms, but traditional pupil/teacher interactions will continue to be the norm - kids will continue to sit in rows in their classrooms, in physical proximity to their peers, but hardly interacting with them, receiving instruction from, and responding to, only their teachers. In the following cartoon the computers are "integrated" into the classroom, but the traditional classroom has emerged the winner.

  So just what kids will do with computers and an internet connection in their schools is far from clear, though perhaps preparing reports that could be presented in boardrooms is a distinct possibility: polished and glossy reports which have to be squeezed before even a bit of real content drops out of them.

Around the time that I was preparing this column I was approached my someone who told me he wanted to find material on Helen Keller on the internet. Another person present at the time of the request immediately answered that he could probably find a good deal of information, but that an encyclopaedia (even on a CD-Rom) would be better. Having been in this situation enough times to readily identify it, I quickly responded that that wasn't the proper answer, because the person who responded hadn't understood the question properly. Honed down to its bare essentials, the question was:

In other words, the question wasn't "where can I find information about Helen Keller on the internet", but instead "how can I readily find some information, even information I already know, about Helen Keller without devoting too much effort?". I'm quite sure that in this particular case the first responder was correct - that the information that could be found in an encyclopaedia would be at least as good as any that might be found using the internet. But in our schools as we know them today, the other, sub-text, question was a much more logical one to be asked. The internet has become more of a buzzword than a resource, and every parent wants his/her child to access it before completing his/her report on any given topic - how many extra points on a grade do you get for each URL in your bibliography?

But there you have it - instead of dealing with pupil/teacher interactions, I'm discussing the cosmetics of term papers, which in the end, due to an almost total lack of serious educational thinking, is what the use of computers in schools comes down to anyway.

And of course it's not just pupil/teacher interaction. It's the whole question of access to learning materials. In Texas, for example, the chairman of the State Board of Education has proposed replacing public school textbooks with laptop computers. Textbooks for the entire state are expected to cost about $2 billion over the next six years, and part of the proposed idea is to invest the money that would be saved from not purchasing textbooks into laptops for every pupil (made available through leasing) instead.

That's a proposal that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Textbooks haven't been the most successful educational tool either, and there's nothing sacred about them. Doing away with them was suggested long before computers attacked the schools. In a list of proposals designed to change the nature of the (then, and now?) existing school environment, from their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner write (p. 137):

But as much as Postman and Weingartner's proposal attracts me, I'm very dubious about the idea of having CD textbooks, or even online textbooks. I've already admitted that I don't see anything sacred (or even overly educational) about them, and not purchasing them would undoubtedly be a money saving venture (is education supposed to save money?). It would also make editing and updating much easier - the idea of an online text means that we can change and update that text almost on the fly. No need to withdraw outdated texts from the schools, just change the content on the out of date page, put it back up on the web, and it's all there. Ah, but there's the rub.

It seems as though only a very thin line distinguishes between updating on the fly and outrightly rewriting history. Though I wouldn't go so far as to accuse them of wanting to enforce some sort of Big Brotherly Newspeak, I have my doubts as to whether the boards of education could resist the possibilities, nor whether they'd know where to draw the line. A new Minister of Education has taken office who thinks that history should be taught just a little differently? No problem, the links to certain events get easily edited out. Evolution is no longer popular? Just switch the links from Darwin to the Bible. Once you get the hang of it, it probably can even be fun. And if, after waiting too long for the educational paradise to emerge from the use of computers in school, it becomes necessary to downscale the original copywriter's predictions, just rewrite a washed down version and link to it instead. Few will know, or care.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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