Where every student has his or her own portable computer, uses it like a pencil and paper, can learn anytime or anywhere, and can produce the caliber of work that would be accepted in boardrooms around the world. (Want more? You can have it.)
Where forty pupils in a classroom surf the web for relevant material to the individualized topics they've chosen to investigate; where forty pupils, both physically and virtually, wander around the city collecting data on their world, input that data into their laptops and send it to a pool where others can share and make use of that information; where forty pupils download up to the minute photographs that arrive from space, and paste them into their word processors as part of their multi-media presentations on astronomy, or connect to operating tables in online hospitals from where they download up to the minute vital statistics on patients, and paste them into their Excel spreadsheets as part of their biology projects.
Where forty pupils, supposedly working on their class and individual projects play solitaire on their laptops and send ICQ messages back and forth while the teacher, convinced that his/her pupils are studiously making use of unlimited access to online information, e-mails Microsoft with a blurb on the wonderful things happening in his/her class, hoping to get media exposure via an endorsement campaign.
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.
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:
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):
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.
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