COMPUTERS IN OUR SCHOOLS: WHOS PUSHING THE BUTTONS?
The text below is from a speech given by Steve Bergen to Independent School Heads at an NAIS Workshop in Rensellaersville in the summer of 1984. It has since appeared in publication in Classroom Computer Learning and the book RUN: Computer Education, Second Edition edited by Dennis Harper and James Stewart, 1986.
These are pages 283-290 in the Don't Think Y2K Edition of The Summercore Primer
I would like to conclude this afternoons session by raising what I believe is one of the most important issues in computer education today whos pushing the buttons? Specifically, Im referring to control, pressure, and coercion among institutions and within our society. The height of computer craziness in our society even more so than decreasing hardware prices and proliferating software is that schools and institutions are now making major decisions and expenditures to computerize not always out of strength and educational vision, but because computers seem to be the thing to do. Newspapers, magazines, television commercials, parents, publishers are all shouting computers and everybodys jumping.
This whole issue of control is no simple matter it pervades every aspect of computer education. In designing Logo, Papert made it clear that he wanted a language that would allow kids to control the machines, as opposed to traditional educational software which too frequently controls the kids. This image of human vs. computer serves in microcosm for what I see as the most important need for teachers today: learning enough about all aspects of computer education so that you are in control and that YOU ARE PUSHING THE BUTTONS.
This is not to say that schools should NOT be rushing to computerize; its just that they should be doing so out of their own educational vision, not just to get on the bandwagon. And just maybe they should be walking, not running to do it. So lets take another look at some of those important buttons in computer education today.
The first two buttons, P and L, deal with the two relatively new languages, Pascal and Logo. Pascal advocates and Logo advocates abound these days, each making it clear that their language is the gospel, with considerable technological self-righteousness. The College Board in Princeton has spelled out its reasons for opting for Pascal over BASIC, and in so doing it has made scores of schools spend considerable money to acquire Pascal and considerable energy on instituting Pascal. One school, in fact, has reacted by immediately replacing all of its hardware and instituting a required Pascal course for all tenth graders. The intellectual snobbery that exists in this BASIC vs. Pascal issue is mind-boggling. Consider the statement of one Harvard professor:
Anyone who first learns BASIC before Pascal will never ever be able to learn to program correctly.
In some ways, the BASIC vs. Pascal issue reminds me of the new math controversy of the sixties, when it was argued that axiomatic methodology had to pervade every aspect of the mathematics curriculum. Yes, the new math approach is wonderfully exciting for the 1% of your students that go on to be mathematicians, just as Pascal is a wonderful enrichment for the 1% of students that might go on to be programmers. But, for everybody? My fundamental fear of this Pascal button is that too many schools will push it for too many students, turning computer usage into an elitist, highly technical subject. John Kemeny of Dartmouth invented BASIC to make programming accessible to everyone, but pushing the Pascal button can easily serve to create hoards of computer-anxious students.
The second button, L for Logo, also has the potential to be abused. For one, publishers, textbooks writers, and some teachers are now coming up with a prescribed Logo curriculum for each grade. This imposed order is totally contrary to Paperts vision of heuristic learning and discovery I urge you to read MINDSTORMS, if you havent already, to get a wonderful perspective on the teaching and learning philosophy of Logo. The notion of prescribed Logo skills would certainly make Papert turn over in his grave, even though he is still alive and well and back once again at M.I.T.
Others are making the mistake of slotting Logo into grades K-6, missing out on the fact that Logo is a tremendously exciting medium for exploring informal geometry in the middle school and deductive geometry in the high school.
And then there is the contest to teach Logo to younger and younger students first graders, kindergarteners, pre-schoolers. Are people really asking WHY instead of just jumping on the bandwagon? Several friends keep urging me to start my four year old on early Logo skills. No way, I respond. Let her play with blocks, crayons, run outside. I urge you to take a look at that LEGO vs. Logo article in THE COMPUTING TEACHER (May 1983). In it, the authors talk about the learning path of children in Piagetian terms, from the preoperational thinking stage, ages 3-7, to that of the concrete operations of the older child. The thesis of the article is that computers do not provide for the mobility and active play so essential to young children and do not provide enough real life situations, and open-ended opportunities for experimentation. The author concludes:
Computers provide children with unambiguous feedback and little opportunity to read significance into direct but critical communications from others. Communications received by children at a microcomputer keyboard are direct messages circumscribed by the purposes of the programmer. Understanding these messages often requires a level of abstraction only available to a child who has arrived at the stage of concrete operations when he or she can deal with more than one factor simultaneously.
Finally, there are still others who advocate that Logo replace BASIC because it is a more sophisticated, cleaner language. Once again, programming is seen as an end in itself, in contrast to a means towards computer literacy and computer awareness. In other words, if programming is important because it is a valuable professional skill in and of itself, then of course it is important that we choose the best language, the most useful language and the one that matches the professional software world the best.
My particular bias is in opposition to that point of view. Instead, I believe that learning to program is important because it is the best way to get in touch with how the idiot machine works. Additionally, learning to program in any language involves considerable logical, intellectual and aesthetic skills certainly the domain of education. Only for the 1% of the student population that goes on to be programmers is it important what language they learn. Yes, those kids should learn more sophisticated languages than BASIC, just as they should take Advanced Placement Courses in English, Calculus and Physics.
It has been interesting as of late to see Logo advocates slowly realize that after turtle graphics, the more sophisticated techniques of Logo, just like the corresponding parts of BASIC, can be tough going. In a recent issue of Hands-On, Bob Tinker of TERC has made some very significant points about why Logo should not replace BASIC. In the article, Tinker states,
Once the beginning programmer is familiarized with procedures and graphics, Logo suddenly becomes much more difficult to learn. Student progress is blocked by difficulties with three important properties of the language: its use of lists, the assignment statement, and the absence of an index looping construct.
Tinker goes on to criticize these three Logo structures in fairly technical terms; the point is that Logo, like BASIC, is not the panacea.
And finally, as one last comment on this Logo, BASIC, Pascal issue, I wonder what makes people think that we have to have one or the other? Why cant we offer both Logo and BASIC as introductory programming courses, Logo for its graphics, geometry and artistic applications and BASIC for its applications with numbers and words. Do we have just one foreign language in our curriculum? Think of how difficult it would be to choose between French and Spanish as the one and only introduction to a foreign language.
And then we have button number three, the E button, for educational software. As with so many aspects of computer education, things are changing faster than you can keep up with them. In fact, the first step in discussing educational software today is discarding those cliches that used to be true. In other words, it used to be said that most educational software existed only for math and science, that it was simply electronic flashcards, and that it was for the most part rather poor quality stuff. To continue making these statements in 1983 reflects considerable naivete about the lifetime of progress that has been made in just the past 12 months.
So much new educational software has come out in the past year that the cliches themselves have changed. The new catch phrases are now how to find it, how to select it, and how to review it. There are now quite a number of high quality products in all academic areas simulations in History and Science, microworlds for exploring composition in music and art, as well as first rate drill and practice software in English, Math and Foreign Languages. In fact, the most widespread lament of teachers as they get involved in educational software is the biggest HOW TO question of all how to find the time to keep up with all of it.
Because the quality of educational software has improved dramatically in the past two years, there are now many educators who are beginning to advocate educational software for teaching and instructional use, not just drill and practice. Alfred Bork, a well-known computer education expert, predicts that within a few years, the math/science teacher shortage will be so severe that computers will by necessity have to be used to teach high school math courses. Bork states:
Learning is not an interactive process for the vast majority of students in schools today. There are just too many students, too few teachers, and too few resources; and I cannot see that the country is going to put additional financial resources into education. Half our high schools no longer offer more than a year of mathematics and science. Interaction is only possible in very limited form with the present dominant technologies; with computers, it becomes practical. Working with computer based learning models is the only way todays mass education can make learning an active process for millions of students.
Classroom Computer News, March 83, p .17
Quite a few others predict that by the year 2000, two-thirds of our teaching will be done by machine. In discussing CAI, Computer Assisted Instruction, John Herriot goes so far as to state,
There is a very strong possibility that before the end of the century, students will be receiving all of their instruction from computers, with no contact with live teachers whatsoever. It can be done, and very well.
Creative Computing, April 82
Scientific research seems to support computer based learning. In reviewing the findings of 51 studies, Dr. James Kulik at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan summarizes his results,
Our analysis showed that computer-based teaching raised final examination scores from the 50th to the 63rd percentile ... Any use of a computer to teach or grade material may force people to plan more carefully when they design the learning modules and to develop the instruction better, in a way that ordinary classroom teaching doesnt. Personal Computing, June 1983, p. 123
In a major report published by the Office of Technology Assessment in 1982, similar conclusions are reached,
There is a substantial amount of agreement that, for many educational applications, information technology can be an effective and economical tool for instruction. Research exists, some of it dating back years, to suggest that students do learn as well or better from educational technology than from conventional means. Little evidence exists to the contrary.
Personal Computing, June 1983, p. 123
My intention in sharing all of these statistics and quotes with you is really not to convince you as much as to make you aware that quite a lot is at stake when we push the E button perhaps even our educational system as we know it.
And if you think that this educational software issue is going to just fade away, like language labs and other fads, you may be surprised. Publishing companies and software firms are gearing up now for what may be a multi-million dollar industry by 1987. One of the reasons that educational software has improved considerably is that a lot of capital funding is going into producing the new software. In a recent N.Y. Times article, it was said that
between 4 and 5 million Americans now have desktop computers, 26 million will own them by 1986, and each owner is likely to purchase 8-10 books about these machines. Moreover, in the first year he or she owns a computer, the average buyer shells out approximately $1000 for software to use with it.
N.Y. Times Book Review Section, 6/5/83, page. 39
Accordingly, it is no wonder that in terms of the home market, even more so than to schools, slick brochures and fancy ads are promoting software products that can reinforce, instruct and perhaps even teach.
And it is this new breed of educational software, software that goes beyond enrichment or drill and practice, but purports to teach that, I think, needs to be an issue of control. Educators and administrators not publishers and parents should be pushing these buttons.
My own personal reaction to this new breed of educational software and I emphasize that many would disagree with me is astonishment and dismay. Having taught for 8 years before doing computer work, I have tremendous respect for the teaching profession for those human beings who can motivate, excite, inform, explain, coerce and even throw erasers at kids at appropriate moments. And having done considerable computer software in the last few years, I feel reasonably comfortable with making judgments about current and future capabilities of the machine. Yes, software programs that instruct and teach will proliferate in the next 20 years. But they will never match the good teacher. More to the point, though, even if they do, I dont want education being taught that way. Its one of those areas that Joseph Weizenbaum, author of Eliza and professor at M.I.T. has in mind when he says,
There are certain tasks which computers OUGHT not be made to do, independent of whether computers CAN be made to do them.
Computer Power and Human Reason, page x, preface
Furthermore, I see too much software, even the fancy stuff, as being soft education, rather than educational software. SNOOPER TROOPS is a work of art, an incredibly sophisticated software game, which like the game of CLUE offers considerable logic and problem-solving possibilities. But it is being promoted as much more than just a game. In a recent issue of Classroom Computer News, an eighth grade English teacher discusses a lesson plan and teaching strategies for using SNOOPER TROOPS, which he says can provide students with valuable practice in reading and logic skills. Classroom Computer News, March 83, p. 62
Im sorry. I just cant buy it. Just as I wouldnt want my child playing CLUE at school, I wouldnt want her eighth grade English curriculum to include SNOOPER TROOPS.
To me, the challenge of teaching has always been to make genuine academic learning appealing, motivating and exciting for students, not to water down the curriculum. The fact is that SNOOPER TROOPS is being promoted as an educational package designed to help children learn to take notes, draw maps, classify and organize information, and help develop vocabulary and reasoning skills. back of package
That is what scares me. Too many students, teachers, and parents are believing this hype from the software publishers, and its only going to get worse over the next 20 years. As publishers rush to convert more and more curriculum to software, Im scared that the curriculum will get softer and softer, in keeping with Weizenbaums nightmare:
Abraham Maslow once said that to him who has only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. To him who has only a computer, the whole world looks like a computable domain. You introduce a new symbolic system, and one begins to interpret the world in such terms. The danger is that we will end up thinking like a computer and that the only things we will recognize as legitimate problems are those where quantification and calculation play a big role.
Of all the buttons that are involved in computer education, it is this E button, for Educational Software, that has the potential to fulfill Weizenbaums dismal prophecy for the next 20 years. Neither pushing it blindly or refusing to do so is going to be a viable approach; accordingly, educators must get involved with learning about it, exploring it, experimenting with, and evaluating it once again, out of strength and their own educational vision.
And then there is the $ button, the most important one of all these days. It is interesting to note that if you look at a typewriter, the $ button works only when the shift button is pressed, a metaphor suggesting that perhaps we need to SHIFT the way we are spending our money. For years, some people were oblivious to the fact that software required as much attention and consideration as hardware. When I worked for The Williamson Group, I remember hearing about one schools decision to computerize their development office they did an extensive comparison of hardware, and finally chose IBM because of its reputation, service and reliability. Announcing proudly that they were purchasing this fancy IBM system for $40,000, the headmaster was asked about development office software. His response: that was the very next item on his agenda they would now begin their software search. Two months later, they were shocked to find out that no development office software existed for the large IBM machine they had just purchased ... $40,000 down the drain.
Well, people have gotten wiser over the last five years and now it has almost become a cliche that you need to spend as much money on software as on hardware and to research both at the same time, with equal priority. Unfortunately, the next lesson being learned the hard way involves not hardware or software, but what I have started calling humanware. It is absolutely the most important thing to keep in mind as you push the $ button. While some people talk about 1/3 for hardware, 1/3 for software, 1/3 for humanware, others have gone so far as to say 1/4 for hardware, 1/4 for software, and 1/2 of your computer budget for humanware.
Because no matter what hardware and software you have, the success of your computer education program will be based on people your teachers and your staff. It takes time to learn BASIC, LOGO, PASCAL well enough to teach them. And if you rely on just one computer person, watch out when he goes off to California to get a high-tech job. And for people who teach computer literacy topics, there is a lot of information to synthesize even learning to use a word processor or to do database management takes time, let alone choosing and reviewing software effectively or keeping up with the unrelenting changes in hardware. Everybody thinks that computers save time ... thats ridiculous. Way before they start saving time, they CONSUME time hours and hours of time learning how each feature works and how to get over each new frustrating and inevitable hurdle.
And guess what time costs money. Even if you have 5-10 teachers on your staff who are willing to spend extra hours learning about computers, reviewing software, researching educational topics, if want to get the job done well, you wont be able to keep going on good faith alone. Lately, Ive been suggesting 2 strategies to schools one is to have 5 or 6 teachers reduce their teaching load by one course and form a committee for the academic year to become resident computer education experts. The committee would be charged with learning all the topics of computer literacy, usage and programming, spending 6-10 hours a week for 40 weeks. The second strategy has been to simply award a financial stipend to the 5-6 teachers instead of reducing their teaching load.
Regardless of strategy, the idea is the same and as shocking as it may sound to many administrators, most computer education people agree on this advice. If a school had $10,000 budgeted for computers, they would do far better buying one Apple for $2,500 and having this committee of 5 people becomes resident computer experts in one year, rather than spend all of it on machines. And while parents might balk about not having enough computers in the school, the administration would undoubtably achieve in one year what very few institutions have yet to do with a team of 5-6 computer usage experts, knowledgeable about computers, the school would then be able to make rational computer decisions based not on the hard-sell of advertisements, but on their own educational vision and needs.
Which brings us to our next button T for Time. Just how urgent is it for schools to jump onto the computer education bandwagon? Well, from a society and parent perspective, the answer is clear. Too many parents today feel that if their 6 year olds arent sitting in front of a computer an hour a day, they will have fallen behind in this crazy race for technological literacy and will never get into graduate school. So, as far as parents go, yes, today, immediately, in fact maybe yesterday. But educationally, is that the best way to proceed? No absolutely not, say most people knowledgeable in computers. Yes, get involved in the computer education issues today, start learning as much as you can, but you dont need to launch the whole K-12 master plan during this academic year. The best advice Ive heard on this comes from Tom Smith, author of Kidstuff and former teacher at The Park School in Brookline. In talking about their computer education program there, he said they decided to start with just the 4th grade, spending their money and limited energy that first year on teaching the students and teachers in that one grade only. Then, the next year, they expanded it to grades 3 & 5, and so on, one year at a time, out of strength, not out of panic.
And so, once again the theme of humanware emerges, even in terms of talking about time and urgency. Faculty learning must precede classroom implementation, or else youre going to have a mediocre program. Create a computer committee of 5 to 6 faculty members, charge them with becoming resident computer experts in one academic year, and then proceed.
And finally, the last button of all, and the most important, is the C button computers themselves to be or not to be, that is the question.
No, I guess thats not the question, for they are here and we just dont seem to have a choice anymore, for better or for worse, in sickness and health, till death do us part, or should I say till terminal illness do us part? But we do have a choice to do it sanely, cautiously and with constant examination and review of how things are evolving in fact in the true spirit of scientific inquiry and the scientific method.
Yes, word processing is wonderful, but will students over the next ten years become less capable at writing on paper, just as calculators have allowed people to be less facile with mental and written calculations. I mean, doesnt it annoy you when you hand the clerk ten dollars to pay a bill of $9.56, and the clerk then starts searching for the calculator all over the store, rather than using his mind or a piece of paper. Is it remotely possible that as word processing proliferates through our schools to younger and
younger kids that the skills of penmanship and writing on paper will be a lost art in the year 2001?
Yes, educational software can be of value, but will it undermine education itself? Will the fancy graphics and immediate feedback of software cause our students to have an even shorter attention span in our classes, in the way that television has invariably done?
And yes, programming the idiot machine is very exciting, whether it be in BASIC, LOGO, or PASCAL, but should it be seen as more important than other academic areas? Too many schools are cutting down on English, Music and Art while putting more money into computers. Is it really more important to buy 10 more computers this year or to give all the teachers a 20% across the board raise? The ultimate irony of all this computer craziness would be if in the year 2000, we have a tremendous shortage of English teachers and have to pay THEM higher salaries to keep them in the teaching profession.
Yes, computers are here to stay, but it is important that we use them on our own educational terms. Too much is at stake and there are too many buttons to push to simply have one person in the math department decide the future of your computer education program. Educators of all disciplines must learn as much as they can so they are in control. Administrators may not need to know how to program although it might be argued that everyone should but most DO need to know much more about the breadth of computer education issues than they currently do. Otherwise, the software publishers, the hardware manufacturers, the college professors and the neurotic parents will be banging on the door to push the buttons. Each group has its vested interest and each group would love to steer the direction of computer education.
And though I dont like ending talks like this one on the down side, the current state of affairs in computer education is full of too much craziness to do otherwise. And so we turn once again to Weizenbaum, who expresses best the ultimate reservation of the C button, portraying in rather devastating terms one view of the present and the future:
Wherever computer centers have become established, that is to say, in countless places in the United States, as well as in virtually all other industrial regions of the world, bright young men <and women> of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gamblers on the rolling dice. When not so transfixed, they often sit at tables strewn with computer printouts over which they pore like possessed students of a cabalistic text. They work until they nearly drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If possible, they sleep on cots near the computer. But only for a few hours then back to the console or the printouts. Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven face, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move. They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers. These are computer bums, compulsive programmers. They are an international phenomenon.
Thank you and have a nice afternoon.