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Technology and Human Responsibility | Information, Computers, and Education

Failure to Connect
Stephen L. Talbott

[This article in its original form was published in NetFuture #89 (May 4, 1999). It is now a chapter in Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines, released by O'Reilly Media in spring, 2007.]

Jane Healy walks into the school’s computer room, where she sees a huge banner proclaiming, “COMPUTERS ARE OUR FUTURE!!!” Thirty-two nine- and ten-year-olds sit at the computers, pursuing their solitary math and reading tasks while a teacher and an aide lend what support they can.

Taking up a position behind Raoul, Healy watches as he effortlessly solves a few simple addition problems and then gleefully accepts his reward: a series of smash-and-blast games. When the games end, Raoul is confronted with more math problems. “Groaning slightly, he quickly solves the problems and segues expertly into the next space battle.”

By the time I move on, Raoul has spent many more minutes zapping aliens than he has doing math.... [I] wonder if what we are really teaching Raoul is that he should choose easy problems so he can play longer, or that the only reason to use his brain even slightly is to be granted -- by an automaton over which he has no personal control -- some mindless fun as a reward. (p. 43)

Then Healy observes Dareesha, who is practicing reading skills.

Dareesha watches as a page with a few lines of storybook text appears, embellished by a colorful illustration. She examines the pictures as the cursor highlights and a voice reads each phrase of the text. This takes approximately twenty seconds; now Dareesha’s face breaks into a broad grin as she seizes the mouse and for several enchanted minutes clicks skillfully on the objects in the illustration. In response, each picture animates and performs a clever act: a mailbox opens and waves its flag, flowers bend in a rhythmic dance, vegetables turn jet-propelled and zoom across the screen. Dareesha, mesmerized, laughs aloud, unfortunately attracting the attention of the aide who materializes over her shoulder. “Read me that story!” she demands. Dareesha wilts and begins futilely to attempt sounding out the words on the screen.

“You’d better try harder or you’ll never pass this grade,” comments the aide, moving on. Dareesha sighs, looks over her shoulder, makes a few limp passes at the words, which are clearly too difficult for her, and begins once again clicking on the pictures. (pp. 43-44)

Later, Healy chats with Dareesha’s teacher:

“No, I don’t have nearly enough time to give attention to each kid,” she sighs. “Actually, I’m not really a trained teacher. They drafted me because I was pretty good with these machines. So I get the kids started on the programs, then I can go about my business -- a lot of paperwork and there are always a few of these darn things that need fixing.” (p. 44)

Looking for the Benefits

In her disturbing book, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds -- For Better and Worse, Healy offers numerous such stories based on her remarkably extensive observation of computer-based education around the country. The stories range from good to bad to ugly -- with the great majority being decidedly ugly. It’s enough to make any sober-minded reader despair of the American educational system.

Healy herself struggles mightily to see benefits, real or potential, in the classroom use of computers. Her typical positive scenario runs something like this: here’s an example of a reasonably healthy exploitation of the computer in a richly textured classroom setting; but given the healthy setting, much the same thing could easily be achieved without the massive expenditures on high-tech equipment and support.

“There’s no question that one’s initial reaction to much children’s software is bedazzlement,” she says. It may take a while to realize that “the remarkable tricks are mostly being played by the computer, not by the child” (p. 48). It’s a measure of our extremity today that Healy is driven to spend a good deal of time repeating such basic truths. For example:

The mere presence of computers guarantees nothing about their educational value.

Just because children like something does not mean it is either good for them or educational.

Using a computer will not automatically make your child smarter.

Facility with a computer signifies nothing special about a child’s intelligence.

“Information” is not the be-all, end-all of learning.

But Healy’s advice is by no means all so elementary. She is a psychologist and educator of some thirty-five years’ standing, who previously wrote Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think -- and What We Can Do About It. Her more recent book, grounded wonderfully in wise observation of actual classroom work, is a vital resource for educators. By way of the endnotes, it provides excellent access to the research literature. And throughout the book there are valuable checklists for parents and educators: for example, how to

  • evaluate software for different age groups
  • encourage girls to use computers
  • boost motivation with computers
  • avoid “online addiction”
  • improve attention
  • control video-game use
  • protect against health hazards
  • plan for the introduction of computers in a school

and much more.

I found some of this advice about how to make the best use of computers slightly disconcerting -- especially when it immediately followed a series of horrific pictures illustrating our society’s systematic inability to engage the computer sensibly. This was particularly true in the discussion of pre-schoolers and children in the lower grades, for whose use of the computer Healy could find few redeeming benefits to offset the many disastrous consequences. Given her awareness of our society’s “irrational obsession with high-tech solutions” (p. 81), and given the computer’s near perfection of our prevailing imbalances, I half expected her to say (as I myself am always tempted to say) “Ban the cursed machines from the classroom; in today’s social context they are almost certain to work destructively.”

But instead (for which we must thank her) she offers her eminently sensible advice about how to get the most from the machine. As a practical, feet-on-the-ground guidebook for parents and educators, and as an admirably comprehensive introduction to the massive literature bearing on computers in education, Failure to Connect will be hard to surpass.

Remembering the Alternatives

If I had to lodge one complaint, it would be that Healy does not follow up on her repeated observation that most successful projects would prove just as successful without the computer. That is, she does not spend much time helping us to imagine the alternatives. This exercise is important, however, because it almost invariably shows how the alternatives can readily provide what children are most lacking in our society, whereas the computer itself tends to exacerbate the lack. Surely this has a bearing on our choice of educational tools.

To take one example: Healy visited a fourth-grade class where the children were studying water resources. They collected data on local water quality, in cooperation with twelve to fifteen other schools around the world.

Hands-on learning comes first, as they visit a well to investigate local water sources and research water rights which date from the 1850 gold rush. Then they conduct science experiments to test water for chemical elements and send the results to a central “server,” which collates them with data from children as far away as Russia. Finally, an adult scientist receives their data, analyzes it, and sends back a summary of her findings.

Much about this context is indeed healthy, and the notion of collecting and sharing “data” about environmental problems around the world is highly regarded in most educational circles. And yet, the features most directly facilitated by the computer -- namely, the electronically mediated data-sharing and the scientist’s analysis and report -- point to what is most questionable in the project.

To see why this is so, listen to a story told by David Sobel in his exhilarating little booklet, Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (1996). He is discussing how the water cycle is usually taught:

Starting in first grade, children do little experiments in jars and soon thereafter draw diagrams of clouds, condensation, rivers flowing to the ocean and evaporating back to the clouds. Too often the denatured words have little connection to the real world. Rarely do children step outside, investigate puddles, collect rainwater, make miniature landscapes, or follow streams. (p. 22)

Once, when Sobel was working with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who could all “recite the water cycle forwards and backwards,” he decided to test their understanding. He asked, “When it rains over the ocean, does it rain fresh water or salt water?”

Almost all of them were adamant that it rained salt water. If we were teaching the water cycle in an experiential fashion, these children would know the answer to this question. But the problem is that we’re not really teaching science or environmental education, we are teaching a veneer of words, recitation without reality. (p. 22)

The challenge for children today is to find a direct, meaningful connection with nature. The scientist’s chemical analysis of the children’s data gains meaning only within a vast body of high abstraction that these kids must eventually find some approach to. But that approach must be grounded in their own experience. Far better at their age to test the water by observing its effects upon seed germination or other life processes the children themselves can observe than to have scientists or “black boxes” report back the presence of so many parts per million of such-and-such a molecule.

We adults too easily forget that these remote facts make no sense -- not even to us -- except insofar as they are correlated with sensible effects. (For example: “How does this chemical affect health?”) The child whose direct experience of nature has been shortchanged -- the child who thinks it rains salt water -- is not going to gain in scientific stature by obtaining abstract chemical analyses of unpronounceable trace elements.

Sobel’s book, incidentally, contains several examples of water-related instruction. Students can undertake to clean and groom a section of a local stream -- an exercise that, by itself, could supply many years of curriculum in physics, biology, ecology, geography, map-making, and any number of other subjects. Also, class trips can be taken to explore along the length of a stream. Sobel describes one fifth-grade class that went exploring to find out about the stream that flowed through a culvert under the playground. It became an exciting adventure for the students, and fit well with a neighborhood contour-mapping project.

And, again, a third-grade class, after reading Paddle-to-the-Sea, constructed their own little boats and then, after a brief ceremony, launched them in a local stream. When, a few weeks later, a canoeing stream-lover found one of the boats with its message and wrote back to the owner, the class excitedly traced the boat’s position on the map and debated its further progress. They also knew that they had been in touch with someone else out there who deeply shared their concern for the life of the stream.

Upon reading this, I couldn’t help thinking, “Now there’s ‘distance education’ that really works!” As children grow, their horizons need to expand -- but by manageable increments, so that the threads connecting them to the surrounding world are continually lengthened and strengthened, not summarily snapped.

It is precisely these connecting threads that our children most desperately lack in a society where they find themselves isolated from both nature and the world of adult work. In this context, the computer -- a veritable engine of abstraction -- a black box that inserts incomprehensible layers of mediation between the child and whatever it is he experiences -- is something the educator must always work against.

Given the endless opportunities of the sort David Sobel describes, why do we work so hard to make the task more difficult? Do you realize what we could do in the way of nature education if we diverted even a modest portion of current computer expenditures toward real-world engagement?

I say all this because Healy’s exemplary fourth-grade class project does indeed represent one of the better educational undertakings in conjunction with the computer. But it is important to see how the computer’s role in this project is peripheral to the most urgent benefits of the project, and is actually a strong invitation to sacrifice some of the benefits by pulling students away from a science rooted in their own experience and understanding.

It’s also worth noting that the communication function served by the computer in this project could readily be exercised by old-fashioned mail. I’m not aware of any educational loss that would result from the several days’ lag time -- and there might possibly be a gain in the students’ anticipation and in their more sustained focus. If, as so many people think, the computer’s role in such projects is educationally remarkable, one wonders why so few educators previously saw -- or now see -- the same remarkable opportunities being offered by the vastly cheaper postal service. Apparently the computer exudes a glamor that simply pre-empts all “common” educational answers -- and thereby also pre-empts common sense.

Healy once attended a “technology in education” conference in the midwest. She stopped at a prominent display for a multimedia package designed to teach reading and writing “all in one iridescent package with countless components and a huge price tag.” The salesman started up the demo, which resembled nothing more than “a loud, gaudy Saturday morning cartoon.” As she tells the story:

“You interested in our great new system here?” he booms heartily.

“I’m not sure. Can you give me a couple of reasons why I should use this instead of regular materials -- you know, books, pencils, teachers?”

His eyes widen, and he stares at me as if I had just landed from outer space or, more likely, should be sporting a hoop skirt, bonnet, and bustle.

“Well, I don’t really have an answer for that”, he fumbles through the promotional flyers. “No one ever asked me that before.”

“How long have you been selling this product?” I inquire.

“About two years.”

“So how many educators have you shown it to?”

“Oh, I don’t know ... probably several thousand.”

“And I’m the first one who ever asked you why it is better than traditional methods?”

“Yup. What do you do, anyway?”

The more relevant question, as Healy’s book makes painfully clear, applies to our society as a whole: what are we doing?

Steve Talbott :: Failure to Connect

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