SEE JOHNNY CLICK: Computers in Education

Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Will computers revolutionize education or not? President Clinton called for connecting every classroom in America to the Internet. School districts across the country are spending billions of dollars on computers for the classroom. Will all of this effort pay off or is it misguided? Just how should computers be used in the classroom? Is it possible that computers can actually harm the educational process?

Recorded on Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Computers in the Classroom. Are they revolutionizing education or just one more fad? Motion pictures, 1922 Thomas Edison predicted and I quote, "Motion pictures will supplant the use of textbooks." Radio, in 1923 the New York Times predicted of radio and again I quote, "It will become an institution for learning. Television, in 1940 David Sarnoff said of television as a learning tool and again I quote, "It will be come a creative force." Three new technologies, three predictions, none of which panned out, which brings us to computers. Computers as learning tools have, in recent years, been subject to the same reverence as the items we just saw. School districts and governments have spent billions to put computers in classrooms. But now, now there are some second thoughts. Some critics argue indeed that computers are actually harmful to education.

With us today, three guests. Charles Garvin is CEO of Studyserver. William Rukeyser is coordinator of the non-profit organization, Learning in the Real World. And Alan Warhaftig comes to us direct from the classroom. Alan teaches in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Title: Reading, Writing and Arithme-click

Peter Robinson: President Clinton has called for every classroom in America to be wired to the internet. David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science at Yale. I stress, Professor of Computer Science. You'd think he'd be pro-computer, has responded, I quote, "Too many American high school students are bad at science, useless at mathematics, hopeless at writing but if they could connect to the latest websites we'd see improvement. Pardon me Mr. President but this is demented." Is it demented to put computers in American classrooms? Alan?

Alan Warhaftig: I think it's too soon to know.

Peter Robinson: Too soon to know. Charlie?

Charles Garvin: I think it's too soon to know but I think they're doing constructive things right now and we need to do more.

Peter Robinson: Bill?

William L. Rukeyser: It reflects the shopping cart mentality.

Peter Robinson: So it's not demented, it's foolish?

William L. Rukeyser: I'm skeptical. I'm not opposed. What it's doing is it's putting the shopping list first and the lesson plan later. That's not a sensible way to run a school. It's not a sensible way to educate one child or twenty million children.

Peter Robinson: Okay, now I've just told you the President of the United States has called for wiring up students to the internet. Listen to this: 1998 to 1999 academic year, school districts in the United States, we're not talking about federal spending or private dona--lots of private donations to schools to buy computers, this is the districts themselves, spent more than six and a half billion dollars on computers and related technology. This is big, big, big. President of the United States. Billions being spent on computers and related technology. Charlie, what's going on? Why the push to get computers into the classroom?

Charles Garvin: Well I think there are a few things going on. One is that there have been some early experiments that look very constructive. A second is that candidly taxpayers in a lot of areas have not been supporting the public schools very well and have some problems with how the public schools operate. And I think there's some attention, right or wrong, to try to get additional teaching techniques, new teaching techniques into the classroom.

William L. Rukeyser: If I may, I think that there are really four things driving the push to get computers into every classroom. Faith, people want to believe in something. This has acquired a quasi-religious aspect. Fear, fear that the kids are going to be left behind. Hype, a lot of people have said you got to have it everywhere. Spread it around like margarine. And hope. People want to hope, it's a natural human emotion but emotion should not drive public policy.

Alan Warhaftig: As the teacher here, what I have to tell you is the most important and most precious asset I have is instructional time.

Peter Robinson: Time?

Alan Warhaftig: Time. And what happens is by the time you're done with six weeks of standardized testing and all the holidays and everything else, there's not much time. I can think of a few good things to do with instructional technology, with computers and with the internet. But after that, what I think of--of the uses is the good ones are few and far between. And until we identify what the appropriate uses are and have real professional development based on those appropriate uses, by grade level, by discipline, then I think we're wasting our money.

William L. Rukeyser: Also, I'd like to just point out…

Peter Robinson: Yep.

William L. Rukeyser: …that if we do the kind of research that we should be doing already, what we'll be able to do is identify those classes and those grade levels where computers pay off the most. We'll be able to allocate our resources there. So we'll be spending our money wisely and we may find there are some grade levels and some classes where computers are superfluous, some where it's kind of a wobbler, maybe they do, maybe they don't. Other areas where they're a definite plus. And so rather than saying we got to have them everywhere at this level of penetration, we'll be allocating our resources wisely.

Peter Robinson: Charlie, Alan and Bill are standing on the railroad tracks holding up their arms saying stop this train! We need to know where it's going. Are you--are you on the railroad tracks with them or are you on the train?

Charles Garvin: Well I guess to borrow your analogy, Peter, I think what we're experiencing right now is building the railroad system. And I think Alan and--and Bill have excellent points, that right now there's a lot of stuff being bought for schools, there's a lot of hardware, there are a lot of, you know, if you like, railroad tracks being put in place. And so far, the content and communication to go with them haven't been as present. And I guess the only thing I would say about that is, that was true for the railroads. It's true for every infrastructure that we build as a country. We didn't have cable news network until there was a cable network to put on it. We've been very aggressive in the last several years about building the network. Only now is the content coming that I think will really make it worthwhile.

Peter Robinson: Okay, can I just put a…

Peter Robinson: Let me explain why I have a personal interest in the question of computers in the classroom.

Title: Parental Guidance Suggested

Peter Robinson: My wife and I have four kids. Nine, seven, five and four in a few days. We're living in Silicon Valley. Everybody has a computer. We go and buy a big computer, which incidentally becomes obsolete eighteen months later. And we then spend several hundred dollars on this reading software and that phonetic software and this mith--mathematical software. The kids play with this stuff for a little while but it doesn't really seem to engage them. And furthermore, as far as I can tell, it didn't really give them a head start on reading or the basics of mathematical skills when they went into sch--it wasn't until they get into school and they start using paper, pencil, books, that they actually start to take off. And I am now frankly extremely skeptical. There's a big debate in the kids' school where the kids go. How much time should the kids spend in computer lab? There's general notion that technology is happening all over the world and if you don't get--teach the kids computer skills, they'll be left behind in the new high tech--I have now come to the conclusion, I mean, my--my kindergartner is teaching me how to use the computer and he hasn't even spent--the--the idea that you need to teach kids to use computers--they don't need to be taught to use computers. They pick it up like that. I am just extremely skeptical of the whole thing. Just tell me why I'm wrong.

Charles Garvin: There's some truth to what you're hearing. Using computers is a life skill all by itself. If your kids didn't learn how to use them then I think they would be behind. That's not…

Peter Robinson: It is so easy to you. I mean, that's the kind of thing they pick up…

Alan Warhaftig: One of the things that troubles me is that coming in the back door with the computers, you hear the sound of…

Peter Robinson: Back door, what do you mean?

Alan Warhaftig: Well you hear the sound at the loading docks of the truck backing up and offloading this technology at schools. What's coming in with it is a vocational idea of education. If you're preparing students for the workforce of the twenty-first century, lovely but let's have that as a--as an upfront discussion. If you want to do Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. Dubois about philosophy of education, people should be willing to take the hits but the people who are driving the--the technology decisions in school districts don't know very much about technology themselves. They're relying on vendors or they're relying on techies and, in many cases, those are people who…

Peter Robinson: …with a vested interest.

Alan Warhaftig: Well they're vested interest or they're people who are genuinely enthusiastic about the potential and about their own personal use of technology. But, in many cases, they've forgotten how they became the educated people that they are. If you…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Alan Warhaftig: …if you--if you surf and you don't have this model in your mind of geography, of nature, of history, of culture, then what is anything that you're going to find while you're surfing going to adhere to? And the question…

Peter Robinson: That is to say, the computer is a tool and unless you have a lot in your head in the first place, you can't use it?

Alan Warhaftig: And then the question, for me, as an educator parceling out instructional time is, what's the way that I can help those students to develop that model so that they--so that they have that.

William L. Rukeyser: I'd like to pick up on the idea of computer skills being necessary.

Peter Robinson: Right.

William L. Rukeyser: Obviously, in the next few decades, we're all going to be using computers in our work and in our lives. That's a given. The point is, here we are in Silicon Valley. The great triumph of the industry all around us is that every quarter they make their products faster, more powerful, cheaper and probably, most importantly, easier…

Peter Robinson: Easier?

William L. Rukeyser: …to use. If you're talking about today's fourth or sixth grader, the computer that he or she uses when they get to work isn't going to resemble today's computer. In 2015, it may not have a keyboard, it may not have a mouse, it may follow your eyes and be all voice responsive or whatever. The point is it's going to be easy to use and, you know, if you get obsessed with Johnny or Maria knowing how to put together a web page or knowing how to do a Power Point presentation, by the time those kids get to work, those are going to be obsolete as well. Now if you're talking about an eleventh grader or a twelfth grader who isn't going to be going to a community college, isn't going to be going to a university, sure. The school district could stay in touch with local employers, know what skills are necessary, know what the hardware required is, know what the software is and give those kids very real, albeit, very temporary advantages in making that transition to work.

Peter Robinson: Charlie, rally.

Charles Garvin: I can't argue with…

Peter Robinson: They've been hitting you pretty hard here.

Charles Garvin: I can't argue with--with a lot of that. I--I completely agree with a lot of it but I--I don't think the--the answer is to throw up our hands and to ignore the technology that's on the table. To go back to your original point, Peter…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Charles Garvin: …the point is not to teach kids the arcana of--of using one particular technology. The point is to get them comfortable with learning the technology. It's not the case that you jump in at age twenty and--and pull up all the skills, you know, as though you were just learning them for the first time. But our attention, I have to--to certainly agree is not on teaching the tools principally. It's using the tools. And if they use the tools to learn stuff, they're both going to get familiar with the stuff and they're going to have a facility in dealing with the computing and communication environment they would not have had otherwise.

William L. Rukeyser: I agree absolutely as long as they don't start using those tools as a crutch. It's the difference between teaching a kid to walk and teaching a kid to walk using a crutch. If they're dependent on CD ROMs, dependent on computers, dependent on the web and they're cut off from the other ninety percent of all the world's information, then they've got a very severe handicap. If they're perfectly comfortable using traditional sources of information and then you add all the great things that are on the web, all the great things that are in the new media then what you've done is you've extended that kid's reach and you've strengthened his or her grasp.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Charlie, what's…

Peter Robinson: Next topic, how specifically should computers be used in the classroom?

Title: Hard Questions for Software

Peter Robinson: Let's just go through the first few grades. You tell me where the computer ought to appear and what uses to which the computer might be put that you think show promise or where you're--so kindergarten, you want comp--computers in kindergartens?

Charles Garvin: No I--I do think that it should be focused on the later grades. I--I--I…

Peter Robinson: Okay, so first grade, second, nothing--no importance until fifth grade, sixth grade or are you talking about junior high and high school?

Charles Garvin: Well I'm talking about more junior high and high school than the earlier grades. I do think that computers can have a role in earlier grades but they're--they're different. They're--they're associated with tactile exercises and all the other good stuff we want kids to be doing at that time.

Peter Robinson: I'm quoting the Atlantic Monthly now. "One small but carefully controlled study went so far as to cl"--this is a study of the actual uses of computers in the early grades, "went so far as to claim that Reader Rabbit, a reading program now used in more than one hundred thousand schools caused students to suffer a fifty percent drop in creativity. How do you measure creativity? Apparently," I'm continuing to quote, "after students used the program for seven months, they were no longer able to answer open-ended questions and showed a markedly diminished ability to brainstorm with fluency and originality." So you introduce computers and they can actually do harm, right?

Alan Warhaftig: I have to tell you it--it--the whole thing is a little bit frightening to me. The assumption that you must do things using computers, the kinds of professional development that you see happening with--with high school teachers, it's teaching them how to use computer applications. There is no instructional context for this.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So incidentally this has now turned into a school board meeting and we've decided that we won't use computers until fifth grade, sixth grade. When do you want them around?

Charles Garvin: I think that's when we really start using for--them to address substantive material but I do think they have a role even earlier. And, for example, while I agree that some programs like perhaps Reader Rabbit can be too much into drill and practice if that's the only thing being used, there are ton--tons of excellent software already on the market. The second thing I think I would stress even in the earlier grades is what I think in--in different ways both Alan and Bill are getting to, you shouldn't look at computers as a panacea or, far worse, a replacement. I think the lead story in--in this week's U.S. News and World Report is, you know, has a cover something like, "Can Computers Replace Teachers?" Well, duh. The answer is no, they never will nor will pencils replace teachers. Does that mean pen--pencils aren't a terrific tool? It does not. Computers in the right hands, used for the right purposes and with the right software can really be a tool.

Peter Robinson: I'm still trying to press you on some practical stuff. Grades one through five, an hour a day on the computer? An hour a week on the computer?

Charles Garvin: I…

Peter Robinson: Because as Alan said right out--right off the--the blocks here, time is what's crucial in the classroom.

Charles Garvin: I'd be concerned if--if a kid of--of that age was using the computer more than a couple of hours a week. I would be a lot…

Peter Robinson: Sounds right to you?

Alan Warhaftig: I don't think it's a formula. One of the concerns that I have is learning doesn't necessarily have to be something that's easy. And, in fact, one of the jobs that…

Peter Robinson: Kids should know that early, right?

Alan Warhaftig: Well…

Alan Warhaftig: one of the jobs that I do…

Peter Robinson: …may feel like work.

Alan Warhaftig: …the--the art of teaching is to place interesting obstacles in front of the kids that will allow them to develop their thinking. The notion that education has to be entertaining and I'm not talking about the enrichment things that parents are doing outside. I'm talking about what's happening during the…

Peter Robinson: In the classroom, right.

Alan Warhaftig: …school day. The idea that it has to be entertaining I think is just wrong. And I think there's a subtle form of inter-generational contempt that's embedded in that, the notion that these kids can't learn the way that we learned. I spend most of my time figuring out interesting obstacles that I can place in the way of the kids that they can jump over.

William L. Rukeyser: I encourage parents to look at results. You know, what you're doing with your child. Is it leading that kid to skills, which will last him or her a lifetime? Is it resulting in the kid being able to concentrate on the challenge? One of the things that a lot of parents are disturbed by and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, is the lack or the shortening of attention span. And a lot of psychologists have drawn a direct connection between hypertext and, you know, the fact that you can just kind of leap willy-nilly from one thing to another and the shortening of attention span, regardless of what tools we use. The leaders of tomorrow are going to be those people who can concentrate on a task and solve it in a variety of creative ways.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Let me--let me…

Peter Robinson: I'm still waiting for some suggestion about how computers are supposed to improve education dramatically.

Title: What's the Net Worth?

Peter Robinson: So far as I can tell the computer, as used by our four kids, is useful in exactly two ways and no more than two ways. One for fun. And, in that regard, I treat it like television. Their time has to be limited. You go to the computer. It's a treat just as watching TV is a treat. Two, our daughter who's nine is now old enough to get on the web and start searching around, research. It's easier to use than an encyclopedia. She is now--we are now looking for a dog to get and she--every day I get home and there's a new printout of a different species--of the--in the breed or whatever. The Giant Schnauzer is now leading. But that's it. Fun and research. Is this the revolution to which you're staking your professional life?

Charles Garvin: It's…

Peter Robinson: What am I missing here?

Charles Garvin: Well I guess, what you're…

Peter Robinson: There's got to be more than that.

Charles Garvin: …what you're missing is time. I mean, for one thing, I guess I would say that you shouldn't, you know, snub your nose at--at just that. It's a heck of a lot to pick the right dog breed using the computer these days. And you just said your kindergartner can teach you all about it. So they're evidently picking it up and being able to use it for research. That's a good thing.

William L. Rukeyser: I've heard this claim from a variety of people from Richard Riley, the U.S. Secretary of Education on down. The basic remark is, the great thing about the web is it's got all the information on the world's libraries. Only thing wrong with that claim is that it's simply not true. Now I use the web every day and it's great in terms of material, which is so new that it hasn't been widely distributed. It's great in some areas but, in fact, a lot of the most authoritative material was produced before about 1989. Not only has it not been digitized yet, chances are, it never will be during our lifetime. The point is that if you hear that statement, the great thing about the web is it's got all the information, you're going to be cutting yourself off. If you say there are lots of things on the web like today's issue of Le Monde, which I can't get in my library, then I'll know when to use the web…

William L. Rukeyser: …and I'll know when to use…

Charles Garvin: …disagree more on this…

Peter Robinson: Go ahead Charles.

Charles Garvin: I think you're--you're taking a snapshot of what's very, very early days. It's astonishing. It's--it's the biggest thing that's happened in information in our lifetimes that we've gone so far so fast. It is going a lot faster everyday.

William L. Rukeyser: Another aspect of the progress. All you have to do is go to www in NY Times or L.A. Times and anybody who's using that a year, eighteen months ago, knows that, for free, you could search the last three hundred and sixty-five days. Now if you go to New York Times, for free, you can search the last twenty-four hours. If you want something from ten days ago, you're going to pay. For me, two dollars and fifty cents is no big deal. For L.A. Unified, with how many hundred thousand kids…

Alan Warhaftig: Seven hundred and twenty-three thousand.

William L. Rukeyser: …that's a big deal. It's not going to work in schools.

Charles Garvin: Can you believe what you're saying, Alan? I mean, is--is that really better than growing up as a kid in Jackson, Mississippi and going down to the pitifully ill-stocked local library where, if they're lucky, they've got the local paper on microfiche, you know, and condemning the ten-year-old to use that.

William L. Rukeyser: No--nobody is defending the status quo.

Peter Robinson: We now go to the teacher.

William L. Rukeyser: The teacher, okay.

Peter Robinson: He teaches high school. Let me go…

Alan Warhaftig: Let me--let me tell you what the risk is here. We're talking about now and what's available now.

Peter Robinson: You love it when your kids--you give papers--the assignments and your kids go do research on the--they come back with much richer material, right?

Alan Warhaftig: No, not necessarily.

Peter Robinson: I'm guessing. No, okay.

Alan Warhaftig: Now they will find…

Peter Robinson: Well tell us your actual experience.

Alan Warhaftig: Again, it's important to define where it's good and where it's not good.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Alan Warhaftig: Okay. And Bill started in that direction with that but the problem is you find glosses of material on the web. If I'm talking about kids that I want to be able to go off to the University of California or another four-year university…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Alan Warhaftig: …if they're only used to dealing with glosses, if you want to go about…

Peter Robinson: When you say glosses, what do you mean? You mean, abbreviated? So cliff notes versions?

Alan Warhaftig: Yes. Example--example, if you want to know about…

Alan Warhaftig: …the French poet. Okay.

Peter Robinson: You're teaching Guillaume Apollinaire in eleventh and twelfth grade in L.A. Unified Schools?

Alan Warhaftig: Occasionally. Of course.

(?) There you go.

Peter Robinson: How do I get my kids into your school. Go ahead. Keep going.

Alan Warhaftig: It's a magnet school but the transportation might be tricky from up north.

Peter Robinson: All right. Go ahead.

Alan Warhaftig: But--but the thing is if you look and find, you'll find, for instance, there's a one three-page gloss from Sweden and I recognized the stories, you know, from some website in Sweden. I recognized the stories and they came from Roger Shattuck's, The Banquet Years, which is one of the best books that I read during college about the avant-garde in France up till 1885.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Alan Warhaftig: And so the problem is, is that I would much rather have kids reading that. That's not going to be digitized. There's copyright. There's all sorts of different things. I worry that, in effect, we're not giving them enough nutrients. We're sending off to universities, they're not going to be sitting around in a circle holding hands and singing Kum Bah Yah. They're going to have to read five hundred, six hundred, eight hundred pages per week of really difficult material and if we're not prepared…

Peter Robinson: Let's sum up what we've concluded so far.

Title: DOS Booted

Peter Robinson: We've got computers out of the lower grades and, so far, we've established that, in the upper grades, they may be useful to some extent for research. We--we're moving toward a very limited use of the computer in the classroom. Strike back.

Charles Garvin: We just can't take a snapshot. There are a number of terrific organizations that are doing exactly what I think everybody is calling for. My own company, Studyserver, happens to be one of them, taking a twenty-five-year-old curriculum that's been available in print and on CD ROM and providing a hybrid way of getting both a lavishly illustrated print product that Alan and his--his associates can use in the way they always have and properly organized web-based resources to focus on that. We're not the only guys.

Peter Robinson: Nothing against that, right?

William L. Rukeyser: Nothing against that.

Alan Warhaftig: No.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Charles Garvin: Again remember the cable network has just been built. The content is just coming out. Something a little less than a billion dollars was invested in the first half of this year on elearning content companies that are coming up with ways of filling up the network, cars to run on the railroads. So don't take a snapshot and say, this is the only thing we're going to have. We will have a very rich, technology-intensive curriculum that's based on--on excellent pedagogy over the next couple of years coming available.

Peter Robinson: Is he singing a song?

Alan Warhaftig: Well again, I don't have anything against his product but it's promises, promises, promises. The shopping cart that Bill talked about at the beginning is before the horse. And the hardware, the boxes and wires are arriving well before we have any idea what to do with it that we won't regret down the road.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So this six billion dollars that school districts spent in the las--who knows what they're spending now, that was the most recent year for which I was able to find a figure, your answer to that is knock it off.

William L. Rukeyser: No, my…

Peter Robinson: Does it stop. Six billion is ridiculous. You ought to be shrinking class sizes, paying teachers more and spend a fraction of that on research and let's wait and see, when we establish unquestioned uses for computers then we'll start spending on computers.

William L. Rukeyser: This isn't a red traffic light situation.

Peter Robinson: No?

William L. Rukeyser: It's a--it's a caution light.

Peter Robinson: It's an amber.

William L. Rukeyser: Obviously you don't stop right now but you take a very careful look at how the products are used. You don't become fascinated with the uses.

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, it's television. We have to close this out. I will put forward the Robinson rule. I'd like you to tell me what's wrong with my rule. And the Robinson rule is they're like television. Keep them out of the classroom. Make sure that your kids have only very limited access to them. I'm being too harsh?

Alan Warhaftig: It's a good place to start.

Peter Robinson: Be skeptical and move slowly.

Alan Warhaftig: Be suspicious. Make sure that before you…

Peter Robinson: Pencil and paper works fine.

Alan Warhaftig: You know, if you buy too many pencils for a school, you can use them the next semester. You know, if you buy too many computers and don't really have any uses, that stuff's aged and of no use in two years.

Peter Robinson: Skeptical and move slowly?

Charles Garvin: Oh no, I wouldn't say that. I would say do what it sounds like you're doing in your own family, Peter. Move deliberately and remember to be a good parent. There's no tool whether it be a computer or pencil or any kind of textbook that's going to substitute for your taking an active role in your own kid's education, understanding what they can do and helping them to do it better. If you do it right with the right software that you've taken an active role in the choice of and that you use properly, the computer can be a big help, even today. It'll only get better.

Peter Robinson: Bill, a little too enthusiastic here?

William L. Rukeyser: I--I'd say emphasize skepticism. Keep your eyes on the results. If you're building skills that are going to last a lifetime for the kid, you're doing someone right. If you're building skills that are only going to last until the next release of the software, you're wasting your time.

Peter Robinson: Bill, Charlie and Alan, thank you very much.

William L. Rukeyser: Thank you.

Charles Garvin: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: The proponent of computers on our show, Charlie Garvin, argued that the computer revolution is just beginning and that these objects will become more and more powerful and more useful in the classroom. But even Charlie argues that parents and teachers must still come first.

I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.