Computers vs. Teachers

Last month, the president of Sega of America announced his intention to leave his current job to join a start-up firm called Educational Technology. The firm, created by Lawrence Ellison, chairman of the Oracle Corporation and Michael R. Milken, the former junk-bond financier, aims to capitalize on the expanding market for school- and home-based "edutainment" software.

Despite the legitimate desires of Messrs. Ellison and Milken to "do well by doing good," providing students with multimedia edutainment software is an ineffective and costly alternative to traditional teaching methods.

Many policymakers and reform-minded journalists have railed against schools for not embracing computer technology fast enough. Journalist Hedrick Smith, for example, recently remarked that schools have remained the same for nearly 100 years. Schools are stuck in the old paradigm of teachers in front of blackboards - an incongruous image for an America on the cusp of an information revolution.

Within this context, multimedia companies have begun assertive marketing strategies for computer-based instruction. Whether through drill or exploration of hyper-linked multimedia documents, these companies are attempting to create new learning environments for children.

Educational Technology has, for example already bought shares in Hasbro Inc. in the hopes of creating "Mr. Potato Head" arithmetic programs.

But according to Mark Shields of the University of Virginia, the "pedagogical benefits of computer-based education are dubious, inconsistent, and ephemeral." There is also a simple reason why schools have remained stuck in the old ways of teachers, blackboards, and books: It works. Anyone who has been inspired by a great teacher already knows this. And anyone who has curled up with a great novel knows that old-fashioned printed words can inspire imagery and emotion beyond even the most sophisticated multimedia or virtual reality software.

Of course, good edutainment software can help some children. But these programs are never likely to work for all children and can never replace the flexibility of a teacher or a parent. In fact, at its worst, edutainment threatens to leave students stranded in a sterile environment of canned and repetitious drills. Digitally enhanced or not, Mr. Potato Head is not likely to help solve the many crises facing American education.

New multimedia companies are also likely to market their products as cost-effective alternatives to traditional teaching methods. In commenting on the formation of Educational Technology, one commentator noted that the increasing cost of teachers - or "human mediation," as he put it - has led to increased demand for computer alternatives. But it is precisely this "human mediation" that is the key to successful education.

Despite the shortcomings of edutainment, the naysayers who resist the entrance of computers into schools are also dead wrong. Preparing students to adapt to technology is, in fact, one of our best ways of ensuring a flexible work force that can adapt to a new globalized economy.

To meet this goal, we should provide our students with the skills necessary to use computers as tools, instead of dropping them in front of mindless edutainment programs. This requires greater teacher involvement, not less.

Before we invest our dwindling education dollars in dazzling new edutainment programs, we should focus on creating smaller classroom sizes, expanding current computer training programs, raising teacher salaries, and increasing parental involvement.

*Ethan Cerami is a graduate student in computer science at New York University.

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