Loosen the byte of classroom computers

THE advertising promises of computer hardware and software assure us that the microchip has opened the door for individualized instruction in the classroom. One example prods, ''With individualized instruction, the teacher is free to counsel, to plan, to guide each student in a tutorial situation.''

This may indeed be true - but what happens to the group process?

The British novelist E.M. Forster dealt with the dark side of the individualized society in his 1928 short story ''The Machine Stops.'' Technology meets every need and most people are housed in small rooms. Individualization reaches the extreme: It is against the law even to touch someone else. The loss of human contact leaves mankind less than human.

I refer to Forster, not to reopen a ''man vs. machine'' debate, but to point out the need to examine students as a collective. In this process the individual qualities of each student are not overlooked but are subordinated to the collective behavior and group dynamics.

Admittedly, there are positive aspects to classroom computers. Research indicates that students' learning skills are increased through such tutorial systems.

Yet there must be more than an environment where electronic voices reward the learner and the children's fingernails are color-coded to certain keys on a keyboard.

There is another reason to be concerned about the overwhelming rush for high technology in the schools. Parents often feel their children need exposure to these machines to enhance future employment opportunities.

However, a recent study done for the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor seems to indicate that there may not be many additional high-tech jobs in the future.

Of the 20 occupations expected to generate the greatest number of new jobs by 1990, none are related to high technology and only two - teaching and nursing - require a college degree. The study forecasts only 20,000 new jobs for computer analysts but 800,000 for fast-food workers and 600,000 for janitors and sextons.

Assuming this study is accurate, what should public schools teach? The public pressure is building for schools to provide high-tech courses and mandatory computer courses as part of the curriculum. This is unrealistic. Most of the computer information available now will be obsolete in five years, and there apparently will not be enough high-tech jobs to justify the move in this direction.

Perhaps the real mission of the schools is not to prepare students for specific careers, but for jobs they will find available. Schools should be concerned with logic skills, reasoning skills, and scientific knowledge as well as a variety of communicative skills. Believing that the computer represents a solution to the problems of education is leaping for a simplified solution.

We need to remember that human beings band together for mutual protection; form civilizations of mutual responsibility; survive as individuals within acollective. To ignore the collective as the center of education is to imperil its foundations as an educational keystone.

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