Why computers have not saved the classroom

A new book says technology - from TV to the laptop - delivers less than hoped for by schools

What impact has computer technology had on public education in the US? That's the question journalist Todd Oppenheimer sets out to answer in "The Flickering Mind."

Mr. Oppenheimer's conclusion: Putting computers in classrooms has been almost entirely wasteful, and the rush to keep schools up-to-date with the latest technology has been largely pointless.

"At this early stage of the personal computer's history, the technology is far too complex and error prone to be smoothly integrated into most classrooms," Oppenheimer writes. "While the technology business is creatively frantic, financially strapped public schools cannot afford to keep up with the innovations."

Of course, this is not the first time US schools have been seduced by new technology, Oppenheimer points out. He summarizes the history of technological innovations in American schools and explains how each (TV among them) has been hailed as education's savior.

And yet, despite technology's lack of success in US classrooms, many Americans still prefer to invest in computers rather than in teachers, Oppenheimer charges.

On the other hand, Oppenheimer cites Seymour Papert, a computer-science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who beats the drum for more technology and urges a revolutionized concept of school. "School has probably changed less than other major institutions," says Professor Papert. "The evidence that we got it right in school and got it wrong everywhere else is pretty slight."

While Papert's argument is at least debatable, Oppenheimer leaves any serious discussion of it behind to focus on the regrettable role of those he sees as charlatans in the computer and testing industries.

"One of the great secrets of the industry is that manufacturers of computer hardware and software often know their products are hampered by significant limitations," writes Oppenheimer. "Yet they rarely hold back from going to market with the gear, because they also know that most if not all of those problems will be fixed with the next upgrade, the release of which will simply net more sales."

Oppenheimer examines individual schools where technology has been useful, but there he largely credits the enthusiasm and devotion of individual teachers.

The most effective teachers, he argues, are those who know enough to ignore the latest technological products and rely on such hands-on technology as pens and paper, musical instruments, wooden blocks, and rulers.

Although he researched this book for more than five years (its genesis was in two articles in "The Atlantic Monthly"), Oppenheimer is for the most part reluctant to weigh in with his views. A good reporter, he allows the experts and insiders to sound off instead.

"I have boiled down my feelings about the subject into a small set of hopes for schools," he writes. "I hesitate to turn these hopes into formal recommendations for a reason. For decades, teachers and administrators have been battered [by] ... all manner of 'experts' who do not spend their days cooped up in a room with dozens of unruly youngsters.... These teachers are doing God's work."

"The Flickering Mind" is an informative, insightful, and broad presentation of public education's ongoing struggle for survival in competition and in collaboration with all the next new things.

Bob Blaisdell is an English professor at City University of New York's Kingsborough Community College.

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