Techwit: Are computers helping our kids learn?

Posted: Sunday, October 06, 2002

How should we evaluate the efficacy and pedagogical effectiveness of digitally enhanced educational environments?

Techwit By Jason Ohler

Sorry about all those big words. After you get a Ph.D. you start using them even when you know it's wrong. It's not my fault. The devil of obdurate obfuscation made me do it. There I go again! Anyway...

So, let me rephrase the question in plain terms: How do we figure out whether we're using computers in schools in ways that help educate our children? Or to put it in the straight talkin' words of President G.W. Bush, "Is our children learning?" Good question. Is they?

Let's review two ways that have been used traditionally to determine technology's effectiveness in education but which haven't worked (and never will):

1. By how much dust is on a computer. The crazy assumption here is that the more dust computers collect the less useful they are. I know there are those who live by the motto, "We dust what we love," but be honest - when's the last time you dusted off your bowling trophy? Yet, I'd never assume you didn't care about it. Besides, a lot of technology, particularly computer monitors, are electrostatically charged. This means they attract dust naturally the way political debates attract inflated egos, finger pointing and stink flies. It's not the computer's fault - it can't help it!

2. By the amount of time a computer is used. Crazy assumption No. 2 is that computers should be up and running constantly or taxpayers aren't getting their money's worth. Are we concerned about how little toilets are used during the course of an average school day? How about blackboards? Do you evaluate how well you use your gas-powered weed whacker or electronic thermometer by how often you use it? This is like assuming that just because you're awake you're doing something useful.

So how do we judge the effectiveness of computers in education? Simple: By how well we use them. What a concept! What isn't as obvious is that we also need to judge their effectiveness by how well we don't use them. Think about it. People who walk rather than drive to the corner store for a loaf of bread are good users of the technology because they don't engage in overkill. Same with people who use their fingers rather than a sledge hammer to push in a tack. Same with people who talk to each other rather than watch television. (Well, that depends on what's on TV and how interesting the people are...)

Look at it this way. When it comes to technology, a school is like a tool shed, bathroom, or kitchen. You have tons of "stuff" you only use on an as-needed basis, like your remote-controlled patio umbrella (I saw one in a magazine) or your left-handed curling iron. But when you gotta have 'em, you gotta have 'em. High tech is no different. Which brings us to the paradox of the Info Age: Educators need to have all the technology of the real world, but should feel comfortable ignoring it when it doesn't help the learning process.

What to do? Well, I hate to end this on a serious note, but I can't help it. It's time to view the technology in our schools as a utility system, on par with sewage, water and roads. We need to take a bit of our tax dollar to forever fund our schools' technology infrastructure - and never look back. Seeing technology as part of the school system's background is the only way it will become as current and available as it should be. We don't hold bake sales or write grants for toilets or blackboards; we shouldn't have to do it for computers either.

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at © 2002 Jason Ohler.

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