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 Stories for April 29, 1998:

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Experts Discuss Computer’s Impact on Education

by D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 29, 1998

Many parents admire their children’s ability to work a computer, amazed that the technology that baffles them comes so naturally to their offspring.However, some experts feel that using computers in the classroom hurts a child’s education.

Todd Oppenheimer, a researcher in classroom computer use; Theodore Roszak, a professor of history at California State University, Hayward; and Bernard Gifford, a professor in the Graduate School of Education, discussed the use of computers in the classroom April 13 with a capacity crowd at the Faculty Club.

During the discussion, entitled “Computer Delusions,” Oppenheimer and Roszak said the analytical skills learned from subjects like art and music are more important than technical skills gained from computer use.

“What kids learn from computers is how to use computers,” said Roszak. “Formulating ideas, judgment and values comes from interaction with other human beings.”

Oppenheimer said that there is little evidence computers improve a child’s learning ability or give an edge in future jobs.

“High-tech firms tell me there is no need to get kids on computers so early and studies show that (students from) schools with little or no computer use outscore (students from) schools using computers,” said Oppenheimer, who is also associate editor of Newsweek Online.

Yet more and more schools across the country are rushing to computerize their classrooms, encouraged by the Clinton Administration’s goal to make computers “as much a part of the classroom as blackboards.”

But blackboards are cheaper than computers, Oppenheimer said, and many school administrators, grappling with shrinking budgets, are cutting music, art and sports programs in order to finance computer purchases.

Roszak said the process of using a computer – turning on the machine, logging on, opening programs and dealing with glitches – is so drawn-out that it takes precious time away from the process of learning.

“A kid with a pencil is ready to write, a kid with a crayon is ready to draw,” Roszak asserted.

Both Oppenheimer and Roszak feel much of the problem rests with computer companies, who have tried to persuade schools to buy computers by citing flawed studies showing improved academic performance among students versed in computer technology.

With this in mind, Roszak’s advice to educators is straightforward: “Find out what Bill Gates wants schools to do and don’t do it.”

Berkeley’s Gifford suggested that classroom computers offer a new teaching method and shouldn’t be judged so harshly just yet.

“The programs that are out there now are terrible but if we wait it out, the technology will improve,” said Gifford.

He added that computers have great potential as teaching tools and cited evidence showing that high-quality, well-designed software programs administered by properly trained teachers can improve learning.

“The establishment has always rebelled when new technologies arise.... Socrates hated it when scribes began writing down his oratories and the scribes were upset when the printing press threatened their existence,” said Gifford.

Like the printing press, Gifford says computers can serve to democratize the classroom, allowing all students equal access to information.

And if Proposition 227, which seeks to end bilingual education in California schools, passes, those with limited English could greatly benefit from custom-designed computer programs, said Gifford.

The discussion was sponsored by the Center for Studies in Higher Education.

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