Remember the Atari Democrats, with their self-assured pronouncements that high technology was the key to economic prosperity? Today, we have Nintendo Educators, who honestly believe that America's future competitiveness depends on putting computers in every classroom.
To create a top-flight educational system, these Nintendo Educators argue, we need schools with state-of-the-art technologies: interactive multimedia systems networked with fiber optics and running the finest "courseware" possible. There's a revolution going on and it's time to lead, follow or get out of the way.
"Teachers must now decide what role they will play in this revolution," writes Lewis J. Perelman, one of the more outspoken Nintendo Educators who directs the Hudson Institute's Project Learning 2001. "Vanguard or victim, leader or Luddite."
"It has been proven in sites across the country that technology can help in restructuring our educational system," says Connie Connors, a spokeswoman for the International Society for Technology in Education, an association of more than 60,000 technophile teachers.
Eminent business officials, their bespoke suits drenched by a monsoon of crocodile tears, bemoan the sorry state of the American public education system and insist that technology offers us the jewel of hope. "In large part, how well we incorporate technology into the education of our children will ultimately determine how competitive we remain in the global, technologically driven economy," says BellSouth Chairman John L. Clendenin. These are sentiments echoed by speech writers of innovative, public-spirited business leaders everywhere.
This is silly, self-deceptive and dangerous nonsense. The belief that today's computers -- or tomorrow's breakthrough technologies -- will somehow rescue our schools from the abyss is the most destructive sort of wishful thinking. The idea that educators would link quality of learning to quantity of technological investment is ludicrous. Give it an "F" for Failure of imagination and a "W" for Wriggling out of responsibility.
While it may be cute to conjure up classroom computing imagery -- "Sorry, Ms. Smith, the dog ate my floppy disk" -- there's less here than meets the eye. Yes, there are reams of "studies" purporting to show how computers in the classroom have boosted test scores and reduced dropout rates. What those studies rarely tell you is that the students in those classes are getting special attention above and beyond their personal computing massage. In those classes are teaching assistants, community volunteers, software company representatives and bright-eyed graduate students all doing what they can to encourage the children to learn.
Let's be blunt: What resource offers the best learning opportunities for a child? An excellent teacher or an excellent multimedia computer system? Go ahead and choose.
Sure, there are lousy teachers. Just as assuredly, there are lousy computer systems running even lousier software. You end up with either a child that's doing a poor job of programming a computer or a computer that's doing a miserable job of programming the child. Why is the technology in the classroom in the first place? To help create a learning environment for the children? Or to better enable a harried teacher in an overcrowded classroom to better manage the lesson plan? Is the technology a complement or substitute, a tool or a babysitter? Being a product of Chicago's inner-city public school system makes me skeptical of the gap between a technology's potential and its reality.
Whose problem is all this technology designed to solve, anyway? The nation's? The parents'? The children's? The teachers'? Think for a moment and you might recall two technological "revolutions" that swept through our public schools over the last 20 years. One was the "language lab" where high school students would go to listen to French/German/Spanish tapes and osmotically absorb perfect grammar and pronunciation. Today, educators and business folk wail that only a handful of Americans is fluent in anything but their mother tongue. The technology's impact was nil.
The other techno-revolution was the cheap pocket calculator. Instead of laboring over the gritty mechanics of long division and exponents, students could spend their time "understanding the principles" of mathematics and use their calculators to do the dirty work. Well, as anybody who can read an SAT score will tell you, America's mathematical literacy hasn't gone anywhere but down over the past 20 years. The average American thinks an "order of magnitude" comes with fries and a shake.
So please, we've already lost two technological revolutions in the schools. Language labs and pocket calculators didn't make things any better. If you look at the evidence, it's clear that educational technology is more of a placebo than a panacea.
Schools historically have been poor adopters of technological innovation. There are a variety of reasons for this -- not least of which is the fact that classrooms are social organisms. At this time (and for the foreseeable future), personal computers are designed to be just that -- personal. They don't quite fit into the hurly-burly interactions of a class filled with 25 children of different talents and temperaments.
Can computers be useful? Can they be helpful? Can they occasionally complement the work a good teacher is trying to do? Of course they can. The problem is that Nintendo Educators want to restructure the classroom around the technology instead of confronting the real -- and difficult -- issues facing parents and educators. Issues like where children go to school, facilities, the role of bilingual education, the length of the school year, school violence, community and business involvement, etc. -- in short, the fundamental questions that people have been ducking for years.
The question isn't "What technologies do we need to best educate our children in the schools?" It's "What is the real mission of the schools?"
When we answer that question, then we can start the debate about appropriate technologies.
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.