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Friday, April 27, 2007

Tech Support

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about computers in the classroom. The very fact that you are reading my words via the blogosphere is evidence that I am a proponent of computers, and that recent post certainly spoke in favor of them. I continue to stand by my position that computers are invaluable tools for improving education, but after further thought and research, I would like to add a few caveats.

I will begin with a personal anecdote. About a decade ago, I went to visit a close friend attending a prestigious liberal arts college on the outskirts of Atlanta. We quickly exhausted the recreational opportunities available on the small campus, and without much deliberation, agreed to escape to the nearest cineplex for a flick. My friend, the quintessential technophile, leaped to his computer in an effort to find movie schedules. Those being the early days of the Internet, the task was far more difficult than it is today. After watching him struggle in frustration, and despite his numerous appeals to the contrary, I picked up the phone and dialed the number for the theater. Within a minute, I had the showtimes.

Today that friend owns his own software company and has likely made more money than I will see in a lifetime. But the story illustrates my point. A computer is a tool. It is an extremely powerful tool and used correctly will allow humanity to achieve things few dreamed possible. Yet, as with all other tools, there is a time and a place for "high tech," and we must constantly know where that line is drawn. I have enjoyed the art of carpentry for as long as I can remember. As a child I helped my father build a deck on our house. He took me to the lumberyard and showed me how to pick out the wood. He taught me how to swing a hammer and how the principle of the lever could assist me in removing a nail. I learned with painful clarity the consequences of poor aim. This romance with construction continues today, and a trip to the hardware store an event to be savored. Yet despite gaining proficiency with all manner of pneumatic and power tools, and in flagrant disregard more the Toolman's cries of "More power!" there are times when I eschew those modern wonders for a simple hammer or hand-held screwdriver. Not for nostalgia alone, although there is a certain pleasure in it, but because sometimes they are the correct tool for the job.

As any skilled craftsman knows, sometimes "more power" is too much, and that mantra holds true for the computer age. Sometimes "low tech" gets the job done, and sometimes it is the best way to go. If you want a child to develop their creativity, want them to appreciate color and improve hand-eye coordination and take pride in their work, you may want to save the money spent on expensive Paint software and hand them a pack of Crayolas. I would much rather have a page torn from a child's coloring book depicting purple ducks hanging on my refrigerator than a cleanly rendered hodge-podge of Clip-Art any day.

It may not be readily apparent, but as Isaac Newton would attest, each action has an equal and opposite reaction. As our children shape the world with tools, those tools are simultaneously shaping them. Like fish growing to the size of their containers, the mind of a child grows to suit the environment to which it is accustomed. Few parents would approve of pre-schoolers using a power saw, but almost none would balk at extensive computer usage. In her book, Failure to Connect, Dr. Jane Healy explores quite throughly the potential benefits and possible dangers of computers in education. It is almost ten years old, but its message is still very relevant. When considering time and money spent on educational software in this country, we must learn to balance our unbridled enthusiasm for the digital age with constant review and skepticism. With great power comes great responsibility and sometimes more is just more. Our children are plugging-in earlier and earlier. We are seeing a generation of children with diminishing imagination and limited attention spans. Their ADHD brains hyperlink from one train of thought to the next. They are adept at search and navigation, but lack the ability to synthesize raw information into meaningful and original conclusions.

I still love computers. I use them daily. I believe they should be available to all students, but that they will never be a substitute for an able and enthusiastic teacher. When designing a system, sometimes the important question is not can you do something, but why. We must keep that in mind before we allow our young ones to give themselves over to the Matrix.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ahh, it's nice to see that you're still getting mileage out of that "MoviePhone trumps Web 1.0" anecdote :)

You do hit upon a very good point here - that it's not healthy to focus on any one skill/activity to the detriment of all others. I've learned that lesson the hard way - and now find ways to veg out far away from the computer.

Perhaps in a longer post, you can branch out further and talk about how the modern economy keeps demanding (and rewarding) masters of specialization. Are we all becoming myopic little monsters in order to survive in an on-demand, highly-specialized global economy? I would be interested in your take on that.