Virtual Education: What Children Gain and Lose When Computers Are in the Classroom

By Laura B. Smith

Anyone wondering whether the information age is truly here needs to look no further than our schools. What was once a chalk-and-talk environment is morphing into a teacher-assisted, surf-and-learn affair.

The World Wide Web, which has transformed business and domestic life in the last five years, has caught the attention of educators everywhere. Schools across the nation are buying computers and connecting to the Internet in a breathless pursuit of technology. Four years ago, 40 percent of public school students had access to the Internet. By 2000, 90 percent of them will be able to surf the Web at school, according to New York-based Jupiter Communications, a media research firm that focuses on the Internet.

In Massachusetts, more than 900 public and private schools in 66 percent of the state's school districts have installed networks, and nearly every public school in the state has written an education technology implementation plan.

Even President Clinton conveys a sense of urgency about computers in education. "If we fail to ensure that all our children are technically literate, our nation will be poorer economically and spiritually,"he said when launching the Federal Education Technology Initiative (ETI) in 1995.

But the speed with which the World Wide Web has captivated business and personal computer users may have put undue pressure on educators. Only now - after a national education spending spree that totalled $4.3 billion in 1996 alone - is a vocal minority of people being heard to question whether, in fact, computers enhance education. These critics aren't luddites; they recognize the shift from the industrial to the information age, and understand that students need to start thinking in "cyber-dimensions."But they also question what students lose by relying so much on computers for their educational development.

"There is no question that computers can enliven learning, and that any youngster who enters the global workplace without computer literacy is handicapped,"says Dr. Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "Yet information is only the raw material for knowledge, understanding, skill development and creativity; it is no substitute for the work that every student must perform to transform data into personal accomplishment."

Bytes Out of School Budgets

At every educational level, it seems, children and young adults are learning to master the computer and apply its benefits to their classwork.

M.I.T. is moving toward putting its courses on a virtual campus, where students can download materials, contact each other and their professors.

  • High school students are learning how to program computers and use word processing, design and spreadsheet applications.

  • Middle schools are teaching kids to navigate the Internet, and elementary classes are introducing students to software designed to teach math and reading.

    "It's the wave of the future,"says Virginia Auffrey, director of the OceanBreeze Nursery School at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn. "How can we ignore it?"

    But at what cost, critics ask. The expense of equipping schools and students with computers and software is astronomical.

    The Clinton administration's ETI calls for a ratio of one computer for every five students in the nation's public schools. Meeting that goal will cost at least $10 billion more, according to market researcher IDC/Link in New York City. Other researchers say the bill could go as high as $100 billion more over the next five years.

    Did You Know ...

    Kids, ADHD and Computer Screens

    Computer screens emit dazzling pulses that captivate kids' attention - so much so that children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often remain perfectly focused at the keyboard.

    "It's amazing how often parents of kids with ADD will say, "You wouldn't believe how well he does on the computer. He'll sit there for hours,'" says preschool director Virginia Auffrey.

    Between 3 and 6 percent of elementary school children have ADHD, according to the Journal of American Medical Association. As yet, there are no scientific links between the disorder and the growing prevalence of TV and computers, says Beth Viehman, a diagnostician and early childhood specialist at the Neurodevelopmental Center at North Shore Children's Hospital in Salem. Still, "Children who have a predisposition to be inattentive can be influenced by all sorts of stimuli,"Viehman says. The problem with the two-dimensional worlds of TV and computers are that they encourage a superficial processing of information, and "we encourage a greater depth of processing," she says.

    On the positive side, computers give kids with ADD immediate feedback and motivation. "They tend to fatigue a lot more easily if there isn't a fire underneath them."

    Massachusetts spent $148 million on education technology in 1997 - or 2.6 percent of the school budget. That was a 40 percent increase in spending over the previous year, for about $160 per student. And it's still not enough to satisfy observers who lament the state's student-to-computer ratio of 9:0, which placed it 41st and 48th in two recent national rankings. They say the state should spend closer to $350 per pupil this year.

    Locally, parents are holding fund-raisers, and businesses are donating time and equipment, to help equip our schools with computers. Students may end up paying for them, too - in their own way. The money has to come from somewhere, and some critics worry that subjects perpetually on the chopping block - art, music, physical education - will be sacrificed or scaled back in favor of technology spending.

    In Mansfield, school administrators last year spent more than $300,000 on new computer equipment, although officials say the money "in no way"supplanted proposed teaching positions. The superintendent's office and every school in the city are now linked to a local area network, and every classroom in the high school is wired for the Internet.

    Mansfield High School has two computer labs with 20 machines each, and at least one computer (with a 32-inch monitor) per department on a cart that can be wheeled into classrooms. Students can search for colleges on a computer in the guidance department, and do Internet research on five computers in the library.

    To support its investment, Mansfield has hired a network specialist, a computer maintenance staffer and an application specialist who will work with teachers at the middle- and elementary-school levels to help find the tools and software they need to bring computers into the curriculum.

    "There are people who might question the cost,"acknowledges high school principal Edward Rosa. "In Mansfield, we don't want to debate that issue. We've made a commitment to the technology. Anyone who says that students can function in this world without computers has his head in the sand."

    Proven Academic Payoff?

    With investments like this, parents in Mansfield - and elsewhere - might expect to see some improvement in academic achievement. But that kind of scientific analysis could take years to complete. The little research there is suggests no apparent link between the adoption of technology in classrooms and better grades.

    In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, conducted in 1997 by the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, fourth-grade students from seven countries out-performed ours. In five of those countries, teachers said students "never or almost never"use computers in class.

    On the positive side, computers give kids with ADD immediate feedback and motivation. "They tend to fatigue a lot more easily if there isn't a fire underneath them."

    Massachusetts spent $148 million on education t

    "In the U.S., 37 percent of students use computers in at least some math lessons, nearly triple the international average,"Sava says, "Yet this increased use seemed to make no difference to our math results."

    Last year, a study of 227 California schools by the San Jose Mercury News found that "schools that invest heavily in computers, CD-ROMs, VCRs, laser disc players and the like generally have no better test scores than schools that don't.”

    Meanwhile, a mountain of anecdotal material - much of it from the computer industry - is growing every year to back up claims that computers are good for education. One metastudy (of more than 130 studies), prominently posted on the Clinton/Gore ETI Web site, concludes that "using technology to support instruction improved student outcomes in language arts, math, social studies and science."Ironically, the metastudy was published by the Software Publishers' Association, whose members stand to profit considerably from equipping schools with computers. For them, this may well be the second California (or at least, Silicon Valley) goldrush.

    In August, a survey conducted by AT&T's Internet service, Worldnet, concluded that the Internet has helped students get better grades. Of the 2,416 survey respondents - parents, students and teachers - 70 percent said use of the Internet helps students get better grades (the majority said they had personally seen students' grades improve through use of the Internet), and more than half said the Internet is a necessary tool for success in school.

    But few, if any, of the anecdotal studies are statistically valid - certainly nothing that an analyst could in good faith call research. "Since the whole use of computers in education is still fairly new, the scientific data supporting the premise that computers enhance education isn't there yet,"says Ralph Devlin, professional development specialist for the Massachusetts Teachers Association in Boston.

    Nonetheless, computer makers are driving the impression that access to computers results in better grades. One recent advertisement by Compaq Computer Corp. touched on the hopes and fears of many parents, featuring a computer customized with "Internet enhancements ideal for school reports. Features made to order for homework. The latest tools for better grades."

    "Give your kids a head start,"the ad said, "starting at $999."

    Lost Skills

    Without statistically valid research, many educators and administrators have surmised that computers are good for education, mainly by observing increased motivation among students, which is difficult to gauge on tests.

    Certainly, computers have been instrumental in the evolution of distance learning, which allows students in remote areas to join educators located elsewhere. The physically challenged also have benefitted from the use of computers.

    But a debate is being driven by the growing realization that computers are not a panacea to problems with education. They're merely a tool, and used improperly, may actually be a hindrance to a good education.

    Consider the skills that are potentially lost when kids use computers:

  • Computers facilitate research, but may also rob kids of original creativity. Software programs enable kids to cut and paste pictures or paragraphs from the Internet, but that doesn't equal the original thought needed to develop the content of a composition. The Internet also creates a ripe environment for plagiarism. Moreover, students may have trouble distinguishing valid material from the casual content posted on what has become everyman's printing press. A Web site that looks professionally done is likely to be viewed by kids as credible.

  • Students quickly learn to navigate software by responding to the screen in some way. Educators worry that students will simply guess at answers to manipulate the software. The instant gratification of making a monkey move up and down on a screen in a math software program, for example, might become more important than the math problem itself. Some experts also say software prevents students from thinking beyond the options presented, ultimately dulling their imaginations and feelings of empowerment.

  • Computers are physically anti-social, despite their touted abilities to create virtual communities. They tell children it's O.K. to sit by themselves, rather than seek out other people for physical interaction and shared play.

    True, the use of computers in schools has promoted student "collaboration,"but this, too, has drawn criticism. When a group of kids is seated at a computer, there's still only one person at the keyboard, and a collaborative session can quickly break down into a struggle for the controls. Skeptics also wonder if the more supervisory role of teachers in collaborative situations will make them lazy educators.

    But proponents note that children working together on a computer are more motivated, listen to each other and solve problems together. This skill may be useful when they enter the business world, where "collaboration"has become a major work style in a global economy.

  • Cursive writing skills are being replaced by typing on a keyboard, which is now taught in the fourth grade at many schools. But some educators believe the act of writing letters - with its spacial relationships - may help students learn to spell and understand the meaning of words.

    Of course, some people would argue that kids don't need to learn how to spell, now that computer spell checkers take care of that for them. They say good spellers are born - not made - with good visual memories, and spell checkers enable kids without that talent to get beyond the hurdle and learn to express themselves through writing. That could be dangerous thinking, given that spelling and reading go hand in hand.

    Likewise, letting the computer do some calculations helps children who stumble over arithmetic to see larger sets of data and subsequently understand higher levels of mathematics, says the MTA's Devlin.

    Some parents aren't so sure. One mother lamented her daughter, an honor student, having to take the SATs twice because she did so poorly the first time. When the girl enrolled in a test-preparation class, her mother discovered the girl had never memorized fractions, because the calculator made it unecessary. If anything, the mother says, having machines do the thinking for children is actually limiting their intelligence.

    Students aren't sure, either. Molly Pye, a fifth grader at the Stanley School in Swampscott, giggles when asked whether computers help her learn at school. "No,"she says.

    Has it helped other kids learn? "Yeah,"she says. "They learned to play a lot of computer games."

    Clearly, there are students whose learning styles are enhanced by doing research themselves, and some who are visually stimulated as opposed to auditorially stimulated. "Because of the prevalence of TV and video games, computers make the learning experience more like the rest of their lives,"Devlin says. "Getting the data in the door is more obvious."

    It's up to teachers and curriculum designers to decide whether the skills that students potentially lose when using computers outweigh the benefits. Are students losing practice in adding and subtracting, in calculating averages? Maybe. But it's also possible that, in bypassing basic hurdles to understanding, computers allow students to learn more, faster.

    "Do computers do good or harm? It depends on how they are used," says Seymour Papert, a professor of education and media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and one of the state's biggest boosters of technology. "Mostly they do harm, but that's the fault of schools that use them badly, parents who fall for flashy advertising and the computer and software industry that cares more for the fast buck. But don't blame the computer. When it is well used, it is the most powerful aid to learning since the invention of language."

    Good for Business

    Business leaders say Massachusetts needs to improve student access to technology. After all, the state is home to hundreds of colleges and universities, and its high-tech economy is dependent upon a labor force that is technically literate.

    By the year 2000, vice president Gore has predicted, more than 60 percent of jobs nationwide will require advanced technological skills. Children will need to learn navigation, analysis, synthesis and presentation skills to be prepared for the work force of the Information Age, computer proponents say.

    From this perspective, high speed Internet access to every classroom sounds essential. But consider this:

  • The rate at which technology changes could render much of this year's computer equipment and navigation skills obsolete by the time today's fifth graders enter the workforce. By that time, voice will be a major interface to the Internet, through small devices equipped with mini-applications.

  • The computer is only a tool. Many educators and business leaders believe students and workers can learn to use a computer in two weeks, or a summer. But other attributes, including people skills, the ability to reason and develop original thought, are more highly prized by employers.

    Alan Cromer, professor of physics at Northeastern University in Boston, notes that after the printing press, the most far-reaching technological innovations in education have been paper and the blackboard, because they are universally available in a common form, easy to use and inexpensive. The high costs of computers make them unlikely to be as ubiquitous.

    "Pumping schools full of high-tech equipment teachers cannot use and administrators cannot maintain is just one more dead-end endeavor," Cromer recently wrote.

    That view may be extreme, but the debate rages on. There are those who believe the money spent on computers would be better spent on teachers' salaries, longer school days and smaller classes. The question now is whether politicians, educators and parents can put the brakes on spending and slow down the techno-rush long enough to consider the options.

    What's the rush?

    Most parents know when to introduce books, balls and bikes. But they wonder about giving their children access to computers. Some experts say no child is too young, and computer boosters warn against kids being left technologically behind. Others are concerned for what might happen to very young children who are given access to computers.

    The issues are two-fold:

  • It's important to give children a broad base - emotionally, intellectually and in the five senses - before introducing something as technical and one-dimensional as a computer.

  • The human and physical world holds greater learning potential.

    "Which is a better learning environment: reality, or virtual reality?"ask the founders of Learning in the Real World, a California organization dedicated to examining the costs and benefits of computer use in education. "In the three-dimensional, real world, kids encounter the unexpected. On the two-dimensional screen, children see only the choices a programmer has developed for them. The keyboard and mouse constrain a child's option to reach out and touch the world."

    Many educators believe the years from pre-school to third grade are when children are most vulnerable and when they should be gaining a broad foundation in books so as not to be cheated out of opportunities to develop imagination. Perhaps introducing a child to a computer at age 8 is soon enough.



  • Massachusetts Department of Education Web site, at , lists goals and funding for technology access in public schools.

  • Learning in the Real World, at, †is dedicated to examining the costs and benefits of education technology "before a decision is made concerning where and how much to invest."The organization plans to make research grants available to university researchers who study this issue. 725 Main St., Suite 232, Woodland, CA, 95695; 530-661-9240.

  • The Massachusetts Computer Using Educators Web site, at , seeks to influence statewide technology activities.

    In Print

  • Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think, by Jane M. Healy, Touchstone Books, 1991. Educational psychologist Healy says the video age is robbing children of the opportunity to learn through their five senses, which more deeply imprint knowledge into a young child's brain.

  • Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - For Better and Worse, by Jane. M. Healy, Simon & Schuster, 1998. Here, Healy criticizes the federal government's endorsement of computers in every classroom, pointing to a lack of sufficient proof that computers teach basic skills better than traditional methods.

  • Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, by Clifford Stoll, Anchor Publishing, 1996. Challenges expectations that the Internet will make our lives more fulfilled and productive. The Internet, Stoll says, is an unorganized wasteland that robs people of interaction and genuine productivity.

    Laura Smith is a free-lance writer who specializes in computer and Internet technology and a mother of three children in Swampscott.

    October 1998

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