Computers as teachers?

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s recent visit to Wilder Elementary School brought the controversy surrounding digital devices in schools to light.

The educators who wrote Wilder’s grant envisioned an iPad for every student as opening up new avenues for learning. One of the authors has said the intent was “to connect students with the local community doing real life projects and helping.” The devices were to “add a new level of thought and creativity” to existing lessons.

This would be good for local education. Most veteran teachers learn that students are best motivated by a growing awareness of their own individuality and creativity. Students could be validate what they’ve learned in the classroom as they practiced new skills in accessing, evaluating, and applying information, .

According to a letter written by a former Wilder teacher–and posted by Diane Ravitch, a professor of education research at New York University– what happened instead was a push for computer-based “individualized learning.”

The idea of each child practicing a skill they are ready to learn is appealing–and there is a place for it. (I recommend Khan Academy for every math student.)

Computer drill has failed time after time, however, as a central educating tool.

Education controlled by a far-away curriculum author is far from “individualized.”

Looking at a screen, reading and choosing answers, quickly becomes tedious.

And students learn that advanced students are more valued while they are somehow flawed.

Forty years ago, when individualized learning was in its infancy, I found students whose motivation to learn had been entirely replaced by a desire to check off exercises.

Corp W (an alias) had contracted to take charge of instruction at two Washington high schools–one each in the Bellevue and Seattle systems. It was to be paid according to the increases in student test scores.

I visited the Bellevue school–one of the best funded in the state–and visited with groups chatting in the commons.

I asked one group outright, “How can you cheat the system?”

They shared five different ways. Five. Different. Ways.

Poor Corp W ended up paying both school districts for guarantees that the data would stay buried.

The best traditional classrooms do promote individualized learning through projects and activities. Assignments asking students to design a classroom of the future or to create a poster illustrating some natural phenomena allow students to use and develop a broad range of skills. Students who spell or punctuate poorly may excel at clarity or creativity. Their success in some skills may motivate them to improve others.

Why do some still support computer-centered education?

Maybe people at the top want to control the education process and to destroy the independence and power of the teaching profession? And megacorps want to siphon big money from schools that are already poorly funded?

Some of those demonstrating in Wilder oppose any school relying on computing devices.

These activists point out that the American Association of Pediatrics advises allowing children aged six to 18 only two hours a day of screen time, including television, computers, and hand-held devices. They cite studies indicating damage to eye, brain and social development.

They also fear the data gathering possible with online curricula. Teachers can check students’ activity in real time as well as receive daily progress reports. Could a market for such data be created? Could algorithms be developed to dictate that some educational opportunities or careers be closed to some students?

I hate to consider their arguments. I once gave a device to a two-year-old–who had twice broken her mom’s phone. Yet, I can’t ignore them.

Note this editorial by Judy Ferro published by Idaho Press – 2018
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