11.0148 wiring the schools

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sat, 5 Jul 1997 15:12:56 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 148.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Steve Talbott <stevet@ora.com> (434)
From: Wendell Piez <marcus@lab.com>
Subject: wiring the schools (item 2)


Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #52 Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications July 2, 1997
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott

NETFUTURE on the Web: http://www.ora.com/people/staff/stevet/netfuture/
You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.


*** Editor's Note

*** Quotes and Provocations
Laws That Are Made To Be Broken
Wiring Our Schools: Here Comes the Backlash
Toward the Great Singularity (Part 2)
We Are Not Becoming a More Image-based Society

*** Alice Outwater on Engineering Our Water Resources (Steve Talbott)
Should we leave it to beavers?

*** About this newsletter

*** Editor's Note (8 lines)

I'll be mostly unavailable by email from now until after Labor Day,
although I *will* eventually read all mail. I also expect to continue
publishing NETFUTURE during the remainder of the summer -- perhaps at
somewhat wider intervals.


*** Quotes and Provocations (260 lines)

Laws That Are Made To Be Broken

Referring to Moore's Law -- which says that computer chip density, and
therefore processing power, will double every eighteen months -- Gary
Chapman (L.A. Times Syndicate, June 24) wisely points out that

This `law' ... is less a law than an expression of how chip
manufacturers invest their money.

And also, of course, how the rest of us spend *our* money. So we might
better have called it "Moore's Resolve," which is at the same time an
American Resolve. But it's always nice to believe that our resolves have
the objective necessity of natural laws.

Of course, even after careful reflection and weighing of societal
priorities, we might still want to keep to this particular resolve. But
the important thing is to grasp willingly and with both hands the
implications of the fact that it is indeed *our* resolve rather than a
dictate of physics or fate or economic necessity. Only in making our
resolves fully conscious and in accepting responsibility for their many
implications can we escape mastery by our multiplying technological

Wiring Our Schools: Here Comes the Backlash

I suggested several months back that "1997 is very likely to see the first
high-profile, tempest-causing note of sanity sounded against the cooption
of primary and secondary education by the costs, the time drain, and the
general irrelevance of computerized technology. Before long *someone* is
going to step forward with an unexpected word of common sense."

In fact, many will do so, it's begun, and the storm's preliminary breezes
are already kicking up dust.

You may have seen the cover article in the July *Atlantic Monthly*.
Written by Todd Oppenheimer, it's called "The Computer Delusion," and is
prefaced with these words:

There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly
improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting
programs -- music, art, physical education -- that enrich children's
lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton
Administration has embraced the goal of "computers in every classroom"
with credulous and costly enthusiasm.

You may also have seen the little item from Edupage, drawn from the
*Washington Times* (June 24), which sounded like it was taken verbatim
from Lowell Monke's NETFUTURE pieces:

More than 2,800 pieces of classroom computers, printers or terminals
are broken or neglected in Fairfax County (VA) public schools. A
school official says: "The focus of attention was on buying the
equipment, and the support of that equipment was not taken into
account. It was assumed the current support systems would be able to
handle things and that has not proven to be the case." The school
board's budget panel chief says the board's decision not to hire
additional technicians for this fiscal year was influenced by its
budget policy to hire administrators only when absolutely necessary.

I've mentioned previously (NF #42) the high-profile conference scheduled
for September at Penn State: "Education and Technology -- Asking the Right
Questions." Another equally important event, about which I expect to have
an announcement soon, will be held in December at Teachers College,
Columbia University. These conferences will bring what is, to date,
unprecedented critical firepower to bear upon the reigning mania. Given
the first substantial notice of the problems by the mainstream press, and
given the press's herd instinct for periodic (and profitable) reversals of
direction, I expect these conferences will provoke a lot of coverage and

Perhaps most important of all, there is reality. One gets the feeling in
talking to at least some educators that they simply cannot restrain their
questions any longer, no matter how stifling the surrounding bandwagon
mentality. As one school principal recently remarked to me, "I don't want
to sound like a Luddite to my board, but we've *got* to slow down long
enough to figure out where these computers really belong in the education
of the child."

And if the backlash is intense, what then? That's almost the only
question worth asking, and I don't see a lot of ground for optimism. As a
society we've been complaining about television for many years -- we moan
and groan about it to the point of tedium -- and yet television's
penetration of society, its redefinition of politics, entertainment and
culture, continues unabated.

Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, the computer companies, the telephone
companies, charitable foundations -- all will continue making gifts to
schools of hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and software. Who
will turn them down? Governments will not have the insight or the guts to
change the course they've already set. And perhaps most perniciously:
the drive to computerize education is the most convenient distraction
imaginable from the persistent shortcomings of the educational process
itself. These shortcomings were provoking a sense of national crisis just
before the networked computer burst on the scene a few years ago; now that
crisis has been forgotten as we indulge our recurrent wish that the right
technology will kiss us and make everything okay.

In the end, I don't know any other answer than to let families choose
their schools in full freedom. We will then see, via a massive and tragic
experiment, whether the attempt to cultivate nine-year-old geeks is
preferable to the restoration of art, music, and shop classes, the pursuit
of a hands-on science of the real world, and a wisely guided experience of
the "classroom village."

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