Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 573.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Thu, 04 May 2000 06:35:56 +0100
From: "Jennifer de Beer" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Chapman: shortage of skilled teachers
------- Forwarded Message Follows -------
Date: Mon, 1 May 2000 09:38:27 -0600
From: Gary Chapman <email@example.com>
Monday, May 1, 2000
Problem of Technology Gap Starts With Shortage of Skilled Teachers
By Gary Chapman
Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved
President Clinton has put the "digital divide" at the top of his deck
this past month, pushing the issue into headlines and editorials all
over the country. But there is still a great deal of confusion,
contradiction and muddled thinking in how politicians and the
technology industry are talking about bringing more Americans into the
The president convened a White House summit on the new economy in
April that was attended by 125 national leaders and experts. He
followed that with his national digital-divide tour. He visited both
East Palo Alto, the persistent and by-now-familiar symbol of the
digital divide, and a Navajo Indian reservation. Then he urged
executives at an industry convention in Chicago to do something about
the technology gap.
Clinton announced $2.25 billion in proposed federal programs and tax
breaks to expand technology access and skills in low-income
communities. A dozen or so high-tech companies pledged an additional
$200 million in programs aimed at employing more minorities, women and
The White House has tied the issue of the digital divide to the
high-tech industry's growing anxiety about the nationwide shortage of
skilled technology workers. In East Palo Alto, the president held up a
copy of a local newspaper's classified ads section and said there were
10,000 jobs in it that could be filled by local residents if they had
the right training.
This is a predictable, if limited, approach to the problem of the
digital divide. It helps focus the technology industry's attention by
attempting to link the industry's No. 1 problem -- the shortage of
workers and the resultant high salaries for technical talent -- to the
employment deficits in low-income neighborhoods.
In other words, the president is trying to show an otherwise
preoccupied industry that its self-interest is attached to closing the
But both the White House and the technology industry need to grapple
with some significant holes in their thinking.
Before we can start to turn out more skilled technology workers, for
example, we need more people who can train those workers.
Barbara Simons, president of the Assn. for Computing Machinery, told
the participants at the White House summit last month that when
teachers acquire advanced technology training, they often leave
teaching for higher-paying jobs in the industry itself. This was
confirmed recently in a report by the Joint Venture Silicon Valley
"Systems administrators can get starting salaries of $80,000 per year
in the valley now," Simons said. "And many of these people have no
degree in computer science." That figure is often double or more the
salary of public school teachers, and there's far more money to be
made after just a few years in the private sector.
The lack of qualified teachers in high-tech subjects is reaching
crisis proportions in schools, from K-12 to top-tier university
research programs. Some experts refer to this as the "seed corn"
problem. That is, if we eat our seed corn -- meaning the people who
will train the future generation of technologists -- we may stifle
economic growth altogether.
There are many obstacles to a solution. Teachers unions, for example,
have opposed salary differentials for teachers in public schools. But
the most fundamental obstacle is that most schools and universities
simply can't pay salaries competitive with the private sector.
This problem is compounded by the technology industry's campaign to
keep the Internet a tax-free zone. If e-commerce grows as expected and
remains tax-free, public revenues will decline and the prospect of
improving schools and raising teacher salaries will become even more
The technology industry is sending mixed signals about the kinds of
workers it needs. Top-level managers consistently say they want
workers with generic skills such as problem-solving, communication,
ability for teamwork and independent initiative.
But the classified ads tell a different story: There, employers say
they want people with specific technical skills and experience. The
employment ads are a blizzard of technical acronyms and jargon that
must be discouraging to young job-seekers.
Technical workers also know they are largely self-taught. Young
computer experts even complain that school programs get in the way of
what they need and want to know.
Judith Lambrecht, a business professor at the University of
Minnesota, agrees that most formal training programs are not very
helpful. "Students who just get the basics, and that's all, never
really link it to real-world problems. This is what people have when
they're self-taught," she said.
The best training programs get students into internships, real-world
exercises and problem-solving and foster students' ability to tinker
with software and hardware, she said.
But for most schools, there's an imperative pointing to "efficiency,
credits and serving lots of students at once," Lambrecht says. "That's
why teaching devolves into such systematic, mindless learning," she
says, exactly the opposite of what attracts or prepares students.
Finally, there's a spectacular gulf between how people learn
technology skills and the current enthusiasm for standardized tests.
Both Al Gore and George W. Bush have endorsed standardized tests for
school accountability. Bush has staked his reputation for educational
improvement in Texas on the state's public school exam.
But there is little or no connection between such tests and acquiring
technology skills. Indeed, some Texas schools have de-emphasized
computer use because the technology is a distraction from preparing
their students for the state test.
Lambrecht says the best practices for technology training and
standardized testing "are diametrically opposed."
"It's hard to do project-based learning and get predictable
outcomes," she says.
Standardized testing turns out students who are more or less the same,
shaped by the questions on the test, whereas the tech industry wants
innovators, tinkerers and people who think "outside the box."
Controversies about educational philosophies and approaches are not
new in the U.S. and probably will never go away. But it's certainly
time for the technology industry and politicians to get beyond empty,
uninformed and contradictory placebos and photo ops with poor people,
and to start to engage the hard problems we need to solve.
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at
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Jennifer de Beer
Cape Library Cooperative (CALICO) & INFOLIT
c/o the Adamastor Trust
Cape Town, South Africa
Tel: +27 (0)21 686-5070 Fax: +27 (0)21 689-7465
Regional Research Update: http://www.adamastor.ac.za/Academic/rru/index.htm
POINT TO PONDER:
Complex machines are an emergent life form
The Post-Human Manifesto 8.13
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