October 17, 2003
Computers in schools and why they usually don't work

This is an interesting book, by the look of things, that link being to a review of it. Opening paragraphs of the review:

What impact has computer technology had on public education in the US? That's the question journalist Todd Oppenheimer sets out to answer in "The Flickering Mind."

Mr. Oppenheimer's conclusion: Putting computers in classrooms has been almost entirely wasteful, and the rush to keep schools up-to-date with the latest technology has been largely pointless.

"At this early stage of the personal computer's history, the technology is far too complex and error prone to be smoothly integrated into most classrooms," Oppenheimer writes. "While the technology business is creatively frantic, financially strapped public schools cannot afford to keep up with the innovations."

I presume that much the same applies in Britain. Still, at least British schools aren't using "BBC" computers any more. Remember them? That was when British schools – or rather the gink who decided these things for them at the moment when he did – thought it made sense for British schools to have their own special and different computer standard from the regular standard, thereby destroying any chance that much of use would be learned, like: how to use the standard computers.

Although this books seems to be written as an attack on current computers and all the parasites who specialise in flogging them to the public sector, I read it (via this review of it) more as an attack on "public" schools and the way these schools are run. After all, computers are doing all sorts of wonderful things, for kids and for everyone else, outside of schools, and I remain utterly convinced that computers do now make a massive contribution to education, and that they will do so even more massively in the future – just not in "schools". They do it at home, in the workplace, etc.. So what's wrong with schools, that their best response to computers is to ignore them and use nothing but chalk and pencils, etc.? Because I am forced to agree that for the average school to ignore computers completely may well be its best response.

I suspect that one big reason why schools fail with their computers is that no one really owns these computers. They arrive, and are then engulfed in the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is pretty tragic for desks, blackboards, curtains, etc. For computers it is very tragic indeed.

And I further suspect that many schools, instead of getting some computers when they really, definitely need them, to solve some particular, definite problem that they do definitely have, just get them with the vague idea that, you know, the kids will somehow learn how to use them, for … things. (The functional equivalent of that would be if The Government tells all its schools to Get Computers, regardless of the immediate consequences.)

That never works. You should never, ever buy anything computer related (for more than the pettiest of petty cash) which is not the exact answer to an already existing problem that you definitely do have, and which will rapidly solve that problem, and do this so rapidly that you will not regret the price drop that will hit you in three months' time, and which will make an ass of you if you haven't had three solid months of brilliant problem solving out of your new kit.

So, if your school is thinking of "getting some computers", ask in a loud voice (a) what the problem is, exactly, that these computers are definitely going to solve, and (b) why these particular computers are the answer, rather than some other far cheaper ones, or no computers at all. And while you are about it (and going back to that point about ownership), if the school is going to "get some computers", ask (c) exactly who – which pre-named individual who is hungry to perform this task – is going to make sure that all this problem solving actually happens, and that the damned stuff doesn't just rot in cupboards or sit about until someone with a better idea about what to do with it steals it, or until someone just plain wrecks it. In the absence of solid answers to all of this, forget it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:35 PM
Category: Technology