Here we go again -- a new digital revolution in the schools

                                                      Your new teacher has arrived

The first proclamations of a "computer revolution" or "digital revolution" in the schools arrived more than 30 years ago and have reappeared with renewed intensity every four or five years since then.  The evidence of success for these recurring "revolutions" is at best very thin.  As new generations of hardware and software have been pumped into the classroom, student achievement scores, SAT scores, and other measures of educational success have continued to slide while America's standing in international comparisons of K-12 educational quality has steadily declined as well.  There's a widespread consensus that, for all the wonderful "innovations" targeted at them in recent decades, the schools remain in crisis.

The latest nationwide attempt to pump up this now old-fashioned idea is called the "Digital Promise," a program promoted by U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  In an article Duncan wrote with Reed Hastings in the Wall Street Journal the horizons of Computer Revolution 8.3 (or whatever it is now) are described  with "World of Warcraft" enthusiasm (hey, the kids will love this stuff!).

 "Imagine ... an online high-school physics course that uses videogame graphics power to teach atomic interactions, or a second-grade online math curriculum that automatically adapts to individual students' levels of knowledge. All of this will happen. The only question is: Will the U.S. lead the effort or will we follow other countries?
In the past two decades, technology has revolutionized the way Americans communicate, get news...."

While I'm not sure the "Digital Promise" people will like the idea, I have the perfect theme song for their cool campaign.

For those interested, below is the English translation of an interview on technology and education,  I did last spring with Sintesis Educativa, an Argentine online journal.  It's focus is another (now somewhat dated) computer revolution in the schools -- One Laptop Per Child.

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 A Form of Imperialism 

Question: Professor Winner, what is your evaluation of the “one computer per student” model in pedagogical terms, and of Negroponte’s OLPC proposition as such?

Langdon:  While the model of education in “One Laptop Per Child” and similar laptop programs may seem to be new and “innovative,” it is actually just the latest appearance of a very old obsession, a approach that has failed repeatedly.  In his book, Teachers and Machines, Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University, explains the pattern that this story has taken for many decades.  First there are businesses with a new product to sell – motion pictures, tape strips, television, computers, etc.   They take their products to educational bureaucrats convince them that there is a technological “revolution” coming and that they need to be a part to it.  Then the administrators purchase the machines, often at great expense, and push them into the local schools.  In most cases the teachers, students and people in the schools and communities learn about the changes that face them.  OLPC faithfully reproduces this dreary pattern -- educational technology promoted not because there is any clear idea about its value in teaching and learning, but because it promises to be a lucrative market.  Teachers are often sucked in because they want to appear fully up to date.

Question: What are the political implications of this strategy that OLPC officials call “digital saturation”, i.e. flooding schools with computers?

Langdon:  Digital saturation is a strategy that disempowers people and prevents them from making choices about education in critical, thoughtful ways.  A sane approach would ask:  What do our children need?  What tools and resources would best contribute to their ability to learn?  From that point of view computers are merely one variety of tool that might be included within a mix of sensible methods and materials.  One needs to ask: What are our basic purposes and priorities?  How can we best respond to them?  For example, teachers I know who’ve taught in African countries often report that the schools are ill equipped at the most basic level, that in some places the students do not even have desks and chairs. 

Proclamations about a crash program of “digital saturation” should be a red flag for any school system.  Wouldn’t it make better sense to do some trial runs on a small scale and see how they work out?  The OLPC pushers, like voracious marketers everywhere, want to sell as much as they can, as quickly as they can before they hustle out of town with the cash.  It’s worth noting that both Negroponte brothers, both John and Nicholas, seem to prefer solutions that involve saturation bombing in some medium or another. 

Question:  Assessment of the programs already in execution are scant, but preliminary reports 
from Uruguay, after two full years of implementation, indicate that one
fourth of the computers are broken or stay unused, and that they are used
mainly for entertainment when children are on their own, and only for
surfing the Internet and writing when in the classroom. What are your
reflections on this?

Langdon:  This is not surprising at all. In my own country, the closets of every school contain the costly, broken, useless junk of earlier “technological revolutions.”  Yet the crisis in our schools remains and, in fact, has gotten steadily worse since the computer entered the scene.  A number of studies indicate that they net effect of these technological experiments is just about zero – some good, some bad, and some neutral results.  But the belief that somehow a new piece of electronic equipment will have powerful, magical results in education keeps reappearing in each decade, despite the overwhelming evidence of its absurdity.

Do you perceive any dangers for children and young students, or any damage
for education as a  whole, deriving from these actions?

Langdon:  One of the main problems here is simply that computers are a huge distraction.  Your earlier question mentioned the ways that kids seek out entertainment and diversion on the Net.  Activities of that kind can easily become a substitute for the work of learning and thinking.  Laptops open up the alluring world of movies, sports, fashion, social chat, and consumerism. Such concerns can easily replace reading, math, science, history, and other challenges for young minds.  In my own classes I’ve found that when the laptop screens are “up,” students are reading email, texting and looking at web sites that have nothing to do with the questions we are discussing.  Because I want to see their eyes, listen to their words and engage their minds, I’ve adopted a “laptops shut” policy.

Another important issue concerns the role of teachers. One of the themes of OLPC promoters is that kids who have laptops can learn everything by themselves.  So who needs teachers at all?  One of the covert purposes of saturating schools with OLPC machines is to devalue the work and intelligence of teachers and to reduce the amount of money for their training and salaries. Politicians and bureaucrats can argue that “because we’ve bought millions of dollars on laptops, there’s no money left for more teachers.”  Historically speaking, this is a familiar pattern.  Computerization is a strategy that corporations and government agencies use to reduce their commitments to living human beings.

What do you see behind the regional character of these initiatives,
considering the fact that, although apparently uncoordinated, they seem to
be occurring simultaneously in Latin America?

Langdon:  The book on this pattern was written decades ago by Eduardo Galeano, “Las venas abiertas de Latina America.” Educational computing that arrives from laboratories and corporations the U.S.A. is, in my view, a manifestation of the kinds of imperialism and subservience that Galeano describes.  In this case it is techno-imperialism. At a time in which many people in Latin America have begun to rebel against neoliberalism and to regain control of their economic and political destinies, they should notice how the loss of autonomy can be packaged as a little, green, plastic laptop.