The BOOKPRESS April 1998

ABC's of Computer Learningá- Letter to the Editor


Gary Esolen and Valeri LeBlanc

To the Editor:

In your March issue, William Griffen took on the topic of the technology of electronic communication and its effect on education, and indirectly on our lives. It's an important issue, one of the most important of our time, and his handling of it was romanticized and disappointing.

Griffen is right to notice that despite a lot of hype, the new technology has not yet done much to improve education, at least at the high school level. But he reacts to that failure by rejecting the technology, which leaves him with vague generalities (Christopher Lasch musing on "what if we change our point of view" and Paul Goodman romantically lecturing teenagers on how to demand a real education) and an inappropriate myth (Huxley's vision of a cheerful proletariat happily suffering oppression under the influence of technology, a vision which would be more fitting if the technology in question were television or other means of passive entertainment, but has little relevance to the new media of communication)

Part of the problem is that on questions of education Bill Gates is a straw man, easy to attack. He knows almost nothing about education, and he is a simplistic idealist. The richest man in the world and the most remarkable corporate manager of our time, he is a babe in the woods when it comes to education, capable of little more than enthusiastic ramblings. He rightly intuits that computers and electronic communications ought to revolutionize education, but he is apparently void of any understanding of how that might happen. The chapters on education in his treatise, The Road Ahead, are breathlessly rhapsodic but without real insight.

In fact, Griffen's nearly Luddite attitude toward technology (fueled by his suspicion that technology is a product of the marketplace which is dominated by business interests) is almost a mirror opposite of the computer-culture's ideology, which glorifies the marketplace (which it credits for the rapid advancement of technology, forgetting the massive role of governments in that process) and assumes the marketplace will generate endless technological innovation which in turn will solve all problems, and efficiently at that. In the culture which is emerging among internet users, any interference with the marketplace is regarded as a kind of censorship, which is confidently challenged. As one maxim puts it, the internet regards censorship as a defect and routes around it. And the internet culture regards virtually any imposed limitation even limits on encrypted communications as censorship. The ideology of the internet is a particularly confident and headstrong version of libertarianism, which is the more resilient in that it is based on real qualities of a remarkable system of communication. At such a moment in history, who can complain of a little exaggeration?

Since neither Griffen's retreat from technology nor the hype he rightly criticizes will do much for education, what are some of the real issues? As people who have spent twenty years working on the cutting edge of new media, and who have for several years been looking earnestly at the question of how to improve our educational system, we are vitally interested in the answer.

One of the simplest and most obvious ways that computer technology could help education is by making available effective computer-based learning. There are many areas of content and skills which could be taught very efficiently through computers. Such teaching would use classic Skinnerian programs, small bites of material with constant positive reinforcement. The principles are well known and well established.

We were quite shocked when we first began to look at the state of contemporary education to find effective computer teaching software. Having seen effective computer based teaching (at Cornell, among other places) two decades ago, we had assumed it would be ubiquitous. It is not The software we assumed was out there-tested and proven programs to teach mathematics at all levels, for instance-either did not exist or was almost impossible to find. When the elite private school which one of our sons attended got a generous grant to set up a computer-based support system for learning, we were excited and quick to get involved. What we learned was that the best software the experts could find was of limited use. Computer-based learning has not happened.

Why not? One important reason does indeed have to do with corrupt business practices and the political economy, as Griffen might suspect. But it is closer to his home turf of professional educators. Textbook companies have a stranglehold on school systems. Vice-President Al Gore, whom Griffen dismisses, and who is an easy target with his stiffness and his convert's zeal for the new technology, saw the problem and tried to do something about it. He called a conference in Washington, DC to confront software companies about their failure to address educational needs. Their reply was that they could not penetrate the market, for two reasons: because textbook companies were too powerful, and because the educational systems were simultaneously slow to accept new materials and subject to quick-changing jargon and faddism.

The combination is deadly to innovative educational strategies-by the time they fight their way through the bureaucracy they are regarded as old hat. In working with professional educators we have found that serious discussion of reform is constantly interrupted because someone uses a word or phrase which was part of an educational fad and is now considered discredited. Trying to talk about education is like walking through a mine field of loaded language. And all those fads and fashions, current or discredited, play into the hands of the textbook companies which constantly adapt with superficial changes and make enormous profits on products which remain substantially the same while they change just sufficiently to undermine the used textbook market and to require schools to invest anew.

One friend of ours who has been fighting to get some new materials into use in school systems points out that the textbook companies have contracts with all the educational experts. "They can virtually own the top people in a field for twenty thousand dollar a year consulting contracts," he laments.

This failure is doubly important. Reformers often recommend that schools have smaller classes, in order to increase the amount of teacher-student contact and to allow time for individualized instruction. But if a fifty-minute class is reduced from 25 students to 12 students, and if we assume that half the class time is spent on individual instruction, then the average time available for each student moves from one minute to two minutes. The potential for strong computer learning systems to liberate teachers to teach is enormous-especially since a good teaching program should allow the teacher to monitor progress for each student and to see where difficulties occur.

Of course not all skills and not all subjects can be well taught by computer, but we are far from having reached the point where we are pushing the limits of what can be done by such methods. We have scarcely begun, and retreating from technology is not the ways to make progress.

Griffen also takes note of the overhyped educational power of the internet-and he is right. First of all, we read press releases every day announcing that schools and libraries have been hooked up to the internet. But when you go to the schools and take a closer look, it often turns out that the level of connection is trivial. To put a school on the internet it should be possible for hundreds of individual students to have access, simultaneously. Few schools have the necessary computer terminals and fewer still have the appropriate connections. One school system we looked at had a computer with internet capability and a connection in every school-and had been declared to be "wired," to the point of being touted in the national press. However, the service which provided the connections for the schools could only handle 28 simultaneous dial-in users (and there were 85 schools). That's one connection at a time for each of 28 out of 85 schools.

Misleading announcements of this kind are common-they are the rule, not the exception. In New Orleans there are at least two cyber-cafes each of which has a higher bandwidth connection to the internet than the entire public school system!

The hype does not stop with bureaucratic press releases. Many Americans have seen advertising from giant computer companies boasting of what the internet has done. One famous ad features the daughter of an Italian peasant explaining that her father was able to study agriculture because IBM had put the library at Indiana University on the internet. A viewer would be reasonable in assuming that that meant every book, or most of the books, in that library could be read on line. The level of online access at Indiana University is in fact remarkable, for registered students, though even for them it falls short of the promise of the IBM ads. But internet users who eagerly go to the University's site to access their online library will encounter a series of Access Forbidden messages and little more.

But despite these disappointments, Griffen is wrong to disdain the internet for lack of serious content. You won't find discussions of poverty and social policy on Time-Warner's entertainment site, Pathfinder, even if Bill Gates was careless enough to praise it as an educational resource. But you will find such discussions in a variety of user groups-though the content won't be screened and filtered and certified as accurate. The medium is decentralized, it is a relatively inexpensive place to publish, and it is chaotic and difficult to search. It has plenty of capacity for mischief and for benefit, but on the whole it is clearly liberating.

A medical reference called MedLine, for instance, which abstracts articles in thousands of medical journals, is fully available on the internet. When a friend of ours, living in Canada, was diagnosed with a form of cancer, we were able in a few hours to pull the most recent three years of medical research-and we learned that the standard state-of-the-art treatment for her disease was not approved by Canadian public health-a matter of great controversy there. The result was that she was able to obtain appropriate treatment. Knowledge is power indeed.

Some of the most exciting resources on the internet (such as powerful databases and user groups) were there before the WorldWide Web offered a graphic interface and the web is still most powerful as a medium for presenting text-based information in a graphic environment that makes it easy to access. Much of the most touted stuff on the web-its animated graphics and interactive tricks-is almost irrelevant to its usefulness as a medium of communication. It is easy to find silliness and extravagance on the web, still easier to find commercialism, shallow entertainment, and self-serving propaganda. But none of that should blind us to the fact that this is a powerful, naturally democratic, decentralized, and virtually uncontrollable medium of communication.

If a conspiracy of the ruling class created the internet to keep the masses ignorant and easily manipulated, they screwed up bigtime. When there were tanks outside the seat of government in Moscow, a friend of ours in New Orleans, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian national, sat in his office, watching CNN and communicating by fax and e-mail with people inside the building-whose only reliable source of information was through such communications. Similar stories have emerged from China. E-mail is the ultimate samizdat medium of publication. Click once and the cat is out of the bag, world wide.

Idealogues of internet freedom of speech like to point out that the US was unable to shut down Iraq's communications on the internet during the Gulf War of 1991. They are delighted by this, not because they are confident supporters of Saddam Hussein or even horrified observers of the war and its effects. They delight in the resilience, the versatility, and the adaptability to hostile circumstances, of the medium. The internet was designed by the military to provide communications which could survive a nuclear attack. Perhaps it has worked.

In any case, if parents or children want to know what teachers should be teaching them to make it possible for them to help build a better future for all of us, one answer is clearly that they should be teaching computer skills-how to use computers to store information, to manipulate information, and to communicateˇand how to control those computers through programming and information management. To think otherwise is laughable or tragic or both.

Teachers, however, are often ignorant of the new medium and reluctant to learn how to use it. They are one of the most serious obstacles to educating the current generation of school children in electronic communications. It is therefore particularly distressing to see Griffen, a professor of education, encouraging such reluctance.

Teachers and parents should be worrying about universal access to electronic communications, about going beyond the much touted "E-Rate" which will give schools and libraries subsidized internet access (a position which came out of an FCC committee chaired by Russell Frisby, Chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission and a co-consultant on some projects with our company). The E-Rate is a good idea but it is not enough.

It is a terrifying prospect that while educators like Griffen are dragging their feet over whether the new technology has anything to offer education, a combination of factors will produce a society in which some people understand electronic communication and some do not, some have access to it and some do not. If that happens, which group do you suppose will have more money, power, independence, and a better future? And where do you want the kids in your public school system to be?

-Gary Esolen and Valeri LeBlanc
The Media Revolution, Inc.
New Orleans, Louisiana

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