How Should We Use Computers?

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 1, 2000, p. 11A

When a dog chases a train has it given thought to what it would do if it caught it?

Our nations’ schools spend billions chasing computers and Internet connections. We caught them. Now what do we do?

I’m reminded of a conversation in 1960 with an IBM representative. As a new U.C. Berkeley law professor I sought an easier way to grade essay exams.

“What can you do with these computers anyway?” I asked him.

“You remind me of a friend of mine,” he smiled. “Whenever he looks at a restaurant menu he says, ‘Hum. What goes with French fries?’”

He continued, ”Tell me what you want to do. We can either do it today or will invent it for you within a year.”

I’m still grading exams the old fashioned way. But today’s computers are infinitely more powerful and available.

Education’s critics used to say, “It took 50 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom.”

Many classrooms still don’t have phones.

But it’s only taken 20 years (from 1980’s IBM-PC) to get the computer out of the office and into the school.

Sure, we need wider bandwidth, upgrades for obsolete computers and software, and more computers in the classroom. Some poorer schools have been passed by.

But we’ve made remarkable progress.

Nor is it the case that the computers have been kept in locked closets.

That was often the fate of the last wave of technology: video cameras and editors. (Our school district’s cable channel 11 is still woefully underutilized with students’ videos.)

Our local teachers and students have found lots of uses for computers.

So we’re well on our way. But there’s much more to come.

Computers hold the potential to free teachers to do their professional best. Decrease class size. Improve the quality of instruction. Increase love of learning. And, not incidentally, do it at less cost while paying teachers more.

[Computer aided instruction has been with us since the 1960s. Our district uses one of the earliest examples, Plato courseware. There are thousands of other excellent educational programs. Some are nearly indistinguishable from games – genuine learning that’s also fun. Others are worthless, or worse.]

Twenty years ago I chaired something called the Virtual Classroom Project.

We discovered that the test scores of kids who learned at home with computers were about the same as those who went to school.

Nobody's recommending we do away with teachers and schools. Not the most radical long-range futurists.

[Even home schooling relies on support from the schools. Schools' benefits go beyond test scores.] But schools could offer even more benefits if teachers were freed from the tasks that can be performed by computers.

Many of our district’s innovative teachers are already moving in this direction.

They’re reviewing and trying out available software, seeing what works, “what goes with French fries.”

Some software can also be used on home computers.

These innovators need our support.

With computers in homes, schools and public centers we’re closer to a day of 24/7 education.

A day teachers can concentrate on students who need the most human help.

A day when students get a portion of their education from their teacher’s electronic assistants.

And that’s the day we’ll know why we so doggedly chased the train.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site