The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by Contemporary Education, Summer, 1988. [The rapid growth of the Internet in the mid '90's has raised the stakes for the use of computers at home and in school]

Computer Education: At School? At Home? Who's Kidding Whom?
by Barry McGhan

Now, in addition to sex, drugs, and the high cost of college, parents worry about their children and computers. They wonder, "Is my child going to learn what he or she needs in order to cope with a future filled with computers?" Can I help my child along with some home computer experience?" And so on . . .

First, let's admit that a lot of talk about schools and computers comes from computer companies interested in making money and educators interested in developing new territory. Much of what we have heard about computers and education stems from such special interests. Parents--and teachers too--need to relax and let the hype swirl by.

Ignoring the hype, however, does not do away with the need to answer some questions related to the use of computers in education. Should schools move in the direction of providing more computer experiences for kids? How far can schools move in that direction? What, if anything, should concerned parents do?

We could answer these questions quite easily if computers had no significant educational attributes. However, computers provide the kind of interactive experiences which John Dewey called doing and undergoing and through which he characterized learning. A computer is a fundamentally interactive device--input something and it outputs something in response.

The computer also gets high marks as an educational device because it can be programmed to consistently shape appropriate responses in a positive way, thus implementing the most central aspects of B. F. Skinner's concept of operant conditioning.

But what kind of education can computers provide? Where, for example, do they fit in with respect to the categories of psychomotor, affective, and cognitive learning? The psychomotor skills which computers provide are mostly limited to keyboard usage and eye-hand coordination, and the need for these skills may decrease as other input devices are designed. On the other hand, the development of sophisticated computer-driven simulations could increase the computer's use in this area of education.

Affective education (feelings, attitudes, etc.) also seems to be mostly outside of the computer's realm. Much of our affective development comes from interacting with other humans and modeling our behavior after theirs. Computers may be able to simulate some human behavior, but they won't--within the foreseeable future--be able to model human behavior in all of its irrational complexity. Computers' impact on affective education may be limited to the development of positive attitudes towards working with machines.

Computers will continue to make their strongest showing in the area of cognitive development--knowledge, reasoning, and so forth. They will do it in two ways. The first of these is where the student uses the computer to accomplish a goal through programming, or the use of a word processor or a record keeping system, etc. Call this a computer-as-medium use, where the machine lies between learner and goal and facilitates Dewey's process of doing and undergoing.

The rapid development of the computer industry itself is probably the best example of the potency of this kind of computer-based educational experience. Many computer professionals are either partly or mostly self-taught. The growth in numbers of home computer buffs and hackers has occurred for much the same kind of reason: you do something to a computer, it does something back, and thus you learn.

The second way in which computers will contribute to cognitive development is in their use as information-providers. Call this a computer-as-agent use, where the triad of learner, computer, and goal is arranged so that the computer lies behind the learner, directing him or her towards a goal.

This second kind of use is most closely related to what schools do now. Some of this computer-based education will be like that available from a library, enhanced by the computer's capacity to sort and search for references and collect and display them in a convenient manner. The dialup information databases now available are modest examples of this kind of information-providing device.

In this same vein, sophisticated teaching programs are becoming available in tutorial and simulation packages which, because they follow the principles of both Dewey and Skinner, hasten the acquisition of knowledge and sharpen its use.

To sum up, computers have characteristics which are closely related to some important aspects of education, and in the cognitive area, can have substantial impact in two ways--as a medium for learning and as an agent of learning. Furthermore, and of special concern to parents--inasmuch as computer-aided learning is largely individualized learning--inexpensive home computers can provide educational experiences at home.

But, even if home computer education is possible, is it practical? Should parents run out and buy a computer next weekend? The answers to those questions are as much related to one's educational philosophy as to the expansion of the use of computers in society.

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, educational theorists and practitioners have adopted perspectives which can be categorized as either teacher-centered or learner-centered. The computer can help out in either way, acting as an agent which provides essentially traditional education, or as a new medium through which one learns. Both of these perspectives reveal roadblocks to effective home computer education--in the home and in the school.

In the home, motivation will cause problems. While student-centered views affirm that learning is more effective when the motivation for it is intrinsic, teacher-centered views maintain that students often need extrinsic motivation. Parents may not have the skill, time and energy to consistently provide motivation when it is needed.

Schools, which tend to resist learner-centered education, will also resist the use of computers to provide traditional education if the learning is home-based.

One reason is related to the fact that schools not only provide education but also certify that learning has occurred. Mostly, this teacher-centered function has been performed by giving course grades and issuing graduation certificates: in order to get credit, one must take the class. How well can home computer-based education fit society's need to have students certified as having learned something?

For example, is a home computer package for algebra worthwhile if the child still has to take a class in order to receive algebra credit? In addition, if parents purchase computer-based algebra instruction as an aid to study, how well coordinated will the two instructional "packages" (computer and class) be? One strategy for the effective use of home computer education is to emphasize the computer-as-medium types of uses rather than the computer-as-agent types (except for library-like uses and general-purpose instructional packages). For one thing, these kinds of uses tend to be more intrinsically interesting, more fun. Also, the computer-as-medium approach should make the transition to more modern educational technology easier, because it doesn't require schools to change their goals. For example, graphics software may facilitate an art project, word processing can make term paper writing easier, and math applications packages can provide answers to check homework (never mind that students still have to be drilled on what the computer can do for them!).

Even though these uses are currently more compatible with today's schools, they, too, will eventually cause disruptions. The uneven distribution of computing equipment among families will give some students advantages over others which will conflict with the common practice of tailoring group instruction to the mythical "average student." As computer use among students grows, more and more will be able to accomplish educational goals at a rate above the "average." The use of word processors, for example, will not be resisted because they are bad for students but because the system has to struggle with the changes they cause in routine.

There is a rapprochement between home and school education which partially solves some of these problems. But, it requires a change that interested parents and teachers will have to fight for--the replacement of "seat-time" course credit with performance-testing credit. What is needed is a complex, tamper-proof testing program which will allow students who have learned concepts, facts and skills outside of school to demonstrate those things by passing a test, or set of tests, which certify their learning. Insofar as testing can certify performance, this kind of system can exist in conjunction with regular instructional programs, so that those who cannot "test out" will still be able to obtain credit, but those who can are not held back.

The creation of testing programs which are parallel to, or mixed in with, regular instructional programs will be time-consuming and expensive. And, since the use of computers makes learning necessarily more student-centered, some teachers will resist the changes out of considerations for job security. Still, the alternatives to increasing the availability of performance testing credit are clear. One is to avoid using some of the computer's most valuable educational attributes. Another is to forgo the institutional certification of learning, which few parents, colleges, or employers would want.

Until the seat-time credit logjam is broken the most likely market for home computer education hardware and software will probably be among those parents who have the preference, will, time, and resources for educating their children exclusively at home; among parents of children with special needs not normally met by schools anyhow; and among parents who are willing to enhance their children's education without any assurance that their school system will take that into account.


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