The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by the Social Policy, Fall, 1985.

The Computer: Education's Trojan Horse
by Barry McGhan

Unless you've been living in the depths of the Amazon jungle lately, you're probably aware of the current interest in using computers in schools.

Much of this interest needs to be discounted--attributed to the avarice of people who work for computer companies and computer stores, to the naivete of parents, or to the superficiality with which educators usually try to implement changes in schools. So far, the hype has obscured some complex philosophical, psychological, and sociological issues that need to be addressed vis-a-vis computers and education.

These issues surface very quickly when we look at the nature of the computer in conjunction with the nature of education. We see similarities and congruences that attract us and raise our hopes for significantly improving the quality of education. But we haven't yet looked close enough to see certain natural differences between the two, differences that put the non-trivial use of computers in schools decades away. More importantly, these differences will probably have far-reaching social consequences.

In order to launch a discussion of the issues, I need to differentiate between two senses of the term "education. " The first sense means learning-in-general, the kinds of things an individual learns from the physical and social environment throughout life. This is a kind of unstructured education, which we can call "informal" education. The other sense of the term "education" means "schooling," the kind of education that is planned and is usually imposed on an individual by others. Call it "formal" education. These two kinds of education both result in learning and are similar in many ways. The distinction is mostly one of structure.

It is my contention that computers will promote informal education, but will mostly impede schooling. Furthermore, the genuinely attractive aspects of using computers in informal education will create conditions that will exacerbate the incongruencies between computers and formal education. The benefits of computers in education can be seen mostly from philosophical and psychological perspectives. The detriments come to light when one adopts a sociological viewpoint.

Let's look at the positive side first. The most important thing that computers and education have in common is that they are both fundamentally interactive systems. When one types on a computer's keyboard (or uses some other input device), the computer processes what it "hears" and responds with a screen display (or some other form of output). This is analogous to John Dewey's view of education as a process of "doing and undergoing." The interactive experience is fundamental to other views of education too, even ones quite unrelated to Dewey. Consider, for example, the Socratic method, which involves a dialogue between teacher and student, or Aristotle's development of a correspondence between theory and reality, or any of a host of modern descendants of these and other early philosophers.

Whether we think of a computer as an entity that responds to us, or as an environment in which our actions produce reactions, the interactive nature of the computer allows an individual to learn things, in a sense, from the machine. This interactive nature is characteristic of all of the different uses of computers--games, programming, word processing, computer-assisted instruction, and so forth. We do something to it, it does something back, and thus we learn.

This interactivity also ties right in to the learning theories supported by behavioral psychology. Operant conditioning, the idea that desired behavior is shaped through the use of a schedule of positive reinforcement, is a good candidate to be implemented through computer technology. The computer is, by design, nearly an operant conditioning device; most often, it will either produce the result one wants, or it will do nothing. Furthermore, computer-assisted instruction can be written in such a way that the machine always responds in an operant conditioning mode.

A second major characteristic of computers is that they are machines, and thus more completely under our control than most living organisms. This "controllability" (which may be intrinsically attractive to humans) seems likely to be tied in with other psychological theories such as Adler's concept of striving for superiority, Goldstein's principle of self-actualization, or Erickson's concept of autonomy.

As machines, they are truly slave-like, which makes them both accessible and patient. They do what we want, when we want it, and as many times as we want it, without complaint. They have the potential to become tutors that are truly dedicated to the student's needs. They won't be able to ignore the developmental stages to which Piaget has alerted us. They won't be irritated by a student who has asked the same question three times in the last 15 minutes. They won't ask the student to come back after class for more help.

As machines, they are both predictable and consistent, and therefore can be at least as dependable as human instructors. An important aspect of this consistency and dependability is that they have the potential to take on the role of immortal tutor. They won't die or retire, and when they wear out, they can be replaced by other machines with the same tutoring skills.

A third major virtue of computers is that they are just machines. Although some people worry about the possible dehumanization of education that computers might cause, there is something to be said for turning more education over to machines. That's because, while they don't have our virtues, they also don't have our faults.

Most of the time we look at the educational experiences that schools provide through rose-colored glasses. But, remember all those educational critics of the sixties and seventies, like Jonathan Kozol who talked about "death at an early age," and Charles Silberman who noted "what grim, joyless places most American schools are...."'? Were such critics wrong? Have schools changed all that much in the last 15 years? In one of the recent [i.e., in 1985] major reports on the quality of education John Goodlad again wonders "why are our schools not places of joy?" Whether you feel the critics complained too much or too little, they were addressing faults of educators that computers don't have. Computers don't learn biases that are then introduced into the instruction they give. They don't raise or lower the quality of instruction because of a student's race or sex. They don't remember that Johnny's older brother came through the same school and raised hell.

Overall, the quality of education that computers will eventually be able to provide depends on their versatility, which in turn depends on the ingenuity of programmers and hardware designers. Only time will tell how much formal and informal education can be provided, or enabled, by a computer. New expansions of storage capacity will probably occur, making more on-line library-type information available. "Real life" uses of computers (word processing, spreadsheets, data-base systems, telecommunications) will also become available to students. Interactive tutoring may speed up the acquisition of "prescribed" knowledge, since the computer can be programmed to judge a student's responses and tailor the instruction accordingly. The computer may also, because it can be programmed to simulate some experiences, make instruction that was formerly too expensive or dangerous become available to more people.

In sum, the computer's nature as an interactive machine promises to eventually provide many worthwhile informal educational experiences. Indeed, if it turns out to be the mind-extending device some people claim it is, then, in conjunction with the human animal's seemingly innate capacity to learn, the computer may provide most of the cognitive education future generations will need.

But there is a darker side to the use of computers in education, especially the kind of formal education we call "schooling." Curiously, this dark side is related to one of the same qualities that makes a computer so compatible with informal education. The computer is very good at some aspects of individualized instruction, giving patient, unbiased attention and immediate, positive reinforcement, but it is only good at individualized instruction.

"So what?" you say. "Hasn't individualization of instruction been an educational goal for a long time? Don't we want to meet more students' individual needs?"

Indeed, it does seem reasonable that schools should try to take advantage of the one-to-one nature of computers and their capacity to be obedient servants and dedicated tutors in order to meet students' needs. The relevant questions are, "How much individualization of instruction can be achieved? How much should be?"

The easiest question of this type to answer is, "How much should not be achieved?" The answer is that total individualization is undesirable, since some educational experiences need to occur in groups, or are only relevant in a group setting (e.g., an artistic performance).

There are a number of other factors arrayed against increasing the amount of individualization over what it is now. These factors originate in the nature of formal education and its function in society.

Formal education has occurred in group settings since the time of Socrates, and the group mode is deeply embedded in education for social and economic reasons, as well as educational ones. It is the group nature of instruction that is at the heart of the difficulty in using computers in schools, in both obvious and subtle ways.

Schools presently function to "deliver" education through an approved curriculum based on formal or informal educational objectives. which teachers and associated staff implement using suitable means. The relation between the objectives and their means of implementation is an intimate and reciprocal one: objectives define suitable means and activities; only feasible and available means can implement the objectives.

In most cases, the group mode is not merely the form of instruction but the substance of it as well. That is, a given course only exists as a portion of a body of material available to a group of students at a specific time. Material and activities that have already been covered cannot usually be returned to, while materials and activities that have not been reached do not, in a sense, exist. To "individualize" a course it is necessary to develop and organize all the materials, activities, and means of evaluation, along with a record-keeping system, so that any student can start the course at any time and proceed through to completion at his or her own rate.

So, one problem in introducing computer-based instruction is that there is rarely an approved individualized curriculum available to take advantage of the computer's capacity to be a "one-on-one instructor." This problem is not intractable, however, since the creation of individualized courses, though time consuming and expensive, is possible. Current approaches to developing well-organized instructional objectives, implementing them with performance objectives, and testing to see that objectives are mastered will facilitate the process of increasing the amount of individualization in traditional courses. Another aid to the development of individualized courses will be the development of instructional-objective data banks, which, in conjunction with authoring systems, will allow teachers and schools to put together almost any instructional package they want.

However, increasing the frequency of formal individual instructional experiences will produce other problems. For example, one consequence of individualization is that student movement during the school day will need to be freer. Using bells to signal class changes, lining up to move to another room, even attendance in the school building itself (because of technology that gives access to instruction from home) will become less appropriate. Scheduling practices will have to become more flexible, as students begin and end courses at different times. The terms "semester," "credit," "grade level," and "pupil-teacher ratio" will lose or change their meanings. Such changes will present many concerns to administrators and teachers who are only familiar with "crowd-control" techniques associated with the group mode. Also, if computers do assume a larger instructional role (driven by demands for increased teacher productivity), one probable result will be a decrease in the number of staff positions, thus threatening job security. Enabling some students to complete graduation requirements earlier than most do now will further reduce the school population and the number of teaching positions. One can expect parents to oppose any reduction in school time that would increase the burden of parental supervision.

While these kinds of changes in school operation will be strongly resisted by educators, there is no overriding instructional reason why they can't or shouldn't occur. In fact, if they do occur, the changes brought about by reducing the incompatibilities that now exist between "computer-as-text/teacher" and curriculum objectives will make it even easier for students to use computers to master educational objectives outside of the school's usual authority structure. Another aspect to this "de-schooling of society" (to borrow a term popularized by Ivan Illich) is that the student will be able to operate physically and intellectually outside of the organizational framework of the school system. How acceptable will this be to adults? Is unsupervised study "real" study?

There are also potent social forces arrayed against individualization that may prevent computers from achieving their fullest use. One such force is social stratification. Persons in higher classes in society want to maintain their family's position from generation to generation. This is accomplished, in part, by arranging for their offspring to gain more from education than do lower classes. One way to maintain stratification is to provide for a low pupil-teacher ratio for offspring of the well-to-do, while other less fortunate children have higher ratios. Although low pupil-teacher ratios don't, in themselves, insure better education, the likelihood of it is greater, since children in small classes get a larger proportion of the teacher's time. The sons and daughters of the wealthy are often found in private schools with small class sizes or with private tutors, thus demonstrating their parents' opinion of the value of individualization. Even in public school, socioeconomic status (SES) can be inversely related to class size. It seems reasonable to expect that both middle and upper-class persons would tend to oppose making individualization available to everyone. This reservation of more individual attention to students with higher social status may be seen in recent surveys, which have found a higher proportion of computers in schools with higher SES students.

Group instruction maintains social stratification in another and more subtle way as well. Student performance is largely evaluated against group norms, which are developed by averaging the performances of the individuals in a group. Individuals learn to accept the different "capabilities" exhibited by their schoolmates through their common experiences as members of groups. Unfortunately, this is a rigged game, since the social class of students tends to determine their access to educational opportunities, and this differential treatment results in a kind of "hidden curriculum" that produces more benefits for higher SES students. The most common example of this phenomenon is homogeneous grouping, which promises to deliver more finely tuned instruction to meet students' needs, but in fact results in "tracks" from which students are often unable to escape.

In effect, the group context of instruction validates performance differences based on social class differences. While the group mode allows mastery levels to vary among students, individualized instruction allows time to vary instead. This can cause achievement level differences to become less distinct, because the group context that both produces them and allows them to be observed is altered. Nothing quite so clearly illustrates this point as Figure 1.

Figure 1. Achievement Distribution for Students Under Conventional,
Mastery learning, and Tutorial Instruction

Mastery Learning

* Teacher-Student Ratio
Source: Benjamin S. Bloom, "The Search for Methods of Group Instruction As Effective
As One-to-one Tutoring." Educational Leadership (May, 1984), pp. 4-17.

To propose an increase in individualization through the use of computers, which are blind to race and social class differences, is equivalent to proposing an equalization of educational opportunity unheard of in the history of education.

A related difficulty in using computers in formal education has to do with the schools' role in maintaining not only an ordered but an orderly society. The power structure in any society, even one that is large and diverse, wants the social order maintained as efficiently as possible. Of all the possible methods of maintaining social order, the most cost-effective is to educate people to behave themselves, to accept the norms of society and abide by them. Thus, universal education is often viewed as a primary tool for maintaining order and control in a society.

For example, countries that support national education systems are especially interested in seeing children indoctrinated in the ways those nations deem to be patriotic and/or culturally appropriate. In the United States, children are required to go to school in order to insure some minimum literacy in the population, meet public health and safety standards, inform citizens of certain social and civic expectations, and satisfy the interests of powerful organizations. The goals sought by political entities such as nations and states through compulsory public education are examples of the general goal of socialization which any adult society has for its children.

To a great degree, this socialization concerns group behavior and requires a group setting; one learns how to behave in a group situation by being part of a group. School is often viewed as a good place to receive such training, even though the overt purpose may be to acquire minimum literacy. Nor should "group membership training" be viewed as a minor or incidental purpose of education: the success or failure of many of our day-to-day interactions with others is based on our group identification and our skill in functioning as a member of a group.

Insofar as the school's function in society is to maintain the social structure and socialize children to accept their place in it through the use of group instruction, it seems reasonable to expect to see resistance to increasing the amount of individualization of instruction that computer use would necessitate.

Formal public education is a relatively new social institution, created in New England about 140 years ago. At this point in history the computer clouds its future. To many, the computer seems to be education's great gift. But, like the ancient Trojans and their legendary wooden horse, educators may find, after they drag the gift into their citadel, that it hides something that leads to ruin. Some, like the Trojans, will be dismayed by this turn of events. Others, like the Greeks, will rejoice in it. All things considered, I'm pulling for the Greeks.


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