Broken Promises: Decisions about computer based instruction must be based on data and analysis, not faith, fear and hype.

by William L. Rukeyser

Reprinted with permission from the Thrust for Educational Leadership, magazine of the Association of California School Administrators, February/March, 1998

When the cyber-history of the information age is finally written, 1997 may be marked as a major turning point: when people began to question some of the claims that computers and the Internet are the cure-all for our education system.

There has been a major disconnect between education technology's promises and what it has actually delivered in most classrooms.

Recently a major, national, educational leader, a respected national magazine and an influential daily newspaper have all investigated computers in the classroom and found that the data simply is not there to support the claims that computers are the panacea we are hoping for.

In July, Samuel Sava, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals reported to his membership, "If computers make a difference [in school], it has yet to show up in achievement." Sava repeated his warnings to a broader audience with a piece in The New York Times (Sept. 6, 1997 'Maybe Computers Aren't Schools' Salvation')

The Atlantic Monthly magazine published a cover story (July, 1997) based on a year long investigation of computers in the classroom. The title: 'The Computer Delusion' spells out the conclusion. Its author was not a quill-pen academic. He is the associate editor of Newsweek's on-line service. He earns his bread and butter with computers and the Internet, but has a realistic understanding of what they cannot do... as well as what they can.

In June The Los Angeles Times concluded a six-month look at Southern California's experiences with classroom computers and reported (in the first article of a two-part series), 'Technology Remains Promise, not Panacea. Education: Schools have invested heavily, but with little academic results.'

In the weeks before Christmas, 1997, two more major publications raised questions with The New York Times reporting that 'High-Tech Teaching Is Losing Its Gloss' (November 30, 1997) and USA Today asking, in a 'TechExtra' cover story 'Do classroom computers help kids learn?' (December 17, 1997). At the year's end, The Los Angeles Times declared in an editorial, 'Computers Won't Fix Schools' (December 28, 1997).

These sources are not saying the Emperor has no clothes. However, they are questioning whether he is fully dressed. And they are wondering whether it is really worth spending $100 billion to put computers in classrooms and then another $35 billion a year to keep the system from going obsolete? (A number of technical and industry studies report that, to keep a computer system from going obsolete, the annual cost is one-third to as much as 80% of the original purchase price.)

But a computer manufacturer made the point more strikingly than anyone else. In a recent Hewlett Packard ad the graphic showed an ice berg with the below- the-water-line portion labeled, 'The management costs'. The text read, 'When choosing a PC for your company, remember the lesson of the Titanic.' The same can be said when choosing a computer system for your school or deciding that there are portions of the school which do not need a computer system.

Skepticism and thrift- two great American virtues

It is about time that two key American virtues- skepticism and thrift- played a part in the discussion about technology's role in school.

The voices which spoke up in these articles are not the first to raise crucial questions, but they are the loudest. In the past such visionaries as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, speaking in Wired magazine ('The Next Insanely Great Thing The Wired Interview', February, 1996) and Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton have publicly questioned the wisdom of putting blind faith in classroom computers.

Closer to where I work in Yolo County, Gary Bloom, a school superintendent in San Benito County and Ruth Mikkelsen, a high school principal in Yuba County, have gone on record expressing skepticism. Many more local school leaders, around the state, are finding their voices and expressing doubts which, until now, have been largely unspoken.

Faith, fear, hype and hope

Until now the drive to saturate our classrooms with computers has been marked by faith, fear, hype and hope. Faith that computer skills guarantee economic success. (Never mind that our economic competitors use far fewer computers in the classroom than we do. Or that computer code is increasingly being written by low-cost, overseas labor and being e-mailed back to Seattle or the Silicon Valley.) Fear that we'll miss the boat if we don't rush our decisions. Hype in every speech which confuses education performance with purchase of equipment and blind hope that there really is a cure-all for our education woes.

'Computer literacy' has become a key phrase in defining the goal of schools and teachers. As computers have become more important in professions and the work place, many Americans have assumed they should become equally important in the classroom.

However, we are now finding disturbing data which, at the very least, casts doubt on the assumption that computers play a valuable role in early primary grades. In 1996, in a pioneering investigation, the San Jose Mercury-News commissioned an analysis comparing test scores and the amount of computer technology in a variety of area schools. It found no demonstrable benefit, for most kids, from the classroom computers. (Computers in School: Do Students Improve? High Technology Doesn't Always Equal High Achievement, January 14, 1996) Remember, this was in the Silicon Valley, the birthplace and epicenter of the computer revolution!

Current evidence points to high school- soon before students enter the work force- as a period when they can gain marketable skills using computers. There is also some evidence that students who are isolated in certain ways (geographically, economically or by handicap) may benefit more than most students of the same age.

The best teacher

A basic truth in education is that a child must be literate before he or she is computer literate. And the best teacher has always been a person, not a machine.

Anyone who has watched kids in a video arcade, or has logged on to the World Wide Web, knows how computers can gobble up time. California children already spend less of their day in school than most American students or our economic competitors overseas. We must examine if time with computers in the classroom is paying off.

Which is a better learning environment: reality or virtual reality? In the three dimensional, real world, kids encounter the unexpected. On the two dimensional screen, children see only the choices a programmer has developed for them.

Many parents wonder if early use of a computer can guarantee their child lifetime employment. All of us have been shaken by the recession of the early '90s, by the elimination of many jobs from the economy and general uncertainty about the future. What caring parent doesn't want to inoculate their child against economic hazards? We are told that early exposure to computers will make our kids computer literate.

Parents see "edutainment" software which is patterned after plastic building blocks, toy trucks or Play-Doh. However, most of us who have kids realize instinctively that the simulated experience of playing with these images on the screen does not duplicate the reality of learning the small motor skills needed to actually manipulate the real objects.

As a parent who has lived through the preschool stages of four children I can identify with the desire not to walk barefoot on any more Play-Doh or to stub my toe on another toy truck. However, that doesn't alter the fact that youngsters do need developmentally appropriate tools with which to grow (in the home, the preschool and the school).

There may also be serious consequences for a child's intellectual and emotional development if she/he is subjected to early or inappropriate pressure, involving computers, to accelerate in the classroom.

Leaving our options open

Educators, parents and policy-makers can make their best choices when they recognize the level of uncertainty which surrounds the concept of computer- based instruction. Those choice must be based on data and analysis, not fear or faith that seem to characterize the rush to put computers into the class room.

Until more data are available, the best choice may be to leave our options open.

William L. Rukeyser is coordinator of Learning in the Real World and the former special assistant to the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Learning in the Real World is a nonprofit organization that operates as an information clearinghouse and provides modest research grants in the areas of educational performance and cognitive development. More information is available on its Web page at