False Profits: Expertise and Educational Computing
rant by Gary S. Stager
© 2000 Gary S. Stager
As a community of practice, educational computing is at
best dysfunctional or at least learning-disabled. Twenty years after microcomputers,
a medium with the potential to revolutionize education, entered classrooms
the educational computing community continues to focus its energies on the
dubious goals of curriculum integration and professional development. Theoretically
these sound like lofty aspirations while in reality they are code words for
paralysis and the status quo. We are cursed by an absence of vision and expertise.
In addition to curriculum and professional development,
the two unspoken goals of educational computing are fund-raising and shopping.
Despite the rhetoric about preparing kids for the digital age schools are
grossly underfunded and professional educators are continuously distracted
from their primary duties to shamelessly suck-up for more hardware. Educational
computing conference programs are full of sessions about grant writing and
schools of education are compelled to teach grant writing in their educational
computing degree programs. The hype regarding the rate of change spurred by
computing causes educators to equate innovation with the purchase of a new
software package. Educational computing conferences have become flea-markets
rather than incubators of knowledge. It is much easier to buy a new software
package than to change the goals, practices and outcomes of schooling –
even if the society is demanding such growth.
The mantra of curriculum integration is really a call to
limit the enormous potential of computational technology in order to support
questionable educational content and pedagogy. Curriculum integration is offered
as an alternative to the previously dopey goal of computer literacy instruction.
Imagination-impaired educators can now say, "we can teach kids about hanging
indents while preparing boring assignments they have no interest in writing
rather than the old-fashioned way when we just taught about hanging indents
without the exciting context of writing a book report. We're motivating the
kids to learn by connecting tech skills to the curriculum." This phenomenon
may be more dangerous than the old-fashioned ways in which we use lied to
children in the name of curriculum. Contemporary children live in a computer-rich
world in which personal computers and the Internet are natural extensions
of their environment. Using these technologies in a dumbed-down way to impose
inauthentic learning objectives on children is asking for trouble. They will
undoubtedly react badly to the use of their beloved computers as tools of
their own oppression. This is especially true when the offending adults have
less fluency with the medium than do their students.
Professional development has become an obsession of schools
and for-profit corporations desperate to develop expensive strategies for
begging, bribing, cajoling, tricking, enticing, bullying, inspiring and threatening
teachers to touch computers. While kids are widely believed to have more natural
fluency with computers and the net, there is still much they could learn and
be inspired to construct if led by imaginative modern educators. A quick survey
of American culture would show that toddlers recognize www before the golden
arches and senior citizens represent the fastest growing segment of the Internet-using
public. No afterschool workshops, technology coordinators, NSF grants or acts
of Congress were required to get Grandma online. She just wanted to talk with
her children and grandchildren more regularly.
So, let's review the evidence… Kids get the stuff;
seniors get it and folks working in most professional and even blue-collar
jobs use computers. The last group of professionals to embrace computers as
a useful tool is teachers. Henry Becker's research tells us that being a school
math teacher is a statistically significant predictor that a person DOES NOT
use the Internet. One would hope that workers charged with the development
of intellectual capital would embrace the most powerful medium for the development
of ideas and creative expression in history.
The current state-of-affairs is the result of low expectations,
educational leaders without vision, false prophets/profits and an anti-intellectual
society in which powerful ideas are rejected in favor of expediency. All of
these problems have to do with expertise. Let's explore them.
I often joke that the difference between a novice computer-using
educator and an expert is a two-hour workshop. Our expectations for what teachers
might actually do with computers are so low that those goals are easily achieved.
Well, one would think so. Human nature suggests that the less we expect of
others, the less they will actually achieve. The goals of simple word processing,
web surfing and strapping kids to a drill and practice program seem hardly
beyond the reach of a living-breathing teacher, yet even these modest goals
remain elusive. One look at a state or national educational computing conference
and you would have to conclude that ‘cutting and pasting' represents
the post-doctoral level of the field. The banality of most conference programs
would suggest that the ceiling for learning with and about learning with computers
is low indeed.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that we should not expect
teachers to use computers in more creative intellectually empowering ways
if they are incapable of achieving the most pedestrian of objectives. This
line of reasoning misses two fundamental variables – motivation and
scarcity of resources. Inspiring teachers by the limitless potential of computers
to empower students to learn and express themselves in previously unimaginable
ways requires a different manifestation of expertise, leadership, and a community's
desire to embrace the construction what's new. Experience would suggest that
schools excited by the potential to engage more kids in rich learning adventures
would challenge teachers to ‘think different' and provide the support
necessary to support such motivation.
The organizations charged with promoting educational computing
are often guilty of contributing to the imagination gap by failing to create,
sustain, recognize and promote outstanding models of 21st century
learning. When I heard Board members of the California Computer-Using Educators
(CUE) sharing their horror at the new state mathematics standards in which
computer-use is strongly discouraged, I was outraged by their reaction. CUE
after all has tens of thousands of members, commands a substantial budget
and employs a lobbyist. "How could this be a surprise?" I thought.
I later realized that the problem was much deeper than
if they failed to speak-up at a meeting. If that organization had been offered
an opportunity to advocate a different policy direction, would they have been
able to present models compelling enough to change policy? If not, then we
must work harder to close the imagination gap by taking bolder actions and
celebrating new ways of teaching and learning with great clarity.
Expecting teachers to support all kids in the use of computers
as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression requires different
kinds of fluency and old-fashioned ideas of creating a rich learning environment.
While schools focus on teaching word processing and the use of scroll bars
over a 4-year scope and sequence, we forget that the existing technology allows
even the youngest kids to produce movies, engineer robots, program video games,
build simulations, conduct sophisticated scientific explorations and compose
The dirty little secret of educational computing is that
it has failed to make a significant impact on learning not because there are
too many computers in schools, but rather too few. What good does it do to
motivate teachers to think about teaching and learning in new ways if their
students get only minutes of computer access per week or if the computers
are stored in a bunker down the hall? (My kids in a southern California public
school system have not used a school computer in at least six years.)
Scarcity is a major obstacle to use! How many afterschool
workshops should a teacher attend before they can get a printer ribbon (yes,
many schools still need ribbons) or a few extra minutes of time in the computer
lab? The "one computer classroom' may have been not only a cute marketing
slogan, but perhaps even a useful set of classroom strategies in the mid-eighties
when microcomputers were less ubiquitous. However it now represents a most
cynical corporate strategy to maintain the status quo and support the supremacy
of externally imposed curriculum at the expense of children.
Equally virulent ideas include the often touted 30/50%
rule that suggests we spend 30-50% of our technology budget on professional
development and the latest excuse for inaction, total cost of ownership. Spending
even one penny of the hardware budget on professional development is a cheap
accounting trick. We don't pay for art teachers out of the crayon budget,
not should we pay for teacher education out of the computer budget. This only
devalues the importance of computers as instruments for the construction of
knowledge and avoids the cold hard truth that the obstacles to successful
computer use may have much more to do with issues associated with good teaching
than computers themselves. The idea total cost of ownership, (TCO) has been
recently introduced into the educational debate. While fiscal responsibility
requires schools to plan for all of the costs associated with computing, the
high costs presented by TCO advocates are unrealistic and will scare schools
away from investing in computing.
The Leadership Abyss
It is not only school leaders who fail to realize, articulate
and nurture the potential of digital technology. Elected and self-appointed
leaders of the educational computing community appear to be as ineffective.
School leaders without personal computer fluency can not possibly understand
the power and possibilities of computing. The confluence of the insane demands
being made on school administrators and the above mentioned imagination gap
is causing an alarming number of school leaders to abdicate their leadership
to others. The need for someone to ‘understand this stuff' and ‘go
shopping' has created a new profession, school computer coordinator. In many
districts, excellent educators are removed from the classroom in order to
supervise the purchasing, inventory and installation of computer. The boom
in the number of technology/computer coordinators is unprecedented and institutionalizes
the notion that computers are precious, mysterious and beyond the comprehension
of school administrators. (It would be fantastic if great educators could
be rewarded for continuing to work with children and create inspirational
models of great teaching with computers.)
The increasing complexities caused by the hysterical pace
and paranoia regarding school networking has led to an even more dangerous
trend than the creation of computer coordinators. Schools anxious to bulldoze
their lawns and pull cat-5 cable through their walls are not only hiring seventeen
year-olds with Lee Harvey Oswald personalities to manage the process, but
are making these non-educators network administrators. Since qualified networking
professionals are a rare commodity, schools can only afford to pay the least
experienced candidates. If they do a poor enough job, they may be rewarded
by hiring all of their low-skilled friends. In far too many schools the network
administrator has consolidated power and holds the entire educational process
This is especially ironic since many schools require highly
qualified computer-using educators to earn administrative credentials before
they can be a computer coordinator, yet place unprecedented power in the hands
of non-educators. School administrators place unprecedented budgetary discretion,
policy-making and curricular influence in the hands of these folks due a different
type of perceived technical expertise. This is worrisome trend that must be
slowed. Alternatives may be explored at http://www.stager.org/articles/takingbackthenet1.html
The low-regard in which our society holds education requires
school leaders to seek the wisdom of non-educators. Rather than work hard
to realize the dreams of Dewey, Piaget, Papert and Holt, school leaders are
forced to memorize the simplistic decontextualized platitudes of ‘experts'
from the business world. In many cases the only accomplishment of these men
and women is measured by the wealth they accumulate in the act of selling
clichés to those craving simple solutions to complex problems. I am
tempted to write an academic paper in which I seamlessly intersperse the accumulated
wisdom of Peter Senge, Don Tapscott and Suzanne Somers. There isn't a dime's
bit of difference in substance (or lack thereof) between Tom Peters, Anthony
Roberts or Richard Simmons. None offer constructive advice for making schools
better places for kids and teachers to learn. I expect that we will soon be
sending school principals to football arenas in which they can channel the
spirit of Madeline Hunter.
Like any other industry, educational computing is full
of ‘experts.' Some of us may lead us to a brighter future. Others may
just make us feel good or bad for an hour.
We should celebrate the visionaries, like Seymour Papert,
who paint bold loving portraits of learning in a digital world as well as
the classroom teachers who heroically work miracles every day and have great
stories to tell. However, these folks are often marginalized for causing trouble,
challenging us to do better, requiring additional resources or for offering
complex solutions to timeless dilemmas.
Our anti-intellectual culture favors sound bites over powerful
ideas and messy problems. As a result, the educational computing literature
and conferences promotes different kinds of experts. I often think of these
experts as vaudevillians traveling from town-to-town on a modern high-tech
chitlin' circuit. The following is a guide for spotting some latter-day experts.
Some may be tricky and combine elements of different species.
The Flaky Futurist
Tell teachers that some day they will have computers
in their corneas and suggest that they are on the verge of disintermediation.
The strategy is to overwhelm audiences with predictions about the future and
invoke inaction due to fear and a lack of specific suggestions for preparing
for that future. Many flaky futurists have a decidely 19th-century
technology, the workbook, for sale at the end of their presentation.
The salesman is often former president of a tire company,
but now CEO of an educational software or hardware company. The notes written
by subordinates on their teleprompter
reassures them that they are indeed educational visionaries –
especially since they sponsored the rental of projectors at this conference.
Counters are academics anxious to demonstrate their
counting abilities by reviewing tables of data regarding the number of computers
in schools and percentage of teachers who do this and that with them.
The whiners enjoy great applause for complaining that
the government pays $500 for a toilet seat and yet you can't afford a district-license
for Dipthong Bomber or Gerund Blaster.
The Human Interface Guy
These folks assure the audience that educational software
is all crap, except for the stuff their graduate students have been working
on for eleven years. All of our educational problems will be solved as soon
as they figure out just the right place to place the button on the screen
or they receive more NSF funding – whichever comes first.
These folks know actual kids and have spoken with several
of them. Now they want us to hear their message.
These presenters have a million and one Microsoft jokes!
The populist is a non-educators who make a big splash
by attacking the use of computers in schools by setting up false arguments
between funding priorities or by making simplistic arguments that computers
retard learning. Their observations are often accurate, yet they lack any
sense of a brighter alternative.
The Teacher Basher
With the passing of Al Schanker it is up to Alfred Bork
and a handful of governors to entertain a room full of educators by telling
them how incompetent he believes them to be.