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False Profits: Expertise and Educational Computing

A 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.

Low Expectations

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 symphonies.

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 hostage.

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

False Prophets/Profits

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

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.

The Counter

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 Whiner

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.

The Hipster

These folks know actual kids and have spoken with several of them. Now they want us to hear their message.

The Yuckster

These presenters have a million and one Microsoft jokes!

The Populist

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.

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