I’ve been saying it for a while: students learn better with qualified, caring teachers and quality teaching materials than anything else, and One-Laptop-Per-Child is an expensive distraction from real education.
I think everyone who has been educated knows this instinctively. We can all point to a mentor (a teacher, a parent, a caring friend) who guided us, encouraged us, and cared enough about us to help us learn what is worth learning and what is not worth learning.
Giving a child a laptop does neither of these things. Some argue that simply having access to information will be the child’s ticket to a bright future, but now that the results are in, we can finally stop beating this dead horse.
You will always find exceptions: highly motivated students will learn no matter what you do to them, and giving them access to a computer will certainly give them an opportunity to get the information they want faster; but for the majority of students, giving them a computer will do little good, and will often do much harm, to their education.
The Internet is not a discriminator of information, and this is its chief problem. A classically-based education, as an example, imposes a hierarchy on knowledge. It says, “These things are more important than those things.” And when I say “it” I really mean a classically trained teacher guiding a student through a classical curriculum.
The Internet can’t do that for you by itself. You still need a guide, a mentor of some kind to help you know what’s worth learning. Autodidacts learn this early on and quickly learn which voices in life they want to trust (generally by way of books and other reading material), but the rest of us simply don’t know where to go.
And while we’re on the topic of online learning, did you hear of the recent meta-study by the US Department of Education? Everybody in the tech world is feeling validated, but they shouldn’t. It claims:
The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.
Read the study and notice that it’s a meta-study, largely sampling the results of self-selecting, uncontrolled learning experiements. Highly-motivated students, the kind who opt to take online courses, will always perform better than unmotivated students, no matter what medium they’re using.
The abstract concludes:
Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).
So don’t take this as a validation for K-12 computer learning. Additional studies over OLPC and K-12 computer learning aren’t encouraging:
Under the auspices of the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education and Mathematica Policy Research recently completed a rigorous, two-year test of reading and math software (using programs that had at least some nonexperimental evidence that they “worked”) in dozens of school districts nationwide. With one minor exception, the studies found that children using the software scored no better than peers who did not have access to the software.
Economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches studied a program in Romania that distributed discount vouchers for the purchase of home computers to low-income families. When they compared the families that used the vouchers to acquire computers with families that were just above the income cut-off to receive the vouchers, they found that computers had a negative effect on students’ grades and educational goals.
(Leigh) Linden (an economist at Columbia University) also led one of the few experimental studies to show a positive impact from the use of computers — a project in India that provided computers and education software to schools and randomly assigned some schools to use the software during school hours and others to encourage computer use after hours. This study found that using computers during school hours-—essentially substituting computers for teachers—actually hurt learning, while using them after hours as a supplement to traditional classroom teaching had dramatic positive effects on the weakest students. Even this outcome doesn’t really support the OLPC mission, though; the software evaluated is very much in the “drill and practice” model that Negroponte has explicitly derided.
I won’t spoil all the fun of this article, but there are far, far better and less expensive ways to improve education than giving a child a laptop. In developing countries the list includes deworming children, providing tutors, and creating more private schools.
In the United States, computers in classrooms and schools should be removed and with the money not spent on technology, hire additional teachers or give the existing teachers a raise. I’m certain we’d get more of what we’re really looking for.
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
Anyone? Anyone? George Orwell, 1946 [link]. Read on:
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.
My own experience tells me that bad writing is always a result of one of two factors: 1) the author is uneducated and doesn’t know how to write or 2) the author is lazy.
The first problem can be solved with practice and hard work: anyone can learn to write well if they’ll care enough to read what they’ve written and change it until the words are right. Good elementary and secondary school teachers who understand and can teach this are as angels from heaven. The second problem is solved when the intended audience stops reading and goes elsewhere.
Old Sesame Street had some class. I miss those guys…
This is the version I’m teaching my kids, set to Bach’s Fugue No. 2, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.
New York Times article: “Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing”
Here’s a great example of a study addressing the wrong concern with misguided results designed to reinforce further funding of the same. This is a $50 million project on “digital and media learning” and conducted by whom? By researchers in the Department of Informatics (UC, Irvine).
Sorry, but the Department of Informatics is run by technology loving geeks (it’s a sister department to computer science). These are not the people you want to be studying the effects of technology. It’s like turning the keys over to the maximum security prisoners and asking them to make sure everyone behaves.
The original concern about teens on the Internet (according to the researchers):
Those concerns about predators and stranger danger have been overblown.
It may look as though kids are wasting a lot of time hanging out with new media.
Okay, I can accept the idea that stranger danger has been overblown. I’ve never thought that the world is full of creepos waiting to devour my children (there are a few out there, but those few get all the press, distorting our world view).
But the idea that “kids are wasting a lot of time” is still an unresolved concern for me. The study concluded that teens were not wasting time because:
their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.
Yeah, technological skills. Really hard to come by. I think your average 12-year-old could pick up some of these skills over a weekend. And learning how to get along with others? What we’re raising is a generation of people who don’t know how to interact face to face, who can’t read body language, and who would prefer to IM someone than walk down the hall and talk to them in physical proximity. These aren’t social skills, they’re anti-social skills.
People you never see aren’t real people: with a word you cut someone and you never see the results. You miss visual and auditory clues that you’re going the wrong way with your conversation.
Let’s talk about the “literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world.” Never mind that this is the new literacy (taken from the study):
hey … hm. wut to say? iono lol/well I left you a comment … u sud feel SPECIAL haha.
I’ve said before, that computer literacy does not consist of learning how to put up a MySpace page: the job of people who work at MySpace is to make putting up a webpage as easy as possible. I stopped listing “can operate a toaster” on my résumé when it finally became easy enough to do without reading a manual or spending years of study to do it.
Heck, the entire goal of the informatics industry (without regard to its effects on society) is to make technology easy for people to use. This is not literacy any more than watching TV is literacy.
Finally this statement:
There’s been some confusion about what kids are actually doing online. Mostly, they’re socializing with their friends, people they’ve met at school or camp or sports.
Sounds like a great use of time to me. Whether in the real world or in the digital world, “hanging out” certainly fills a social need, but to say that constant connectedness is a need? Here’s a quote from a 15-year-old boy participating in the study:
“As soon as I get home, I turn on my computer,” said a 15-year-old boy who started his MySpace page four years ago. “My MySpace is always on, and when I get a message on MySpace, it sends a text message to my phone. It’s not an obsession; it’s a necessity.”
A necessity? I think someone needs to teach this poor boy the difference between needs and wants. Of all the students who participated, only one tried to withdraw from the Internet to provide a control group. She only lasted a week without her Internets:
“It didn’t work,” she said. “You become addicted. You can’t live without it.”
So no control group for the study either. That’s great research. Constant social connectedness only reinforces the “cult of me” that’s prevalent enough already. Sorry, given the data, I don’t come to the same conclusion as the researchers on this one.
We don’t need even more biased studies telling us how great technology is. The progress of technology will likely continue without question and without any inhibition from society. What we need is more people after the pattern of Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and others who are brave enough to at least raise a voice of caution: technology giveth and technology taketh away. It’s important to learn what we’re losing when we toss out the old for the new.
What’s not clear is whether unhappy people watch more TV to feel better, or more TV watching causes people to feel less happy. Or some other unknown causal factor.
Original link (livescience.com)
My own sense of it has been that without laptops to distract them, my students are markedly more engaged than when I’ve reluctantly tolerated laptops. I’m biased, I know. So I conducted an anonymous survey of my students — by computer, of course. The results were striking. About 80 percent reported that they are more engaged in class discussion when they are laptop-free. Seventy percent said that, on balance, the liked the no-laptop policy. And, perhaps most surprising, 95 percent admitted that they use their laptops in class for “purposes other than taking notes, such as surfing the Web, checking e-mail, instant messaging, and the like.” Ninety-eight percent reported seeing fellow students do so. (Which prompted one colleague to remark, “I didn’t know that two percent of our students were blind.”)
Other surveys have reached similar findings. A 2006 study by Carrie Fried of laptop use in an introductory psychology class at Winona State University found that students reported using their laptops for other than note-taking purposes and average of 17 minutes out of every 75-minute class, or almost 25 percent of the time. Students identified other students’ laptop use as far and away the biggest source of distraction during class. The students’ own laptop use was second! After controlling for ACT scores, high-school rank, and class attendance, Fried’s study found that laptop use was significantly and negatively related to class performance. The more students used their laptop in class, the lower their grades.
Technology giveth, and technology taketh away. You can blame it on the usage, but technologies lend themselves to particular uses and particular memes: a hammer wants to strike things, a gun wants to fire bullets at objects, and modern networked computers want to distract you from what you’re doing.
Please excuse me now, I need to check my email.
I remember when I read David Copperfield for the first time. After I had finished it, I wept. I felt that I had learned something that I could not explain to anyone else who had not had the same experience, but that it was more important than anything I knew that I could explain.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much that I learned something (from an intellectual perspective), but something inside me had changed for the better. I was better—kinder, more compassionate, less judgemental—because I had internalized something from David’s character. I don’t want to push Dickens’ work too hard; I realize some people detest his sentimentalism, and that’s fine, but there are other works that have a similar refining effect, works that make us better somehow when we internalize them.
Some may say that as a work approaches the divine ideal, we get this kind of an effect. Some call it “art”. I’m not an expert in this by any means, but here are a few works that have had this same refining effect for me:
Dvorák’s 9th Symphony, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pat Metheny Group’s “The Way Up”, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Debussy’s “La Cathedrale Engloutie”, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A few visual art works do it as well. Your list will probably differ from mine, but I bet you have a list of works that you feel you’re a better person for having experienced.
I think there is a component about ourselves that we don’t understand well, an element capable of improvement through indirect means, and also through direct exposure to goodness and excellence. I’ve also noticed an opposite effect—again, this is for myself—with entertainment of a baser nature.
Just as there are works which tend to refine me (as much as I let them), there are works which tend to dull that refinement easily, and without much effort on my part. I don’t want to dwell on this much, because it’s probably different for everyone, but I believe it’s a real phenomenon.
Ezekiel the Prophet wrote this in the 6th century BCE:
There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls; they have taken the treasure and precious things; they have made her many widows in the midst thereof. Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them.
(Ezekiel 22:25-26, KJV)
Putting difference between the holy and the profane, the unclean and the clean is one of the marks of refinement. Exposure and contemplation of the best humanity has to offer is inspiring and drives me to pursue excellence in my own sphere.
It is unfortunate that most people do not find their vocation in life, or perhaps other pursuits (distractions, such as basic survival or family harmony) prohibit them from dedicating themselves fully to their passions. It is heartening, though, that any of us may still find fulfillment in excelling in our humanity: that living a good life is still a noble (albeit less visible) expression of what we really believe we are on the inside.
I think I finally understand the Pixar movie Cars.
The interstate highway system is the perfect metaphor for technology displacement. The old roads existed to take people to places worth seeing, beautiful country. The interstate system is about saving time and gasoline (perhaps so we can watch more TV?)
The beautiful country and towns are still there, and still worth visiting, but they’re not on the maps or main routes anymore. Some people assume that newer is “better” for some definition of better. If “better” is defined as “faster” then yes, the new roads are better.
Others think that if it’s not on the main route, then it’s not worth visiting. Modernity says that if you don’t have a website, then it’s not worth knowing about. Bunk.
The logical corollary of course is that only large cities are worth visiting (or that only knowledge found on the Internet is worth knowing—don’t bother with dusty old books). This is the problem with choosing “popular” (well-known) destinations: there’s possibly something to some of them, but many of them are popular only because they’re popular. It’s a self-reinforcement problem.
But in an ironic twist, it is the interstate system that has preserved some of these byway sanctuaries by moving the bulk of unthoughtful people away from these towns; people who would not appreciate them, but only exploit them and move on. As long as the places can survive less attention and don’t disappear, then the interstates may be a good thing after all.
I’m not entirely sure about the effect of the Internet—other than thoughtful people will still find knowledge outside of it, and become richer for it.
Books are a way to leave a cairn in the high country of the mind. It’s saying “Hey, I was here!” and maybe leaving an entry in a log book indicating your route.
The tops of the highest mountains are lonely places. For one, hardly anyone goes up there to the remote peaks (except the ones that overlook the populous valleys—lots of people go up there to see the view and to look down on others). Second, while other people have gone and continue to climb those peaks, everyone takes a different route and at different times; it truly is a rare pleasure to meet someone who is going up there at the same time you are.
But that hardly ever happens except when you’re close to the bottom, just getting started. Lots of people start these journeys into the soul, but most people get bored or distracted and wander back into the valleys where they came from, almost as soon as they start. It’s hard going all the way up.
The next best thing to a travel companion is a book; in it you can have a conversation (albeit one-sided) with someone who took the journey and bothered to leave some markers for others. While you can’t ask questions of your companion, or work things out together, if you choose the right book, you’ll probably find the right kinds of questions (and maybe an answer or two) on your way.