Computers in the classroom or literacy and GUIs

What follows is a response to Chris Sessums blog so it might read a little out of context. I put it here because I wanted to add some links to it. ::

Here are a few people in opposition to computers in the classroom.

A back-to-nature movement to reconnect children with the outdoors is burgeoning nationwide. Programs, public and private, are starting or expanding as research shows kids suffer health problems, including obesity, from too much sedentary time indoors with TV and computers. The post could use some formatting, or maybe that’s just part of the anti-computer ethos.

Theodore Roszak The Cult of Information “...the best approach to computer literacy might be to stress the limitations and abuses of the machine, showing the students how little they need it to develop their autonomous powers of thought.” (p.242) The first edition 1986 the second edition 1994

Neil Postman Technopoly…technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology – from the IQ test to the automobile to a television set to a computer – is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.” (p.185) 1992

I’m not quoting these “progressive” “left” or “ultra-left” critics/activists out of complete agreement, more out of respect for the diversity of the back-to-basics movement(s). The neo-luddites are more than neo-conservatives (who can also have us nodding our heads in agreement to their arguments here and there) they’re also ultra-progressives. Dewey didn’t use a computer. Like Roszak says, we don’t need it.

I disagree almost completely with Roszak and Postman, while I strive towards their end goals with my work, I wonder also about the possibilities of these machines.

To your question What can computers really do for kids in the classroom? Stephen Downes answers They can teach them how to use computers.

Downes is completely correct that the computers themselves could teach children how to use them. GUIs are so intuitive, that computers are easier to use than the timer on the oven in your kitchen, not to mention older technology like the 8-track tape (who ever got the hang of those things?). This freaks teachers out that a machine can replace them so easily. Why is it that kids learn more, easier, faster, better in the glow of a GUI? Another question is “do they?” but what we hear is that kids are learning slaves to the machine, and unteachable by humans.

So the question is literacy. Most teachers are politically illiterate, at least in Canada where the governments and media squash them at will and with frequency. Most teachers are computer illiterate, and as such are unable to teach through the machines. If teachers are being replaced (not today, but maybe a not-so-distant tomorrow) it won’t be the machines, but coders who are their replacements. In this day to be politically and technologically illiterate is to be philosophically illiterate, and that’s a whole lot of illiteracy in those claiming to teach literacy to our children.

So yes, the computer itself will teach children how to use it. The fear is that the coders are unaccountable. What are the values they code into the machine? And really how does this differ from Dewey’s constructed environments? Did Dewey propose a system in which those being educated were unconscious of the preferred result? With the computer interface are the graphics using or being used? This interface could be a very powerful metaphor for teaching, but students need to learn to use a computer beyond using programs. And of course the problem with this is a person with the knowledge to code/script/program a computer has an earning potential and interest area that excludes public school teaching as an option.

This is the second time I’ve typed this out and I’m still meandering, but if I’m trying to say something it’s that computers are tools for communication, but the form of that communication is dictated by code. Knowledge of the code allows the users to infuse the form of communication with a personal set of values. This understanding is key for promoting the tool in the “progressive” sphere. All the players in education should be critical of the tools, programs and their uses; they should also have the knowledge to alter those programs to create forms more consistent with their values.

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