SPECIAL REPORT

WIRED TO LEARN

VICTOR DWYER September 1 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

WIRED TO LEARN

VICTOR DWYER September 1 1997

WIRED TO LEARN

SPECIAL REPORT

VICTOR DWYER

It is a classic good news/bad news story. Its central characters: teachers, parents, children—and technology. And chances are that it is playing now at a school, or in a household, near you. Some see it as the saga of a happy marriage between computers and learning, in which CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web are reinvigorating lesson plans and homework assignments, and technology is transforming Canadian kids into the problem-solvers of a new century. To others, it is the chronicle of technology as ruthless intruder—a self-centred, money-hungry brute bent on undermining the authority of parents and teachers, and turning children into antisocial monsters. But whatever the real story—and most would agree the truth lies somewhere in between—it is one that continues to unfold at breakneck speed.

Even as government ministers and school boards slash education spending across the country, they are computerizing classrooms at a dizzying pace—connecting every Alberta school to the Internet; pouring $40 million into high-tech goodies in Ontario; requiring

in Nova Scotia that all new schools be equipped with state-of-the-art computer equipment and laser wiring. Families are investing bigtime as well. Over the past decade, the fraction of Canadian households with a computer has tripled, to roughly one-third. In two years, the percentage of homes with modems—lifelines to the Internet— has almost doubled, to more than 15 per cent.

If the demand for such high-tech goodies is undeniable, so too is their impact on education. Along with the retrofitting of classrooms has come a rethinking of teaching and learning, as computers subtly alter power structures, teaching strategies and curricula. And with the revolution in full swing, few adults appear willing to head the resistance—no matter how firm their belief in their own book-bound educations, or how great their concern that computer worship is eroding the quality of their children’s education. “The vast majority of parents feel there aren’t enough computers in the schools—particularly at the elementary level where kids are going through their steepest learning curves,” says Wili Liberman, editor of Toronto-based TEACH Magazine, a bimonthly journal aimed primarily at teachers. “People are deathly afraid their children won’t be competitive in the outside world, and they see computer know-how as critical to their success.”

The real challenge, say many experts, is not to resist such technology, but to make sure computer literacy also encourages the more traditional kinds—that children who know how to search the Web will also be able to find their way around a library or a science lab. “There is wonderful high-tech material out there,” says Thérèse Laferrière, a professor of technology and education at Laval University in Quebec City. “But parents should work closely with teachers to find programs that give children a sense of overall coherence about what and how they are learning.”

That can be an uphill battle—and not one that everybody hopes adults will win. In his popular book The Children’s Machine, American author Seymour Papert unabashedly celebrates the glitz and allure of educational technology. Even video games, he says “teach children what computers are beginning to teach adults— that some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling and rewarding.” To Papert, it is not surprising that “by comparison, school strikes many young people as slow, boring and frankly out of touch.” Teachers and parents unwilling to follow children down the high-tech road, he argues, should at least get out of their way. Power to the students.

Sensing the power of technology—and its almost hypnotic control over children—many parents have simply written off the personal computer as a pedagogical tool. “I have tried with my children, and the educational software just can’t compete with the games,” says Malkin Dare, a director at the Waterloo, Ont.-based Organization for Quality Education. “How are you going to keep kids down on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?”

However well-armed the computer may be, others are determined to draw a line in the Web. John Laschinger, a senior associate at Toronto’s Goldfarb Consultants, notes that recent focus groups conducted by his organization found many parents “are not against computers per se.” But they do fault technology for contributing to a slow drift away from the basics. “Most people think computers share at least some of the blame for children’s poor grasp of the three Rs,” says Laschinger. Rather than wringing their hands, those same focus groups proposed simple solutions: unplug the spell-checker; make kids prove they can perform simple math equations before installing calculators on computer screens. Score one for the adults.

But are there things at stake even more fundamental than spelling and arithmetic? “I’m the first to say computers are wonderful tools for helping kids learn employability skills, critical skills, analytical skills,” says John Wiens, superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg. But society, he argues, has long depended on schools to teach many other things as well. ‘What about the humanities? What about civics?” asks Wiens. “No technology in the world can show a child how to become a good citizen.”

Whatever computers cannot do, few deny they will continue to play an enormous role in Canadian schools and homes. The very power they wield, many experts argue, demands that teachers and parents search for sensible and creative ways to incorpo

rate them into the educational agenda. ‘Yes, we must proceed

with caution,” says Laferrière. “But technology is a fact of life. If we fixate on its downsides, we will simply be paralyzed.” Adds Laferrière: “If that happens, we will almost certainly lose the chance for our kids—and our country—to be in the driver’s seat.” Chalk one up for the computers. □

Technology is transforming education at a dizzying pace— but at what cost to quality?