For my money, the face-to-face beats the interface any school day of the week

April 02, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

THE GUYS AT the computer store call me "The Upgrade Queen," and when they see me coming, the itch of money causes them to rub their palms together.

Since purchasing it almost a decade ago, I have new-and-improved every byte of my home computer, spending over time the price of several brand-new computers because I never had enough money for a brand-new computer. I am now replacing the replacement parts in a kind of upgrade once-removed.

Only the case and the power cord are still with me from the time when this computer had only 20 megabytes on its hard drive and CD-ROMs were just a gleam in the eye of some young engineer.

In a recent third-generation upgrade, I replaced the 240-meg hard drive that was supposed to last me the rest of my life with a gigabyte that, I am sure, will not last as long as the leftovers from tonight's dinner.

I did this in part because my son was howling that we were the only family in the neighborhood without a CD player or a gigabyte and because of this technological poverty, he was too embarrassed to bring his friends home.

They say that a sailboat is a hole in the water into which rich men pour money, but I think computers are worse and more of it.

Hard drives, modems, mother boards, RAM, video cards, sound cards, double-speed and then quad-speed CD-ROMS. More speed, more space, more speed, more space. I can hold my breath longer than any of my upgrades have lasted.

So when I see Bill Clinton and Al Gore hardwiring a school in California and promising that every school will be on line by the year 2000, I wonder if anyone has mentioned this to the PTA chairmen who are going to have to raise the money to support this habit. You might as well hand out syringes as computer labs.

And when I see Bell Atlantic Corp. giving away computers like treats from the "good-job" jar to third-graders at Logan Elementary School in Dundalk, I wonder if anyone sees what is really going on here, or if everyone is just looking down at the yellow brick road under their feet.

The children at Logan will have computers at home and in the classroom and everyone, including mom and dad, will have an e-mail address. Anyone who has ever placed a note to a teacher into the black hole of a child's backpack will realize the value of this, but I am skeptical of the Trojan Horse that Bell Atlantic has parked in the playground at Logan Elementary.

Computers in the classroom are a trim and a perk and are more often broken or idle than used to educational advantage.

A report from the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment found that not only do most teachers believe they are inadequately trained to use technology, many fail to see how it will make their job easier. In a bizarre role reversal, it is often the junior hackers of the video-game generation who must take the teachers by the hand.

And the technology these computers bring into the classroom has the staying power of a snowflake on your tongue. Computers are supposed to prepare children to live and work in the age of information, but the hardware and software they will be using as adults does not yet exist.

Computers have their place in high schools, where math and science courses and research projects require sophisticated information gathering and word processing. But to sink millions of dollars into computers as a means to rescue an educational system that is failing to convey basic skills at the elementary level is a fool's purchase. Their gleaming newness raises expectations they have not been shown to meet.

For an 8-year-old, a computer is just a whiz-bang set of flashcards. At this age, learning takes place during hands-on activities and in the context of a relationship with a teacher, not at a keyboard. And yet schools are not promoting bond issues, writing grant proposals or holding bake sales to pay for that teacher's development.

Even for a middle-school student, for whom there is no doubt that computers are a motivational toy, it might mean no more than a fancy title page and cover on a poorly researched and badly spelled report.

We are appalled at how little and how poorly this generation reads, but school systems are expected to spend $2 billion on computer software by 1998 -- an 88 percent increase since 1993 -- while spending on classroom books is dropping annually.

"While we bemoan the decline of literacy, computers discount words in favor of pictures and pictures in favor of video," writes Yale University computer science professor David Gelerntner in the New Republic. They "promote fast, shallow romps across the information landscape."

On the same day that this newspaper showcased the computer gift to Logan Elementary, another news story reported that more parents are choosing private schools for their children.

The parents said they are looking for the small class size, teacher attention, discipline and high expectations they could not find for their children in crowded and often disrupted public schools. Computers do not contribute to any of the attributes these parents are seeking.

And the news story on Logan Elementary was just as revealing.

This is the second such undertaking by Bell Atlantic. In 1993, the company placed computers in the homes and classrooms of students in New Jersey and test scores improved significantly.

School officials, the news story reported, attributed this to increased participation by parents.

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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