Some things just don't compute

The Education Beat

Backlash: Sometimes, the technological revolution in learning is a matter of students spinning their wheels

April 28, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S LIKE TRYING to lasso a train, but a small backlash is developing against the computerization of American schools.

These critics aren't latter-day Luddites out to smash every PC in every school. Nor are they fuzzy-headed extremists like Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Rather, they're reasonable people who think the technological revolution has produced some Alice-in-Wonderland absurdities.

Will the republic survive if we don't reach President Clinton's goal of "connecting every classroom in America to the Internet by the year 2000"?

William L. Rukeyser believes it will. A consultant who did public relations work for the California Department of Education, Rukeyser, 51, has founded a nonprofit organization, Learning in the Real World, devoted to curbing technological absurdities.

Here are two examples observed in just the past year:

I'm attending a workshop on how to use the Internet in science instruction. Fifteen teachers and I are in a computer lab at Towson University.

We're paired off, and the instructor shows us how to find an Internet site that shows a digital representation of Io, one of Jupiter's moons. After some false starts, all eight teams have Io on their screens. The instructor is excited. My teacher mate and I look at each other and say, in unison: "So what?"

The consultant could just as well have passed out photographs of Io. Finding it on the Internet might have been exciting, but it had no educational value.

A friend who lives in Churchville (but has no home computer) has read and enjoyed Gioconda Belli's "The Inhabited Woman." She wants to know more about the Nicaraguan author, so we visit the Bel Air public library.

While two librarians wait for the library computer to "access" the Internet, my friend wanders over to the reference shelf, pulls down "Contemporary Authors" and finds all she needs to know about Belli in less than two minutes.

The people with lassos in hand aren't against computers, which have changed our lives mostly for good -- and forever. But they are asking questions. One that needs to be asked is this: When a human can do the job just as well (and earn a living, or part of one, doing it), why give the job to a computer?

The "distance learning" express is a good example. Every college that is anything is getting into the business, and because many of them are groping in the dark, the number of online learning programs that fail is now approaching the number being created.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission surveyed Maryland schools last fall and found that the state's colleges and universities offered 1,245 distance learning credit courses in 1997, enrolling 29,145 people. Fourteen schools had distance education offices, and others were in the planning stages.

The most revealing statistic gathered by MHEC: 493 of those courses, nearly 40 percent, were offered by "one-way, pre-recorded video." In other words, they were correspondence courses. Education by correspondence is a 150-year-old practice made possible by the development of the U.S. postal system.

You would expect teachers to be concerned about technological excess, and you would be right. Early this month, the American Federation of Teachers launched a clever advertising campaign featuring actor Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci, a role he made famous in the 1970s on "Saturday Night Live."

One of Sarducci's routines was the "five-minute university," where Spanish is summed up in the phrases "como esta usted" and "muy bien," where economics is reduced to "supply and demand" and theology is "God is everywhere." A sixth minute of study earns a graduate degree.

"What's similar, but no laughing matter," says the ad, "is the way some public and private colleges and universities are starting to `market' educational programs -- even full undergraduate degree programs -- in video and online. Their catalogs and advertisements suggest that it's anachronistic for students to spend time in the classroom and library, interacting with professors and fellow students, moving past `competencies' to understanding, perspective and wisdom."

In announcing the campaign, the AFT released a study of academic research on distance learning. Sponsored jointly by the National Education Association, the study says little proof exists that distance learning is superior to any other kind of learning.

The title of the study: "What's the Difference?"

Good question.

Art school student wins National Merit Scholarship

Ann Miller of Clarksville, a violinist and student at Baltimore School for the Arts, is the only city public school winner of a $2,000 National Merit Scholarship, to be announced today. As always, the list of Maryland winners is dominated by students in private schools and public high schools in Montgomery County.

An updated school code when emergencies arise

The school shooting in Colorado sparked dozens of messages in the Education Writers Association computer message room. Here's one from California:

Schools in San Diego County hold "intruder drills." If someone announces a code word or phrase over the intercom -- "Will Mrs. Smith please report to the front office?" -- everyone knows there's an emergency. Teachers lock doors, close windows and hide children. They can't open their doors, even to a police officer, until another code word or phrase gives the "all clear."

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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