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Caution on Computers

Posted on Daily Herald Reports
September 28, 2001

Schools should watch the use of computers
by David Ziffer

There seems to be no stopping the press in its relentless drive to convince all of us that we need to equip every school everywhere with computers for all students ("Leaving no one behind in the computer age," Sept. 7, Daily Herald, Page 14). Sadly, the public is buying this misguided advice, quite literally.It seems to me the press has gotten its cause and effect confused. Educated people use computers, so somehow it must be that putting computers in schools will produce educated people, right? Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

People use computers as a consequence of being educated, not the other way around.Computers are incredibly expensive to acquire and operate. They require a huge and ongoing investment to keep them running and to keep their software current. There is as yet very little educational software available, and what little exists is too new to have been proven effective.Using computers to simply access the Internet for reference purposes (as an adult would) is of highly questionable value for younger children. While computers might serve well as reference sources for high school students and to some lesser degree even middle school students, they are largely useless for children in elementary school.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 70 percent of all American fourth-graders are somewhere between "struggling" and "illiterate" when it comes to their most important skill, which is reading.Highly effective, research-proven curricula that could successfully teach almost all of these children to read have been available for decades, yet almost none of our elementary schools uses them. These curricula consist entirely of printed materials. They are far cheaper than computers, and they would help children acquire a skill that is a prerequisite for making use of computers. But no, instead of acquiring tools that would really help our elementary school children with their most fundamental needs, we are sucking up all our available cash buying computers that most kids don't have enough basic skills to use effectively.

Nobody would be silly enough to suggest that all businesses would suddenly become more profitable if they simply acquired computers for all their employees. The widely varying use of computers in different businesses comes as a result of 50 years of gradual and cautious acquisition, always justified by specific needs. If businesses had instead spent the last half-century simply inundating their employees with computers, most of them would be out of business by now.Indiscriminately calling for the widespread installation of computers in schools is not only unhelpful but destructive.

The decision to acquire computers, like all other resources, should be made on a case-by-case basis and always using a cost-benefit analysis. As a taxpayer who must finance what goes on in the schools, I certainly wish the press would be more thoughtful in its recommendations.

-- David Ziffer

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