Too Many Computers in Schools?

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra (historic), Uncategorized

It is commonly accepted wisdom in education departments across the country that it is vitally important for technology, particularly computers, to be fully integrated into classroom instruction in public schools. This has led to school divisions spending an increasingly large amount of money for computer systems and the training needed to operate them.

A new Frontier backgrounder titled Computers in the Classroom questions this practice and asks whether we have gone too far in exposing students to cutting-edge technology at the earliest age possible.

The report notes that recent research studies show that increased access to computers does not necessarily lead to higher academic achievement. In 2004, University of Munich economists Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann published a study showing that, once controlled for variables such as household income, students with the most the most computer access at home and school had lower scores in math, reading and science than did students with less computer access. Fuchs and Woessmann described the relationship between academic achievement and computer use at school as an inverted U-shape. In other words, while a moderate level of computer access was positive, too much access was negative.

An independent study in Israel found similar results. In 1994, the Israeli State Lottery sponsored the installation of a large number of computers in elementary and middle schools throughout the country. Israeli schoolteachers reported that they significantly increased their computer-aided instruction (CAI) in the regular classroom. However, the increase in CAI did not translate into higher test scores.

If more computers in schools did make a significant difference to learning, one would expect different results from these two studies. While it may be reasonable to include a moderate amount of computer instruction in public schools, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that more computer use automatically increases academic achievement.

Computer technology is expensive. The $26-million spent annually on information technology in Manitoba school divisions, for example, represents almost 2% of all educational expenditures in the province.

Unlike most other capital expenditures, computers depreciate rapidly, as computers purchased today are practically obsolete tomorrow. Obviously, if schools endeavour to provide a computer for each student, computer expenses will continue to increase.

While it may make sense for students in higher grades to become computer literate, the same does not hold true for those in earlier grades. Students in the early and middle years do not need to be exposed to computers to the same degree as those in senior years are.

Thomas Fuchs, co-author of the previously mentioned study, has speculated that young children are the ones most likely to be damaged by excessive computer use. Using computers often reduces pupil-teacher interaction, and this could have a negative impact on literacy, since learning to read requires extensive interaction between students and teachers.

It is difficult to see how requiring young students to become familiar with software that will be obsolete by the time they reach high school is beneficial to their academic learning. Their time might be better spent in getting a solid grasp of the basics in areas such as reading and mathematics. If school divisions waited until grade 9 to provide computer access, they would still have time to make students fully computer literate by the time they graduate from high school.

Computer technology is simply a tool and is only useful if teachers know how to use it effectively. Not all teachers are equally computer literate, and considering the large number of teachers who are nearing retirement age, it is to be expected that many of them are unskilled at computer technology instruction. Unfortunately, school divisions often deal with this problem superficially by bringing in outside experts to provide daylong sessions on specific software programs.

This is a woefully inadequate method of addressing this problem, since people who are computer illiterate cannot become skilled computer users in a couple of prepackaged, daylong sessions. School divisions need to spend more time ensuring that staff members are fully computer literate before purchasing expensive computer systems for their students.

Governments need to be aware of the dangers of overemphasizing information technology. While it is important for high-school graduates to be computer literate, this does not mean that students in grade 1 need to make regular use of computers in the classroom.

Although textbooks, pencils and paper may not be as glamorous as the latest computer gadgets, often the simple things provide the most value. The trend toward more and more computers at ever-younger ages needs to be reversed and replaced with a more balanced approach to technology in the classroom.