Reading, Writing, Word Processing

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

Two decades later, some of the magic fairy dust that surrounded the much-hyped computer revolution in education is beginning to wear off. And what is revealed as the air clears? That computers are not magic after all, just tools.

Computers, in fact, can be creative additions to classrooms when used well. But they do little to enhance learning and, evidence suggests, can do harm when used inappropriately.

That is one of the findings of the latest look at computers in education released by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Manitoba high school teacher Michael Zwaagstra, who wrote the report, recommended his province rethink its emphasis on computer technology in the classroom.

His concern was based largely on a German study that found students with the most access to computers at school and home had lower scores in math, reading and sciences than did students with less computer access. While the study found moderate computer use had a positive effect on students' grades, it concluded that excessive computer use had a negative effect, especially in elementary grades.

Which is not surprising. Spending classroom time doing rote, boring work at a computer instead of more creative and challenging work at their desks is clearly not good for learning.

Over the last several decades, computers have been uncritically hailed by many as the biggest advance in education since reading, writing and arithmetic. Governments have pledged millions to putting more of them in classrooms. Microsoft's Bill Gates even offered to connect every school in Canada to the Internet.

Like any new toy, computers had a sheen that could be blinding when they came into broad use in schools. The growing consensus that they are not magic fixes for education is a good thing: it may cause some educators to rethink how they are using them.

The most computer-literate generation ever, for example, has no need to spend hours every year in computer labs learning basic skills on software that will be obsolete by the time they are in the workforce. Chances are, they are already doing that at home.

But that doesn't mean school boards in Ottawa and across the country should pull the plug on computers and stock up on chalk and slate boards. Like other classroom tools, computers are only as good as the people using them.

Which is why it is crucial for educators and governments to learn from creative examples of what is being done right.

In Ottawa, they wouldn't have to look much further than Lorraine Montgomery's Grade 5 and 6 class at Broadview Public School. Ms. Montgomery has her students blogging and even podcasting mystery stories. In recent years she created a virtual shopping mall, the Outback Mall (named for her portable classroom), in which students opened and designed stores, hired staff, created inventory and invited their parents to come and shop using debit cards.

Math class has seldom been greeted with such enthusiasm.

Still, Ms. Montgomery — obviously a huge fan of computers in the classroom — is careful to point out that computers are simply tools: "I believe there needs to be a balance in everything we do."