Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Kislev 5763 - November 6, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family

Are Computers Worth the Price?

by R' Zvi Zobin

In 1913, just after he had invented the Kinetophone, a device which synchronized sound and projected images, Thomas Edison wrote, "Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge through the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years."

Nowadays, computer manufacturers and programmers are saying the same thing. Of course, computers can be useful in schools. They are now becoming essential for record keeping and administration. The question is how useful they are as educational tools, inside the classroom. Can they really supplement or even replace the teacher and the blackboard?

Since 1990, school districts and states in the USA have spent more than $40 billion on computers, software, and network connectivity for schools. At least 50 cents of every dollar spent on educational supplies goes to technology. The education market is now worth $350 billion.

A West Virginia study found that fifth grade students who had access to computers for six years gained an average of 14 points on an 800 point basic skills test. Researchers concluded that about 11 percent of those 14 points, a mere 1.5 points, were attributable to technology tools, which cost $7 million per year. Researchers also noted that the state spent $430 million to renovate school buildings and increase teacher salaries, which could have affected teacher and student motivation and therefore could also have been instrumental in the improvement.

In the last comprehensive study of its kind, a 1998 research project by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a private testing organization that produces the Scholastic Aptitude Test and others, found that school computer use was associated with increasing math scores for eighth graders by only one third of a grade level. Furthermore, researchers commented that "the appearance of higher test scores in students who use technology more frequently may be due to the technology, or it may be due to the fact that such students come from more affluent families, and so, are better academically prepared in the first place." As the ETS study points out, "Apparent higher achievement levels of students with teachers who are computer proficient may be due to this proficiency, or it may be due to these same teachers having more teaching experience and knowledge of their subject matter."

Some researchers argue that in some cases, introducing technology into the classroom may actually have a detrimental effect. In her controversial book, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds for Better and Worse (Simon & Schuster, 1998), former principal Jane Healy argues that computers should be used sparingly in schools. She finds that heavy visual emphasis could be harmful to early childhood development because pictures require less effort to process than text. She also cites the instant feedback of computer applications as a possible factor in children's increasing inattentiveness. She warns, "Some of the `habits of mind' fostered by this software are dangerous... Attention is guided by noise, motion and color, not by the child's brain."

Computers can keep students busy, but the students are not necessarily learning to think. Often, the expectant look or encouraging smile from a teacher motivates a student -- something they'll never get from a computer, no matter how advanced. But even though it is more effective in the long run to train and hire additional teachers, it is also more expensive. The authors of the West Virginia study determined that reducing average class size from 21 to 15 would cost $636 per student -- $191 million in salaries alone for 5,739 additional teachers, while adding computers would cost only about $86 per student.

At the moment, schools do not have substantial proof that their investment in technology has made learning better -- not just cheaper or faster. The scholastic gains achieved by high priced technology are only modest. Perhaps the money could be used more effectively by helping teachers and schools in other ways.


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