A patient, open appraisal of today’s emphasis on computers in learning from Oppenheimer, whose story on the subject, published in the Atlantic Monthly, won him a National Magazine Award in 1997.
Twenty-five years after computers started to make inroads into the education of children, it’s appropriate to ask exactly what effect they have had on the intellectual development of American youth. Oppenheimer travels far afield—to Napa, the hill country of West Virginia, Texas, Maryland, Las Vegas—to measure the impact of computers, and his conclusions are both revealing and predictable. Computers really are a supplementary tool, valuable for word-processing or drawing information from the Web, but they are also costly, time-consuming, and mechanically vexing, plagued by a system that lacks teacher training and support service, and constrained by the inherent inflexibility of software. Oppenheimer doesn’t prefer the halcyon days of the three Rs, but he does question the evolution of American society’s slavish relationship with tools—from the tablet to the keyboard—in this case at the expense of downplaying education’s crucial people process. “[There] is limited, speculative, but intriguing material” on the ability of computers to fire students’ imaginations, but they will never replace the encouragement, nurturing, tutoring, and attentiveness of an energetic teacher. Nor will they create an atmosphere of high expectations, something that comes from people, especially ones who are “well trained but also sufficiently well paid.” To prosper, students need to think critically, have fertile and flexible imaginations, be able to listen and communicate, possess broad knowledge—and these traits come from “a handful of embarrassingly well known” elements: smaller classes, longer periods, time for teachers to prepare their lessons, exploratory reading, student collaboration, and help programs, not to mention full engagement on the home front.
Evenhanded, judicious, and observant: a valuable contribution to the literature of education.