% fortune -ae paul murphy


Watching a grade four class "working" with computers the other day made me wonder what we're teaching these kids - and, equally importantly, about what we're not teaching them.

According to the school, PCs are used for educational purposes: to access educational websites and run educational programs.

Great, except I see two distinct sets of issues here:

  1. most obviously, why PCs instead of Macs or Sun Rays? and,

  2. less obviously, do these educational applications contribute to education?

In this case the answer to the first question is very simple: the provincial education department pushes schools to prefer PCs over alternatives - in theory the school can use anything it wants to, but a school's failure to see the correctness of the PC is treated as indicative of a serious administrative disorder requiring very close scrutiny of all budget, support, network access, and related requests.

The second question is a lot harder to answer because everybody knows that it does, but the reasons given to support this opinion simply don't stand up.

The number one problem is simply that most schools and teachers conflate the idea of teaching kids to use computers with teaching them to use the PC, and then defend that mistake by claiming that the PC defines business computing and that they're preparing the kids to meet that future.

This would be a great argument if University graduates today were widely expected to know how to use MS DOS 2.1 - these kids are in grade four and even Alberta Education has to realize that things will change long before the university graduates among them enter the work world in 2020.

Indeed it seems highly likely that we can go far beyond that statement to take away the restriction on university graduation and say no PC usage skill any of them learn from using the PC today will have any relevance to any of their lives by 2020.

Sadly, I think the best we can do with the "preparation for life" argument is to suggest that giving students entering University access to MacOS X would historically have been the most effective option because of Apple's traditional four to six year lead over Microsoft in introducing new technologies to the market.

So if there's no value to them in gaining "the user experience", what about the value from the educational applications software embedded in that user experience? Does a ten year old benefit from internet information access? from seeing a graphical representation of planetary orbits or dietary choices? from reading a story on-line and then interactively answering questions about it?

My guess is that many of these applications are really cool and that some of them have some actual educational value, but that, on net, we're probably doing these kids about as much harm as good. Why? because the learning impact of the software cannot easily be distinguished from the shallow and transitory learning needed to access it. In McLuhanite terms the medium twists the message - in other words the process is probably negative on net because the things that are widely agreed to have value, like interactive coaching, are largely technology independent while the things that are technology dependent, like flash animations and pretty pictures, are likely to be of either no, or negative, long term value.

Or, more cynically, because the school's commitment to hosting the hardware and classes represents a poorly thought through response to parental pressure for "computer education" while the actual software used is generally far more oriented to entertainment and babysitting than knowledge delivery.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.