The Impact of Computers on Schools: Two Authors, Two Perspectives
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To remain informed about the impact of technology in schools, educators should take note of two contemporary authors with powerful messages: Donald Tapscott and Jane Healy. In Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, Tapscott (1998) purports that the Net Generation ("N-Gen") is imposing its culture on all of us, changing the way individuals and society interact. In Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—for Better and Worse, Jane Healy (1998) examines the potential misuses of technology in our schools. Savvy educators will synthesize lessons learned from both authors and design instructional programs that meet the needs of a generation of interactive learners through technology.
According to Tapscott, today marks the first time in history that children are outpacing and overtaking adults on the technology track; parents, teachers, and other adults are looking to children for help with computers and computing. In Finland, for example, the government has chosen 5,000 N-Geners to teach the country’s educators how to use computers! Tapscott contends that the "N-Gen is transforming the new media from a cult enclave to a cacophonous cauldron of millions. Through their massive demographic muscle and unconstrained minds, N-Geners are creating a new world" (p. 304). This world is one in which any idea, regardless of how threatening it may be to the contemporary social order, has voice and can spur radical views on such topics as business and the process of democratic governance.
Tapscott believes that N-Geners will soon want power in every domain and will take it. Using data from Internet discussions with approximately 300 youngsters between the ages of 4 and 20, he examines the characteristics of N-Geners as well as their role in the "new" world; he then discusses the implications of technology and the N-Gen on our changing culture. How will non-N-Geners fare in the future? Will they be able to share power? Will they have the courage to accept the N-Gen and its culture and media? Tapscott delves into these issues as he examines what it is like to grow up digital.
According to Healy, misuses of technology are the result of society’s willingness to embrace it blindly. She questions the impact that computers may have on children’s health, creativity, brain development, and social and emotional growth and emphasizes the following facts: the American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed concern about the amount of time children spend in front of various types of screens, and several experts in eye development have stated that computer use is creating problems in children’s developing visual systems. Healy relates her observations of classrooms, labs, and homes across America and expresses concern that "While some very exciting and potentially valuable things are happening between children and computers, we are currently spending far too much money with too little thought. It is past time to pause, reflect, and ask some probing questions" (p. 18). These probing questions include: Are computers being used in age-appropriate ways? Do program designers take into account the developmental needs of children? Are teachers receiving sufficient technology training? Is "learning software" really what it purports to be, or is it simply "edutainment" that reinforces impulsive point-and-click behavior in the pursuit of a trivial goal?
Both authors agree that schools are ill-positioned to embrace technology and use it properly, and both advocate a significant redesign of instructional environments. According to Tapscott, N-Gen kids think, learn, work, play, communicate, shop, and create in fundamentally different ways than their baby boomer parents. He identifies the following ten characteristics of N-Gen culture and advises educators to take each into account as they rethink teaching and learning:
Delving deeper into the characteristics of N-Geners, Tapscott notes that "Kids look at computers the same way boomers look at TV. This shift from a broadcast medium (television) to an interactive medium (the Net) signals a ‘generation lap’ in which the N-Gen is lapping its parents on the ‘info-track.’ We don’t marvel at the technology or wonder how television transfers video and audio through thin air, we simply watch the screen. TV is a fact of life. So it is with kids and computers" (p. 39). What does this mean when we consider the larger context of how we prepare kids in school and what they need to learn to become contributing members of society? When and how should children interact with technology both at school and at home?
Healy and Tapscott are at odds in their opinions about the proper age for children to be exposed to technology. Healy writes, "I have recently come to believe that computers—at least as they are currently being used—are not necessary or even desirable in the lives of most children under age seven (with the exception, of course, of children suffering from certain handicaps)" (pp. 205–206). She notes that research supporting computers in preschool is almost nonexistent and that what is available has been "promulgated by those who stand to gain in some way from their advocacy" (p. 206). She also cites literature that suggests that during the first six years of life, misuses of technology may adversely affect brain maturation and development. Given that possibility, Healy argues, young children would be better served if they manipulated and interacted with their physical environment rather than a computer. In contrast, Tapscott cites Ryan McNealy, an N-Gen preschooler who learned to read using a computer and who conducts advanced science experiments with the direction of educational software. Tapscott finds that "When children control their media, rather than passively observe, they develop faster" (p. 7).
Both Tapscott and Healy declare that current educational systems must undergo significant reform in order to serve the needs of N-Geners. Tapscott maintains that schools need to move to a more interactive delivery model. The current delivery system is designed around the broadcast model, in which lecture, text, and homework assignments are centralized, delivered unilaterally, and based on pre-designed structures that work best for a mass audience. Tapscott believes that learning should be customized, student-centered, and non-linear, with teachers acting as motivators and facilitators of learning rather than transmitters of information. In such an interactive environment, construction and discovery replace traditional instruction and learning becomes a lifelong endeavor. Tapscott states that the "new media enable—and the N-Gen needs for learning demand—a shift from broadcast learning to what I call Interactive Learning" (p. 139).
Healy agrees but cautions that educational reform is a daunting task: "Successful integration of classroom technology implies changes of huge magnitude in educational philosophy, classroom management, and curricular goals" (p. 68). She argues that "we must make sure that computer use includes the important step of requiring children to 'elaborate' their knowledge—thinking aloud, questioning, communicating ideas, or creating some kind of original representation about what they are learning" (p. 141). For optimal use of technology, Healy urges teachers to use a problem-based approach that will allow students to take responsibility and gain independence as they learn.
Today’s children are growing up in a different world. As Tapscott states, "Growing up is about learning. However, the economy and society these kids are growing into is very different than that of the baby boomers. The destination is different and so is the route the kids must take" (p. 127). Tapscott advocates technology and wants educators to rethink the teaching and learning process to take full advantage of all it has to offer. Hypermedia, simulations, and other empowering technology applications are a natural part of education, the author contends, when learning is student-centered and when teachers act as facilitators. Tapscott believes that technology has essentially no negative impact on children; he envisions children developing faster and creating a new world with technology.
Healy, on the other hand, urges caution, especially with children under the age of seven. She feels that most current uses of technology in schools are misuses. Alien-zapping in place of quality math investigation; draw-and-paint programs instead of finger-painting; and programs that reinforce random clicking rather than skills of problem-solving, communication, and investigation are all too common, according to Healy. She advocates more research on technology use, more professional development for teachers in the area of technology infusion, and radical shifts in pedagogical methods and philosophies.
Educators must consider the "why" of educational practices before jumping blindly onto the computer bandwagon. Technology should allow students to do what they could never before do in classrooms: design systems models, run simulations, research topics on the Internet, join in global communication, and manage information in non-linear ways. But "technology for technology’s sake" should not be tolerated. Technology should not replace valuable hands-on experiences, particularly among primary-aged learners.
With the advent of new technological advances, teachers can become facilitators of learning in a resource-rich environment rather than disseminators of information. A problem-based, student-centered, non-linear approach to education—one that encourages students to take responsibility for learning—is in order. To make that pedagogical shift, teachers must receive quality professional development. They need to know how to infuse technology into their everyday curriculum rather than how to use particular software programs. They also need ongoing support and mentoring from instructional leaders.
The thrill of using technology in the classroom is compelling. However, it must be tempered by concern for productive use and an awareness of the possible negative effects of computers on young learners. Keeping students’ physical well-being in mind, teachers must carefully arrange computers in the classroom (taking ergonomics into account) and set time limits for computer use. An informed, balanced approach to technology infusion is key, and Tapscott and Healy's books are a must-read for all willing to reengineer themselves for 21st-century education.
Healy, J. M. (1998). Failure to connect: How computers affect our children’s minds—for better and worse. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the Net generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.