James Boyle: Turning concepts into things

Third graders in US public schools now craft writing assignments on desktop computers, cranking out reports in Word or PowerPoint. The belief is that getting kids into software early will produce happy, net savvy adults.

It’s a stretch. Hardware, software, and network connections for schools cost real money, funds that could be spent on textbooks, classrooms, teachers, or teachers’ training. One federal program in the US, “E-Rate,” has been pumping over $2bn per year into computers and connections for educational institutions since 1998, monies piled on top of other billions in state, local, and private expenditures.

The most troubling opportunity cost is not denominated in dollars, but sense. Does it make Johnny or Suzie smarter to seat them in front of a start-up screen? Learning is mostly about growing an ability to think, and web surfing skills – or even championship agility in the point-and-click Olympics – scarcely pings the higher cerebral reaches.

At best. At worst, the classroom PC sucks up valuable oxygen, diverting youngsters from frog dissections, multiplication tables, and the ABCs. These nurture the brain in time-tested exercises. The test of time may appear a weak empirical standard, but the asserted correlation between smart boxes and smart students is weaker still. As Clifford Stoll opined a decade ago about educational TV and classroom PCs: “Both give you the sensation that merely by watching a screen, you can acquire information without work and discipline.”

There is no reason to quarantine curious little ones from the Information Age. My experience with the primary school set (assisted by daughters of six and eight), however, is that they grasp the networking nuances that escape their elders, pretty much by the age of three. They conquer this universe in playtime; it’s kiddie R&R. The common problem is not exposing them to too little of the online world, but too much. Play an instrument, enjoy a sport, read a classic – and then plop down to several decades of logging on.

The educational research on computer-assisted student achievement signals caution. Well-crafted studies that adjust for students’ backgrounds and teachers’ competence generally find that computers don’t push school achievement. A 2002 paper by Joshua Angrist and Victor Lavy in the Economic Journal carefully charted the change in Israeli student performance when a 1994 state lottery funded computers in elementary and middle schools. While many teachers adopted computer-assisted teaching techniques, the only general changes observed were declines in math test scores by 4th graders – “where the new computers had the largest impact on instructional techniques.”

The point is not that modern systems - from networked communications to artificial intelligence - are not a boon to mankind, or that children should be barred from enjoying their fruits. It is that computers, which complement the sweaty mental work-outs that grow young minds into strong thinkers, do not substitute for exercise.

The political world trumpets the educational equivalent of an eat-your-candy diet. All your brain needs is a lap-top, and off you blast into rocket science. The former Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, staked out a franchise in the visionary market with his prediction that “laptop learning” would be “as big a breakthrough as textbooks were in the 20th century.” Wow, that’s big. The gusto is contagious. Former Vice President (and later Democratic presidential candidate) Al Gore issued a challenge to the nation in a 1994 speech to connect every classroom to the internet by Y2K.

We blew past that deadline, but Mississippi became the first state to hit its mark when it announced, Dec. 31, 2002, that each of its 32,354 public school classrooms contained an online computer. The Associated Press reported the event as “a milestone for student achievement and state pride,” but the only the latter is evident.

Throwing laptops at the education problem is, alas, a whole lot easier than figuring out how to actually teach kids. In the sound-bite world, computers equal smart and key demographics swoon for magic in the classroom. They don’t call it “high technology” for nothing. Pols can spot a parade.

Not many are inclined to march to a different drummer. David Shaw, who chaired President Clinton’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology, noted in 1998 that “the reality is we haven’t the faintest idea what really works in a classroom,” even as his Committee was recommending funding E-Rate, a program that has now spent upwards of $15bn for computers and net connections at educational institutions. Perhaps this will buy us a learning curve; it would be nice to know which way it slopes.

The writer is professor of law economics at George Mason University, where he is director of the Information Economy Project of the National Center for Technology and Law


James Boyle: Turning concepts into things

James Boyle
© Financial Times

Unfortunately, Tom Hazlett is almost entirely right about computers in schools. In fact, the way that many educators talk about computers is a perfect example of the problem of “reification” – the turning of a concept into a thing.

A fundamental process is going on in the labour market, a process that exalts certain skills – some of them technically based and many of them (literacy, imagination, flexibility, social aptitude) as old as the quills. We look at that process and, seeking to outfit our children for it, we reduce it to a thing closely linked to the process – the computer. This is the move characteristic of reification. You see it in the brochures that schools and school boards send out – and “our new magnet school will have a concentration in Liberal Arts and Computers.” (The capitalisation of computers is a sure sign of the problem.) Why not Geography and Desks? Or Romance Languages and Chalk? One is a subject, the other is a – physical – object, a tool. But to those who do not entirely understand the processes going on in the digital revolution – that is, most of us – this reification or fetishisation can be very attractive. Yet absent a discussion of what is going to be taught with, by or about computers and how it will be relevant to the intellectual skills we want students to have, the process is about as rational as eating the heart of the animal you have just killed to gain its strength. What’s more, as Hazlett points out, many of the things we digital immigrants think need to be taught are completely obvious to our digital native children. Teaching them how to use the web or e-mail is like teaching second generation immigrants about English slang, just because it perplexed their parents. They know that stuff, they live their lives in it. It is in other skills – reading an argument very carefully, focusing on just one intellectual activity at a time – that they need help, and those often have an inverse correlation with the use of the computer!

Yet there are two problems with Hazlett’s argument that indicate maybe we should not throw the computer, or the E-Rate Program, out with the bathwater. First, not every child is going to be a digital native. Kids from poor backgrounds, children of particular racial and religious minorities, are disproportionately likely to have little access to computers or the internet. That means that there are very strong reasons to want to have computers in schools: to render access to the technology ubiquitous. But remember the reification problem. It is not the technology alone that matters. Think of the social capital that is transmitted by parents and siblings in middle class homes along with the use of the technology: how to read a page of Google results, and which ones to trust. Or think of the process of “lets look it up.” Disadvantaged kids are much less likely to be encouraged into the wending process of intellectual inquisitiveness that the Net enables. Middle class parents know that process will pay off royally in the long run. Not everyone does. So the first thing to realise is that if we are concentrating on computers in schools, we ought to be focusing on the skill packages that need to go with the technology, the unseen social capital that shapes knowledge acquisition. The computer itself does not do the trick.

There is a second point. The E-Rate program subsidises access to telecommunications services. It was part of a mammoth deal brokered in the US over telecom regulation and it succeeded because of a precedent – the fact that the US telephone system has an internal set of cross-subsidies designed to make telephone access ubiquitous, regardless of wealth or geography. The economists answer is that this may be inefficient. If you want to transfer wealth to the poor, do so directly through the tax system. I think the economists miss the point here. We understand equality of access through examples – libraries, public schools, the justice system. It is through these examples that we reach by analogy our conclusions: If phone access is universal, then so should…..; If libraries are open to all, then so should…; and so on.

Reification sometimes works for us, when it enables us to make concrete an intangible norm in a new environment. Ditching E-Rate would be part of the process that says that the norm of equality of access does not run to basic social goods that happen to be high tech. That’s a principle I would not want to endorse.

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