** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets].
Kenneth R. Conklin, "Computers in Education: Just Another Fad?" FOCUS ON LEARNING, XI, 1 (Spring 1985), pp. 55-66.
Computers in education: just another fad?
Kenneth R. Conklin
There are many fads in the "ed biz," and computer literacy may be just one
more. Fads are not necessarily bad, but the shortness of their popularity causes problems. This essay explores the likelihood that computer literacy is merely a passing fad in education, even if it is an enduring innovation in society. As with any fad, there are good things to be preserved when the fad dies out, and bad things whose entrenchment should be avoided so that they may die along with the fad.
Whenever a large-scale innovation is attempted in a democratically controlled institution, it must quickly pick up a burst of enthusiasm to gain initial
implementation. At the time enthusiasm is building it is hard to know whether an innovation is merely a fad or will gain long-term acceptance. The burst of
enthusiasm drowns both outright opposition and prudent hesitancy. Negative comments seem almost unpatriotic, unprofessional, or antisocial: if not simply ignored, they may rebound to harm the commentator's professional or social standing. To put it crudely: criticizing an oncoming fad is like spitting into the wind. Advocates are so sincerely caught up in supporting a fad that they cannot imagine how opposition could be reasonable. Although advocates may be sincere and even quite scholarly, they behave like high-pressure salesmen, con artists, and religious zealots in harnessing the initial burst of enthusiasm. "Sign on the dotted line, before this offer is withdrawn. Don't miss out on the chance of a lifetime!" Urgency in pushing an innovation is probably an accurate measure of its faddishness, and should arouse a corresponding level of caution.
M.I.S. and C.A.I.
The oldest and best-established use of computers in education is in management information systems (MIS) for record-keeping, decision-making, and control of the physical plant. Daily attendance, class rosters, report cards,
grade transcripts, payrolls, and budgets are done efficiently and accurately by
computer. Scheduling by computer allows more time for advising students
which courses are best for their educational needs, since less time must be
spent allocating students and teachers to rooms and time periods. Enrollments, capital expenditures, and staffing needs can be more accurately projected, and alternate scenarios can be tested at a cost of computer time rather than human misery. More recently, computers have been used to adjust heating and lighting automatically, saving energy and money. MIS is clearly here to stay, but is not included in the concept of "computer literacy."
The concept of computer-assisted instruction (CAI) has been around for a
long time, but has been slow to gain support. For more than half a century people have received instruction from machines such as radios, record players, television sets, and tape recorders. The potential power and efficiency of CAI became clear when experimental "teaching machines" began interacting with learners more aggressively. Instead of merely
repeating a pre-recorded message that
Kenneth R. Conklin is Teacher of Mathematics, Norwood High School, Norwood, Massachusetts.
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could only be started or stopped, teaching machines began to demand a flow of responses from learners, and to change the content of the message according to the nature of the response. Material to be learned was typed onto a roll of paper or a TV screen, with a series of multiple choice or numerical questions. If the learner pressed a button for a correct response, he would be rewarded with a pleasant buzzer or light, followed by further instruction. A wrong response would be followed by a remedial lesson and retesting. The transistor, and later the silicon chip and integrated circuit,
enabled teaching machines to accommodate numerous individual responses
and alternative lessons within a single program. Machines can now react to eye movements, blood pressure, galvanic skin response, etc. Military pilots are now trained on such machines, and some sophisticated fighter planes
reportedly have flight control and weapons systems that a pilot manipulates by spoken commands, eye movements, or puffs of breath as well as traditional hand and foot movements. With such sophistication, teaching
machines can be highly efficient.
CAI is a genuine innovation that has not gotten established in public education because it has not yet attracted the necessary burst of enthusiasm. Some university research on teaching machines has recently been taken over by corporations that see a profit potential in CAI. For example, Control Data Corporation is now selling a wide range of computerized courses in traditional subject matter in a system called PLATO. Some educators are beginning to recognize the practical value of CAI and are writing their own materials. For example, most schools in Minnesota, K-12, have computers and cooperate in producing excellent CAI software through the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. Millions of children now play video games in amusement parlors and at home. Battery-powered interactive hand-held machines that teach arithmetic, spelling, and tone patterns are among the best selling toys for Christmas. Adults concerned about the quality of education, and seeing their children "wasting" time and money on video games, might begin investing in CAI for home and school.
Another reason why CAI could gain popularity is the tremendous success of
computers in industrial production. Computer-assisted design (CAD) and
computer-assisted manufacture (CAM) have enabled the Japanese to outstrip all competing nations in producing high-quality, low-cost automobiles, television sets, and appliances, to the detriment of North American and European economies. Computers help architects, engineers, and draftsmen design buildings, machines, and electronic circuits. Computers make it possible to redesign something merely be redrawing parts of it with an electronic stylus on a TV screen. The mechanical and electronic characteristics of a design can be forecast by the computer, and the design
improved. Once a design is adopted, an assembly plant can be built which uses "robots" to control the manufacturing process. Computers built into the
machines on the production line "know" when to make the machines repeat a
process and when to alter the process to accommodate individual variations in design or materials. CAI could become the CAD-CAM of the "ed biz." That is, if we think of schools as factories which produce individualized products (students' minds) on an assembly line (courses), teaching machines would be
A teaching machine gives immediate reinforcement, unlike a human teacher
who needs time to correct a test. CAI provides for individual differences
through branching, so that each student's response immediately influences
what content is presented next. Students begin a lesson whenever they choose to sit with the infinitely patient machine, and may take a break or continue for hours. With CAI the rewards are
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intrinsic as successful learning is rewarded with the opportunity to learn more. Anyone who doubts the power of CAI to hold a youngster's attention need only glance into a video parlor. Old-fashioned pinball games and new-fangled video games are actually teaching machines which teach the player how to obey the complex set of abstract principles involved in winning, and there is no reason why education in traditional subjects could not be packaged in similarly enticing and efficient ways.
While teachers now must spend most of their time doing things that machines could do better, CAI will never eliminate the need for human teachers. CAI will free human teachers to do things that only humans can do. Machines can give rewards but not love; machines can be looked at but not looked up to. Apart from human relationships such as love, esteem, and role modeling, there are kinds of knowledge that are impossible for machines to teach.
Anything that can be seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled can probably be taught more effectively by machine than by a human. Many scientists and philosophers today believe that such things are all that exist. If so then humans are, indeed, nothing but machines, as B. F. Skinner, an inventor of the teaching machine, might claim. But some philosophers believe there are underlying truths whose beauty seduces us into seeking them, and that approaching these truths can help us be wiser or more virtuous. Knowledge of this sort can never be spoken or written, for it deals with things that cannot be seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled. No person or machine can deliver such knowledge as a finished product. But students can be encouraged to pursue it, by teachers who deliver words and actions designed to help students see what cannot be seen. The ability to commune with a student, to intuit what that student needs at a given moment to put the pieces together into a whole which transcends its parts, is what sets
the human teacher apart from the most advanced machine. Teaching machines ask prepackaged questions, but only humans are capable of using the Socratic method. The most visible results of adopting CAI would be vast improvement in SAT scores, advanced placement, occupational skills, and retention of students in schools. The most uplifting result would be the freedom for teachers to do uniquely human things for their students. While CAI is not yet popular, it may gain momentum from the computer literacy movement.
Computer Literacy, Ordinary Literacy, and Fluency
When we say that someone is "illiterate" we mean he cannot read or write.
Someone might be called "functionally illiterate" if he can read the funnies but not the editorials, or if he can write a sign that says "out to lunch" but cannot fill in a job application. Calling someone "illiterate" is often morally prejorative, like calling him "unwashed" or "crude." Thus the people who favor
"computer literacy" are trying to capture an emotionally loaded word to lend
support to their belief that all normal, decent people in a civilized society
should know how to use computers just as they know how to read and write.
Since computer literacy (CL) has become an emotionally loaded slogan,
essays which attempt to define it are more like political tracts than academic
investigations. But it is easy to distinguish CL frm MIS and CAI. In MIS,
computers are used to store and retrieve data, but not to teach. In CAI, computers are used to teach traditional subject matter. In CL, computers ARE the subject matter, whether or not they are used to deliver instruction. Indeed it seems ironic that instruction in computer literacy is delivered primarily by human teachers and not by CAI.
It seems clear that the computer is having an enormous impact on civilization.
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Its impact is at least as great as radio and television, probably as great as the invention of the internal combustion engine (and its spinoffs of airplanes
and automobiles), possibly as great as the invention of the printing press,
perhaps not quite as significant as the invention of fire or the wheel. Since the
computer is such an important part of civilization and is changing the manner
in which people, organizations, political leaders, and national interact, some
knowledge about computers should be included in the social studies curriculum. This is certainly one aspect of computer literacy that is inexpensive to teach: a knowledge about what kinds of things computers can and cannot do, and why they are important. Topics to be studied might include privacy rights, consumer rights, governmental control over individuals, the nature and purposes and consequences of communication, etc. However, the social studies curriculum at present does not spend much time explicitly studying the specific effects of radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, or even the printing press, so perhaps the computer will be relegated to the same background role as these other inventions.
Every active participant in a civilized society will have to use computers, so
perhaps it seems reasonable to require some K-12 instruction in how to use
them. But it is important to identify precisely what the average person will
have to know, as opposed to what professional computer programmers must
know. For example, every active participant in a civilized society must use telephones, television sets, washing machines, and checkbooks; but people
grow up learning how to use these things through informal education from
parents and friends. Millions of people have recently learned how to use automated bank teller machines without needing to go to school. Most students have learned how to use a hand-held calculator by the time they finished high school, even if their teachers ignore it or actively oppose it.
Automobile driving and typing are examples of skills that some people learn informally but that most people prefer to learn from a teacher; yet, few
schools require all students to take driver education or typing as part of the
general curriculum, or to pass competency tests in these "basic skills" as a
graduation requirement. Such courses may be available as quarter-year or half-year electives, while students who plan to earn a living by driving or typing either take specialized courses in a secondary vocational program or pay tuition to attend a post-secondary trade school. Most personal computers for home use come with instruction manuals that are no more complicated
than the manuals for stereo sets or CB radios. Software cassettes or disks can be purchased which help an owner use a computer for checkbook balancing, word processing, or even small-business inventory and payroll. Computer stores often conduct free or low-cost workshops in how to use the equipment they sell. Since different companies manufacture hardware and software with different characteristics, even experienced programmers feel a need to read a manual or perhaps undergo an orientation session before using a new product. Computer literacy as a part of general education can never prepare a student to use the computers in his future without a need to read a manual or undergo training, and there is little evidence to show that computer literacy in schools significantly shortens the need for hands-on
The real question for CL advocates is whether a typical citizen needs to know
how to write a program in the absence of software packages. Realistically, this seems doubtful. The economics of capitalism will guarantee that every
ordinary use for a computer will soon be supplied with several competing software packages, while uses that are too far out of the ordinary for profitable commercialization will also be too far
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out for general, liberal education. There seems to be no middle ground for CL in general education: everyday uses will be learned informally, while sophisticated uses are either not widespread enough for general education or are widespread enough to attract commercial development of software.
CL advocates insist that the job market is destined to continue growing
rapidly in computer programming, and is declining in other areas. Schools have a responsibility to prepare students for future jobs. Even in fields that seem unrelated to math or science, computers will be an unavoidable part of the job environment. But here again, there seems to be no middle ground. Highly trained computer programmers will need specialized vocational courses, while workers who use computers to perform more routine tasks will need only a short period of on-the-job training in how to use a package of specialized software.
Years ago it was argued that the electronic age would require a massive
restructuring of education, but we now know that training in electronics is not
necessary or appropriate in the general curriculum. Most people use cars and
television sets, but few people understand how they work or how to build,
repair, or alter them. Thousands of middle-aged secretaries have seen their
manual typewriters replaced by electric ones, and now these have in turn been replaced by word processor computers. But these secretaries easily accommodated themselves to the new technology with minimal on-the-job
training. In fact, some word processor manufacturers advertise on television
that their machines come equipped with software packages which teach secretaries how to use them. Meanwhile, the business education departments of most high schools are happy if they have replaced manual typewriters with electric ones and can keep them properly repaired. The fact that people now over thirty years old might fear the computer makes them worry that youngsters will fear it; but children who grow up with computers at home or in the video parlor or workplace do not need computer instruction in school to cure them of a fear of computers that they have never felt.
Within recent memory, computer programmers had to use assembly
language or machine language, and had to be knowledgeable about electronics and bootstrap startup procedures. Now only a small fraction of professional programmers deal with such things, while most programmers use BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL, ALGOL, PL-1, PASCAL, MACROL, etc. Newer computer languages are increasingly user-friendly; i.e., they tend to use more
ordinary words and easy concepts. There is a growing interest in developing computers that will accept spoken commands in plain English. The computer languages mentioned above may never become totally obsolete, but it
seems increasingly likely that they will be used only by computer specialists
much as assembly language is now used. Ordinary citizens will regard the computer and its language as a "black box" whose inner workings are of no concern, just as most COBOL or FORTRAN programmers today regard the compiler and assembly language as a black box.
Some advocates of computer literacy say that every student (except those with special needs) graduating from high school should be able to read and write programs in one of the commonly used languages. Choosing the language can be a problem. BASIC was designed specifically to be easy for beginners to learn, and to be enough like other languages to be a good stepping-stone. But many CL advocates say that knowledge of BASIC is not enough, and insist that students learn COBOL for business applications or FORTRAN for scientific applications. In the public school system where I teach, BASIC has been included for a decade in every college-track high school math course, and
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COBOL has been taught in the business department. Several years ago the
Raytheon Data Systems company donated approximately $125,000 worth
of hardware to the high school to establish a full-year course in programming.
But the hardware uses MACROL, which teachers and students had to learn. An in-service program is underway for elementary teachers to learn LOGO so they can teach children to write simple programs for computer graphics. An in-service program was recently completed for high school teachers to learn
PASCAL, which has been officially adopted by the College Entrance Examination Board as the language to be taught in advanced placement programming courses.
The proliferation of computer languages is troublesome, especially in the context of the public school. Vast amounts of money and time are spent acquiring hardware and software, training staff, and designing curriculum units. Some students at my school already do programming in BASIC, MACROL, and COBOL, and soon some students might know these three languages plus LOGO and PASCAL. Such proliferation of computer languages seems contrary to the purpose of general education. To the extent that computer literacy is similar to ordinary literacy, it is more important to develop deep fluency in a single language than to develop superficial knowledge of additional languages. Depth of fluency enables a person to use a language for profound insight and expression.
Students who study a foreign language must pay attention to grammar, vocabulary, spelling, root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Attentiveness to such things seems to transfer back to improved performance in the native language. After two or three years of studying a foreign language, good students develop fluency; i.e., the ability to "think" in the language. Fluency seems to come rather suddenly and is an emotionally uplifting experience. Over a period of a few weeks a second or third year student begins to understand what he reads or hears without translating it, begins to speak or write directly in the language, and is able to invent words or phrases that nobody taught him, taking "poetic license." After a strong experience of fluency in one foreign language, a student finds it much easier to learn
another. There is something about depth of fluency which seems transferable to other languages, even if they are not in the same linguistic group. There is also something about depth of fluency which is valuable in itself, giving
access to untranslatable meanings and feelings that make a person more fully human.
If computer literacy has a place in the general curriculum, the main purpose is
to help future citizens appreciate the nature and function of computers, and
how they affect society. This job might belong more to the social studies teacher than to the math teacher. If it is argued that people must actually do some programming to understand what a computer is, then a single language
should be learned to moderate depth so students can experience such concepts as initialization, incrementation, recursion, and contingent branching. However, there are serious doubts whether students need to learn any computer language to be able to use computers in everyday life, because of software packages and user-friendly hardware. It seems far more important for students to learn Spanish than BASIC or LOGO, especially in the southern and western United States. America's woeful illiteracy in foreign languages is far more damaging to economic prosperity and military preparedness than computer illiteracy.
A Brief History of
Post-War Educational Fads
One way of calming the urgency of a current fad is to place it into historical
perspective. A brief review of the history
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of fads in postwar American education will disclose how they can be distinguished from long-term innovations. As the faddish nature of the current craze for computer literacy becomes clear, we will be able to identify good things that should be retained when the fad dies out and bad things whose entrenchment should be avoided in the meantime.
World War II had impressed Americans that science and math are important to national security. Airplanes, radar, V2 rockets, synthetic petroleum and artificial rubber were significant factors in the war, and the spectacular use of "atomic" bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be ignored. Rapid post-war development of "atomic" and "hydrogen" bombs by both the Soviets and the Americans captured attention, along with the atomic secrets spy trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Basic facts about nuclear fission began to work their way into the science curriculum, usually emphasizing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in electric power production and medicine. Students were trained to "duck and cover" in air raid drills as routine as fire drills. Millions of bomb shelters were established in homes and office buildings and stocked with now-rotting supplies.
During the early to mid 1950's there was some discussion of the fact that the Soviet Union was training several times the number of mathematicians and scientists as the United States, and that the Soviet curriculum for the average student was much "tougher" than American education. But few people heard the discussion, and there was no sense of urgency. Math and science teachers, professors, and philanthropists had been developing new curriculum projects stressing children's ability to master essential concepts of set theory, modern algebra, analytic geometry, and physics. But these curriculum projects were viewed as academic research, unlikely to find their way into the educational mainstream.
Public reaction to the Soviet launching of Sputnik (the world's first artificial
satellite) in October, 1957 was the burst of energy needed to galvanize support for math and science education. Sudden, massive concern that we were "falling behind the Russians" produced unprecedented political pressure and financial aid to improve the public school teaching of math, science, and foreign languages. The debate over whether there should be Federal aid to education was suddenly obsolete, as billions of dollars were provided through the National Defense Education Act and other legislation for teacher training, curriculum development, books and supplies, building renovation, and scholarships. Science labs were built and equipped, along with something new: "language labs." There was nothing new about the concept of individual carrels equipped with microphones and headsets connected to centralized hardware under a teacher's control. The armed forces, corporations, and spy agencies had developed the "language lab" for training field agents, so it seemed natural to use the technique in the newly important national defense agency called "the school." German and French quickly became more popular electives because of their use in scientific literature, and Russian was taught in many high schools for the first time in September 1958.
When teachers and professors of mathematics and physics were urged to
modernize and strengthen their curricula, they naturally put forward their
most recent and innovative programs: the so-called "new math" and "new
physics." Experimental textbooks and pilot studies had already been devel¬
oped by UICSM (University of Illinois Committee on School Mathematics), SMSG (School Mathematics Study Group), PSSC (Physical Science Study
Committee), and others. These programs were grossly inappropriate to the
need for military and technological proficiency. The new curricula were
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intended to give children an intuitive grasp of abstract concepts that have
little practical application. But these curricula were highly praised by the
experts as vehicles for fostering creativity and for familiarizing children with
sophisticated levels of knowledge. The public was impressed that concepts
previously studied by few people and only at advanced educational levels
could be made accessible to millions of youngsters. It looked like the next
generation would be able to "know a lot more math and science." The "new
math" became firmly entrenched when authors like Mary Dolciani began
incorporating set theory into algebra and geometry textbooks published by
major companies like Houghton Mifflin.
The urgency of the need for technically trained people also provoked a
speedup in the pace at which talented students pursued the usual sequence of topics. By taking "accelerated" courses in grades 7 through 11, students could learn more topics than had previously been covered up through grade 12. Then in grade 12 they could take "advanced placement" calculus or chemistry or physics. Advanced placement courses became available in many areas not necessarily related to national defense, now including art. A good score on the nationally administered advanced placement test is accepted by most colleges for credit and placement into more advanced courses, so that some students do not need four years to graduate from college.
Of course, the first few post-Sputnik students to benefit from at least 2 or 3
years of high school acceleration would not be graduating from college until 1962 or 1963, and would then need graduate school programs and entry-level job experience before they could make any impact on the space race. By the time Neil Armstrong took his famous "one step for man, one giant
leap for mankind" in Summer 1969, it is doubtful whether any of the post-Sputnik accelerated students had made any significant contribution to the
achievement. Thousands of students who came through these accelerated
programs more recently find themselves overeducated and underemployable in a job market that sometimes forces Ph.D.'s to drive taxicabs or work as
store clerks. The fact that mathematicians and scientists were needed in a
hurry in 1957 was naively interpreted to mean that we should hurry up the educational process.
The entrenchment of accelerated courses and advanced placement programs has outlived the national security purpose for which they were created. These programs are now viewed as ways to meet the individual needs of talented students, much as remedial or developmental programs meet the individual needs of slow learners. The fad of educating a talented elite for national defense has given way to the fad of special needs and individual differences. More recently, advanced placement programs have been challenged on the grounds that Blacks, Hispanics, and women are underrepresented. Some court decisions have required school districts to allocate a proportionate number of places in such programs to minority students, so that lower grade averages on selection-test scores may be used as cut-off marks for the admission of minority candidates. Thus, the fads of "equal opportunity," "minority rights," and "compensatory education" have superceded the older fads.
Among the trends discussed so far, fads and long-term innovations are
intermingled. Long-term innovations clearly include the incorporation of
nuclear physics into the science curriculum; the infusion of federal aid to local
education for specific purposes adjudged to be in the national interest;
accelerated courses and advanced placement. Fads include the "duck and
cover" air raid drills; the study of "hard" or "technically oriented" foreign lan¬
guages such as German and Russian;
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and elements of the "new math" such as set theory, the deductive structure of arithmetic, alternate number bases, and the theory of groups and fields. The faddish nature of these elements of the new math is demonstrated by the fact that they are now being removed from new textbooks and from high school curricula in favor of traditional topics or newer ones such as calculators and computers. The new math had valuable aspects which may unfortunately be discarded along with the faddish topics.
Two other fads now approaching extinction are metric education and open-classroom open-campus. The metric system has always been firmly
entrenched in science courses and will continue there, but it is no longer
expected that all young people will grow up intuitively "thinking metric" in
everyday life. When the captains of industry thought we would actually convert to the metric system to enhance the international competitiveness of their products, the fad blossomed in education. Now that metric conversion has been indefinitely postponed or abandoned in most areas (except liquor
bottles!), schools are stuck with equipment, books, films, and obsolete in-service course credits. Schools which have recently been mothballing or
throwing out $50-$100 of instructional materials for metrics should start
worrying now what will become of $50,000-$100,000 of hardware when the
computer literacy fad dies out!
The open-classroom, open campus fads blossomed at a time when the anti-authority hippie culture coincided with the baby boom bulge in enrollments.
Despite all the psychological and philosophical literature generated in support of open systems, the main forces propelling the fad were political and social unrest combined with the lack of enough desks and classrooms to
regimentalize all the young people. President Nixon's resignation and the
winding down of the Vietnam war marked the final hurrahs of the anti-establishment rebellion, coinciding with the beginning of a decline in school-age population. Schools followed the lead, returning to stricter disciplinary systems. It became obvious that economic and social pressures had caused both the emergence and decline of the open-classroom, open-campus fad, and that the philosophical and psychological theories supporting the fad had neither strengthened it nor sustained it beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm. Likewise, the rise and fall of computer literacy is unlikely to be affected by
scholarly investigations of its impact on the social interaction skills and passivity of young children, or the violent content of video games.
A number of other fads have peaked and are now declining, although advocates would deny this. Project Headstart, bilingual education, affirmative
action, women's studies, and Black studies emerged during President Johnson's "War on Poverty" and took new impetus from the Black and
women's movements. These fads recently began declining in the face of
economic recession and a political swing toward conservative ideology. Special education, behavior modification, and behavioral objectives (including
management by objectives) emerged quickly during the post-Sputnik period
as part of an attempt to control educational processes scientifically. They
picked up impetus from the War on Poverty and the popularity of psychologist B. F. Skinner, but may now be fading because of economic recession and because younger, more recently trained teachers are the first to lose their
jobs when declining enrollments and declining revenues dictate staff reduc¬
At least two recent trends in education are still enjoying the initial burst of
enthusiasm, and may soon peak. They have many earmarks of faddishness,
although it is too soon to predict what social, economic, political, or ideological changes may hasten their eventual
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demise. The back-to-basics movement and the demand for competency testing of teachers and students roughly coincide with the period of economic retrenchment, tax rebellion, declining enrollments, and staff cutbacks. Back-to-basics could provide a way of deciding which parts of the curiculum to cut
first, and competency testing might indicate which teachers to cut first. It is
possible that the anti-tax and pro-competency movements may revive the
dormant abortive fads of performance contracting, voucher systems, and merit pay, and may somewhat postpone the downfall of behavior modification, behavioral objectives, and systems management. The computer literacy movement should pick up support from back-to-basics and competency testing, since computer programming seems to be particularly useful in some emergent vocations and since the skills in programming are easily subject to observation and testing. Use of computers for CAI would obviously help teach basic skills and provide a way of testing students' competency on every small step of any set of behavioral objectives.
Computers are rapidly becoming a permanent, important part of civilization. Every member of society should understand what computers can and
cannot do, and what advantages and difficulties they create. Every civilized
person will soon be using computers at home and on the job, but very few
people will actually need to write programs. Use of computers will soon be so
widespread that children will learn to use them informally from parents and
friends. During the transition period from rarity to widespread use, there is
great demand for "computer literacy" to be included as part of general education. The older generation feels a need for education in something that is strange to it, not realizing that the younger generation will have no difficulty with something that will be commonplace. Also, computers are unique among major technological innovations in having the ability to teach potential users how to use them, with little need for human interaction.
Computer literacy is a fad in education, comparable to "new math," metrics, Russian language studies, and the open classroom. In the mid-1960's, all elementary teachers came to be expected to know about set theory and
"clock arithmetic." In the early to mid-70's, professors of teacher education felt compelled to include in "introduction to education" courses the open classroom writings of Dennison, Holt, Illich, Kohl, Kozol, and others. By the mid-to-late-80's it will probably become unthinkable to give a secondary math certificate to anyone who does not know BASIC and PASCAL. Fads dictate the content of K-12 curricula and teacher-training programs in a democracy just as forcibly as the ministry of education in a military dictatorship.
Fads are characterized by rapid proliferation of competing but incompatible organizations and processes which seek dominance. UICSM, SMSG, and various textbook publishers competed to control "new math" just as LOGO, BASIC, PASCAL, COBOL, etc. compete for dominance among computer languages and Apple, Commodore, Digital, IBM, Wang, etc. compete for control of the hardware/software market. Eventually a regulatory agency may designate a winner (as the College Entrance Examination Board has designated PASCAL to be the language for advanced placement in computer programming); or a consortium of manufacturers and users may agree upon industry-wide standards for mutual compatibility (as all musical recordings sold for several decades have been built for speeds of 33, 45, or 78 rpm). In the meantime, buyer beware!
Fads often divert attention and resources from more important long-range objectives, just as a sexy mistress
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diverts a husband's attention and money from his wife and family. Computer
literacy threatens the traditional curriculum, taking instructional time, money,
and staff energy away from practical basic skills and college preparatory content. If new math were blamed for watering down the traditional curriculum, resulting in lower college board scores and reduced competence in basic skills, then computer literacy can be expected to produce similar problems.
One good thing about the computer literacy movement is public eagerness to
spend tax money on education. Educators who recognize the faddishness of
computer literacy should take care that money is spent on equipment that can later be used for computer-assisted instruction. Large-scale expenditures
are being made for hardware that will long outlive the computer literacy fad,
and that equipment can later be used to teach traditional subject matter far
more effectively than at present. Teachers and students would then be freed from routine drill and paperwork. They would be able to discuss values and meanings, and interact as human beings instead of as teaching machines
and tape recorders. Computer-assisted instruction is a long-term innovation
whose time has long since come, but which has never attracted the burst of
enthusiasm that would get it established.
Fads often pirate or siphon energy from other simultaneous innovations that are neutral, unsupportive, or even hostile to their actual content. For example, it was mentioned earlier that "new math" actually emphasized the learning of abstract, theoretical topics. But the main support propelling the new math fad came from the post-Sputnik public outcry to train more scientists and technicians to "beat the Russians" in the applied techniques of space and
military hardware. The actual emphasis on theory in new math was contrary to the public support for practical technological training, but the public
demand to "do something" about math and science education was so urgent that whatever the experts offered was eagerly adopted.
Likewise, today the public demand is contrary to the educational response.
The public demand is to beat the Japanese in technology, to beat the
Russians in military preparedness, to beat the economic recession by training
students for jobs in the rapidly expanding computer and electronics industries,
and to help students understand the nature and social impact of computers.
But the actual response of computer literacy advocates is to require all students to learn computer programming, probably in more than one language. As indicated earlier, actual programming will not be done by the average citizen, or even by the typical worker in the computer or electronics industries. People will use preprogrammed software packages, or even ordinary English. Programming in a language like BASIC, COBOL, FORTRAN, or
PASCAL will be done by a very small fraction of computer specialists, much
as programming of compilers in machine language is now done by only a small fraction of people who use computers. Training the average person to write programs has little to do with beating the Japanese, the Russians, or the recession. Knowing how to write a program is not important for using computers at home or on the job, even in the computer industry itself. Writing actual programs that are grammatically correct in a specific language is not even necessary for the purpoe of understanding how computers function or what their social consequences may be.
If fads can siphon energy from other fads, perhaps the long-term innovation
of computer-assisted instruction can finally get established by siphoning
money and energy from the computer literacy fad. Educators should take care that the equipment they buy for computer literacy is compatible with CAI, MIS, and word processing uses.
[End page 65 / Begin page 66]
1 B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1972). For an antidote to Skinner, see C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New
York, The Macmillan Co., 1947).
2. Plato, Republic. the allegoies of the sun and the cave. Also by Plato, see Phaedrus and Symposium.
3. Kenneth R. Conklin. "Knowledge, Proof, and Ineffabilily in Teaching." Educational Theory. XXIV, I (Winter, 1974), pp. 61-67. Reprinted in Melvin
Silberman, Jerome Allender, and J. M. Yanoff, eds., Real Learning: A Coursebook for Teachers (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976). pp. 84-88.
4. Kenneth R. Conklin, "Wholes and Parts in Teaching," The Elementary School Journal, LXXIV, 3 (December, 1973), pp. 165-171.
5. Harry S. Broudy, "Socrates and the Teaching Machine." Phi Delta Kappan, XLIV (1963). pp. 243-247.
6. B. Paul Komisar and James T. McClellan. "The Logic of Slogans." Language and Concepts in Education (ed. B. Othanel Smith and Robert H. Ennis: Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1961), pp. 195-214.
7. Kenneth R. Conklin. "Why Prefer the 'New Math'?" Educational Forum, XXXV. 4 (May. 1971), pp. 439-446.
[end of article]
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