Letters to the Editor

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Education Beyond the Keyboard

So, when do those school computers actually replace the school?

"But they are useless. They can only give you answers." - Pablo Picasso, on computers

Newell-Fonda Superintendent Jeff Dicks tells an interesting story of how a parent came up to him at an open house after the district became the first in Iowa to launch a grant program that provides every student with an Apple laptop to use constantly at school and home.

The parent asked the school leader if, in 15 years, will kids even have to go to schools?

It's an honest question. If teachers can post their assignments on the internet, textbooks can be converted to electronic files, a school library can be duplicated online, and homework can be deposited into an educator's inbox to download, will we need classrooms ultimately?

"It's scary to think about," the superintendent answered the parent. Like the local school leader, I hope that there will always be a school and a classroom.

Newell-Fonda, and many districts like it around the country, are doing amazing and innovative things with the technology.

Not so long ago, fiber optic technology seemed mind-boggling and revolutionary when it came to Iowa, creating the possibility for kids on one side of the state to have a two-way interactive class with an educator on the other side. It was a bulky and costly advance; rapidly dated.

And just a few years back, when Buena Vista University became the first campus in Iowa to go wireless, it seemed almost Orwellian. Now, the laptops that every student pays for as part of the price of attending the U seem like an extension of their bodies - it would be hard to imagine them without their electronic appendages.

If you think we're mildly insane even pondering the idea of one day having school without schools, visit Waukesha, Wisconsin, good solid, midwestern cheesehead territory. IQ Academy Wisconsin opened there in 2004 as an online high school. No building. All study is done over the internet, without leaving home. Over 800 students have chosen the school over traditional classrooms and teaching.

I can see the appeal. For a student who is perhaps disabled, forced to relocate often, pregnant, more accelerated than classmates, whatever the case may be, going to school on a provided laptop could be attractive.

A generation ago, computers were for advanced mathematics and science applications, industrial and billing uses. They were a tool for a person's life.

Now, they are a person's life. Their communication, their recreation (gaming), their source for knowledge, their avenue for financial transactions, their primary outlet for entertainment from movies to music, even their fantasy life is played online.

My kids recently managed to convince me, through a process very much like the slow removal of toenails with rusty pliars, of the absolute necessity of a laptop computer priced at about twice what I paid for my first car when I was their age. But they are right - the thing is no longer a luxury, but a virtual requirement to complete the work their teachers assign. The beast is seldom out of service. "Homework" as often as not means getting out the computer, not the books, and aha - dad can even go online and see how they did on yesterday's tests.

It's a tremendous advance - a world of information more broad than a student could have dreamed of just a short time ago, is at the fingertips. Answers to almost any question, in an instant. Textbooks, notebooks and pencils seem almost like antiques all the sudden.

The only question is how far we want to go on this path. I suspect we should agree with our Newell-Fonda superintendent that education has to be more than computers.

As he says, interaction matters. Computers can teach, but they aren't likely to inspire - and a good teacher can deliver that juice in a classroom.

Computers have plenty of memory, it has been said, but no imagination. I think that is true. There is something to be said for facing down a bully on the playground, having to work out a problem on a chalk board, reading a paper in front of everybody, taking the final shot in a ball game, practicing your lines for a school play, trying to hit the high note in a band concert, gym, messy art, and even in learning to write a poem on a piece of paper - not downloading one, or generating one with a program, but having to pull it out of yourself.

"The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers," journalist Sydney J. Harris said. I wonder how close we are coming to that point.

A computer can do incredible things, but it can't do what a teacher does.

Good teaching is stuffed with ideas and originality, theater and discipline, rescue and release; the best teachers teach from the heart, not just the curriculum. If you have been fortunate enough to have one of those, you will remember him or her forever.

I've never met a website or program that I can say that about.

No doubt our schools will do more and more to take advantage of technology, and we are still in the early stages of a great era of exciting change.

But yes, I think that in 15 years we will still see schools, and classrooms, and teachers that are not of the pixelated variety.

Because all of those computers, as Mr. Picasso reminded us, can give a kid all the answers.

But only a teacher can inspire us to create the questions.