The Devil's advocate

11th May 2001 at 01:00
When you visit a school, what's the first thing that you get shown? More often than not it's the computers. It's the same when you open the school brochure, where time and again you'll find a picture of a girl tapping away at a computer. And when you get to the checkout at Tesco, how are they offering to support your school? With vouchers for computers.

For the last 20 years, it's been an article of faith that computers are good for schools. On this rollercoaster ride of change there have been arguments over almost every aspect of school life, whether it's the national curriculum, league tables, performance pay or budgets. But the orthodoxy that no one ever seems to challenge is the belief that putting a child in a room with a computer is "A good thing", and that the more of these chunky plastic boxes that you can get into your school the better. Not only should children be plugged into the Internet at the first opportunity, heads and teachers should be using laptops and administrators should be using email. There is even a Government minister as a dedicated techno-cheerleader.

TESOnline is dedicated to getting the most out of educational technology and is filled with examples of the benefits it can bring. But it's always good to challenge usually unchallenged assumptions - so if we play devil's advocate, we should consider the proposition that in fact computers are bad for schools.

This won't necessarily be the best plan of action for furthering your career, especially if you're an ICT co-ordinator, but you can pretend you're reading a review of some must-have software while we consider the evidence that children need less rather than more time at the keyboard.

And the first place to look is the spiritual home of the personal computer - the US. Here there are respected academics who argue that vast amounts of money have been ploughed into educational technology without any proper study of potential risks and without any clear evidence of academic benefit, apart from specific areas such as pupils with special needs.

And these are not rent-a-quote technophobes, but some serious educationists. A letter of concern about the use of computers in schools and the need for more discussion about any adverse side-effects was signed last autumn by 75 academics and childcare specialists, including two former presidents of the American Educational Research Association. Among the concerns raised were that we do not understand the long-term health implications of young children using computers, whether in terms of the risk of repetitive strain injury, eye strain, reduced physical play or spending long hours before a screen.

There were also worries about whether the computer hampers social development, encouraging youngsters to turn their backs on friends and turning instead to the introverted and isolated world of the keyboard.

This letter, which calls for a halt to any further increase in computer use for primary and pre-school children, says: "Computers are reshaping children's lives, at home and at school, in profound and unexpected ways. Common sense suggests that we consider the potential harm, as well as the promised benefits, of this change."

And in terms of equality of access to education, there have been a number of reports claiming that no matter how much schools try to level the playing field, the rise of the use of expensive computer equipment in schools is going to give middle class children yet another advantage in the education race.

Research from the DFEE earlier this year showed that experience of using the Internet was three times more likely among the higher socio-economic groups than the lowest - the so-called digital divide. And in the US, researchers from the College Board, the non-profit group that oversees national school tests found that the introduction of technology actually exaggerated economic differences, giving a leg up to the richest. "Advantage magnifies advantage," concluded the researchers. "While education is the great equaliser, technology appears to be a new engine of inequality."

An organisation that has led much of this questioning about computers in schools in the US is the Alliance for Childhood - which is intending to raise its profile in the UK from the autumn.

This umbrella group of childcare specialists, which campaigns for the rights of children to have a healthy, safe childhood, last year published a report called Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood, which questioned the whole drive towards increasing technology in schools. The report argues that there is no clear evidence that primary schoolchildren have made any significant gains from the introduction of computers in schools. But there have been measurably increased problems with RSI-type ailments and eye-strain and less easily measured risks to children's social development.

The report also asks what advances might have been achieved if similar amounts of money had been pumped into smaller class sizes, more teachers, more books or better school buildings.

Joan Almon, a teacher in Maryland and co-ordinator of the organisation, says the report seems to have struck a chord with many more parents than they had anticipated: "There were many parents relieved to find someone articulating their concerns about the increasing use of computers in the classroom. When the Government, the school authorities and the whole IT industry is saying it's a good thing, it can be difficult for parents to muster an argument against it." This isn't an anti-computer stance, as she "uses one all the time" she says, but an attempt to puncture the "tremendous" hype surrounding educational technology.

Education's honeymoon with computers, she says, began when people were casting round for a way out of what seemed to be a crisis in confidence in the schools system - and computers seemed to be an answer that suited everyone, including the politicians who latched on to the idea of modernising schools in the image of industry.

"Computers are very appealing. They can be so glitzy and it's easy to become enamoured by them - and it seems that they can do everything. But they can't and we should be aware of the problems they can bring."

One of the founders of the Alliance for Childhood, Marilyn Benoit, a psychiatry professor and president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, has developed this argument further to question whether the early exposure to push-button technology is having a negative effect on children's behaviour.

Using computers in school, along with video games and television at home, she says, can create a push-button culture for young children, who expect life, as well as videos, to be on demand. This instant gratification lowers thresholds of patience, leading to narcissistic tendencies, in which children can't wait for anything and are unable to tackle anything that isn't immediately easily achieved.

In the UK, support for this computer-sceptic stance has come from the supporters of Steiner Schools. Christiana Bryan, administrator of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, says that giving computers to younger children was likely to impede rather than excite their imaginations and get in the way of a healthy childhood.

"Children learn everything just as quickly without computers - and at a very impressionable age computers can take children away from playing with real people, without providing any meaningful substitute for play. They can encourage a kind of passivity - and we're getting more and more inquiries from parents worried by this."

There are counter-arguments to all these claims, and educational technology can no longer be caricatured as children stuck lifelessly behind a machine. But since the case for computers in schools has been so widely advertised, it's worth listening to those challenging the consensus. And as tech-novelty wears off, and politicians look for a new gimmick, I suspect that we could be hearing more of such questioning voices in the future.

Sean Coughlan is a freelance writer

Alliance for Childhood, including downloadable version of Fool's Gold reportwww.allianceforchildhood.orgThe College Boardwww.collegeboard.comSteiner Waldorf Schools

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