The United States should halt its push to get computers into classrooms until there is substantial evidence to show that computers can help children learn, a group of 75 educators, child development experts, health officials, and technology authorities said Sept. 12.

The group held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to call for a moratorium on federal attempts to computerize education, especially at the elementary level. The call for a “computer timeout” coincided with the release of a report titled “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood” by the Alliance for Childhood, an international partnership of educators, doctors, and psychologists based in College Park, Md.

The 75 signers of the call for a moratorium included such notable figures as psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School; Andy Baumgartner, 1999 National Teacher of the Year; Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University and former president of the American Educational Research Association; and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch.

“When we put children before a screen to learn—be it a television screen or a computer screen—we are giving them a very narrow slice of life,” said Joan Almon, a former Baltimore kindergarten teacher and the United States coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood.

Edward Miller, co-coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood’s Task Force on Computers and Childhood, agreed. “Many Americans assume that even very young children must learn to use computers to guarantee their future success in school and work,” he said. “In fact, 30 years of research on educational technology has produced almost no evidence of a clear link between using computers in the early grades and improved learning.”

The Alliance for Childhood report said that despite limited research on the impact of computers on education, United States public schools have spent more than $27 billion on computers and related technology in the past five years. In the 1999-2000 school year alone, the report said, public elementary schools spent $4 billion on computers, peripherals, and internet connections that deliver few, if any, long-term benefits.

At the same time this money is being spent on technology, less money is being allocated in the nation’s schools for field trips, hands-on science experiments, music, the arts, library books, and time for play or recess, “Fool’s Gold” said. Furthermore, the money being pumped into hardware, software, and connectivity could be better spent on other educational priorities, such as reducing class sizes, repairing schools, and eliminating lead poisoning, the report concluded.

“When it comes to our children’s readiness to learn, being ‘unleaded’ is a lot more urgent than being online,” said Dr. Bailus Walker, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Howard University College of Medicine. Walker is an expert on the effects of lead poisoning on education.

“Fool’s Gold” warns that computers may account for a rise in health problems among children, including repetitive stress injuries and eye strain.

Repetitive stress injury “is a time bomb waiting to go off,” said Margit Bleecker, M.D., a neurologist and repetitive stress specialist.

Too much computer use can even lead to obesity among children, some fear. “Computers tend to be a passive activity in the life of a child. The surgeon general has said this is the most sedentary generation we’ve ever seen,” Almon said.

Focusing too much on technology also distracts children from the social interaction they need to develop language skills and bond with adults, according to the report. “Computers—like fool’s gold—glitter, but they are not really valuable,” said Colleen Cordes, co-author of the report and co-coordinator of the Task Force on Computers and Children.

“We’ve gone down this highway of bringing computers into elementary schools with so little debate,” Almon agreed. “If we were spending so much money on other aspects of education with so little evidence of gain, we’d be ashamed of ourselves.”

An old debate

Educational technology advocates agree there needs to be more research to pinpoint how technology can be used effectively as a learning tool.

“They’re right, there needs to be a lot more research,” said Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, in response to the report.

“Computers and use of the internet is a tool, and sometimes we have over-promised the use and effectiveness of that tool.”

But Krueger and others say the call for a moratorium on school technology spending is an overreaction, and one that reopens an old debate.

“The question isn’t whether we should throw out the computer from the classroom, but how we can use the technology in a stimulating and engaging way,” Krueger said.

One of the complaints made of schools is that they do not engage students’ interest, he said. It’s only logical, therefore, for schools to incorporate computer activities, so lessons can as compelling and captivating as the computer games kids play before and after school.

Furthermore, there have been a few studies—and many anecdotal examples—that suggest the use of computers has improved learning, Krueger said.

“In every instance, you’re dependent on a good teacher using the internet and computer in a good way,” he said. “To say we don’t want computers in school is stripping out a very powerful tool used by exemplary teachers … Computers can enrich world experiences in ways that we haven’t been able to do before.”

As for the argument that computers can cause health problems among students, “their assumption is that kids just sit in front of a computer all day,” Krueger said. “If you look at the real data, that’s not true … Likewise, reading books at night with dim light can be very harmful to the eyes, but should we burn all the books? Not likely.”

For its part, the Alliance for Childhood vows to continue researching the benefits of a “time out” from policies that emphasize computers as an ideal instructional tool for toddlers, pre-schoolers, and elementary school students.

Alliance members reject the view of a computer as a tool like any other; instead, they liken the computer to a car. To drive a car, a child must reach a certain age and level of maturity. The group argues that computer technology should have similar restrictions—but it denies accusations that it is anti-technology.

“What the alliance is trying to do is get past the utopian rhetoric and past the defensive Luddite rhetoric and take a realistic look at technology in education,” said David Shenk, a technology writer and alliance member.

“Computers begin to shape the consciousness of the people using them. We suggest that you need maturity to handle a computer and not be handled by it,” Almon said.

Links:

Alliance for Childhood
http://www.allianceforchildhood.net

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org