Computers & Geosciences, Volume 25, Number 5, 1999

James H. Shea
University of Wisconsin - Parkside
Kenosha, WI 53141-2000
Oxford, OX3 0BP

John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

Computers and Education

It is hardly possible to pick up a newspaper or an education magazine today without encountering some kind of article on the importance of computers to education, particularly when combined with the internet. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that computers are expected by many to be the savior of our educational system. Just the other day, for example, I read of a case where the school system in a major American city decided to spend $18 million so a laptop computer could be "given" to every high-school senior. The idea is being peddled as a way to improve the graduation rate, particularly among minorities. At the college level, particularly in the sciences, computer-based education is seen as a way to get more students actively involved in "doing" science in collaborative groups solving real contemporary problems rather than memorizing outdated factual material from textbooks and lectures delivered by aging professors. The Internet is seen as a means of providing access to virtually unlimited sources of information, including data gathered and displayed almost as fast as it is collected from the farthest reaches of the Earth and from orbiting satellites and spaceships.

In the field of finance, experts have a standard caveat about such claims: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Unfortunately, such warnings are seldom applied to the field of computer-based learning, where hyperbole is the name of the game and a new bandwagon comes rolling down the pike every time a new technology appears. We really should remember, however, that enthusiasts have been claiming for at least 25 years that computers would revolutionize education, but the promised millenium has yet to arrive and all of the longtime educational problems of the period, like declining test scores, decreasing interest in science, steadily worsening performance in fundamental areas like reading, writing, and mathematics, and the continued failure to attract minority students, are still with us, and stubbornly refuse to respond to the new methods.

The fundamental problem with computer-based education, particularly with Internet-based education is that the aspect of education that computers are best at, providing information, is simply not the problem. Modern students have lots of information available to them; in some ways they have too much information. The real problem is that the students sooner or later have to engage with that information; they have to master some coherent part of it and this is what most students and many educators haven't come to accept. It is simply impossible to learn a subject without mastering some core of basic knowledge and integrated theory.

Unfortunately, American education and educators are still enthralled with the romantic tradition in education with its attendant naturalism and developmentalism (see Hirsch, 1996, Ch. 4). Educational romantics believe that all learning must be "natural" and free of external rewards and punishments. Exams, grades, lectures, assignments, curricula, requirements, time-scheduled learning, grade levels, fixed seating arrangements in classrooms, and even classrooms themselves are all seen as being artificial impediments to learning. Learning, it is said, will occur during the natural course of events and we shouldn't impose artificial structure on the process. Computer-based education, particularly Internet-based education, integrates naturally with these beliefs because educational romantics expect that learning will occur if students are simply turned loose on the Internet with its vast stores of data and wealth of stunning images and allowed to indulge their natural curiosity.

In the real world things don't work so easily and so nicely. The world of the Internet is not only enormous and growing exponentially; it is also chaotic and full of nonsense and irrationalism, just like the real world itself (see Miall, 1999), and expecting computers and the Internet to educate students is like expecting uncontrolled contact with nature to result in education. Collection of facts and information do not themselves automatically lead to wisdom or even knowledge. The ancient Mesopotamians collected facts and observations about the heavens for hundreds of years and yet never managed to make the creative leap to interpretation and theory that was made by the Greeks and which constituted true wisdom about the cosmos.

Similarly, we cannot expect that turning students loose on computers will by itself result in education. By its very nature, education occurs most efficiently when it is guided by a carefully thought-out program of guided exploration and instruction. Of course, computers and the Internet offer enormous promise for education and any thoughtful, modern educational program will make extensive use of these tools, but it is essential that we not buy into the contemporary propaganda about computers revolutionizing education. Too many educators have already uncritically bought into this myth. What we really need is to learn to use computers in ways that will help students master the core knowledge of various subjects and the methods of gaining new knowledge and improving their comprehension of the level of collective wisdom we have already reached.

Hirsch, E.D., 1996, The Schools We Need: New York, Doubleday, 317 p.

Miall, Andrew, 1999, The Case for Books: Geotimes, v. 44, no. 3, p. 5.