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Computers in class are lousy teachers

Cliff Stoll, author of "The Cuckoo's Egg" and "Silicon Snake Oil," teaches physics and makes Klein bottles. He rarely visits Pit 91 because he lives in Oakland.

As the new school year approaches, our nation’s computer hucksters will begin their annual promotion of technology in the classroom. Calls for wired schools have resulted in a fountain of money from telephone fees, bond issues and supplemental taxes.

What pressing problems cause us to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on computers for schools? Are our students technological illiterates, afraid of the Internet? Are there not enough electronic messages in our children’s lives?

Do they not get enough time at keyboards and monitors? Are their attention spans too long? Do students show too much respect for their teachers? If so, then yes, we need more computers in our schools.

In truth, though, today’s students are overloaded with computer games and Web pictures of rain forests. They’re far more likely to be enthralled with a visit to Pit 91 of the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. But the money is to be spent on video displays, not field trips to dig fossils.

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The computer changes the ecology of the classroom. Attention is diverted away from the teacher and toward the magic screen. Electronic media are emphasized at the expense of the written word. Books feel boring compared with their online competitors. As a result, school libraries have morphed into media centers, where Internet feeds and DVDs push aside books and magazines. Increasingly, schools teach the easy stuff: how to change fonts, surf the Web or make a PowerPoint show.

A generation ago, learning to program was a meal ticket for anyone willing to spend his waking hours at a keyboard. Not so today, as companies export software jobs to Asia and Eastern Europe. Recognizing this, college freshmen no longer flock to computer science: Churning out code has lost its glamour. Spending money on technology in schools is preparing our children for nonexistent jobs in the future.

Page over to the classifieds and look for the most common jobs offered in Los Angeles. They’re typically in sales, not computing. A good salesperson’s skills are human, not technological. The same is true for nurses, therapists, physicians, scriptwriters and teachers.

Computers aren’t the center of most jobs; why should they be central to our schools?

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Meanwhile, what aren’t we teaching? I need not mention the sad state of California schools’ music, art and athletics programs. But I’m especially disheartened by our lack of diversity in foreign languages. Heck, there are hundreds of texts and study guides for the computer language Java, but not one high school textbook for today’s desperately needed languages: Urdu, Farsi and Arabic.

In science, it seems that many middle and high school teachers lean heavily on the Discovery Channel or the Web. Having judged several science fairs, I notice plenty of projects with professional graphics yet devoid of creativity and individual initiative. Instead of downloaded images from an orbiting observatory, I’d prefer to see a student’s hand-drawn observations of the moons of Jupiter as observed through her backyard telescope.

What was once an exciting novelty in education has become a distraction from learning. It’s because our future is intertwined with technology that schools should unplug their computers and develop the fundamental qualities and human skills needed to manage our increasingly techno-centric society.


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