Friday, May 16, 2014

Computer Shmomputer

You do know, don't you, that today' students have been around computers their lives, right?

So why do some folks still think that a boring worksheet will suddenly be cool if it's on a computer? Or that a lecture from a teacher who can't be questioned is more interesting if it's on a computer?

I tell you what. For every fifteen year old you find me who says, "Wow! This instruction is on a computer!" I will find you a sixty year old who says, "Wow! They make pens where you can just click the point in and out of the end."

I get that there are folks who don't have a computer in every (or any) room at home. The same is true of books, which are just as novel and wow-worthy as computers for today's students. So any program that sells itself by declaring "And it's on a comPUter!" is a con job.

But when we try to implement a wow program on a computer-- whatever it is you wan to do, you are already too late.

Do you remember "Flappy Bird"? It was a hugely popular game with m students a few months ago. For about a week. Did you get to play 2048? A month ago my students didn't play anything else. For about a week. Right now, I think they're still playing "Make It Rain," but it feels like it's been about a week since that popped up on my radar, so by Monday I expect it will have been replaced.

So the idea that I can sit down right now and pick out a program that next year will make my students say, "Wowee! I can't wait to get on my computer and play Mindless Drill Festival until my fingertips bleed." Anybody who can pull off that trick gets to skip retirement and go straight to Indolent Gabillionaire. Everyone else will be too late to the marketplace with a software product that will be no more exciting than a re-issue of Heart of Darkness with a brand new Dover Mystery Graphic Art Cover.

The other reason you'll be too late? Those games I mentioned? None of my students played them on computer. The majority of my students are completely plugged in, but only on their phones. A handful use computers to handle certain kinds of productivity, but I can find more students carrying around some damn John Green novel. But virtually all of my students, regardless of background, are packing smartphones.

People in the computer biz have to know this. Their market research has to tell them this. So why are folks from computerized charters to standardized test mandaters insisting on computer-based instruction? I can think of two reasons.

For the first, I have to tell you a story. from around 1880 to 1920, there were tens of thousands of community bands in this country. Every town, no matter how tiny, had a band. Instrument manufacturers were surfing on a robust income stream. But post-Great European War, town bands evaporated. The bottom dropped out of the market. Instrument manufacturers were looking at ruin. So they invented school music programs. They convinced school districts all across America that what they needed was a school band.

This is not to suggest that school music programs are a snare and a delusion. School music programs made me what I am today (I know I occasionally hyperbolize for effect, but that's not what I'm doing here). What I am suggesting is that sometimes, when the bottom drops out, companies need to find huge new markets, and one of the hugest self-renewing markets is the one made out of millions of public school children.

What other reason to try to computerize worksheets, instruction, and testing, even though we already know that it won't improve the experience one whit for the students?

Because we aren't doing it for the students at all. It's not that computerization makes it easier for them to do their work; it's that computerization makes it easier to collect the results of their work. We already know that Data Collection is one of the driving forces of reformy stuff. Computerization allows our Data Overlords to hoover up data like hungry hungry hippos.

I am not a luddite. I love my technology. But tech is a tool, and it has to be judged by whether or not is does something useful. It's dumb to use a hammer for a screwdriver job just because you think the hammer is shinier. There's no reason to use a computer just because it's a computer. The kids are not impressed, gramps.


  1. Great post, as always. But what's up with the John Green hating? I know he's not Fitzgerald, but at least they're reading something besides their Instagram feeds.

    1. I do not hate the John Green (haven't yet read him) but I am deeply envious of his ubiquity

  2. And I love how John Green uses technology to teach grammar and literary concepts! No, really, I do.