Tangled in the Threads

Jon Udell, August 16, 2000

Computers in Grade Schools

About a year ago, the newsgroup discussion turned from general TCO (total cost of ownership) issues to the specific problem of affordably deploying and maintaining computers in grade schools.

My observation, based on a few different school systems I've seen, is that the PC-and-LAN architecture that has been troublesome for business is even more so for schools. Networked PCs and Macs are far too expensive for schools to achieve anything close to a 1-to-1 student/computer ratio, so there's typically a shared classroom machine, and perhaps also a lab where students can go for "special computer activities."

In general, the teachers and administrators I've met do not even seriously imagine a classroom that's computerized in the way that a typical office is: a workstation for everyone, loaded with a standard suite of applications for routine activities.

Meanwhile, a classroom is -- if anything -- more paperwork-intensive than a typical office. The basic three R's curriculum (reading, writing, and arithmetic) involves teachers and students in a never-ending round of document distribution, form-filling, document collection, analysis and tabulation. It often strikes me as odd that the discussion of how to computerize schools never seems to focus on these bread-and-butter, everyday activities. Instead, computers are reserved for special, typically extra-curricular things. Why?

To automate the routine document flow in the classroom would require, of course, that computers were deployed on a per-desk, not a per-classroom basis. Even if you could give away the machines, schools that are already struggling with one Windows PC or Mac per classroom are going to find that supporting thirty per classroom is just out of the question.

Centralized computing, pushed out to cheap, standardized, and interchangeable devices, sounds like a solution. What kind of devices? The Citrix/MTS/WinTerm combination is one possible foundation for a school-friendly computing appliance. Linux is another, and indeed Larry Ellison's latest spinoff, The New Internet Computer Company, offers a sub-$500 Linux device that could potentially get wide, and manageable, deployment in schools.

But as several folks pointed out, the cost of the device is only part of the problem, and perhaps not the right place to focus at all.

Bjorn Borud:

I think the device cost would be marginal compared to the overhead of "providing service" for these devices -- connectivity, storage, qualified personel to help students with technical issues, etc.

Dominic Amman:

I don't think the problem (or the point) is to reduce the initial hardware outlay to some arbitrary low cost. Whatever the initial cost, there will be someone to say it is too high, and others to say we could even afford more. The real problem is more complex. We have far too few teachers/administrators who understand these things to simply roll them out.

Quite right. Consider this extract from the New Internet Computer's FAQ:

Q: Where can I save files or images?

A: There is no local hard disk, but NIC users can save information
to a capable third party Internet storage system, such as X-Drive.

Q: What kind of applications run on the NIC?

A: The NIC is an ideal platform for Application Service Providers. 
Using the NIC, users will be able to access ASP programs on the 
Internet and run a wide range of popular Windows applications via
the Citrix WinFrame client. 

Schools mostly don't have the skills needed to make these things happen. We cannot -- and should not -- expect that school personnel will acquire such skills. Rather, we should expect that the applications needed by schools can be delivered to schools by educationally-oriented ASPs (application service providers). We should further expect that the devices on which these applications run are close to 100% manageable by the ASPs themselves, through the network.

What are computers good for in classrooms?

There is here, it seems to me, an enormous window of opportunity (no pun intended) for Linux. It's much more remotely manageable than Windows or MacOS. And it's far more flexible. But what, exactly, should that flexibility be used to accomplish?

Bjorn Borud:

If I had kids I'm not sure how "computerized" I'd like them to be. While computers can be great tools I'm not sure how they would impact on the learning of basic skills, like developing proper handwriting. Handwriting may not be the most important skill of the future, but it still is important, and learning it after the age of 12 may create a handicap.

James Power:

It seems to me that the idea of computers in schools still hasn't been adequately rationalized. Do we need computers in schools to teach people about programming? Computer maintenance? Hardware? Or do we want to use computers as a vehicle for teaching other subjects?

I contend that we probably have a mixture of both. Unfortunately, most school districts use a general purpose computer to fulfill both functions. They shouldn't. A system used for general subjects (the 3 R's) should be an airtight system. No way for the students to mess with the operating system or modify applications in any way, shape or form.

I think we do students a disservice when we technologists pose the issue in terms of hardware/OS/application software. The system outlined in Jon's message may be fine for students interested in learning about computers, and it may even be a platform for implementing the 3 R's curriculum, but we've leaped over the necessary discussion to focus on the 'interesting' part.

Alan Shutko:

I tend to agree. I believe that computers have a big place in schools, but not necessarily in the classroom. I mean, even in college I didn't really have computers in the classroom (aside from lab time).

Computers play a number of excellent roles in schools that I can see:

  • Word processing. The ability to edit easily is very freeing when learning to write. But this can be served by a lab open after school hours... people rarely write the type of papers that benefit from computer editing during classtime.

  • Research. We've had computers in our libraries for a really long time, and they deserve to be there. Especially now with the net, you can track down information much more easily and accurately on a computer than by paper-based methods. Give me online periodical indices and full-text article databases, and I'm in heaven.

    Sure, you may argue that information available on the general internet is iffy, but schools can have access to most of the same resources they provide in their libraries in electronic form.

  • Simulations of complex processes. This is about the only place I can really see the use of a computer in the classroom, and it's not by students. My aunt uses a computer in her high-school math classes to demonstrate the general behavior of functions and operations. The ability to show students how changes can affect the output as they are asking questions has been extremely valuable in giving students an intuitive grasp of how polynomials, trigonometrics, differentials and integrals work. Before computer simulations, students would have to graph tons of them with minor variations... an act which will help their arithmetical skills, but doesn't help all students to understand.

These are excellent points. As technogeeks, we tend to become fascinated with how to deploy cheap, failsafe systems that might transform computers from special gadgets that kids line up and take turn to use, into routine instruments kids use to learn, and perform, the 3 R's. The interesting part for educators -- in partership with technogeeks -- ought to be: can computers actually be such instruments, and if so, how?

In this vein, another subject that comes up perennially is the notion of programming as part of a basic curriculum:

Vincent Yin:

Whatever happened to the Smalltalk vision of a computer environment suited for children to explore and extend? And the idea that "in the future" everyone would learn how to program?

James Power:

Given a limited amount of time in people's lives, why is it desirable that everyone learn to program? I would contend that it is more beneficial that everyone learn to cook nutritionally. Or better yet, that everyone learn to analyze advertising. How about basic home safety and repair? As much as I like programming I just don't see it as something that is useful to "everyone".


Logo efforts in the past suggest that not many teachers can teach programming. Still, programming offers students a chance to learn and practice analytical skills and logic in a "real" setting. Ideally, programming will not be presented in isolation, but as a tool to help with math, especially geometry, and with language (sentence construction, for example). Seymour Papert's book Mindstorms outlines a wonderful vision of children learning to THINK by programming. I don't think Papert anticipated the difficulties of getting the teachers to learn programming well enough to teach it.

It's fascinating to see that the professional technologists who frequent the BYTE newsgroups are, for the most part, less than sanguine about the educational value of computers in the classroom. I think James Power sums things up nicely:

We in the tech fields still think of applications of general purpose computers, rather than specific tasks that happen to use a computer. I'm sure when plastics were first developed, people thought of the various applications as primarily plastic related. Now, however, their plastic-ness has become trivial. Same with internal combustion engines: we don't think of the various devices harnessing them (autos, chain saws, weed wackers, boats) as motor driven devices. We probably don't even mentally connect them.

As a designer of industrial systems, I can vouch for the fact that a hallmark of well designed computer based systems in industry is the fact that their "computer-ness" fades into the background.

Do we focus on the computers because of our professions? Or is it that computers (after 50 years) still haven't gone past the gee whiz phase?

I think the answer to both questions is "Yes." For those of us who work professionally with computers, they can be hammers that make every problem into a nail. For those who don't they can be "gee whiz" technology, an end unto itself rather than a means to an end. Eventually, computers will melt into the background where they belong. In the meantime, perhaps one useful focus might be to automate routine paperflow, freeing teachers from these chores to to spend more time with students.

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He's now an independent Web/Internet consultant, and is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, from O'Reilly and Associates. His recent BYTE.com columns are archived at http://www.byte.com/index/threads

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