Do Computers Belong in our Classrooms?

Although I am only an undergrad, like many students, I am also a teacher. I have spent the last year and a half mentoring in a rural school, which recently began using computers in the classrooms and underusing (in my opinion) its single Internet-connected terminal. During this time I have learned much about the paradoxical ways in which, like Talbott would have us expect, the formalized structure of highly mediated information affects the learning process of the students. On one hand, with computers and a modem, students are given access to informational resources which can be especially scarce in rural schools. On the other hand, determining usage policies for a school Internet connection forces to the surface community issues--from defining pornography to determining how much control state government and other larger pieces of the school hierarchy can have on the local level.

Talbott is concerned that an "unhealthy romanticizing of the Net" leads to students accepting "dramatic reenactions" of real contact with others and real experience with the world for the "real" thing. He devotes the entire second section of his book to exposing how the Internet and other interactive programs and software can abstract the world to a point often beyond the child's ability to understand. Additionally, Talbott makes clear that he believes in the exploratory and experiential learning of the Waldorf education as an ideal. He sees the "crucial requirement" for learning purposes "not that the child receive maximum impact from a display, but rather that he actively discover within himself a connection to the phenomena he is observing" (144. In his own words). This position leads him to conclude that computers do not belong in the classroom at all.

While I agree that, left to their own devices, television-generation kids (those adapted to sound-byte information gathering) are certainly likely to be willing to accept the simulacrum for the real, and thus miss "real" understanding, I cannot agree with Talbott that computers have no place in the classroom. An unhealthy romanticism of the abstracted image can be avoided through mediation and exploration of alternate views of the imaged phenomenon, which the teacher, the "real world," and other students can provide. Papert, who Talbott uses as a straw man in much of this section, would probably agree with me (Papert's presentation to Congress arguing that computers should in fact be made central to the classroom environment are available on- line; I highly recommend introducing yourself to his ideas if you have not already done so). And while it is true that computers can only offer abstracted, lower-than-real-life context for information, this same argument is true of books, and of any other form of symbolic representation (board games, pictures) used in the classroom.

Symbolic technologies are valuable precisely because they complement students' experiences; when connections are made between the abstract and that "real" exploratory understanding of the world which students are constantly rebuilding, these resources can expand that understanding. The school in which I work, for example, has few resources, and is located in a fairly isolated rural area; the Internet brings them information which could not otherwise get, and which can help them contextualize the hands-on experiences they have in the classroom. But my primary concern with Talbott's orthodox Waldorf perspective has to do with the same reason my parents never sent me to a Waldorf school. Since the world itself is increasingly presented to young people in abstract language, shouldn't they have to learn early and often how to be properly skeptical of such mediated experience? Talbott obviously thinks the risk outweighs the benefit, but I am not convinced.

Talbott's general tendency to base his arguments on a view in which technology is taken to an extreme case (seen, unfortunately, elsewhere in the book as well) leads him ultimately in this section of his book to make an unfair but academically common condemnation of technology as, essentially, subverting (and perverting) the role of the teacher as mediator of such materials while taking imagination out of learning. The seduction to think of the computer as both teacher and informational resource is certainly tempting, but acceptance of the computer's role as such is not inherent in the technology. In my experience, when subversion occurs it is more the fault of the teacher than the technology, who allows the machine to set its own information-receiving context instead of using the machine within a healthy classroom environment of hands-on exploration. Teachers, for example, who might utilize the new WebTV service in their classroom allow their roles to be supplanted through the use of a technology which fits Talbott's worst fears, as it is designed with passivity in mind, and thus is inconsistant with the teacher's role (see Feed Magazine for further discussion of WebTV's "technological limitations").

But there are other, more easily mediated options available to schools than the techno/logical extremism of WebTV. At the school where I work, for example, first graders look forward to augmenting their unit on Alaska through constant e-mail exchanges with the first grade class of a small Alaskan village. Thus, although I agree with much of Talbott's basic premises, and happen to be a real fan of many aspects of Waldorf education myself, I think Talbott has made the common mistake here of attributing to the technology a fault which lies within ourselves. This mistake is especially surprising in this context, given that the main thesis of Talbott's book is that we need to stop accusing/celebrating the computer for faults that lie within our acceptance of its logic. The fact that, in order to get computers out of our classroom, Talbott needs to ignore his basic premise should certainly be treated as food for thought.

For more of what I see as community and other issues raised by bringing the Internet into community schools, check out an on-line draft of my plan paper (a section of my undergrad "thesis") on the subject.

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