So Let Them Surf...

One Child, One Computer: Gary Chapman's Vision

by Roseana Auten

Nowhere do you find more enthusiasm for the god of Technology than among educators," writes Neil Postman, one of the country's sharpest critics of Americans' love of "cheerleading" computer-based technology, in his new book, The End of Education. "There is hardly a school superintendent anywhere, or a college dean, who cannot give us a ready-made sermon on how we now live in an `information age.'"

Stakeholders in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) -- parents, students, and educators alike -- have frequently been on the receiving end of such sermons themselves. That schools need computer hardware and software is a given; now, Internet access, video conferencing, and distance-learning via computer link-ups are competing for precedence in the vision for America's schools. AISD Superintendent Jim Fox, as well as other administrators, is an on-the-record believer in the edifying effects of technology in the classroom; technology can even deliver long-delayed educational equity, as citizens' bond advisory chair Mel Waxler has publicly indicated several times. As voters brace themselves to consider an expenditure of $65.5 million in bond funds for a technology package, part of an upcoming bond issue that may total $370 million, they're likely to hear even more proselytizing on the subject.

Few people would dispute the usefulness of computers to children, nor would they argue that there exists a vocation or profession that does not somehow make use of technology. But in an attempt to gain more perspective on the ramifications of schools' use of it, the Chronicle sought out Gary Chapman, coordinator of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The project is a research and education program that seeks ways to involve lay people in public policy on science and technology, with a special focus on information technology. Chapman is lending his expertise to area high schools in a push to get students on the Internet, possibly with the help of public funds.

Some early critics have expressed skepticism that technology can be the "great equalizer" between middle- and low-income children in AISD, and to some degree, Chapman agrees with that. "I have a certain amount of concern about putting too much faith in the technology to get rid of educational inequities," he says. Nonetheless, he considers huge disparities in AISD schools' Internet access -- or even students' knowledge of what the Internet is -- a problem that must be addressed.

Still, the critics charge, technology of the past, such as photocopiers, films, and overhead projectors, was supposed to address the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots," and little evidence exists of its saving grace. What's different this time? For one thing, says Chapman, computers and Internet access enhance skill building -- and not just skill in learning how to use the hardware itself -- in a way that the old technology did not.

"So instead of looking at a filmstrip and seeing some relatively narrow perspective on a particular subject, by using the Internet you get some kind of generalized learning model of what we call information literacy," he says. "How do you find things that you need to know, where are they, how are they organized, what is the technology used to get to them? Which is what employers are looking for. That's why those technologies are more important than the ones that made such extravagant claims in the past."

Chapman readily admits that measuring this kind of learning with a standardized test will be difficult, which won't satisfy accountability-hungry school officials. Even parents might be uneasy about giving kids that much control over what and how they learn, says Chapman, and may be rightly concerned about whether their kids are just learning how to "surf the Net." That's why, he says, the teacher in the classroom will be no less important, but must adapt under this arrangement, from lecturer to a kind of guide.

But haven't we dealt with fads like this before, such as the "open classroom" of the 1970s, which was also supposed to create a generation of self-directed learners, merely supervised by the teacher? "That partly remains to be seen," Chapman says. "We don't have enough experience with good teaching models using the Internet as a tool. But -- it is clear that the traditional methods of teaching are boring kids to death, in stark contrast to their capabilities for learning."

While some find the vastness and openness of information on the Internet merely daunting, others find it frightening, especially with "cyberporn," neo-Nazi discussion groups, and other unsavory businesses just as easily accessible as Web sites for rock fans and lemur aficionados. Chapman believes that this fear of the unpredictability of the information, and the attendant controversy it stirs, will lead many communities to use technology instead to conduct video teleconferencing and distance learning, and leave out the Internet as an instructional tool.

"I find it disappointing and discouraging that this is something people are considering," Chapman says. "And I think that's going to be the technological model for conservatives who are interested in preserving the authoritarian structure of the classroom. They're not really interested in changing the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the student, or the nature of the relationship of the student to information resources."

AISD's plan for technology infrastructure leaves room for both classroom Internet access and distance-learning, and no clear debate over on-line vs. video learning has yet emerged. In general, however, school officials are cheered by the increase in student achievement they've seen in the schools that do use a lot of computer-based instruction, and by the boost in teachers' attitudes when they, too, have access to the technology.

And ultimately, Chapman finds the outlook for technology in the classroom not to be god-like, but at least positive, as long as it is carried out thoughtfully. "Creativity, ingenuity, democracy, and equity can be reflected in the technology we deploy," he says. "But whether or not those kinds of values will be transferred to the school environment is an open question." n

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