January 2010

Computers Make Kids Smarter – Right?

The title of this post is taken from an almost 12-year old  paper by Heather Kirkpatrick and Larry Cuban [1]. In this paper the authors asserted that the common sense wisdom that computers make kids smarter  was unwarranted. Based on the paper, in 1998 there was no sufficient reliable empirical evidence to claim that investing significant resources in computerizing school was worth it. The authors raised very important questions in the paper:

  1. What do we want to use computers for in our classrooms? Do we want to use computers to help students master basic skills and acquire factual knowledge? To raise test scores? As tools to create student-centered teaching and learning? To make our children more computer literate? And which software programs are best for English, math, and other subjects in the curricula of individual schools?
  2. Can we reach our goals at less cost—without additional investments in technology?
  3. Will computers help create the type of students and citizens we seek?
  4. Through what means can we achieve our desired ends? In other words, what configuration of hardware, software, and Internet connections best meets our goals? Labs? Classrooms? Libraries? All of the above?

As almost 12 years past since then, I keep wondering what would my answers to the questions raised above have been if somebody asked me about it today? During the past 12 years, did we collect sufficient reliable and valid data to provide an evidence-based answer to these questions? Did we design our studies properly so they can provide us with valid and useful information. I also keep thinking if we (educators) are becoming so much “smarter” about how we should teach mathematics and science, why doesn’t it transform into significant improvement in students’ learning? May be it does – our students of today are not the same as the students of 20 years ago and we do not know what the results would have been if we asked the math and science teachers of 20 years ago to teach our current students. We also try to teach different skills and may be place different priorities.  As  I am trying to grapple with these questions, I keep thinking how interesting and complicated our field is. We are trying to understand how humans learn, how teachers should teach and how technology can facilitate this process. But at the same time both learners, teachers and the technology are changing…  As computers are obviously not going to go away and they will keep transforming all aspects of our lives, the question of the use of computers in education is going to disappear.  So although this is a very complicated problem, it certainly is worth thinking about.

1. Kirkpatrick, H., & Cuban, L. (1998). Computers Make Kids Smarter – Right? Technos Quarterly, 7(2), 26-31.

2 Responses to Computers Make Kids Smarter – Right?

  1. Kathleen

    I find your willingness to address some of these basic questions very refreshing.

    In MET we have learned a lot about the way the technology can be used, but the problems you allude to can be phrased and posed in many ways in academic discourse and thus in studies, and not all of the answers may be what we were looking for.
    In particular,–here we see the intersection of qualitative versus quantitative study structure and how scientists in the field do not have background in psychology and qualitative studies.

    I think that having been a student for so many years, then educator now for a very long time, my perspective is enriched by my life experience.
    It seems we may have lost something in the trade off–the pendulum may have swung so that we are confusing our students by offering too much, and too soon? That we take information overload for granted. The field is very complicated–I agree fully.

    My teen son gave me a life lesson the other day. He suggested that learning at his school is too complex. He does not like cell phones, texting and such and is revolting against so much technology in his world. He refuses a cell phone but does limited IM and facebook.

    He says he really enjoys sitting with me and discussing science issues in the back yard, as we consider quantum physics, string theory, genetics and such, watching the birds, and having a tea.
    He is 17–he is popular at school, has a girlfriend but all of his close friends are technophobes? He is mature, and intellectual. He is spending less time with me now than the girlfriend (quite appropriate and yes, glad he is growing up).
    His technophobe subgroup is really interesting to me–the new hippies perhaps–trying to get away from so much of a barrage of intrusive media? I have not fully figured it out yet, but you may see my comments in the course tempered by his current comments on technology for science and math, as they are his two strong subjects.

    My interest in communication skills, especially relating to complex medical learning, is still conflicting with some with basic tenets of learning theory in science–but is bearing fruit as MET comes to a close.
    Dr K

  2. Marina Milner-Bolotin

    Thank you Kathleen. A very interesting comment. I especially liked that your 17 year old son discusses science with you. Neat. I guess he is slowing coming out of the teenage stage.

    Thanks, M.

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