News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Old fads never die; they just end up on blogs

Computers and what kids can do to them and with them is the latest incantation of the blog buddies in South Dakota. I could write a book on this subject. I just may, and call it something like "Kids vs. Machines: the Anatomy of Petty Vandalism on the High Plains--and Everywhere Else."

I am a great advocate of the use of computers in education. But computers are merely tools. When educators and the public begin to confuse the medium with the message, then we have problems. Marshall McLuhan made the glossy statement about television that the "medium is the message," but he later recanted and clarified his remarks. Many people tend to think in faddish terms, and it is de rigueuer to proclaim that computers are essential to any relevant developments in human communication and the dissemination of knowledge.

In my field, personal computers and word processing were the greatest boon to thinking and writing since the yellow No. 2 pencils with erasers on the top. Word processing eliminated much of the drudgery of producing a final manuscript that made the writing of papers for class, for professional review, and publication such an ordeal. The process of producing a correctly formatted, error-free manuscript takes a fourth of the effort it did with typewriters. The World Wide Web and the Internet for a time put the gathering of source information and certain forms of research at the hands of almost everybody. That is probably not true today, because online sources are subject to contamination and unreliability to the point that it is better to consult original sources, but computers do make the search more convenient. Things are much easier for anyone writing today than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

Computers, however, are of little help in developing the essentials of writing: organization, coherence, fluency, precision, style, sentence construction and grammar. Spell check is useless beyond the most rudimentary kind of writing, but it does alert one to typographical errors. The syntax check in programs such as Microsoft Word is ludicrous for anyone beyond the third or fourth grade. And the grammar check is more misleading than helpful. Whatever tool is being used to generate writing, the essential developmental factor is practice. And much reading of good writing.

So, I am a big advocate of computers used with attention to what they can and cannot do. In a writing class, real-time conferencing and discussion sessions in which every student can be required to contribute are exceptionally effective in providing the groundwork needed for expository and argumentative writing. And they provide those three essentials: practice, practice, and practice.

When it comes to students taking up combat with machines, they are playing out the myth of machines over humans that was developed in 2001: A Space Odyssey and is a familiar theme in much folk literature. People do not like being under the command of machines and they try to frustrate them and mess them up.

I have been involved with computers since the method of checking for accurate data was to run long probes through the holes in stacks of punch cards to locate sticky chads. I have had many experiences with this kind of technology, and therein lies a tale.

I was the copy chief at a research and development firm in Davenport, Ia. that, when government contracts begin to get sparse after the Sputnik furor, decided to make some proprietary technology. It designed a teaching machine. This machine ran teaching programs which were written according to behaviorist psychological theory and were so tedious that even those of us who were supposed to try them out bounced off the walls with near-fatal attacks of boredom. A number of the machines were placed with university professors who wrote teaching programs for them. The professors would then test out the programs and machines in the university laboratory schools, and of course they worked fine. That's because most of the kids in those schools were professors' children and they understood that Daddy needed to have some successful attainments for tenure, promotion, and general good standing.

When the machines were placed in public schools for trial, the story was quite different. The kids would work the programs for about five minutes and then devote their attention and concentration to jamming the machines. They were unusually successful.

The attraction of the machines to many politicians and administrators is that they seem to offer a cheap and tractable substitute for teachers.

That same notion is what drives the craze to provide students with laptops and digitize learning so that those in the higher reaches of the educational bureaucracy and beyond won't have to deal with teachers, unions, and other conflicts that humans generate. What they are too far removed from students and classrooms to understand is that computers used legitimately and effectively for instruction are labor-intensive and require immense amounts of preparation time and skill.

In an hour's class time, an instructor can put students through an arduous program of instruction and obtain immediate results and give them immediate feedback on their progress. It is a grueling hour, but one that took four or five hours of preparation time to write and set up on the computer server. When it comes to matters of system security and debugging, instructors have little time and little access to the programs that monitor such stuff.

Yes, students fool around with the system. I had one young man from New Jersey who managed to hack into the instructors' program in my course. He put a cancellation notice for my class up three times on the log-in page and he made comments about other students in the class in my name. The system administrator caught the hack-ins and the young man was denied computer privileges for the rest of the semester. I let him finish the course by having him do his drafting, editing, and final papers on computers where the word processing functioned but were not connected to any network. It was a constructive experience for him, but hell for me.

I thought the pranks were enterprising, amusing, and bright. Other students did not think so, as we had to make up the work lost from his hack-ins. And, of course, the hours of preparation I had put in were all for naught. While amusing, his hacking was an act of vandalism and other people did have to pay. Some students who were serious and diligent in their work regarded it as an unreasonable imposition on their work.

I go along with the bloggers who think that the people in charge of the computer programs are not doing their jobs. I know that few of them have actually worked with students and computers so that they know what procedures and safeguards are needed to keep the computer instruction focused and responsive. But these students are also supposed to be learning the exercise of civic responsibilities, and that means that they might have to face some consequences. The incident I cited and the ones at Madison High School referred to by other bloggers were benign and high-spirited, but I have also been involved some that were terribly dishonest and damaging. Kids will pull pranks. Parents and teachers will let them know the limits and dangers of pranks. I think.

What is disconcerting is how many times the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off is cited in regard to these incidents with a kind of scriptural reverence. It is a teen-exploitation film in which Ben Stein's portrayal of an economics teacher out-stereotypes any portrayal of a black person by Stepan Fetchit. But I will not argue the case, because I have never been able to sit all the way through the movie. There is no profit in arguing matters of taste.

I do not defend the administrators and those who think that dumping computers in the laps of children is going to improve education. Administrators are not generally hired for their teaching skill but for the obsequious service they can provide to those who pay their salaries and set their agendas. They, K-College, seldom have the foggiest notion of what it takes to support effective teaching programs or how to devise and implement such programs. They could, of course, ask the teachers, but that is not likely to happen in a society which regards teachers as bonded servants or even slaves of a kind. You know, why should they want money? Where is their dedication?

If anyone is really concerned about why our education system seems to be lagging behind much of the industrialized, technologized world, they should examine the circumstances and attitudes that emerge in incidents like the Madison kids hacking into the computer system.

Oh, well, just take the day off. It will all go away.

1 comment:

coralhei said...

An enjoyable and well-told story as usual. Not to drag you too far off-topic, but I was caught by surprise by your critique of Ferris Bueller. I almost hate to ask -- I hate to lose one of my favorite childhood movies to a blistering social critique -- but maybe you could e-mail a fuller explanation of your disgust with the movie (if your mind is not to occupied with weightier issues).

coralhei \at/ lakeherman *dot- org

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States