Although I’m only 48, I have been working in educational computing for thirty years. When I started, we taught children to program. We also taught tens of thousands of teachers to teach computer science to learners of all ages. In many cases, this experience represented the most complex thinking about thinking that teachers ever experienced and their students gained benefit from observing teachers learning to think symbolically, solve problems and debug. There was once a time in the not so distant path when educators were on the frontiers of scientific reasoning and technological progress. Curriculum was transformed by computing. School computers were used less often to “do school” and more often to do the impossible.

Don’t believe me? My mentor, Dan Watt, sold over 100,000 copies of a book entitled, Learning with Logo in the 1980s when much fewer teachers and children had access to a personal computer.

Things sped downhill when we removed “computing” from our lexicon and replaced it with “technology” (like a Pez dispenser or Thermos). We quickly degraded that meaningless term, technology, further by modifying it with IT and ICT. Once computing was officially erased from the education of young people, teachers could focus on keyboarding, chatting, looking stuff up, labeling the parts of the computer and making PowerPoint presentations about topics you don’t care about for an audience you will never meet. The over-reliance on the Internet and the unreliability of school networks ensures that you can spend half of each class period just logging-in.

Teachers with post-graduate degrees are being compelled to receive iPad training. My 95 year-old grandmother figured it out all by herself. No tax dollars were harmed in the process. Apparently, we also need to provide teachers with interactive white board training so they may hung unused in their classroom, just like all of their peers.

We have National Educational Technology Standards published by the International Society for TECHNOLOGY in Education that are so vague pedestrian that no computing is needed to meet them. In fact, it’s likely one can satisfy the NETs without the actual use of a computer. Despite standards and district tech plans that are a cross between a shopping list and a desperate plea for teachers to consider modernity, most school kids are powerless over the technology so central to their lives. Nobody even bothers to ask the question Seymour Papert first posed 45 years ago, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” This is a tragedy.

What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and inservice of the educational status quo. Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education. Teachers were considered thought leaders and scholars who were required to write peer-reviewed papers in order to present at such events.  Today one merely has to promise 75 quick and easy things to do in 37 minutes with the hottest product being peddled to schools. Another popular topic is incessantly about how your colleagues won’t or can’t use the latest fad.

I am sorry, but social media is not a school subject. There are conference workshops on using Twitter and masters degrees in educational technology that culminate in a rap about hashtags.  If social media is any damned good, it needs to be as complex and reliable as a dial-tone.  PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with. We should not need an National Science Foundation grant to make friends.

I had an educator approach me at a conference recently to volunteer that “Our school is not ready for Google Docs.” Set aside whatever you happen to think about Google Docs; it’s a word processor in a Web browser, right? I told the tech director, “Congratulations, your school district has apparently managed to employ the last breathing mammals in the solar system incapable of using a word processor.” Isn’t it odd that technology directors are not held accountable for such failure over three decades? Could they possibly be enabling co-dependent behavior and helplessness in the teachers they are meant to lead?

If the percentage of teachers using computers remains constant over time, regardless of how we lower expectations, shouldn’t we ask a great deal more of them and set our sights higher?

I’m so old that I knew the guy responsible for “Guide on the side, sage on the stage” (Chris Held) and “Ask three before me,” (Leslie Thyberg) I even knew the gentleman responsible for “computer literacy.” (originally called computing literacy) His name was Arthur Luehrmann. I often find myself mumbling, “I knew Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur Luehrmann was a friend of mine. You sir are no Arhur Luehrmann.”

When Luerhmann coined the term, “computer literacy,” he intended it to mean computer programming the intellectual pursuit of agency over the computer and a means for solving problems.

Don’t believe me? Read this 1980 paper transcribed  from a 1972 talk.

I know what some of you are thinking. Not every kid needs to learn programming. You don’t have to be able to fix a transmission to drive a car, blah blah blah…

First of all, the educational technology community and schools seem to have decided that no kids should learn to program. I’d be happy with the same nine-week programming class I was required to take in 1975.

Second, computer programming is not like fixing a car. It’s much more like designing the car, making sure all of its systems work in an integrated fashion, mitigating the environmental impact of cars and imagining their impact on society. Computer science is a legitimate science that has profound implications for learning all sorts of other powerful ideas, working in diverse fields and making sense of the world. You just would not know this if you go to school.

Why would it even occur to educators to deprive children of such rich learning opportunities?

If you have the audacity to speak of digital literacy or technology literacy and do not teach computer science, then this is the first time in the history of education when the functional definition of “literacy” has been so devalued, diminished and degraded. All other expectations for literacy increase over time.

There you go Stager, you radical crank. How dare you ask teachers to develop new knowledge and empower students? You’re just some stupid utopian who happened to have a great 7th grade computer programming teacher 35 years ago. Well, I’m not alone.

In January, I was in London to keynote at BETT. At the same event, the Secretary of State Michael Gove announced that the UK government was scrapping the “harmful and dull” national ICT curriculum and replacing it with computer science at all grade levels. He called the current curriculum a mess and wondered aloud why schools bother to teach Excel or PowerPoint to bored students? Coincidentally, I wondered in 1996 why we were investing so heavenly in ensuring that we create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills?

When a conservative politician and I agree on education policy, who could possibly be on the other side?


Related reading:

What’s a Computer For? Part 1

It all depends on your educational philosophy.

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of District Administration Magazine

Before increasing your technology investment, it may be prudent to pause and review your expectations. What you and your colleagues believe about learning and the aims of education drives the success or failure of classroom computing. This even has implications for what you purchase. I suggest that it is the combination of a vision deficit, meager goals and technological ignorance that limits the educational potential of computers.

Where Do You Stand?

A useful paradigm for determining your stance regarding educational computing places three men – Alfred Bork, Tom Snyder and Seymour Papert – at the three corners of a triangle. Bork, a computer scientist and physicist, dedicated several decades to building large computer-based systems designed to teach and assess learners. Bork also viewed computers as a solution to teacher scarcity and skill deficits. He predicted, “Teaching faculty, in the sense that we know them today, may cease to exist, except for in smaller, advanced courses.”

Vision deficit, meager goals and technological ignorance limits the educational potential of computers.

Tom Snyder, a former private school teacher and musician, started an educational software company in the 1980s. He observed the classroom landscape and recognized that many classrooms had only one microcomputer. He responded to this market reality by designing software for the “one computer classroom.” In his view, the classroom is a stage, the teacher is the performer, and the computer is a prop. What was a perfectly reasonable marketing strategy 20 years ago has become an ideological position still held by some educators.

In the 1960s, mathematician, computer scientist and Piaget colleague Seymour Papert realized that the protean nature of the computer allowed learners to shape its use and construct knowledge in ways and domains otherwise impossible. The computer could be an “object to think with” and offer a collection of microworlds in which one could explore powerful ideas. Papert offered the computer as a “mathland” in which learning mathematics would come as natural and effective as one would learn French by living in France – as opposed to being taught French in an American classroom. Papert’s influence led to the creation of Logo, the laptop computer, classroom robotics and the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. He asks, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?”

The different perspectives of Bork, Snyder and Papert represent fundamental issues of agency. Who has the power and is at the center of the educational process? Bork views the computer for the system, Snyde, for the teacher, and Papert for the learner. You and your colleagues should consider where you stand. It may also be worthwhile reflecting on the technology you own or are considering. Where does each tool or practice fit within this paradigm?

While it’s possible to “stand” between Bork, Snyder or Papert without standing behind one of them, assuming a stance increases clarity and makes implementation more consistent. Such consistency increases the efficacy of your district’s tech use.

The epistemological relativism of efforts like the ISTE Standards may diminish their impact. An equivalent embrace of Bork, Snyder and Papert sends a confusing counterproductive message to teachers.

What’s a Computer For?

If you believe that the computer’s optimum role is to deliver content, monitor progress and aggregate data, then you need to invest in large-scale teaching systems with publisher-created curricula. The needs and desires of centralized administrators are favored in such a scenario. Little professional development is necessary for teachers, since the computer lab may be supervised by a paraprofessional.

If your goal is to have teachers present technology-enhanced lectures or use the computer to prepare worksheets, tests or parent newsletters, then professional development may focus on helping teachers master the mechanics of using computers for instruction or personal productivity.

Educators interested in having students create, construct and collaborate with computers may invest in open-ended software and personal laptops enabling 24/7 learning. Teacher professional development may have more to do with principles of project-based learning or constructivism than on computer skills.

Even 1:1 computing is shaped by your objectives. If your goal is for fifth-graders to develop office skills or to use their laptops to take notes in class, the educational impact may be modest and probably in the Snyder camp. You may only need low-cost word processing devices.

I got excited about computing 30 years ago because I was able to feel creative and intellectually powerful. I aspire to more bang for the computer buck by creating contexts in which students use computers to learn and create in ways that enhance their humanity and challenge preconceived notions of children as inadequate thinkers. While most educational computing is relegated to the language arts, I help inspire action in the arts and sciences. My students require full-featured computers capable of being the means for serendipitous discoveries.

The difference is whether the computer is used to sustain routine teaching practice or transform learning. I’ve written a white paper on evaluating a computer activity’s potential for transformative learning, Towards the Construction of a Language for Describing the Potential of Educational Computing Activities, that may be downloaded from www.stager.org/potential.