one computer for every two students

September 12th, 2006

I keep hearing this mantra quite often, whenever the subject of computers in education comes up. I don't quite know what to think of it. Certainly when I was in school, there was no computer for every two students, we had very little to do with computers at all. And to me the computer wasn't associated with school either, it was always a home thing. Although there were computers in school, a few at least, they never seemed to be for anything. They never seemed to have a purpose.

I got into it pretty early, my school had a lab of Macs when I was 11-12 and we used to hang out there a lot. Aside from a handful of classes, it was a free for all after school event, so we could explore a lot. Obviously, computers then were not what they are today, we had some set of applications and that was all, no internet, no games brought in from home, nothing like that. But I think that was actually the most meaningful learning experience using computers, as we had actual classes where we used the machines for something. Like we made animations of the solar system at the time we discussed this in science class. And we used them to print up school projects and draw and so on.

But then we went off to junior high and there were no computer classes and there was no open, accessible computer lab. I remember taking a computer class as an elective, that involved sitting in a room full of 286 machines running DOS (unless you came in early and hogged the eight or so 486 machines that actually had Windows) and doing nothing at all on them except messing around. I learnt nothing from that class. Then in high school again there was one computer lab for the entire school and we had about 6 months of 'IT classes', using the wonderful Microsoft Works that they so gladly give away to everyone.

So coming from that background, I'm not sure if I understand why it is so important to have computers in schools. I did all my computer learning and playing at home. I was 12 when the first computer arrived in my house, and that's where the journey began. I suppose I expect computing to be something to do at home. But, this isn't an option to everyone, so the question to ask is, assuming that computers should be used in school, what exactly should they be used for?

Now, I think there is some consensus as to the claim that teaching does not inherently require computers at all. I mean, the vast majority of people my age finished school barely touching a computer in school and yet we did all the courses and covered all the material. And 50 years ago people did too. So the proposition of having computers in schools to me is not a necessity, it is an opportunity. If we can agree on that stance (at least in principle), then we can narrow the issue down to this: computers are necessary to develop computer literacy.

Having said that, what kind of literacy should be taught? Well, what does school aim to achieve? Is it a list of lofty aims formulated by "those who know better" that should never be changed? Or is it more of a pragmatic approach to educate people into being well situated citizens? I think there is evidence for both claims in practice, but certainly for the latter as well. How else could you explain physical education, are we actually learning anything there? No, for the most part it's just there to establish a habit of exercise. And cooking (did you have that in your school)? Those are not strictly academic subjects, they are very practically oriented. Similarly, is there a need to develop computer literacy as a practical skill (yes, Windows, Office, email, exactly that)? I think in today's world, the answer is definitely yes, because this is a skill that everyone is expected to have, regardless of background, education, job, anything. And if this is meant to happen in school, it will come at the cost of other things. Which, like balancing the national budget, will be a controversial issue.

But the question that is really on my mind is where to draw the line. What is the minimum set of skills that every kid should have to learn? Well, there won't be too much debate over the most basic skills, like writing documents and googling. But is that enough? If we are to assume that every computer user is in fact a computer owner, suddenly it becomes necessary for people to know how to admin their own systems. Because you have to install software, bugfix broken drivers, deal with viruses and so on. I have spent some time lately trying to establish whether this scope of knowledge that is required to admin your own desktop can be reduced with open software, by looking at the newest Linux offerings, and the answer is no. On Ubuntu, your gnome session will crash at some point and all you have is the terminal, what are you going to do then? At least with Windows for now there is a network of people that you know who can help you, someone will probably know what to do. On Linux, if there is a problem (and there are problems all the time), you may have noone to turn to. There is more to learn with Linux, not less. But since that is a subjective assessment, I'll be content to say that Windows and Linux are equally complicated for the home user at this point.

So coming back to the issue of teaching, what kind of computer literacy should be taught? Is it reasonable to assume that every computer user will only need to be a user and that their system will be administered by someone else and so they won't have to know any of this? This is the situation today, lots of people know how to use their computer for everything they need to do, but it keeps crashing, it gets infested with viruses and spyware, it keeps getting slower and they generally hate it, because they don't feel empowered. The computer is a necessary evil.

On the other hand, subjects like computer science, programming, web development, graphics design etc. are probably things that should only ever be electives. Certainly offer them, but never make them compulsory.

Computer literacy projects based on free software have received a lot of press recently - gnuLinEx is creating wealth in Extremadura, the Brazilian government has invested into leveraging free software on a large scale (including education), there are also initiatives underway in South Africa and India (no references, sorry). Finally, in the scheme that promises to make the greatest difference in one single project, the OLPC, which is offered to basically every government that is interested.

When I hear about these initiatives, it makes me think about what kind of computer literacy is being taught, and what should be taught. This is obviously location specific, all these projects decide for themselves what is relevant in their area. Back in Europe, I ask the question, but I don't have the answer. Computer literacy in schools is on the uptake, but is it spreading fast enough? Are the right things being taught? Is it getting enough attention or maybe it is getting too much attention? I don't expect to learn the answer, because only a student or a teacher at that certain school would know how well this is working for them. For instance, back in Norway, I know that Skolelinux is being deployed across lots of schools and this is a very good thing, because it is introducing kids to open standards and free software. But what are they accomplishing with these machines? And how capable will these people be when they graduate, in terms of skills and problem solving?

Even when we don't know the answers to these questions and don't expect to (for some time), I think we should be talking about it and thinking about it.

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6 Responses to "one computer for every two students"

  1. erik says:

    If I had the power, I would seriously overhaul the education system of this country. Science and physics are useful, should you choose to continue to work towards having a job in the sector. For me, it was absolutely pointless. I would like for kids to learn to [i]think[/i], not just [i]absorb[/i] knowledge which they usually forget anyway. My ideal education would feature a lot of time dedicated to a course called [i]Relative Science[/i]. Make the kids debate, hold presentations, discuss hot topics of society, learn how to deal with other cultures, take away stereotypes and prejudice. I think the computer can play a very big role in that but not beyond the point of [i]users[/i], as you described.

    Kids at Dutch high schools nowadays are, through internet chats, e-mail and certain websites, taking part in classes in which they are being brought in touch with their counterparts throughout the world. Which, with financial situations as they are right now, usually means elsewhere in the West. They will spend a great deal of time talking to people from other cultures in other languages and will, at least once, meet those other classes in real life. I think that is a new and absolutely fundamental aspect of modern education.

  2. erik says:

    Pardon the use of the wrong code there, the smilies sometimes make me think I'm writing on a forum :D

  3. numerodix says:

    Well, I don't think I would like to scrap science subjects. They are useful, even if you don't pursue anything technical. Just like mathematics (and computer skills like I talked about) has a general degree of being useful for the average person. In my schools I always complained about the lack of science, instead of physics and chemistry they would give us 90% biology, which was a complete waste of time to me. If you want to treat subjects fairly, at least divide them equally.

    I didn't know that the internationalization thing was common for everyone, that sounds like a very good idea.

  4. ash says:

    I'm not sure about scrapping science either. In this country the number of people taking science and technical subjects for a degree is decreasing, and the shortage is bad in the long term. Part of the problem is that most schools only teach a sort of 'combined' science that lumps the different disciplines together rather than each on their own merits.

    Yes most people aren't going to use it for a job, but then I'm not going to use any geography or history - I still appreciate having learnt it and knowing about the world. And if they weren't taught, I wouldn't know whether I might be interested in them or not.

    Debate is good and I always say that more philosophy should get taught. But debate as a replacement for science is dangerous, and sounds like the kind of thing the supporters of Intelligent Design would propose - muddying the picture and giving the impression that nothing is certain.

  5. Lucas says:

    I'm from Australia, and I think your article is very relevant to the situation here.

    In primary school, we had Macs in the earlier years, and we were never taught to use them. So us kids would teach ourselves, and play all the fun games (remember spectre challenger?) and draw pictures (a la Kid Pix).

    Later on in primary school, they "upgraded" to PC's with Windows. Again, nothing was formally taught. The teachers were barely more computer literate than we were (some significantly less so). As such, I learnt most of my skills at home.

    In High School, again there were no formal classes. We used them a bit in Maths, playing some lateral thinking and logic games (I maintain that 'Maths Circus' is fantastic), and a bit in Music, for compositions and audiatory training. Otherwise it was just "research" or word processing. At this point, it was assumed one could use a computer.

    It saddens me that it's pretty much a MS shop around here. One of the reasons for this is that MS gives away lots of software to schools. In the IT classes (an actual elective), they "teach" Visual Basic.

    In an ideal world, students could be taught not so much how to use a particlar piece of software (eg: Windows, Photoshop, Word, etc) but rather, how to quickly pick up a tool and use it (eg: This is a GUI, so it will most likely behave like this). Most geeks achieve this meta-learning by themselves, but most users are intimidated by even a small change...

    And in IT, they would start people with something a little less shallow. Even plain BASIC would be better (I started coding with QBASIC, hehe)... VB obfuscates the logic flow, and kids get distracted by the pretty bells and whistles of the GUI...

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