There has been a push for computer-based learning in public education for about a decade or so now.  The thinking is that students can go at their own pace, have optimally focused and differentiated remediation and instruction, and thus, students will perform better.  That’s the sales pitch, anyway.

I teach remedial math courses part time at a community college (the observations made here pertain to all of education not just math), the shift was made so that 100% of these remedial math courses were taught on such computer programs.  Students take placement tests where their strengths and weaknesses are accurately identified and they then work their way through lessons and assignments, with help along that way that addresses their specific short-comings.  If students grasp something easily they can move quickly through the curriculum.  Students that need more time can go at their own pace.  At the end of the section (or chapter), students take a test and must show a predetermined level of accuracy before they’re allowed to move forward.

It sounds great, but it doesn’t work.  Even if it did work and students could pass these classes in a way that prepared them for higher level classes, it would be a failure.   The purpose of education is not future education.

The ugly truth here is that we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education.  Education has become a numbers game where schools receive funding based on graduation rates and percentages of students passing multiple choice tests that have mysterious grading schemes behind them (70 multiple choice questions will be graded on a scale of 450 points, for example).  We lull ourselves into believing we are servicing our students if they graduate or our school surpasses the state average on these tests.

The truth is that the quality of education is rapidly decreasing, seemingly in direct response to the remedies that seek to reverse this trend.

The question often asked by students, in minor rebellion to the tasks at hand in class, “When am I going to use this in my real life,” needs to be carefully considered, with honesty, by the public and by educators.

The particular skills and facts being tested are of little to no importance.  What is important is the ability to be teachable, the ability to learn, which requires a lot of maturation, determination, focus and effort.  The purpose of education is to create an adaptable person that can readily latch onto pertinent information and apply previous learning in new ways.  An educated person should have the skills to adapt to an unknown future, a future where they are empowered to make decisions about the direction of their own lives.

Absolutely none of that happens in a computer course.  The problems are static, scripted and the programs are full of basic “If-Then” commands.  If a student misses this question, send them here.  There’s no interpretation of why a student missed.  There’s no consideration of the student as a sentient being, but instead they are reduced to a right or a wrong response.

What do students gain from computer courses?  They gain those specific skills, the exact skills and knowledge that will serve little to no purpose at all in their lives after school.  But, they’ll gain those skills in a setting with a higher student-teacher ratio (fewer teachers, less students), and where the teachers need not know the subject or how to teach.  That’s right, it’s cheaper!

But the cost is enormous.  Students will be trained how to pass tests on the computer, but will not be receiving an education. They will not develop the interpersonal skills required to be successful in college or in the work place.  They will not develop as people.  They will miss the experiences that separate education from training.  They will be raised by computers that try to distill education down to right and wrong answers, where reward is offered for reciting facts and information without analysis, without learning to consider opposing points of view, without learning how to be challenged on what it is they think and believe.

Our youth deserve better.  They deserve more.

Not only that, our young teachers (and we have an increasingly inexperienced work force in education), deserve better support from within education.  Here in Arizona the attitude from the government is that the act of teaching has little to no value, certainly little to no skill, and that anybody can step in and perform the duties of teaching in a way that services the needs of young people.

And while those in education throw their hands up in disgust, they follow suit by finding quick, easy and cheap solutions to the ever-expanding problem of lack of quality education, especially here in Arizona.  Instead of providing meaningful professional development and support for teachers, teachers are blamed for their short comings.  Instead of being coached and developed, they are being replaced by something cheaper and quicker, something that is fully compliant.

I fully believe that a teacher that can be replaced by a computer should be.  I also believe that a computer cannot provide the inspiration, motivation, the example, mentorsing and support that young people need.

The objection to my point of view is that teachers aren’t being replaced, they are still in contact with students.  This is true, the contact exists, but in a different capacity.  Just like iPads haven’t replaced parents, the quality of parenting has suffered.  The appeal of having a child engaged, and not misbehaving, because they are on a computer, or iPad, is undeniable.  But the purpose of parenting is not to find ways for children to leave them alone.  Similar, the role of education is to to find ways to get kids to sit down and pass multiple tests.  Children are difficult to deal with.  Limiting that difficulty does not mean you are better fulfilling your duty to the young!

The role of a teacher in a computer-based course is far removed from the role of a teacher in a traditional classroom.  While students are “learning” from a computer, the role of the “teacher” is to monitor for cheating and to make sure students stay off of social media sites.  Sometimes policies are in place where teachers quantitatively evaluate the amount of notes a student has taken to help it seem like a student is performing student-like tasks.

Students learning on computer are policed by teachers.  The relationship becomes one of subjects being compliant with authority.

The most powerful tool a teacher has is the human connection with students.  That connection can help a student that sees no value in studying History appreciate the meaning behind those list of events in the textbook.  A teacher can contextualize and make relevant information inaccessible to young learners, opening up a new world of thinking and appreciation for them.  None of that is tested of course.

A teacher inspired me to become a math teacher, not because of her passion for math, but because of how she conducted her business as a teacher.  Before that I wished to work in the Game and Fish Department, perhaps as a game warden.  That would have been a wonderful career.  Consider though, over the last decade, I have had countless students express their appreciation of how I changed their thinking about math, how I made it something dynamic and fluid, something human.  Math went from a barrier, in the way of dreams, to a platform, upon which successful can be realized.  Those things happened because of human connection.

We owe our youth more.  They deserve better.

It is time to unplug.

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