RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Let’s throw computers out of the classroom

I have a proposal to improve our K-12 school systems, saving money, time and frustration, and probably improving overall education to boot. Rip out all the computers. Take them away. Throw the cutesy game-style education software into a Dumpster. Keep just enough to stock a programming lab, a keyboarding classroom, and to provide a couple in the library for special research. The rest-out with them.

After years of struggle to acquire networks, computers, software, printers and all the other trappings of high-tech, schools are in as bad a shape as ever. Computers haven’t caused the problems, but they haven’t helped, either. The millions of dollars we’ve spent on computer stuff have given us a graduate population that can type, play games and surf the Web. Only one of these is a saleable skill. None of them teaches students to think.

Worse, computers can blunt education all by themselves. Computers force teachers into the role of service technicians, because-unlike the private sector, which might have ratios of support personnel to users of around 40-to-1-schools might have ratios 10 times that high.

Even worse, in some districts, teachers have been cut to free up budget dollars for technology. All with highly questionable results. One study in New York from 1997 showed a small benefit from technology in the classroom. Another one done in Germany in December 2004 showed computers can actually retard educational achievement.

The fact is the mania to wire every classroom has resulted in no consistent improvement in education. We have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide, in school systems that have to put off buying new textbooks or hiring teachers so they can park hardware on desks.

Putting a computer in every child’s hands has proven to be a sure way to increase plagiarism and playtime. Maintenance costs have proven far higher than anticipated. All for practically nothing. The popular image of the high-tech wunderkind is a myth. Most kids can turn on the computer, run games, write e-mail and find chat rooms. Beyond that, most are lost. If you expect to find high school graduates who have already mastered Excel’s formulas, you’re going to be sifting resumes for quite a while.

I’m not the only one to comment on this absurd situation. Clifford Stoll is the author of “High Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian,” which is a scorching indictment of computers in the ordinary classroom. He’s no knee-jerk computer Luddite. Stoll is famous for tenaciously tracking a German hacker group through the early Internet, which is recounted in his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg.” He has a doctorate in astronomy and teaches the subject to children. He is amazed when kids would rather look at a star map on the Web than gaze at the night sky itself.

I know what he means. I teach statistics to undergraduates at IUPUI in a computer program. I tell my students every semester that, while they might use computer software to get their answers, that’s not enough. To know statistics, you must taste and feel the data. You can’t interpret data by running it through Excel.

Yet every semester, students do exactly that. Getting an answer is what they’re conditioned to do. They haven’t been taught to ponder. They can get outlandishly ridiculous answers, yet still hand it in solemnly expecting it to be right. They haven’t really thought about the problem at all. Education, as Stoll points out repeatedly, is hard work and can’t be shortcut by a computer, a calculator or anything else. But computers send the opposite message.

Of course, school systems might argue that kids need some computer training to be good employees today. True. But those are skills that can be taught in a few specialized classes. So can programming, network administration, and all the other technical skills, the way they always have been.

The fact is, contrary to early expectations, few of our children will earn their livings as programmers or network administrators. All will need English, critical writing, math, science and even art, history and music.

They need to be taught how to think, participate and synthesize, not how to surf the Web and click the buttons on screens of “education software.” We need teachers, textbooks, gymnasiums, field trips and stimulating coursework. We need kids working in teams, the way they will in the business world, not crouching alone in front of a monitor. Web pages about butterflies cannot replace watching them in a field.

We are now heavily invested in computers in our schools, both emotionally and financially. But it’s not too late to admit that we got carried away and for us to retreat to solid ground. Toss out the computers and pay teachers a living wage with the money we save. Find out whatever each child does well and encourage him to do it even better.

For both our children and for us, there is no shortcut to educating a child. It’s time we stopped deluding ourselves and them.

Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.