Salmon Kahn Khan, of Khan Academy not-really-fame-YET, thinks that we should switch schoolwork and homework around. James Joyner is skeptical on the basis that it robs kids of even more of their childhood the same way homework does*, assisting only those that have the stable environment that likely will have them doing well anyway.

I’m not entirely sold on Khan’s idea, though I think it’s one that is worth exploring. I think it’s one of those things that would fall into the category of changing how we’re doing things. If you were to go forward with this, I think that you would have to look at either (a) shortening the school day or (b) having workstations where they watch the videos while at school. For instance, splitting half the day into consumption and output. Given how untenable shortening the school day is with parents’ work schedules and the like, I think that you’d have to go with the latter plan.

What the video, Joyner’s post, and the ensuing conversation got me thinking about it is virtual-ed and computers in the classroom. If you’d asked me a year ago what I thought about “computers in the classroom”, I probably would have rolled my eyes. It’s a gimmick. It’s a way for school districts to ask for more money for the latest toys. When I was considering graduate school, I was pushed towards Instructional Technology due to my IT major and education minor. One of the reasons I doubt I would have gone that route is because I was (to say the least) unsure about its core mission.

This is one of the biases that actual fieldwork has brought into question. The different schools in the Redstone district have different ways of doing things. Some utilize computers with a lab, some with computers in the classroom (and maybe a lab, too), and some not-at-all. There are three layers to teaching, as near as I can tell: maintaining control of the classroom, keeping kids’ attention, and then educating them. You can’t get to the second layer without passing the first. You can’t get to the third layer – the ostensible purpose of schooling – without passing the first two. To say the least, it’s hard. At least in K-8.

But one of the things that completely astonished me is that classroom order for even the most unruly class becomes nearly a non-issue once computers enter the equation. The same class that I have inordinate amounts of difficulty keeping focused during a lesson or cooperative exercise are suddenly pounding away at their keyboards with the interactive lesson on the computer. And it really doesn’t matter if the program itself is strictly educational (as in an exercise to identify European nations, not play Where In Europe is Carmen San Diego). Part of it is that they know as soon as they finish, they can move on to the learny-type games** that are more fun. If they get questions wrong, they have to go back over it. As best as I can tell, almost all of the incentives are pointed in the right direction: stay focused (if you’re chatting with a classmate, you won’t finish), get it right (or you’ll have to repeat the lesson), and behave (if you’re messing around on the computer, you get a boring worksheet).

Two schools in particular had great programs set up so that as soon as you finish your regular coursework, you were to go to one of the computers or to the computer lab and complete educational exercises. From a teacher’s standpoint, this is golden. You know why teachers give out busywork? To keep kids busy. There’s nothing worse than having ten minutes left in a class and everyone having finished their work. The schools incentivize their computer time with rewards for the more exercises they finish. Whatever they’re giving out, it seems to work. And it provides incentive for the brighter kids to keep learning more.

Which brings me to what I think is perhaps the best thing about the potential of computerizing education, which is individualized instruction. Web and I have both complained in the past about our frustration that the class moves only as fast as its slowest students. One solution to this is tracking, but even within tracked classes you run into variations of the same problem. Even among kids of similar aptitude, you have some that will figure out this lesson quickly but then struggle with that one and others where the reverse is true. Letting those that pick up quickly on one lesson move on to the next is not only good at keeping them busy (and becoming 30-something bloggers complaining about what school was like two decades ago), but good with keeping their minds going and allowing them to go further than they otherwise would. This takes most of the more controversial aspects of tracking off the table. The kids track themselves. Pretty much the only objection here would have to involve outright admitting that you don’t want the smart kids learning anything if the dumb kids can’t learn it, too. Besides, letting the faster and even middling kids take care of themselves (for the most part) allows more resources to be devoted to the slower ones.

There are two other primary objections to going “too far” with computers in the classroom (by which I mean replacing human instruction with computer instruction). First, it separates kids from one another. Second, it’s all part of an attempt to screw the teachers. Tackling the second one first, even if we expanded virtual schools, I doubt that teaching itself would ever become redundant. I, for one, would always want to make sure that there is the option for kids to be taught by teachers in a traditional classroom environment. Most of the time, parents will want the daycare that comes along with school (and many the socialization). So teacher’s roles might change to more of being a supervisor first and tutor second, but to some extent the education establishment has already decided that this is the case with more focus on adolescent psychology than on subject matter. So this is, in a sense, a completion of that aim.

Beyond that, look… I don’t have any particular animus towards teachers. They educated me, after all, and I work with them day in and day out. Most are great people. It’s not with any great enthusiasm that I would suggest a path that could (eventually) put their current job (or job description) in jeopardy. But if there is a better way of going about it involving computers that either produces better results or saves money… well, welcome to the modern age. As I say, I am skeptical that all teaching opportunities would evaporate, but it could become something that much fewer people do. And schools could become more selective. We always talk about how we want a better group of teachers, right?

On socialization, to say that I think it’s overrated is an understatement. Some days I wonder if K-12 socialization isn’t a net negative, where a lot of us have to spend more time unlearning what we socially learned in K-12 than it would take to simply learn through less intense exposure. But even if I’m wrong about that, there’s no reason that the kids can’t go off to a school and still spend recess, lunch, PE, and so on together. Except for group exercises, socialization detracts from education. When they should be learning, they’re talking. Second, even if what I believe about negative socialization is mostly wrong, there are kids for whom it is right. It doesn’t take but two or three kids to hijack an entire classroom. And sometimes kids with other kids is a bad combination.

A while back I was talking to an instructor at the local school for hardened kids. He was talking about how a lot of the kids just need structure, some get worse, and some he wonders why they ever arrived in the first place. Sometimes, you take the kid out of a particular environment and the problem just disappears. If a parent is worried about negative influences on his or her kid, allowing them to be removed can help and a lab with a computer is a place to move them to. To some it sounds dreadful, though for me it would have been heaven as often as not. My friend Clint got three days of in school suspension once where all he got was the days assignment. Best three days in high school, as far as he was concerned.

Except on the cost front, there aren’t too many people “against” computers in the classroom, though there is a contingent to make absolute sure that we don’t rely too much on them. My concerns could not be further from the opposite. Redstone’s schools have a decent half-way solution on a shoe-string budget, but I think that if we are going to do this, let’s really do it. Or try and see what happens. To me, a worst-case is where we are supplying all of the computers with a laptop – which is costly – and not changing the way that we do things – which is also costly. If it doesn’t work, I will be the first to admit it and change my mind. I’ve already changed my mind once, after all.

* – I am of a mixed mind on this. I hear enough complaints about the enormous amounts of homework that kids get that I think that there must be some truth to it. And I am against homework in general. On the other hand, my limited experience suggests that a whole lot of the homework is self-induced. They have time to work on it in class. They choose not to. As someone that would try to race through the coursework so that I didn’t have homework, I kept wanting to ask “Do you really want to have to do this at home?!” And I did ask and the answer was always yes. They didn’t say so, but the reasoning was obvious: at school, they’re surrounded by peers. At home, they’re not.

** – Like Carmen San Diego. Before you laugh, though, I learned far more about European geography through Spies in Europe than I ever did in school.

Category: School

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5 Responses to Computers in the Classroom

  1. Mike Hunt says:

    During the Dark Days of SNL, the 1994-95 season, they had a sketch called “Where in the World is San Diego, California?”

  2. Maria says:

    “Where in the World is San Diego, California?”

    La Republica del Norte Mexico, of course. (Sorry, I know it’s naughty, but couldn’t resist.)

  3. Maria says:

    Regarding computers in the classroom, my girl did much of her math this year in a self-paced online program. It seems to have helped her math a lot, and she got an “A” in it for this quarter.

  4. ? says:

    Khan, not Kahn. Sorry, I know it’s pedantic.

  5. trumwill says:

    Well, I got it right on the link, at least!

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