Computers for all students?

As a parent with two kids at school I get to see first hand how education happens in this country. I’ll say “happens” and not “works” because I really don’t think it works very well.

As such, even in my near driven to insanity boredom of Election 2007 the rapid wafting sounds of hot air rising about education caught my attention. Slipping into a coma was delayed by another day. The words computers and education were mentioned in the same sentence, an oxymoron if there ever was one.

I was first introduced to computers back in the 1970’s as part of a special maths class or something. It was cool and fun working with punched cards and writing programs and has been part of my life ever since. There has at least one computer in my house, used every day, for the last 26 years. I used the internet, as it is now called in 1987, and had my own website, for supporting people with milk allergy, in 1993. I have also seen computers move into education over this time, from being a user to a parent. And as an engineer they have been an important tool for myself and my customers.

And IMHO it’s all a load of crap. You might call me a cynic however I’d prefer skeptic. I simply am yet to find any evidence that using computers to teach is any better than using training people. Even when computers are only used as tools I’m not convinced. As such the latest Labor bribes to the electorate for a computer for every student to me seems like a $1Bn wasted dollars. It follows what I’ll now call “Nigel’s fallacy of computers”.

Here’s what generally happens in the world. People buy a computer, then get software and then work out what to do with it. Most people seem to do this. It’s stupid but that’s humans for you. Rudd’s little proposal is just a one billion dollar version of it.

Of course it makes life easy for marketing as with good techniques you can get people to buy nearly anything and computers have had a fantastic profit margin, they are expensive and they only last about 3 years before deemed to be useless. It’s a vibrant part of the economy.

However the fallacy is that this is not how good tools develop or are chosen. The requirement for a tool comes from an unmet need, not a glossy brochure. In you mind insert a cartoon here of a caveman looking at the glossy brochure for a wheel.

When it comes to computers the correct way to buy one is to work out what task you want, the software to support that task and lastly the hardware to support the software.

For example, lets say the task is to add content to Myspace so your friends , and possibly others, know something more about you. Access to Myspace requires a browser and that will require a certain hardware, most likely not leading edge.

If on the other hand you want to make DVD movies of birds you film in the wild then the software will be quite different and require a much more powerful computer.

Using this model is there any place in Labor (or Liberal for that matter) education policy of the function these computers are used for? No. Funny about that. And are the teachers whose function is to teach shouting out for these computers? No. Now I’m not saying that we don’t need any computers because they are truly handy for gathering information and making presentation neat however is this money wisely spent? Is there a measurable outcome with targets in educational achievement? Will increasing computer availability from 25% to 100% deliver anything in basic education? Probably not. It will make sure that students can use Word, Powerpoint and a browser but I seriously doubt it will help many kids to think. It wont inspire them, it wont motivate them and they sure as hell wont teach kids anything without a corresponding increase in teacher numbers.

Both parties are complaining about skills shortage, something that was foreseen decades ago when the soon to be retiring baby boomer’s skills and experience was seen to be rapidly disappearing to an early retirement and neither party listened to the experts pointing out the serious changes to the demographics that was occuring. Nope they listened to the post-modernist airheads with their vacuous rantings about a whole range of new subjects and equal time to equal views who had taken over the education departments. We lost the mathematics and science teachers who started their careers in the 1950’s and as a country we still have a chronic shortage of these teachers and students studying these crucially important subjects. It all seems a bit hard to learn about mathematics and science these days, why do something a bit easier? A so the kids did.

Here’s a suggestion Kevin, halve your spend on computers and put $500 Million into more science and maths teachers. Now that’s a compromise, I’d rather no more money was spent on PC’s and all the money goes to teachers but even I realise shiny computers win votes when you are preaching to the scientifically clueless and not the people who actually educate our children, the teachers.

Here’s a link from the Australian covering some of these same views I found after posting this.


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