Hi-Tech Education Controversy

The handsome redbrick building, its flag snapping in the breeze, looks every bit the traditional schoolhouse.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 26, 1996

Hi-Tech Education Controversy

The handsome redbrick building, its flag snapping in the breeze, looks every bit the traditional schoolhouse. For the past two years, its double doors have welcomed a fresh crop of children, and within the next three weeks, yet another 450 students will pour through them, ready to fill the school's windows with a new batch of watercolor paintings and construction paper cut-outs. But beyond the amateur artwork, the classrooms at Heritage Park Public School in Scarborough, Ont., will be anything but conventional. Each child, starting in Grade 1, will be invited to open a private INTERNET account; those in grades beyond are already seasoned users. Every teacher's desk will sport a personal computer; every classroom will be wired for seven more. In science classes, students will be equipped with state-of-the-art video cameras mounted on microscopes, enabling them to film tiny amoebae and squirming bacterial colonies - and relay the images on TV sets around the school. Across the hall in technical arts, students will have access to a library of multimedia CD-ROMs, which they can shoot into their hard drive for a virtual lesson on anything from drafting to woodworking. "Our goal was to make technology a vital part of life in the classroom," says Brian Steen, the principal who combined a special $100,000 provincial grant, and price breaks from several high-tech corporations, to make the school one of the most highly wired in the country. "We wanted to really integrate technology into the school day - into how kids communicate, how they think and how they learn." (see COMPUTER-ASSISTED LEARNING)

While Heritage Park may be miles ahead of other schools on the information highway, Steen is hardly alone in his unabashed determination to put technology at the head of the class. Exactly 50 years after two American professors unveiled the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator, the world's first digital computer, a vanguard of educators from Vancouver to St. John's is plugging into a new generation of electronic wonders - and turning their classrooms upside down. Who needs teachers dominating discussions, they ask, when students can get all they need to know from the World Wide Web? Who needs exams, when the real trick is figuring out where to surf for the answers? In fact, who needs schools when kids can work from a laptop at home? "We are right now faced with a critical choice," says Thérèse Laferrière, a professor of education at Laval University in Quebec City. "We can preserve schools as they have been for decades. Or we can rethink them entirely, and in the process, transform our students into the masters of a world that is coming our way whether we want it to or not."

But while advocates describe a future of exciting possibilities, technology's critics are busy computing the social and educational cost. "There is an unspoken assumption that technology is an unmitigated good - that its many benefits simply must outweigh any possible negative effects," says Richard Rosenberg, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Byte by byte, say Rosenberg and others, we are letting technology chip away at the integrity of public education. The anarchic Web of wonders, and CD-ROMs in which dinosaurs teach math and rabbits teach reading, they maintain, are turning schools into glorified game parks. Children, meanwhile, are morphing into antisocial egotists, parked in front of high-tech boob tubes that are stunting their critical faculties and sapping their creativity. And as corporate Canada lines up to offer technical expertise and cut-rate deals on its well-labelled products, others worry that lesson plans are quietly turning into corporate training sessions - or thinly disguised pitches for the latest computer gadgets. "There is a prevailing notion that technology is the answer to our problems, rather than a tool for the choices we need to make," says Maude Barlow, co-author of last year's best-selling book Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada's Schools. "In fact, technology is a choice, and it is one we must debate vigorously".

With the battle lines drawn, governments appear to be having little trouble choosing a side. Alberta, which has cut $224 million from public education since 1993, announced in February that it will invest $45 million in classroom technology over the next three years. After slashing $400 million from schools last March, Ontario doubled its commitment - to $40 million - to a program that matches private sector investments in public school technology. Only six months after piloting a unique CD-ROM-based Grade 9 math curriculum in 16 schools last spring, the four western provinces are taking it to almost every high school in the region this fall. And as classes ended in June, New Brunswick completed a three-year, $23-million drive to connect every public school to the World Wide Web.

Ottawa has been equally determined to launch Canadian schools into cyberspace, often with help from major corporations. Since 1993, Industry Canada has spent roughly $25 million to create the unique SchoolNet system, working closely with provincial and territorial governments as well as such companies as Bell Canada, Unitel and Apple Computer. SchoolNet now links almost half of the nation's 16,500 public schools to the Internet - and each other. And in an ambitious bid to keep Canada in the express lane, the secretary of state for science, research and development, Jon Gerrard, presented a $13-million cheque to the founders of the TeleLearning Research Network last November. Linking more than 125 researchers at 28 universities, its goal, in the words of network leader Linda Harasim, is "to figure out how technology can be designed to transform Canadian students into hooked-in, lifelong learners."

According to advocates, that will require a fundamental over-haul of how classrooms are run. Teachers, long parked at the head of the class, must now move into the passenger seat, where they will observe, coach and accompany their students on the giddy ride down the information highway. "We don't even call our teachers 'teachers.' We call them 'learning consultants,'" says Michael Maser, co-founder of the Virtual High Learning Community, a nonprofit private school in Vancouver. "And we don't like to be called a 'school.' We think that is a throwback to an archaic age of corralling young people and imposing a curriculum on them."

Established in 1993 in a refurbished Victorian mansion, Virtual High has 35 students. All but one or two have their own personal computer, and every student works closely with three full-time staff and countless on-line tutors. Many of those are affiliated with the Vancouver-based Open Learning Agency, a sort of virtual university that offers its own high-school and postsecondary courses by computer. Other mentors are found simply by surfing the Net. Either way, students hook up with authorities out in cyberspace who collectively know vastly more than any traditional teaching staff could ever hope to.

Even many public schools are urging kids to thumb a ride on the information highway. This past spring, Brad Pilon, a senior student at Nelson High School in Burlington, Ont., received help with a major research paper on a rare form of diabetes from experts at Hamilton's McMaster University. Using a so-called chat line, Pilon regularly posted questions for pathologist Del Harnish and his graduate students. Every few days, they fired back answers. "The subject is new, and hard to find in any books," says Pilon. "Besides, you can't ask a book questions."

But what else do students learn when teachers step to the sidelines - and sophisticated software or faceless pedagogues take their place?"Setting children in front of computers for long periods of time is a dangerous notion," says Rosenberg. "To do that is to replace real human contact, with all its good and bad features, with a medium in which students forge a major part of their identity by interacting with a nonhuman agent."

Adept at making technology a part of their school day, children may not be learning how to include their fellow students. "Forming a dependence on computers means replacing the guidance of the teacher with a focus on the demands of the individual student - with what he wants, when he wants it," insists American educational guru Neil Postman, author of Technopoly and The End of Education, both energetic critiques of technology. "Ultimately, that means failing to pass on important lessons about subordinating individual needs to group interests."

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that not everyone considers such subordination a bad idea. Last September, 50 students in grades 4 to 9 enrolled in a virtual classroom at John D. Bracco School in Edmonton. The students worked at home, making the most of CD-ROMs and the Internet, and were connected by computer to teachers Doug Troock and Ken Whiting. Some were already among the 25,000 Canadian children who are home-schooled - a number that has grown by 20 per cent over the past five years. But others were first-time home-schoolers, skipping class because technology made it possible.

Among them was Grade 7 student Jennifer Skirrow, whose mother, Kim, says her daughter was "too distracted" in a regular school setting, "moving from class to class, taking time to settle down, and then moving on again." Now, Jennifer sees her peers in a physical education class every second day, at school dances, and as a member of the basketball team. Troock, meanwhile, says that he knows his virtual students better than any in his 26-year career. "In a regular classroom, the behavior of a few bad kids can take up a lot of time. Now, I'm more involved with their real learning."

But even in a conventional classroom setting, many experts insist that computers can transform how kids learn. Marlene Scardamalia, a professor of applied cognitive science at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and a member of the TeleLearning Network, is currently conducting an experiment with students in grades 5 and 6 at Toronto's Huron Street Public School. As part of their history and science curriculum, each student is assigned a topic to research within a broad unit of study. Using a patented software program called CSILE - the Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment - each student inputs his research into a vast shared web that is accessible to everyone on their personal computers. As they build their own files, the children browse the communal web, writing comments on each others' work, posing and answering questions, and suggesting theories for things that others find difficult to explain or understand.

The result is a wide-ranging, original database co-authored by the entire class - and an apparent refutation of the claim that technology turns kids into antisocial geeks. "Now, I think about not just what I need to understand," says Grade 6 student Jonathan Clark, "but what we need to understand." Scardamalia says the software "shows the potential of technology to transform students into knowledge builders." Her claim is clearly impressing educators elsewhere: in the past year, school boards in Australia, Finland and seven American states have begun using her program. "What we're ultimately trying to create," says Scardamalia, "is classrooms that mimic the communal learning culture that experts live in all the time."

A similar experiment, on a larger scale, is unfolding on the nationwide SchoolNet system. A student-friendly web-within-the-Web, it links kids with experts in various fields, as well as with students and teachers across the country, and there are plans to bring every Canadian school on-line by 1998. The 16,500 schools currently hooked up are already co-operating to create hundreds of projects. Among them is a nationwide asthma study, originally launched by Eastview Community School in Red Deer, Alta., which is aiming to track the family histories and nutritional habits of students who suffer from the affliction. In Sackville, N.B., meanwhile, Marshview Middle School has organized a project called Blue Print Earth, in which kids work together to identify major environmental problems and suggest strategies, and scientific inventions, to solve them. "This is not a textbook approach to education," says Doug Hull, director general of science promotion at Industry Canada, which co-ordinates the SchoolNet project. "It's hands-on and it's relevant."

But is it educationally sound? Not according to some parents, who see the mad rush onto the information highway as one more capitulation to so-called child-centred learning, which they say puts kids in the driver's seat - and the three Rs somewhere in the trunk. "High-tech is the latest educational panacea," says Malkin Dare, founding president of the Organization for Quality Education, a national agency whose members include parents, teachers and school board trustees across Canada. "First, it was open classrooms, then new math, then the ditching of phonics," says Dare. "Now, everybody jumps on the bandwagon and says sitting kids in front of computers will solve all our problems. When it doesn't, of course, we will all wake up to find they haven't learned the basics."

Or worse, perhaps not be able to think for themselves. That is the fear of Sherry Dingman, an assistant professor of psychology at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and a specialist in how the brain functions. Dingman notes that multimedia technology - which often delivers its message with a combination of music, pictures and interactive elements - is filtered through the right side of the brain, whose chief job is to process visual information. And because humans have long been able to trust what they see, that hemisphere absorbs data relatively uncritically. Meanwhile, the brain's left side, which handles verbal and written language - and, says Dingman, "thinks more discerningly and reflectively" - is underutilized by such technology. "I have watched four-year-olds, who I know cannot read, navigate their way through an educational CD-ROM," says Dingman. "They're playing it, it's very engaging. But none of the words are going in." The long-term implications, she insists, are sobering. "If we educate kids this way," says Dingman, "critical, analytical thought may well be on the decline."

That situation infuriates author Robert Bly, whose recent book, The Sibling Society, is a searing indictment of a culture in which, he claims, adults are failing to guide children to maturity. "TV was the mental thalidomide of earlier decades, and multimedia computers are the thalidomide of the 1990s," says Bly. Obsessed with teaching children computer literacy, he says, we are failing to impart the old-fashioned kind. "Children are literally becoming incapable of thinking in the sense in which it involves being inventive with words and text, creating their own images - mining the energy of their minds," says Bly. "It's a lie to say learning is fun - a lie to get adults off the hook for the hard work it takes to teach them a love of words and language."

But such critics may themselves be seeing only one side of the story. After teaching high school for 27 years, Brenda Pfaus began a new career as a specialist in technology-assisted learning at DVS Communications, a multimedia development firm in Ottawa. She insists that students are better able to retain learning experiences that involve sounds, pictures and interactive opportunities. According to Pfaus, people retain about 10 per cent of what they read, half of what they see and fully 90 per cent of information that is gleaned through interactive participation. "You can employ people to do all that complicated interactive stuff," says Pfaus. "But it's much cleaner and cheaper to let technology do it for you."

According to Seymour Papert, author of the best-selling book The Children's Machine, it is no coincidence that kids show an affinity for multimedia technology. The reason: its visual, playful way of presenting information imitates the preschool world of learning. "Babies learn to talk without curriculum or formal lessons," notes Papert. "Social behavior is picked up through other than classroom instruction." With their emphasis on action and interaction, computers reclaim some of the fun that is inherent in early learning.

For those who face the real work of educating children, making the task more enjoyable is an appealing notion. "Teachers have two main complaints these days: that kids are difficult to discipline and that they are difficult to motivate," says Ken France, a computer consultant and teacher at Waterloo Elementary School in Waterloo, Que. "But when students are given the chance to make computers an important part of their school work, those problems tend to disappear."

Teachers on the leading edge of high tech agree. "In the 1980s, this was a school in decline," says vice-principal Fred Durant of I. J. Samson Junior High in St. John's. Determined to turn things around, school administrators invited officials at Newfoundland Power to become active partners in steering I. J. Samson into the high-tech age. Since 1992, the company's parent, Fortis Inc., has donated $28,000 - and Ottawa, an additional $88,000 - to make the school one of the most high-tech in Newfoundland. A team of experts from Newfoundland Power, meanwhile, trained teachers, while other specialists showed students how they integrated computers into their own work.

Four years after launching the partnership, absenteeism at the school has dropped 40 per cent, while the proportion of students graduating into the advanced high-school stream has jumped 20 per cent. Durant credits a good part of that turnaround to the power of computers. "Technology is just an incredible motivator for kids," says Durant. "Why? Why is Nintendo so successful? Kids are just fascinated with technology. That makes it a wonderful teaching tool." And he has little patience for those who say learning should be a difficult affair. "So what if computers make school fun? Through the back door, teachers are getting students to learn."

And in some cases, to profit handsomely. Trevor Johnston, about to enter Grade 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, is enrolled in a program run jointly by the school and a local company called Knowledge Architecture that has linked 40 schools in British Columbia and Ontario with mentors from such firms as Northern Telecom and Corel. Over the past year, Johnston, 17, has parlayed his industry connections to find part-time, high-tech work with Samex Mining Corp., Carmelita Mines and IMA Resources. His job: to create Internet home pages on which customers scan industry trends and check the value of their stocks. His reward: stock options that have so far netted him $12,000. "Find an area to pursue, and figure out how technology can get you there," says Johnston, "and you'll see school paying off."

Whether Johnston's is a success story or a cautionary tale depends on whom you e-mail. "We are a society drowned in information and starved for purpose," says author Barlow. "It is that starvation that public schools need to address." And she holds little hope that corporations will be the ones to help do that. "Ultimately, companies have to care about the bottom line. As a result, they see students as pre-workers, and schools as training grounds." With corporations footing a good part of the high-tech bill, Postman worries that educators will be reluctant to criticize them. "To be anti-technology at this juncture would be as foolish as being anti-food," says the author. "But no matter how crucial technology is to our lives, we have to be able to feel free to question the motives of those who produce it, who develop it and who own it. An important part of what schools do is help students pose those questions."

Those who are helping to underwrite the transition to high-tech learning show little patience for such sentiments. "The long-term interests of our company and our province demand that we make an investment in the social fabric," says Geoff Emberley, manager of strategic planning at Newfoundland Power. "That involves making education relevant to the work world that kids will one day enter." Even many educators see few alternatives but to welcome corporate Canada into the classroom. "There just isn't sufficient public money," says Penny Milton, executive director of the Canadian Education Association. "And as long as it doesn't become a direct attempt to sell anything to students, I don't see a problem."

In an era that is defined as much by a fixation with deficits as by a fascination with technology, both are almost certain to shape the future direction of public education. But whether governments, industry or educators lead the way forward, what has been a slow but steady evolution is poised to become a technological - and educational - revolution. "Three years ago there was no World Wide Web," notes Laval's Laferrière. "Three years from now, high-school graduates may well have a Web page of portfolios along with their diplomas. The timeline is incredibly tight; the possibilities, incredibly exciting." In a fast-track world, the only guarantee is that classrooms will never be the same.

Maclean's August 26, 1996