Education Week published a discussion between middle school teachers, Dina Strasser and Bill Ferriter. Are computers and the Internet more a distraction in classrooms than a benefit?

Dina Strasser selects a couple of books for support of her localism. One suggests that classroom computers and the Internet engender short attention spans putting in doubt “whether they [students] can stick with a good novel”. She also references a book suggesting that computers limit the focus to only a couple of the senses and impede “interaction with the environment through the senses.”

I’m going to focus on those two alone.

Personal experience doing programming (something mainly restricted to computing) has shown me that I can completely focus for long periods of time, surfacing from my work only to realize hours have passed. Of course, not everything done with a computer requires such focus. Reading the headlines of a newspaper has been considered a good use of time by several American generations, even if they have read only a few of the articles from beginning to end and done even less research to study the background of the story. Today’s interaction with the Internet might be seen in that light. Indeed, if a student should start with a short headline from the Web, it is actually much more possible that a student will follow supporting links and dig deeply to find answers that the initial story doesn’t cover. That would have been difficult with a newspaper, unless a student happened to be in a well stocked library and a supportive reference librarian.

The second concept, that computers limit us to two senses, is very oddly placed right after the suggestion that long term focus on a good book is more valuable than flighty focus on the Web. It might be argued that a book limits us to the sense of sight, and the focus on book pages is even narrower than the focus angle of a computer monitor. Now, I’m very much in favor of reading. I love to sit and immerse my imagination in the story line of a good novel and its characters. On the other hand, I also enjoy taking a long walk with my dogs. I don’t read during those walks. I listen for the birds, watch the clouds chase across the sky, feel the crunch of snow beneath my shoes, smell the breeze, feel the wind in my hair (what remains of it, anyway). On some of my walks, I am even able to get tastes of berries and edible greens which grow along the route. I love the chance to engage all my senses.

I would not trade the walk for more time absorbed in a book nor more hours focused on getting a program just right. Each of the tasks is independent. Each of them contributes to my personal development options. Each of them enriches my experience (education) in ways that the others do not.

Spending six hours in a classroom might also be blamed for restricting students from fully experiencing their local environment, walking along the hillsides with an educator, looking at the edges of the layers of protruding shale. I would actually think it was the responsibility of some educator at the school to do that field trip instead of talking for one or more class periods about how important the political and science issues are.

Localism might entail gaining a rich personal experience of ones yard, town and surrounding environs, but it might also be used to justify “following local norms” which has been a euphamism for things like not allowing children to dance, or worse, segregating one ethnic group from all others.

No matter what the topic is, no matter what tools are used to implement a lesson plan, it takes teacher effort to effectively use the tools to engage students with the topic. New tools aren’t always the answer. It also doesn’t make sense to ignore new tools if they enhance students’ chances to learn a complex topic. It also means that the teacher needs to know the tools so as to judge their effective use. Sadly, I’ve observed many teachers who fail to grasp many forms of technology. Overhead projectors, slide projectors, math manipulatives, 16mm projectors, purple master duplicators and their proper uses come to mind. The computer, the Internet, word processors, etc. are just the current technology challenge.

If cost of technology is the overriding issue, then teachers and the schools for which they work should seek to minimize the costs to both the schools themselves and the costs for students’ families trying to provide computers as educatonal tools. One way to do so, is to encourage use of software which provides freedom of choice, freedom from lock-in and in most cases freedom from cost. I’d recommend all teachers, all schools find what Free/Open Source Software meets their real needs and promote the use of those tools, making computers more flexible by making the cost of the software not be a barrier to implementation. Software costs using proprietary products, can easily exceed the cost of the actual computer hardware. Using FOSS not only reduces cost, it encourages wide exploration to find and implement just the right software to get a lesson accomplished.