Make computers available to students in school, the story goes, and we will improve education for students. So, we have put computers in our schools. And what happened?
Despite wider availability of computers in some schools over the last two decades, there is little hard evidence of computers increasing student achievement. The results from the numerous studies are mixed, showing no clear positive impact. Why?
A big problem seems to be how computers are used. At the moment, computer literacy is the goal. This is an additional task for teachers, an additional subject for students, and ends up being more work for everyone.
Something is wrong with that picture. Computers are a tool. Computers are used to achieve a goal. Given a task, computers improve productivity on that task.
Here the task is education. The goal should be making teachers' jobs easier, making it easier for students to learn, and increasing student achievement in measurable ways. Little else matters.
Computers in the classroom certainly could help with menial or boring tasks. Some parts of student education involve rote learning. Some parts involve critical thinking, social interaction, and collaboration. Computers could speed instruction on some of these tasks, allowing more class time for others.
Where could computers help most to increase productivity? In math, computers excel at helping children with drills and mechanics, which would allow more class time for harder problems requiring problem solving strategy and collaborative problem-solving. In language, computers could assist and speed up the repetitive tasks of grammar and vocabulary, allowing classrooms to spend more time on the more social areas of group discussion and writing.
This is not how computers usually are used in schools. Computer labs usually are separate rooms, which the kids visit occasionally. The lab is a drain on the resources of the school, creating more work, not less, for teachers.
Focus on the goal, not the computer. The goal should be to increase teacher and student productivity and raise student test scores. Computers should serve that goal. Where they help, they should be used. Where they do not help, they should not be used.
So, where should we expect computers to help? Where could computers increase teacher and student productivity? What instruction could be better done with computers? And what instruction should be done with computers?