Are the Lords of MOOC Creation listening? I doubt it, but let’s review this article at Slate by Annie Murphy Paul anyway:
Why would improved access to the Internet harm the academic performance of poor students in particular? Vigdor and his colleagues speculate that “this may occur because student computer use is more effectively monitored and channeled toward productive ends in more affluent homes.” This is, in fact, exactly the dynamic Susan Neuman and Donna Celano saw playing out in the libraries they monitored. At the [affluent neighborhood] Chestnut Hill library, they found, young visitors to the computer area were almost always accompanied by a parent or grandparent. Adults positioned themselves close to the children and close to the screen, offering a stream of questions and suggestions. Kids were steered away from games and toward educational programs emphasizing letters, numbers, and shapes. When the children became confused or frustrated, the grown-ups guided them to a solution.
The [impoverished neighborhood] Badlands library boasted computers and software identical to Chestnut Hill’s, but here, children manipulated the computers on their own, while accompanying adults watched silently or remained in other areas of the library altogether. Lacking the “scaffolding” provided by the Chestnut Hill parents, the Badlands kids clicked around frenetically, rarely staying with one program for long. Older children figured out how to use the programs as games; younger children became discouraged and banged on the keyboard or wandered away.
(I’m glad to hear that Chestnut Hill adults were so engaged with their young charges. I see and heard of computers and tablets used as digital babysitters even in middle-class homes these days. I suppose it’s to be expected that children’s use of the library’s computers was monitored and guided more closely than their use of technology at home, but I’m betting that there’s a $hit-ton of games and timewasting uses of computers in affluent homes; it’s just not the only uses that middling and affluent families have for their computers.)
Isn’t this what the old-school computer programmers called “GIGO,” or Garbage In, Garbage Out? That is to say that one’s use of technology is highly dependent on the non-digital skills and information one brings to the technology. Why can’t we acknowledge that loads of human guidance and interaction are still absolutely central to top-notch education? Oh, yeah: because teachers and professors are more expensive than laptops and software.
Slogans like “one laptop per child” and “one-to-one computing” evoke an appealingly egalitarian vision: If every child has a computer, every child is starting off on equal footing. But though the sameness of the hardware may feel satisfyingly fair, it is superficial. A computer in the hands of a disadvantaged child is in an important sense not the same thing as a computer in the hands of a child of privilege.
The focus of educators, politicians, and philanthropists on differences in access to technology has obscured another problem: what some call “the second digital divide,” or differences in the use of technology. Access to adequate equipment and reliable high-speed connections remains a concern, of course. But improving the way that technology is employed in learning is an even bigger and more important issue. Addressing it would require a focus on people: training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively. It would require a focus on practices: what one researcher has called the dynamic “social envelope” that surrounds the hunks of plastic and silicon on our desks. And it would require a focus on knowledge: background knowledge that is both broad and deep.
And, please: for the love of Dog, think before you give a tablet or computer to a child. I think the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours per day of screen time on any and all TVs and digital devices. That seems to me to be a ridiculous amount of time staring dumbly and a screen rather than running, jumping, swimming, tree-climbing, etc. Instead, give them books, paper, crayons, and other children to play with. Encourage play that develops both gross and fine motor skills, as well as social and emotional development and growth. Your children will likely spend enough of their lives interacting with screens and working with computers. Make them figure out how to play and work with real, live humans, who are so much less predictable than swiping a screen.
Where will their creativity and problem-solving skills come from if we never let children get bored?