Computers in Education

Computers in Education

Summary: Most educational software is, it seems to me, the teaching equivalent of the in flight movie -intended more as something to keep the demons quiet and in their seats than as something to help them learn.

TOPICS: Hardware
I've been trying to understand what role computers could play in education - and I've come up with a couple of answers I'd like to try out on you.

There seem to be two main functions that are applicable across almost all educational levels - the exceptions being pre-kindergarten and post-graduate. The two categories are:


  1. drill; and,

    Computers easily beat human teachers at jobs where the goal is to have the student repeat something to the point that he can no longer get it wrong. Teaching kids the basic times table, for example, involves repetitively asking "what's a x b?" and checking the answer.

    Similarly people learn to type, to correctly recognise and then hit notes on a keyboard, and to decline irregulars by having errors caught and corrected during repeated practice sessions -i.e. by drilling.

    On a more sophisticated level computers are very useful for language drills, especially with respect to reading and basic composition - and it doesn't matter whether the language is English or APL.


  2. examinations.

    There are examinations that can be given, and marked, entirely by computer - multiple choice and "fill in the blank" tests, for example.

    More interestingly computers can be used to distance the marker from the student for both assignments and examinations -i.e. student materials can be presented to the marker without external identification, thus reducing opportunities for both favouritism and discrimination in marking.

Notice that the OS and type of computer used makes very little difference to the educational value received by the student - for example, a language lab can be set up to allow pronunciation drill for twenty or more students sharing one teacher and whether the 21 sets of headphones and mikes are attached to PCs, Macs, or Sun Rays makes no practical difference to the effectiveness of the process.

There are differences, but they're related to school costs and system availability and not to the educational value of working systems - although, of course, systems which repeatedly fail frustrate teachers and forfeit student trust, thus reducing their educational value.

You'll notice that I've left out the overwhelming bulk of 'educational software' - stuff like this (from a blurb about something called "Zoology Zone - Raptors")


Zoology Zone is a series of three CD ROMs that provide young students an introduction into the world of raptors, bears and spiders. A mixture of audio-visual presentations (narrated mini movies), interactive learning activities, music, quizzes and games, are all designed to engage the learner and help them understand and retain the knowledge conveyed.

This review will be about Zoology Zone - Raptors. Zoology Zone - Bears and Spiders, are almost identical in structure, design and style to Raptors, which we are profiling here.

Zoology Zone is organised into five learning areas ("Zones") - All About Me, How I Grow, Where I Live, How I Eat and Did You Know which cover all aspects of the world of raptors. There are also tabs on the main screen to a library with internet links for extended learning, a glossary of terms, and direct access to all the learning games.

Within each zone, there are typically 4 to five sections which, if followed sequentially, will start off with an audio visual presentation followed by intereactive quiz games that test your knowledge and then interactive activities that will add new information/learning about the subject.

This sounds good, but my guess is that if we had information about student comprehension and information retention on products like this one, those numbers would be functionally indistinguishable from zero because this kind of thing is, it seems to me, the teaching equivalent of the in flight movie -intended more as something to keep the demons quiet and in their seats than as something to help them learn.


Topic: Hardware

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  • I agree about point 1

    Computers can be useful for training in things that can only be learned by repetition. However a computer seems an awfully complicated and expensive way to learn multiplication tables.

    I've found a computer useful for ear training, with a bit or practice one can identify that chord as a dominant with a flat five and flat nine. However if I hadn't already owned a computer then this wouldn't have justified its purchase. Also without a good music teach I wouldn't have known what a dominant flat five, flat nine chord was to begin with.

    I am less sure about the use of computers for examinations if what we are talking about here is multiple choice, and examination method about which I have profound doubts.

    I agree entirely that what hardware or OS computers in schools are running is entirely irrelevant. By the time the kids get to working age all that will have changed anyway, so you are hardly training them for life by offering them a particular OS or other software.
    • Beyond Multiplication

      Computers can drill students on any type of problem where the students must specify a correct answer. This would extend all the way up through the mathematical subjects as well as anything that can be quizzed in the form of multiple choice.

      I agree that multiple choice examinations are somewhat dubious. But so are the classic "show your work" examinations where the teacher marks you down for having a correct answer without the work shown in the teacher's edition.
      Erik Engbrecht
      • I'm not denying computers could be useful

        it is just that I think for most schools there is usually a cheaper, simpler, lower-tech, less complex solution available to fulfill these needs.
  • Not smart

    While I agree, still, with Asimov's defense of books over other media, the Wikipedia has really affected my view of computers profoundly. For example, I was rereading some horror stories by Robert E. Howard. Given his negative portrayals of the "Devil-worshipping Yezidi" I decided to look it up there. Among other things, I discovered that Melek Taus, who in "Dig Me No Grave" Howard limns as a Satanic figure, has a name which probably means "Angel of the Lord" and would be most offensive to Gnostics if Christians and Muslims were not so sensitive about monotheism.

    Two important skills which are undervalued right now by everyone except business leaders and serious educators are critical thinking and the ability to organize. Computers have lowered the cost of doing these profoundly. While a book remains the best random-access database there is, and I'm sure I could have dug out our old Brittanica for the same outcome, hyperlinks have exactly brought the benefits Ted Nelson promised to every schoolchild.

    Drills are overemphasized. They are good for teaching crafts but we also want to teach children arts and sciences. These require critical thinking. People remember things better when they have a use for them, that is a context. Further, as cited above, the need for essays in testing is something this whole No Child Left Behind madness is making harder to implement, not easier.

    Your choice of examples is provocative, but probably not in a manner you would prefer.
  • 3. Beyond Teacher's Knowledge

    This isn't much of a problem in elementary education, but computers can potentially teach particularly bright students materials beyond the knowledge of the teacher. This is especially true in math, where teachers tend to know what they have to teach very well, and little else. That's not as bad as it sounds. Advanced math skills require practice to maintain, and teachers simply don't get the practice, and their time could be better spent elsewhere.

    I know learning material from a computer that your teacher can not explain is less than ideal, but it is better than delaying the material until a teacher who does know it is present.

    Which brings up another advantage - teachers with special skills could provide remote assistance. While a single school may not be able to justify employing a teacher with an advanced math background, a district might.
    Erik Engbrecht
    • You'd hope so - but it isn't working

      So far distance education has been a total flop -even the best materials, e.g. those from mit, haven't had a significant impact.

      You're right, of course, about brighter students advancing past teachers - I once flunked a stats exam for saying chi square wasn't computable - and, yes, internet access can help those kids.

      What I'm not sure about is whether we shouldn't distinguish self-education from formal education. i.e. internet access is most useful for autodidacts (sp?), teachers and books are most useful for the rest of us.

      There are, furthermore, issues of student maturity here - a grade 4 kid reading Mathematicia notes is possible but uncommon, more commonly they're sitting through TV-on-the-PC "lectures" and retaining virtually none of it.
      • ROI

        Ok, I'm going to show my un-PC side.

        I actually think the educational system in the US is probably just fine for most students.

        That's not to say it's good - I just think for most people high levels of education are over-rated.

        What I'm concerned about are the children that could be our next generation of great engineers, scientists, and business people rotting their brains because there is only one of them for every 50 students. Children who are not only extremely intelligent, but also curious, highly self-motivated, and independent minded.

        These are the children that we need to be investing in, rather than at best ignoring. That's where our return on investment will be.
        Erik Engbrecht
        • Education, democracy and the free market

          I would say not only that people have a right to a good standard of education but a duty to take advantage of the opportunity so as to become responsible citizens.

          The free market in its classical sense is based on people making rational purchasing decisions for their own benefit. Without a proper standard education people will be unable to arrive at rational purchasing decisions and may just end up, for example, blindly buying Microsoft products because they are the most widely advertised (blindly buying Sun without considering why they are doing it would of course be just as bad).
  • What's the chance..

    of passing the exam?

    "There are examinations that can be given, and marked, entirely by computer - multiple choice and "fill in the blank" tests, for example."

    I don't agree entirely with you about the second point you make..

    If you choose to use a computerized multiple choice exam, then how can you find out if someone really learned something about a subject.

    Say, we have a multiple choice question with 4 answers; the first is true, the 2nd and 3rd are wrong and the 4th is almost true, bat lacks something.

    If you choose option number one, you'll get the full point, choosing the other options leaves you empty handed, even though answer number 4 was close to the mark...

    Now if you've followed college and studied, but you don't understand the subject completely, you still have a chance in a regular exam, because you must explain why you give a certain answer. If you must make a multiple choice exam, you could just as well buy a ticket for Las Vegas...
    Arnout Groen
    • Agreed - however...

      multiple choice does have a role - i.e. in quizes
      where you really want to get the student motivated to actually rtfm -or text as the case may be.

      Plus, you can use the computer to give regular exams, then have it pass the answers to you for marking devoid of student identitication. So you get all the essay answers to q
      • answer continued

        &^% zdnet's comment software anyway..

        "So you get all the essay answers to q"1 as a group, then you mark q2, etc - and you don';t know, except from internal stylistic or content hints who wrote what. Often, of course, you can tell anyway, but after marking 30 or 40 answers you won't care... and (heh heh) this method ensures that you don't have to deal with student handwriting!
        • Then tell me...

          what DO they teach children today?

          This sounds to me as that they follow a course of typing in kindergarden.. ;-)
          Arnout Groen
  • Children are people, and dislike dreary

    A problem with No Child Left Behind has been designated "teaching to the test". That means repeating a limited range of material until the children know it well enough to pass the test.

    For many children, teaching to the test requires full attention for the entire school year, with summer session, if possible.

    Parents (and children) are understandably impatient with this intense concentration on a small amount of material to the exclusion of everything else. they suggest enriching the curriculum with something - anything - beyond what's in the test.

    The difficulty is, what's on the test is the absolute minimum for any effective person to know. And for many children every minute away from what's on the test is a small reduction in the test scores.
    Have an enriched curriculum, and students fail in droves. And usually do not catch up.

    So Mr. Murphy's drill suggestion is another dramatic step toward teaching to the test. Now the teacher does not have to do the relentless drilling necessary.

    The only advantage is that the teacher may not dread coming to school quite so much as the students do.
    Anton Philidor
  • What makes a good teacher?

    Moreover what make Paul Murphy an Ed expert? Seems to me you've potted a sitting duck.
  • Computers in education

    That's one of the most clueless observations and spewing of absolutely nothing I've read in a long time. I can't believe the blog post was spotlighted in the ASCD Smartbrief daily newslisting. This person obviously has no clue regarding how computers could be used in education, the role in technology in teaching and learning, and the concept of how true interactive learning is built around communication and problem solving. This is a classic example of how useless blogs are. I expect the ASCD to flag better content.
    • Right on! The possibilities are immense.

      Not only is the post so limited in identifying potential educational roles as to be meaningless, some of the responses represent the worst of academic babble. Perhaps the primary reason is that of preservation mentality. A while back no less than Peter Drucker predicted the end of the university system as we know it as technology advances. He is right. I cannot predict how all this will evolve because useful application of computer programs has not yet found the ecomonic model to drive better implementation, but it will.
      Jim Salmons
      • Yes - the possibilities are immense

        but the reality is trivial.
  • Who are you people?

    I work in education, in fact I work very closely with technology in education. Drill work is not the very best use of technology but it is amazing to see children work very hard at math drills on a computer that they would moan and groan about if they were required to do the same thing on paper. Computers are noisy, interactive and fun and kids love them. In addition the tools for graphic organizers and data analysis cannot be beat.

    The one thing technology does best is encourage and teach higher level thinking. Young people need digital literacy skills, they need to be able to find, evaluate, analyze and organize information and technology is a wonderful tool for just that. It is still early in the development of technology in schools, they traditional move slowly but things are moving along.

    As far as testing, no test anywhere or time is going to be a completely accurate assessment, when testing with technology results are immediate. We often wait 6 months or more for results from state testing, by the time it is recieved it is not necessarily relevant. No one assessment should be the end all and be all but a variety of tools should be utilized.
    • I'ma WISE guy (NT)

  • How they are used is more the issue

    One could say, computers are just a medium in the end. How the teacher uses them is more the issue.

    For instance, what you are correctly characterising as 'drill' may be more generally described as an essential type of learning process to enable the learner to successfully attempt more complex tasks. Especially at University level, we have generally eroded the time and resources necessary for students to assimilate the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to undertake the now common 'authentic assessment' tasks. Computer based learning modules can help tremedously with clawing back some of the drill, worked example and other similar 'automation' processes (the terminology is taken from 'Cognative Load Theory'). But it won't happen, unless the more general learning setting is itself well managed by the teacher.

    And of course that is true of the other applications of digital media as well. I agree with another writer that digital media make available knowledge that the classroom teacher (or individual lecturer) could not otherwise command. It could be said that it's not very different from print reference material. But that would be ignoring the flexibility, economy, etc. of the access to the digital information.

    Not to mention that so many students have access to computers in the home. Well managed computer supported learning in the school (where issues of hardware and systems are pressing) are, or perhaps should be just a small part of the bigger transformation of learning, making use of the transfer between the home (or work) and school settings.