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Technology in Schools

There's an interesting series about technology in schools in Milwaukee (part 1, part 2, and part 3) and it inspired me to an edditorial as well as some thinking about the subject. Actually the <a href="http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/08/23/0032216&tid=146&tid=103">discussion on Slashdot</a> probably got me more inspired.

Technology in schools is something that I've thought was a great idea for a long time. A lot of that comes from my high school times where I had a computer at home (Apple II knockoff) and had to share time at school for a CS class, which was less than fun. In college I studied computers and always wished that I could have a laptop, a dream that came somewhat true in graduate work at ODU. I worked for the power company and got a laptop from them to use for remote work. So I took it to class and the Norton Editor, running in DOS was how I took notes in quite a few classes. I've also got two kids in public school, and I've seen a little of how computers are used there as well as at home for assignments.

And I've kind of changed my tune. I'm not sure that computers are a great idea in school, at least for most tasks. Granted as a technologist, computers rules lots of my life and I use them everyday. Actually my job, as a web publisher in a virtual company, wouldn't be possible without computers. I definitely type more than I write in many cases. If you've ever gotten a handwritten note from me, you might argue that this is a good thing.

A computer is a tool. That's all, like a phone, and while it does help you complete some tasks quicker, it isn't the end all be all in terms of moving through life and learning things. In schools I think there are times and places where computers are handy and they help out. My oldest was in the Cherry Creek middle school system in Colorado and every teacher had a computer in their room. The ability for them to take attendence, enter grades and assignments, and communicate with parents I thought was a fantastic use of technology. I think that students can benefit from using computers to type papers, especially as working with manual typewriters and white out isn't a skill they should need in the future.

But writing is a skill and I don't think my 2nd grader should be getting out of it. I think learning to write, take notes, handle the listening and writing at the same time is a great skill. Language is an important part of his education and I think computers can abstract us away from language with shorthands and the lack of the imprinting that occurs when you write things down.

I do think my 7 year old should be exposed to computers as their use in terms of email, writing essays, etc. is pervasive. Checking onto a plane and applying for a job at your local retailer all seem to require some computer skill these days and that's good. But the computer in primary school, probably at least through 4th or 5th grade is a helping tool, limited to perhaps some basic testing intrigued and might want to do some programming, but they are the vast minority. For those kids they might get a laptop or get the opportunity, but for most kids I think the basics of education are important.

I do think somewhere about the time middle school starts, 5th grade perhaps, kids should get some keyboarding instruction and start to learn to write essays on the computer. However, they still should perform library research and learn to write rough drafts. Those skills are important. Part of them is also the mistake making process. If you know that writing the wrong thing results in a redo or an effort to erase and correct, you slow down a bit and think a bit more. It's only natural and that's a skill in an of itself.

School is not the place for super efficiency and results. It's a place to make mistakes, try things out, and teach yourself a little about what works for you.

I do think that simulations to explain concepts, like Chemistry, math, biology, can be done better on computers. And having a teacher show those is a nice use of technology, but I don't think that kids should be thinking that the Web is the answer for everything because there is too much unvetted information. Nor should they be spending vast amounts of time on email and IM. We have too much of that as adults, myself as guilty as anyone, and middle school is still the time to be interacting face to face with friends. It's also the time that learning you need to wait until school is out or homework is done before spending time with friends is something parents should control. Allowing someone to work at the comptuer with IM and email available is a bad idea. Kids will get enough of that later. A little patience won't kill them.

Technology in both middle school and high school can be a great asset. I'm not sure if Powerpoint presenations are better than the hand created ones I had to do, but testing could be done on the computer in quite a few subjects. Anything with an essay could be put onto a computer, perhaps a few computer testing labs that are shared by all teachers and scheduled to allow every student to take an online test. It would make things easier for teachers to grade and eliminate the sloppiness that sometimes occurs, but you'd have the whole I-can't-type-fast-enough problem from some people. And if the computers were down then you'd have to have a fallback plan.

The more and more I read about this the less I'm convinced that computers help. They can assist teachers, and I do like that kids are sometimes shunted to a computer while the teacher works with others because these days the teacher-kid ratios are not great. But that requires and needs some education and research on how and when to incorporate the comptuer into the lesson. Not as a babysitter, but as a way to provide additional education that a teacher is too busy to provide.

The Voice of the DBA

Steve Jones is the editor of SQLServerCentral.com and visits a wide variety of data related topics in his daily editorial. Steve has spent years working as a DBA and general purpose Windows administrator, primarily working with SQL Server since it was ported from Sybase in 1990. You can follow Steve on Twitter at twitter.com/way0utwest


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