Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Modern Land of Laputa: Where Computers Are Used in Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Modern Land of Laputa: Where Computers Are Used in Education

Article excerpt

While the real world uses computers to move forward, schools often use them in a misguided effort to support 19th-century instructional practices, Mr. Morton charges.

In the 17th century, satirist Jonathan Swift described his hero, Gulliver, visiting a flying island where science and technology were primary functions. One would expect this land to be a very modern and progressive place. But Laputa turned out to be a limited place where nothing was ever accomplished, because its people, deaf to change, reveled in following the same ludicrous procedures over and over again. With minimal rewriting, this satire might well describe many schools today and their use of technology.

In the 1970s schools crippled the first stage in the educational use of computers by insisting that teachers learn BASIC as an introduction to technology use in classrooms. The teachers returned to their schools to find that they had no use for their training and, as is almost always the case, no time for reflecting on or developing new directions for using technology. Disillusionment quickly set in.

In the 1980s and 1990s we continue to destroy the foundation that would allow the development of educational uses of computers by defining the technological infrastructure in ways that discredit it, that mislead planners, and that provide ready ammunition for those who oppose such uses of technology. The new rush to fund computer systems through bond issues does nothing to alleviate the situation. Indeed, it may soon exacerbate the problems. It is time to take stock of these expanding mistakes, which are being perpetrated primarily by poorly trained educational administrators, particularly school superintendents.

Computers as `Tools'

The April 1987 issue of School Administrator, the official organ of the American Association of School Administrators, featured on its cover a computer and a pencil, as if the one were an extension of the other. Inside, the editorial confirmed this perception, and the "official" misconception of "computer as tool" was born, at least for administrators.

The concept of "computer as tool" misleads educational planners and relegates computer technology to the level of "supplies"--pencils, paper, pens, and paper clips. Because of this definition, school business managers and educational planners (particularly curriculum planners) conceptually align computers with traditional classroom "tools" that can be used as "alternatives" This view leads them to put computers on a cost continuum with pens and pencils and allows decision makers to reject computers as "expensive alternatives" to things we already use.

But that's not all. The concept of "computer as tool" allows the uninformed to make easy decisions about the use of computers in schools. It allows administrators and teachers to reject the computer as simply one "tool" among many, without having to understand what its capabilities for learning and productivity really are. The idea of "computer as tool" permits the ignorant to justify their decision to reject it.

Human beings were initially distinguished from other animals as "tool users." When anthropologists noted that many wild animals use tools, they changed the definition to "tool makers." However, once it was discovered that some wild animals make tools (e.g., chimpanzees strip twigs to dip insects out of their nests), humans became the "information gatherers and storers."

To suggest, therefore, that computers are simply tools entirely misses the point about their expanding capabilities and their interaction with humans. In the larger society, the computer is a symbol of the future and all that is good about it. We should not be surprised that educators would want to update their largely 19th-century practice by using computers as tools to support their efforts. But while the real world uses computers to move forward, educators too often look studiously backward, and Laputa is reborn. …

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