Russell D. Hoffman Discusses School Technology


Technology in the Schools

As presented by Russell D. Hoffman on his radio show HIGH TECH TODAY.

The following is based on a radio show broadcast on radio station WALE. The views expressed are solely those of RUSSELL D. HOFFMAN and do not necessarily reflect anyone else's point of view.

October 20th, 1995

Russell Hoffman, Host, High Tech Today

Hello, Ladies and Gentlemen and WELCOME to HIGH TECH TODAY. I'm your host, Russell Hoffman and today our topic is Computer Technology in the Classroom.

We're going to talk about what needs to be done to make schools better able to train our young people to meet the technological challenges that will face them tomorrow.

Let's face it: Schools are failing to teach our students not just the skills of technology, but the joys, and the hows and the whys of technology. What kind of computer technology do we need to be placing in classrooms? Why will it make a difference?

I think there is a significant misconception about what computer technology is and what it can do for the students. People equate it with the next step beyond TV's or Video or Film Strips. But computers are more than that. Those devices are all one-way. Computers communicate and that's a big difference.

Let me use an example. About 60 years ago one of the greatest inventions known to man became popular--the television set. TV is a great communication device. There are thousands of educational broadcasts of one sort or another each week. Yet, it has not been found to be a substitute for the classroom. Will computers be any different? YES!

The TV is a one-way device. When used in a classroom the children simply sit and watch at the pace the program was created. They learn only what the authors wanted to teach them. Computers do not work that way--they can be made to, and many software developers make that mistake--but that's not what the advantage is.

Computers, especially those hooked up to the Internet with a fast communication device, are self-paced, self-structured, self-timed educational devices. It's much more like having your own personal teacher than like watching TV.

Getting back to this example, some of the richest schools in the country have, for many years, put small TV studios in the schools for the kids to learn Television Production. This is good whenever it can be done, but I think many people see the placing of computer technology as equivalent. It isn't. For with a TV studio in the school, the children primarily learn TV production. But with a computer network in the school, they can learn anything.

Would anyone argue today that printed textbooks are an unnecessary technology? Of course not! Would anyone argue that students could learn just as well if they were forbidden to take notes because they had no pens, pencils, and paper? Of course not! Now, today, the computer is the textbook, the pen, and the paper. Not the weak, mangy computers they generally put into schools today, but powerful ones with fiber optic Internet communications capabilities and high-resolution text and graphics.

I have been backing the installation of high-speed fiber-optic communications into homes, schools and businesses for nearly twenty years. Until we do that, computers in the schools will not be able to accomplish a tenth of what they should be worth.

But what if they could? Bill Gates has been busy buying artwork around the world, and just recently purchased (with friends) the entire Bettman Archives. These historic pictures and photos are soon going to be distributed electronically, and if the schools have the high-resolution display systems, they will be able to benefit from accessing these images.

Of course, Mr. Gates & Company can pocket a few more billion because he had the money and the insight to buy these collections, but it will still be beneficial to tomorrow's students.

It has long been the dream that the vast texts of the Library of Congress would be available electronically and by golly, this is happening and will happen more and more. No school library need be thought of as small if it has access to the net. Millions of lines of print from hundreds of newspapers are added daily as are many historic documents. But access is the key here--free, or nearly free, unhindered access. One computer in a corner of a school library won't cut it for this reality to work.

Dozens of computers. The student of tomorrow should not be surprised to find that the school of tomorrow averages more than one computer per student--so pervasive should these things be!

Yeah, talk about MONEY. The killer of so many good ideas, the destroyer of nations. Where will the money come from? I ask you this: where will the money come from if we don't do it? Who will be educated enough in the schools of tomorrow to solve the complex problems of tomorrow if we don't do something about it today? Our nation, our great nation, is NOT ranked #1 in education--far from it. How can this be? It can be only because we choose not to be.

For if you look around, you know that we ARE still #1 in so many things--in software, in aerospace, in communications technology, and on and on. Can we afford to drop the ball for the nation's youth? Can we solve the budget deficit problem by creating a literacy problem instead? Can we solve it by cutting student loans and thus, student learning? Can On-The-Job-Training really solve all our problems? I don't think so.

Students of tomorrow are going to need far too much basic training before "OJT" can be effective. When Johnny Can't Read, he sure ain't gonna learn to program!

So are computers a panacea, offering a false hope of solving all the nation's educational problems but in reality being a money pit where schools waste valuable and precious financial resources with little to show in return? They can be, they have often been in the past, and undoubtedly they will be in the future. But they DON'T have to be. No less than a national effort to change the way things work is required.

With national purchasing policies in place pretty predictable price plunges are possible. Schools must insist on good prices for high quality equipment. The equipment must be powerful enough to run today's best applications quickly and tomorrow's applications as well.

And software developers must begin to create products that last. Don't be fooled by the term "Edutainment." The two ideas are contrary. One learns by doing, by being involved, by having an action result in a reaction. MTV, and TV in general, may spoil many things but children are born with a quest for knowledge. Through careful application of brain-numbing hoopla this quest is often killed before the child reaches second grade.

Is it MTV's fault? Yes, partially. It is also parent's fault who plop their kid in front of a TV just to get some peace and quite for themselves for a while. TV is a lousy baby-sitter. And it's also parent's fault for losing interest themselves. How many parents read to themselves, let alone to their kids these days? How many take an interest in the environment, in local politics, and in technology in general? (Hopefully all my listeners do, but who else?)

Like parent, like child. The sins of the parent are always vested on the child when the parent does the vesting. So look at yourselves--do you provide a good environment for your child to learn in?

I'm not a teacher, and I'm not advocating replacing teachers with computers or robots. But good students usually find out that even good teachers don't know all that much about a subject and bad teachers know even less. And that's OKAY. After all, who can know everything about everything and if knowledge is limited in many areas, as it must be for all of us, then some students will quest for knowledge in directions the teacher has not been exposed to.

This doesn't mean the teacher can't teach, because it is true now and will be more true later that teaching is largely a matter of steering, not rowing. The students row--they research their reports, dissect their frogs (virtually, I hope) and write their reports. In fact, those reports, if well written, teach the teacher. The presentation of those reports in class, to the other students, is one of the most important functions of the classroom.

Yet many times, only the student who did the report and the teacher ever see the result, and only they can benefit. Here is a place computers could help, for each student could be required to read every other student's report for class, with no copying or other expensive hassles and waste.

Each student could suggest two or three questions from their own research for the teacher to use on a test later, the test being a combination of all the student's questions about all their reports. Sure this could be accomplished without computers, but it's easier and cheaper with them, providing the class has a good local area network.

Right now, there are several projects to place entire electronic human cadavers online for students to study. The human body is the most fascinating thing in the universe and an endless source of study, of wonder, of amazement and of awe. But how many classrooms today can download the images (there are 10's of thousands) and then display them? Only a small percentage, unfortunately, and generally only the classrooms in well-to-do neighborhoods.

This is perhaps the biggest scandal of all. The poor students who most desperately need technology in the classroom--because they sure don't have it at home--are the last to get it! It's a crime, it's a national shame, and it's a dangerous policy. For the student without proper tools is just like the craftsman without proper tools--they are nothing. They produce nothing, they are worth nothing.

How can we as a nation be so stupid as to deny our youth the tools they need to survive in the world of tomorrow? Isn't it bad enough that we polluted their land, used up their natural resources, and left them with a staggering debt for products they never used? Must we also leave them ignorant as well? Or is that part of the plan--that they won't know what evil we've done to them when they can't even read the daily paper?

A hundred years ago slave owners were forbidden by law in some states to teach a slave to read. Now we forbid it by design--is there that much difference between our methods of keeping the poor person poor and those of yesteryear? And who are we hurting the most if not all of tomorrow's generation: For the uneducated, unproductive, unskilled, hopeless and homeless person of tomorrow will prey on the educated, productive, skilled person who has what the poor person wants. So no one wins.

There are some very direct inverse correlation's between the educational level of a society and the crime rate. The more the population is educated the less they turn to crime. So it helps everyone to see that tomorrow's youth are educated well and properly. Many nations offer free guaranteed education through college. Why don't we do that? Why do so many students graduate from High School unable to read at a third grade level? It's not their fault!!

A basic tenant of education, I think, is that when the process fails, it is the fault of the teacher, or the school, or the system, but it is NOT the fault of the student. When you explain something to someone, anything, to anyone, it is up to you to explain it so that they understand. If you do not use words they comprehend, then you, not they, have failed. Their only obligation is to inform you when they do not understand what you are saying. Then you must find other words.

So our nations failure to educate our youth is not the fault of the youth--it is the fault of society. It is the fault of the schools. We need to do something and we need to do it fast.

I think computers are the only hope that we have for really turning this situation around, but it must be done correctly. Computer theft in schools is increasing--this must be addressed. But computers must be part of the solution. No child can be considered educated today unless they have a basic knowledge of how computers work. It is as important as learning their ABC's and 123's. The emphasis should be on high-quality software and interconnectivity.

Students should be able to explore their world through the fiber-optic cable that runs out of their desks and all over the planet from there. Access must be fast, reliable, and there must be lots and lots of stuff for them to find as they explore. There is.

We've had on this show, many guests with Internet web sites, we've had fiber optic companies, we've had modern school librarians. Next week we'll have someone from the MIT Media Lab, and we will continue to explore these issues in future shows. Let's work together to make tomorrow be the future we all can envision and not the future we all, at this point, might expect and are rightfully afraid of. There are so many tasks that clearly need to be accomplished.

Colonization of the moon and other planets. Clean-up of toxic waste sites. Reduction in the levels of violence on TV, in the movies, and most of all on the streets. Juries that can understand scientific evidence presented to them. Voters who vote for their planet and not for their wallet.

Together we can change the world--together we WILL change the world--but into what? It's our choice and if you think your vote doesn't count, think again. Your vote, and your voice, control the politicians and the bureaucrats, the money makers and the money lenders, your voice writes the laws and tells the lawman what to do. So don't just sit there, communicate! Ask Washington for answers! Make them set a policy we can live with!

Join us again next week on High Tech Today when we'll retract half the statements we made on this week's show, and add yet another layer of asphalt to the information superhighway! I'm your host, Russell Hoffman and this has been HIGH TECH TODAY. THANKS FOR LISTENING.

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