What can computers teach that textbooks and paper can’t?

On Sunday, Matt Richtel publishing a terrific piece in the New York Times lamenting how schools are blowing billions on high-tech gewgaws, despite little evidence showing it helps learning. Richtel unearths lots of grisly facts: Study after study has found that many popular tech initiatives — such as one-to-one laptops, interactive whiteboards, and “clickers” — don’t necessarily correlate with higher test scores, and sometimes they correlate with lower ones. This hasn’t stopped schools from blowing tons of dough: The Arizona district of Kyrene has spent $33 million in tech since 2005, yet scores have “stagnated” even as those across the state have, overall, risen. Amazingly, Kyrene is nonetheless asking voters to approve another $46.3 million for school technology over the next five years. As one teacher in the district complains, “we have Smart Boards in every classroom but not enough money to buy copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizer.” Nice.

Richtel neatly points out the various forces that drive this trend. Some of it is fuzzy thinking in educational policy circles, like “engagement” — the idea that classroom tech gets kids inherently more excited about being in class, so it’s worth buying even if test scores don’t budge. Even more insidious is the private-sector problem. These school tools are made by for-profit firms who often seriously overinflate the value of their warez, and when they go out of business (as many do), schools wind up with tech that slowly breaks down and can’t be fixed. Richtel doesn’t address this latter point directly in his piece, but I’ve had teachers regale me with sad tales of $4,000 whiteboards that are left to gather dust after they go poof and the vendor has shuttered. The education-tech sector is a lucrative market, of course; about $10 billion a year in public money is spent on in-classroom tech alone, which brings out not just innovators but snake-oil merchants.

As you read the piece, you could be forgiven for thinking: Man, let’s just unplug the whole school system! Why not just take every penny spent on tech and spend it instead on real live teachers? They’re a “technology” the value of which we’re much more confident. What’s the matter with sticking solely with pencils, paper, chalkboards and books? It worked for centuries.

Except halfway through the piece, Randy Yerrick — an associate dean of educational tech at the University of Buffalo — makes the take-away point: The chief reason to use high-tech tools is when you want to teach in a fashion that has “no good digital equivalent”. Or to put it another way, only use computers in situations where you want to do something that can’t be done without them.

So the question becomes: What exactly are these things? What types of teaching do computers make uniquely possible?

As it turns out, I’ve been asking lots of innovative teachers precisely this question over the last year as I’ve researched my book. They’ve tended to agree on the same list of concepts, some of which are really interesting and not the obvious ones. (Google! Video!) For example:

1) Teaching complexity. Computers are great at teaching concepts that are hard to grasp when you merely read about them, or try to execute them with pencil and paper. Lots of math and logic falls into this category. Peer at the textbook all you want, but it’s hard to get a deep, mentally sensual grasp of what’s going on until you experience the concepts unspooling before your eyes.

For example, consider the behavior of complex systems, and the “butterfly effect”: How tiny changes over here can produce a massive change over there. Years ago, Seymor Papert pioneered the Logo programming language precisely to allow for this sort of discovery. (It in turn inspired today’s Lego Mindstorm programming language.) You can sit a kid down, and have her create a simple program for a robot — like “go forward two feet, turn 20 degrees to the right, go forward one foot, then turn 30 degrees to the left”. Turn the robot loose and, whoo-hoo, emergent complexity! Then you change one tiny part of the robot’s behavior — say, make the second command 10 degrees instead of 20. Turn it loose again and behold the dramatically different results. (Or you can be like even more ambitious, like these folks, and have a bunch of middle and high school girls design Lego search-and-rescue robots, which requires them to engage in incredibly methodical thinking about how to break down a task into components.) Video games, too, can be superb at teaching these “butterfly” lessons. I’m often hesitant to recommend video games as classroom tools — in part because they’re so rarely used correctly in classes — but almost every game is a complex system that encourages experimentation: Change one tiny piece of your strategy in Civilization (or, hell, your strategy in Tetris) and watch everything fall apart.

The point is, the bewildering complexity of systems is an incredibly important thing to learn if you want to navigate life. Ask any CEO who nearly destroys her firm by making a seemingly insignificant change in strategy, or any farmer tinkering with his crops. Yet complexity is also an extraordinarily difficult thing to teach using traditional books and paper — because the linear, written text isn’t the best place to apprehend the results of many different, subtle, if-then experiments. Computers, in contrast, are fabulous at doing this; it’s part of what they were invented for. This is why students should mandatorily be taught at least a bit of computer programming. Plus, coding inevitably leads you to making stuff that you can show to other people, which, as Papert points out in this paper (PDF warning), is a massive motivator for kids:

We all learn better when learning is part of doing something we find really interesting. We learn best of all when we use what we learn to make something we really want. The second big idea is technology as building material. If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things.

2) Seeing patterns in the world around you. Computers are also great at doing data visualization — helping students quickly see patterns in massive corpuses of data. This doesn’t have to mean big, scary number sets, by the way: Tools like Wordle let you do see patterns in text, like a poem or blog post. (That word cloud above is this very post rendered as a Wordle.)

In fact, one of my favorite data-viz examples is how this Spanish teacher had her students improve their writing skills by having them generate Wordles of their essays. The students could “see” their overuse of various rote phrases, because those words loomed huge in the Wordle. This, in turn, goaded them to use a more varied vocabulary: They’d plug each revision into Wordle and see how the number of overly large words shrunk. By the third draft, the class’ vocabulary usage had grown by a remarkable 30%.

Obviously, you can do this sort of word-counting and plotting with pen and paper; painstaking counting of word-occurrence in newspapers is how George Zipf discovered the Zipf curve. But it’s so much more sluggish to accomplish this without computers that the impact of the lesson evaporates.

3) Dialogue. Computers also let teachers and students have dialogues that aren’t easily possible in regular face-to-face formats. Learning how to get up and speak in class is a crucial skill, of course. But lots of teachers have told me that running an online class discussion — via an internal blog, or even a hash-tag mediated twitter stream — encourages far more students to speak out more often. Previously shy ones feel more free to contribute; others who normally “hate” writing sometimes begin pouring out a torrent of prose. Why? Because online dialogue is writing that has an “authentic audience,”, to use the lovely phrase of a group of New Zealand teachers who’ve pioneered the use of blogs in some very poor school districts.

This is a short and super-incomplete list, of course. But this is the way school boards ought to be thinking. They shouldn’t be blowing money trying to use tech to replace perfectly excellent old-school teaching techniques. They should be using computers to invent new ones.

And this doesn’t have to require much money. Arizona’s drunken-sailor spending to the contrary, the coolest classroom experiments I’ve seen used technology that was free or near-free, via open-source software and hardware and free web apps. Google Docs is a big one: There are obviously privacy issues with it, but virtually every teacher I’ve spoken to says it’s insanely useful without costing a dime. The same goes for free blogging, video and status-updating tools.

Even the hardware doesn’t need to cost so much. Hell, if I were running a school — and here is where I leap off the edge of my own personal flat earth — I’d buy only good-quality but inexpensive netbooks, then wipe the hard drives and instal Ubuntu’s Linux. (Or to really have fun, maybe I’d buy a bunch of these unbelievably cheap $25 Raspberry open-source computers; add a $100 monitor and $25 keyboard-mouse combo, and you’d have a desktop so inexpensive it almost wouldn’t matter if it broke.) And oh, yeah, clickers and whiteboards? Pffft. I’d round up an afterschool class of students interested in Maker culture and roll my own using Arduinos and Radio Shack parts, then open-source the design and watch as the world hacker community becomes a source for superb tech support and development. (There are already hackers making Wiimote-driven whiteboards, for example.)

The thing is, most of this classroom tech isn’t rocket science. And it’s fun to make! Schools that built their own tech with student participation would not only produce a crop of awesomely educated kids, but the school would control its own technological destiny, instead of being at the mercy of for-profit companies.

Granted, I’m undoubtedly glossing over innumerable red-tape barriers. School tech purchases have to satisfy byzantine state and local regulations of which I’m only dimly aware, and there are regulations in place requiring schools to rigorously filter the Internet; I’m not sure how if net-nanny software exists for Linux. But the point remains: The open-source pathway is a powerful and inexpensive one that schools ought to take as often as possible. There’s no reason to blow precious tax money on high tech that doesn’t teach.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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