Contrarian finding: Computers are a drag on learning (CS Monitor)

The Christian Science Monitor ran this article yesterday on a new German study that suggests “too much exposure to computers might spell trouble for the developing mind.”

Among the conclusions discussed in the article is that performance in math and reading among students who have access to more than one computer at home is significantly diminished. Apparently, home computers “seem to serve mainly as devices for playing games.” And playing Halo and Call of Duty every night doesn’t improve reading comprehension and algebra skills. Shocking.

Okay, so the article grudgingly admits a “few exceptions.” Apparantly, “academic performance rose among those who routinely engaged in writing e-mail or running educational software.” Again, shocking. Students who play games on home computers realize no educational benefits, while those who regularly use the computers to write and explore educational software excel. Um, isn’t this a no-brainer?

I’m also sort of uncomfortable with something that rarely seems to get discussed in this kind of article. Isn’t it hard to measure educational performance? Isn’t this measurement something that is debated regularly, aside from the issues of technology in the classroom? Is it possible that since we’re now relying on a new tool for teaching, we need to be evaluating and assessing student success differently? Why do we assume that the old paradigms of measurement work when we’ve changed the vehicle for delivery and communication of information?

I should admit my own personal bias: I think measurement of educational success is a loaded issue. I have a healthy skepticism of any standardized test, and I balk at sentences like “those who used [computers] several times per week at school saw their academic performance decline significantly as well.” How did they measure this decline of “academic performance?” Is it possible that if they had measured or tested for something else–some new kind of intelligence or skill that computers encourage–they might have gotten different, positive results?

Finally, the article mentions that these are the kind of results that the Waldorf schools love to hear. For those of you unfamiliar with the Waldorf system, these schools to not expose their students to computers until the 11th grade. I’m sorry, but (in my personal opinion) this is dumb. Like it or not, computers are here to stay. They are a necessary and undeniable part of our culture. Their presence in our lives will only continue to grow. Let me say that another way: Computers are not going away. Now, if the Waldorf schools think it’s beneficial to deny their students access to this integral part of their world, fine. But I feel sorry for those kids.

Frankly, I’m sick of the debate about whether or not computers are good or bad. Computer aren’t good or bad, they just are. And they are here to stay. Rather than bemoaning that fact and hiding our heads in the sand, why don’t we try to embrace them. Find ways to integrate them into our world so that they enhance our quality of life. Use them with wisdom and care. Accept the fact that they have changed our world forever, and as a result they have changed the way we think, learn, and interact with one another. Stop expecting to be able to interpret and control this new world based on how we used to live, and, instead, find ways to understand and accept where technology is taking us.

Okay. I’m done.