Do Computers Belong In Schools? (A debate augmented with personal history)

Lately I’ve ben forming my own view on the debate over whether computers belong in schools or not. Actually it doesn’t seem to be much of a debate; it’s more like a bunch of people champion the cause incessantly and see any soul opposed as a Luddite who wants to impede progress. Even laypeople who have no idea there was any debate will say, “Well, of course computers belong in schools” when asked. While I am not quite ready to form my own concrete opinion, the issue has gotten me thinking about the role of computers in my own education. Their role is a rather obscure one, actually. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I can remember school computers helping me learn anything significant.

The first time I used a computer for education-related purposes was for a research report on knives that I did in third or fourth grade. At the time I was attending Japanese school and simultaneously being home-schooled. The computer, my dad’s Compaq tablet PC running Windows 3.1, served only as a way to write my report down - all the research was done in encyclopedias or other books books around the house. The report turned out to be barely a page long, but the whole process was very enjoyable. My mom even took pictures of the event.

I didn’t use a computer in an actual school until sixth grade. Despite the level of technological sophistication associated with Japan, there was not a single computer in any classroom in my entire public elementary school - not even on a teacher’s desk. In sixth grade, however, I moved to the US and my private Christian school had a computer lab full of obsolete DOS computers. This was 1998, and the school had a lab full of machines that still ran Paratrooper, Wheel of Fortune and original Oregon Trail. Incidentally, playing games was the only thing I remember doing with them. That year the school decided to buy new computer equipment and organized a jog-a-thon to help raise money. I dutifully sent a letter to everyone on my Dad’s Rolodex, explaining that I needed sponsorship to help pay for new computer equipment. I had no idea what the school would do with new computers (Organize Marathon LAN parties, perhaps?), but I was definitely going to help them get some! After all, it was progress!

I started middle school at a private international K-12 school in Japan, and they were all about computers. They had a typing lab workgroup of Mac Color Classics with At-Ease, and another full lab with Power Macs, two iMacs and assorted PCs running mainly Windows 95. This was when I started using the computer for just about everything. Using computers became more of an obsessive compulsion for me than anything else. I literally got joy just from being around them. Sure, I spent a lot of free time exploring the Internet, but I typed up a lot of papers, did a lot of research, created some fancy presentations and taught myself a great deal of software. My parents had bought me a second-hand laptop that ran Windows 3.1 (in 1999), and I taught myself how to do some elementary programming in BASIC on that machine. The majority of my on-screen time, however, was spent on entertainment, whether that be playing SimCity 2000, browsing the Web for pictures of sweet sports cars, or playing Yahoo! Pool.

I took a number of computer-related courses throughout high school, among them AutoCAD, Computer Applications (basically MS Office), typing, and Yearbook. Of those classes, I have completely forgotten CAD (most of the screen time in that class was spent on Yahoo! LaunchCast and MSN Messenger) and nearly all of Microsoft Access. Almost all the stuff that was covered in Excel, Word, and Publisher I had already taught myself in middle school. Typing, a middle school class, was spent (in Mavis Beacon, of course!)playing a grocery bag game that taught me how to use a keypad, and a race car game that just reinforced the ability to type a bunch memorized phrases quickly. I learned how to win at the game; not how to type. Yearbook class was spent on Apple eMacs running Adobe Photoshop CS2, and that has proved moderately useful, even four years later.

So the computer applications courses were moderately successful at best, but what about the forays of other school subjects into the computer world? What about the English projects, the social studies collaborative efforts, and the science research? For the most part, completely forgettable. I remember one time, junior year, when a mobile laptop cart with Apple iBooks (that’s twenty-five laptops at about $1300 each) was brought in for English class. My teacher spent the whole class period teaching the students how to log in and open up Word and the Internet. That was what we did for forty-five minutes. By the time the teacher had trouble-shot everyones problems, the period was over. I had been using Macs for four years at this point, and I spent the time by helping those around me get set up. Who knows if they remembered how to do that stuff when the cart came around next month for another lesson.

The second half of my senior year revolved around completing an interdisciplinary comprehensive project about a global issue affecting our world. I chose to compile research, design a school-wide survey, write a thirty-page portfolio report, and give a twenty-minute oral presentation on the effects of violent video games on popular culture. By the end of the semester the words out of nearly every teacher’s mouth at the beginning of class was “Go to the lab and work on your Comps.” That, literally, was the plan for the day. Sit in front of a computer, do research, and write your report.

Heck, I thought, I can do that from home. That would save me transportation time and costs, lunch money, the potential distraction from peers, and the hardship of waking up at seven every morning. I could wake up at nine, take my time getting ready for “school”, plop myself down in front of the family Dell for a few hours, play some video games (Unreal Tournament 2004, ironically) if I got bored, and still accomplish more than my peers did in the same amount of time. They just seemed to always be socializing in the lab, browsing one another’s shared iTunes libraries or whatnot. School was the place where I got less work done.

So, back to the original question - do I think computers belong in schools. Well, apart from the technology courses, I don’t remember my learning being enhanced by computers per se. They made everything all professional and snazzy looking, and certainly made research easier (though I graduated high school not knowing the Dewey Decimal System) but I don’t know if I necessarily learned better. I certainly don’t think I would have learned less if computers hadn’t been around, however.

I think it is rather hard to justify pouring money into computers that will be obsolete in three to five years. Not to mention having to deal with all the headaches over access privileges, privacy controls, and software upgrades. Sure, a school should have a computer lab, but should we extend that to giving every kid a computer? Should every classroom even have a computer? Can’t that money be better spent elsewhere? Judging by my own history of computing in education, I think so. On top of that, apart from the specialized classes I took, I taught myself nearly everything I wanted to know about computing . Learning about operating systems, basic programming, installing software, using graphical user interfaces, word processing, desktop publishing; all these things I learned by myself. I didn’t need a “general computing” course or anything like that. I was naturally inquisitive. That’s what I think the major role of computers in schools should be - to let kids get acquainted with them on their own time. I spent hours upon hours, both before and after school, hanging out in a computer lab puttering around on an iMac. I didn’t need formal instruction, and I don’t think kids these days do, either.


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Regret, Insecurity, and Buying Girl Shoes

In his book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz notes how human beings hate to recognize taking personal losses. He points out that, in fact, we hate to lose so much that we often resort to irrational behavior to offset the psychological distress suffered when we experience a loss. He illustrates this point with a story about buying a nice sweater, only to discover later that it didn’t fit as well as he thought. He kept the sweater in his closet for months on end, despite his unwillingness to wear it, unable to part with it because it had been expensive. I laughed at the story. Haven’t we all had moments like that in our lives?

The most memorable example in my history was when I was in eighth grade. It was around the turn of the millennium, when every middle school boy who was “cool” owned a pair of skate shoes, regardless of whether or not he actually owned a board. At least in my view it seemed that way. I desperately wanted to be cool, and I saw skate shoes as my ticket to the good life of being invited to video game parties, being in on in-jokes, and extensive communication rights with eighth-grade girls. But first, I had to convince my mom that I actually needed the shoes.

American skate shoes -they had to be Vans, in my case- were usually imported to Japan and, as a result, were not cheap. Up until then the most my mom had ever spent on shoes for me was ¥7110, for my first pair of ASICS soccer cleats. A pair of Vans typically went for ¥9500+, so clearly I had a lot of begging and pleading to do.

After a lot of searching and plenty of skeptical looks from my mom, I succeeded in convincing her to purchase me a pair of uni-sex Vans for ¥7800. I nearly died of anticipation over the weekend because I couldn’t wait to wear my new Vans to school the next Monday.

I strolled into first period like I had just stepped out of a Rolls at the curb, cooly deposited myself into a seat in the back of the room. I sat there with a huge grin on my face, and everything was good until Andrew turned around and saw me. Andrew wore skate shoes AND actually skated, and to me was the epitome of eighth grade “cool”. He had already pretty much reached his adult size by seventh grade, excelled in sports, and had no shortage of girls who wanted to talk to him. He took one look at my Vans and snickered, “Hey, you know those are girls shoes, right?”

“No they’re not,” I retorted, “They’re both.”

He looked at me like I had just told him that Thailand was in Europe.

“No dude, they’re girls shoes. You’re wearing girl shoes.”

And then he laughed. I shrunk down in my chair, completely mortified. Regardless of whether or not they actually were “girl shoes,” the fact that who I thought was the coolest guy in my class thought that they were girl shoes meant that they were. And if I continued to wear them, everyone else would soon also know that I wore girl shoes. I was wearing girl shoes. My weekend quest to find the perfect shoes had resulted in girl shoes.

I walked around school for the rest of they day wishing that I wouldn’t walk. Wishing that I could innocently tread over a land mine that some malicious soul had placed under the hallway carpet. At least if I was in a wheelchair, I wouldn’t have to worry about people making fun of my shoes.

The school day couldn’t seem to end soon enough. As soon as the last bell rang I sprinted home -a twenty-second dash, as I lived in the school dorm at the time- to change back in to my familiar, worn Wal-Mart sneakers. The Vans were thrown on shelf and sat there for most of the year, shunned during my attempt to slowly recover from the psychological loss. After all, they were the most expensive shoes I owned! I couldn’t just get rid of them!

I finally screwed up enough courage to part with them and gave them to a girl who was a year younger than me who also lived in the dorm. To this day I haven’t bought a pair of shoes that were even close to the price of those Vans.

So what about you, dear reader? Do you have any such stories in which you held onto something expensive that you never used out of fear of the guilt that you would feel of you ever did get rid of it? Did you eventually do so? Or do you still own it? I want to hear your stories!


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