Why remaking the wheel each time is a bad idea

Being able to type an email is an aid to efficient communication - and leaves time for other things

Gordon Milne’s remark, “There is little need for the use of a computer in day-to-day education” (see letter below) is reminiscent of Digital Equipment founder Ken Olsen’s remark, made in 1977, “There is no reason for anyone to have a computer in the home.”

Today’s adults are hardly dependent on home computers. Most can still produce a handwritten letter. But being able to type an email is an aid to efficient communication — and leaves time for other things.

Why write, in your best copperplate hand, complaining that your power bill is wrong? How much more persuasive is a printed letter, accompanied by your own, correct, version of the consumption graph on your bill?

“Google this (or that) is not going to teach you the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic,” says Milne. His comment reminds of my daughter’s, “Can you do this query for me, Dad? You know where the ‘ands’, ‘ors’ and brackets go.”

But a good search engine can teach you that (A and B) or C is not the same as A and (B or C). Interestingly, some of our “informed” spokespeople, who speak on issues of the day, seemingly never learnt this skill — either that or they know how to argue fallaciously and don’t expect anyone to detect the deception. Skills of logical inquiry and argument are as basic as the Three Rs.

My daughter could type her name on a keyboard long before she had the physical co-ordination to write. It’s called “chunking” and it’s a basic learning technique. Making graphs using the computer teaches children how graphs work, without their necessarily having the skill to handle coloured pencils. That skill can come later.

I use a keyboard and calculator for the same reason I don’t make my own cooking pots: we can’t be good at everything. It’s fun to try occasionally, but when speed is of the essence (What time’s dinner?) it makes sense to use the product of someone else’s skill.

Just such a lesson was provided by the children at Wellington’s Brooklyn primary school using their new Tablet PCs in a traffic experiment (which Mr Milne mentions). When data goes past at the speed of a car, pointing a stylus to a box, rather than scrawling a number on paper, makes sense.

While Milne appreciates teachers might need computers to do their job, he apparently doesn’t want to allow children to gain those skills early.

And the shaky technique of writing with a stylus on a Tablet PC? Master it and you might manage a better credit card signature.

Tablet PCs and ‘dumbing down’ risk

So, teachers are to get notebook computers and kids are to learn to write using a Tablet PC (Computerworld, July 31).

This whole exercise appears to have little to do with education but a lot to do with selling more computers.

I think employees should have the tools necessary to do their jobs and, given that assessment takes up so much time, it makes sense to equip teachers with tools that make entering results less error-prone.

However, does every kid in a class require a personal Tablet PC? I hardly think so. A news story on TV3 a few months back showed kids using Tablet PCs. I was surprised at how awful the PCs were. The kids were “writing” on the PCs but the electronic ink lagged (very badly) behind the path of the stylus. What kind of handwriting will these kids have? Probably very poor handwriting.

There is little need for computers in day-to-day education. It may be nice to use Google Earth to see where you live, but Google this (or that) is not going to teach you the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Education is about learning: learning about the world around us; learning the basic skills to help us get started in the adult world. Most of all, education is about learning how to learn. Learning is not typing, “How do I do ‘X’” into a search engine. Education should be about teaching people how to think.

Computers are just tools and, like all tools, have appropriate uses. While they may look a bit like a universal spanner when it comes to information, they are not “universal thinking” or an education tool.

The last paragraph in your article says it all. A wonderfully designed form was created to capture data for a database. What a waste of time!

Kids doing this kind of survey should stand outside with clipboards and pencils, and make marks on sheets of paper. They should then transfer the results to the white/blackboard. After that, they should draw, on paper, their own little bar chart showing the results and then colour it in.

They would learn so much more doing it this way. Using a computer teaches kids nothing. The move to the ICT-based classroom is frightening; we are in danger of dumbing-down the next generation.


Gordon J Milne

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