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Computers Versus Books and Paper in Schools?
Rick Garlikov

I was generally disappointed and distressed by School of Education Edwin Delattre's narrow vision (Bostonia Winter '98-'99, Number 4) that the most important job of every school is the teaching of reading books (not computer screens), and the second most important job is teaching speaking and writing, particularly writing by hand (including penmanship), not typing on a computer. 

I, myself, would have thought that the most important job of every school, at least with regard to cognition of the sort Dean Delattre discussed, is the teaching or fostering of 1) understanding, 2) evaluating, and 3) communicating ideas -- no matter how they are transmitted, including multi-media as well as oral or written forms, and no matter how lengthy or brief they may be. Being able to read books well is only one form of receiving ideas or information. But the mere unevaluated absorption of written material is insufficient. And it does not guarantee one can evaluate or work effectively with those ideas any more than any other form of communication by itself fosters reasonable reflection or nurtures wisdom. Dean Delattre's article was in print and was not particularly long, yet it was logically flawed.

With his emphasis on the handwritten word versus the typed word, he might have followed the logic of his own analysis to call for schools to teach the reading of handwritten manuscripts rather than printed books -- with "digital communication" being relegated to what can be accomplished wrapping one's digits around a pen. Had Lincoln written the Gettysburg address with a laptop, had one been available to him, would it have been any less significant. Or is it the dean's contention that no significant work can be composed on a computer. That would be a difficult contention to justify, I would think.

And I do not understand the logic that books somehow transmit a genuine reality that is superior to the supposed virtual reality of computers. That sort of claim reminds me of my mother's repeated concern while I was growing up that I was, or would become, anti-social because I often preferred the company of good books to dull people. I had thought good books were social in that they provided me with the companionship of some of the finest people, whether near or quite distant in either time or space. And I think that communicating with people around the globe via e-mail and web pages is a part of reality. Finding and enjoying kindred spirits is at least as important as associating with physical neighbors with whom you may have little in common. And unless one is talking about activities that require contact or at least proximity, such as basketball or ballroom dancing, I don't see any reason to accept a hierarchy of "reality" that places propinquity at the top and slides down through the printed word, the telephone, then tv or film, to the computer screen at bottom.

Because he observed three students play with fonts on a computer for nine minutes without writing a word, and thus concluded computers waste students' instructional time, I guess Dean Delattre has never seen students stare at a blank sheet of paper for any length of time while fidgeting with a pencil. Nor has he apparently seen students doodle on paper with a pen instead of writing an essay. Had he made such a observations, his same logic would have dictated a call for the abolition of paper and pen in schools as well.

At the very least, the computer is simply a tool for producing and transmitting communications. The computer is not responsible for the quality of what is transmitted or what is viewed on it, any more than paper is. Or that some students might listen to the most hideous music does not mean that we should ban all CD's, including those that contain the voices of Caruso, Callas, Kennedy, and King. I would have thought the dean of an illustrious school of education would have distinguished between the medium and its use or content. That Martha Stewart's magazine and the New England Journal of Medicine are both printed on paper, does not put their content on a par with each other. Contrary to Marshall McLuhan's contention, the medium is not the message.

Moreover, the computer is potentially a pedagogically far more powerful tool than paper ever was. For if its use is wisely taught, the computer can both better stimulate and educate students about ideas and communication than books or speech alone ever could. Electronic search mechanisms can help you find passages instantly you would be hard-pressed to find in a book unless you remembered precisely where to look or unless your notes were miraculously complete, and multiple windows allow you to keep multiple passages in front of you simultaneously. The Bible and the works of Shakespeare are no less valuable on computer than on print pages, and may be even more valuable on the former because you can instantly find all the passages in either that deal with any topic if you wish. Further, a hundred ten-page e-mail works can be transmitted among thousands of people living around the globe in the same time it would take five or six surface mail letters to be exchanged between two people living across a state from each other. The immediacy of that kind of exchange of ideas can produce intellectual energy, excitement, insights, arguments, collaborations, and results that academic journals cannot even begin to approach with their limited space and formal, sometimes flawed, review processes. The works of poets, novelists, scientists, and philosophers is increasingly available online any time of day or night anywhere in the world. There are web pages that explain calculus and physics, theology, and even educational theories and practices. Good teachers and mentors for almost every subject can already be found online if one needs help understanding material. Mathematicians in Israel help explain mathematical concepts to students who use a free "math-help" forum I operate from Birmingham, Alabama. Sitting in my home in Birmingham I helped one student in Pakistan develop an essay he was having trouble organizing - virtually only by asking him pointed questions about the ideas he presented to me in a series of exchanges. He got the only A+ in the class, and it was his, not mine. And it was not the grade but the development of his understanding -- which is what allowed him to get that grade - that was important. He would have never found me without the computer, and our correspondence would have been completed months after his assignment was due if we had mailed each other hand-written letters, and if he would have had any interest in such an endeavor. There have been similar adventures with farmers in Nebraska, a policeman in Korea, a soldier in North Carolina, and with students in Arizona, Australia, Iceland, the Ukraine, and Singapore. From time to time, I collaborate with teachers, and sometimes their students, in Western Canada -- all without ever having been to any of these places. Surely this is as "real" as any other form of communication. 

Further, e-mail has many of the advantages of both the spoken word and the written word combined. It has the near immediacy of the spoken word, but it leaves a potentially permanent written record - one that can be shared with others in both space and time. Serious e-mail exchanges, particularly among groups of individuals on an e-mail forum, also can teach about the difficulties of communication - vagueness, ambiguity, misplaced modifiers, unclear expositions, and a host of other ills that plague any attempt at communication of all but the simplest ideas. And it can teach it with an immediacy and a significance that can have far more of an impact on students than all the workbook grammar exercises in the world. Nothing is as great an incentive for clarity as trying to communicate something that is important to you with someone you want to have understand it. End-of-chapter questions in a textbook don't offer that incentive for most students.

Now of course, there are stupid, and bad, and wrong ideas and incorrect facts on the Internet as well. But even that has the advantage of helping students learn to think for themselves about what they find rather than simply trusting it just because a teacher or textbook said it or just because they found it in some academic or scientific journal or in Time Magazine or some encyclopedia, which some teachers portray and count as "resources" or repositories of facts. Surely not everything in print, not even in academic journals or alumni quarterlies, is to be believed or trusted without any sort of application of thought. Students need to learn that.

Finally, computers allow one other aspect of the creative process that is emphasized far too little in schools, and which is difficult to emphasize without students having access to computers: polishing one's work. Computers easily allow every work - no matter how complete and perfect they are thought to be at any one time - to be modified and improved as ideas occur to its creator. Whole works do not need to be re-typed or re-written by hand just because a paragraph needs to be modified or discarded, or a few remarks further clarified. If the arrangement of some ideas strikes one as better ordered a different way, that can be accomplished with a few keystrokes, not a complete re-writing. This polishing ease alone can give students the incentive and the encouragement to try to perfect their works instead of just turning in something inferior because it is too much trouble to have to edit one or four more times. 

I would rather see schools and schools of education trying to find and develop some of the tremendous pedagogical potentials for the computer in students lives rather than saying they are mere humbug. Many teachers throughout the world have done so and continue to do so. Dean Delattre does all of them, and the students they could help, a severe disservice by saying that computers impede education simply because many teachers don't know how to use them better and because some students he watched for nine minutes one day didn't actually write anything while they were using one at that time.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.