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Books on Kids - Online Loners
by Francois Lachance

"At school, children outnumber adults, and children show not the slightest interest in anyone's reform agenda. All they want is nice teachers, a good day, something interesting to do."

Our schools need to continue to cultivate advocates, not breed entrepreneurs. If they don't, they may not be our schools (for "our" read "public"), and the mass adoption of technologically-driven environments might spell the end of public education. In No More Teachers, No More Books, analyst and commentator Heather-jane Robertson makes a compelling and persuasive case.

The opening of her volume on education reads like a recap of Linda McQuaig's deficit propaganda buster, Shooting the Hippo. It's dreary and depressing. "But as successive governments demonstrate that protest will not alter their agenda, disillusioned Canadians conclude that `they're all the same,' and decide to shut down as citizens and reboot as consumers". It is well worth going over that material to understand the breadth of research that grounds the inspiring vision at the book's end. Our author invites us to imagine the moderately bleak scenario of a system on the brink of all-out class warfare: "The real problem for the future would be what kind of education to give the other two-thirds [the have-nots, the information-poor]. Too little, and they might become an even greater drag on the top third. Too much, especially too much of the right kind, and they might rebel". There is something enticing about envisaging the worst in a subjunctive mood: you get to imagine the sources of renewed resistance.

Rhetorical skill is what you might wish the earnest authors of The Child and the Machine would acquire. Their argument strangles the possibilities of action, as does the handling of key evidence. Their strategy amounts to a call to spend less on computers and maintain spending on threatened arts and music programs. This is capitulation to the politics of cutbacks. No anthem in favour of restoring funding. Reallocation makes for a poor sing-along tune. A litany of woes does little to build coalitions, and a repetitious litany even less to harmonize the actions of allies.

The authors celebrate creative intelligence. One wishes they would display more of it and less rote recitation la facts & figures. The bigger the list of bad things that computers do, the more convincing their case-or so they believe. One good solution to imitate would be worth more.

For example, their whirlwind tour of ergonomics clearly makes the case that good furnishings influence health. However, their research on this item is slim and they are led to bemoan the lack of manufacturers willing to produce and market scaled-down workstations. Of course, they appear to be oblivious of the irony in asking for a techno fix to the problem of appropriate use of a technology. Adjustable tables already exist. This is hardly surprising given that the design of school furnishings suited to children has been a social concern since at least the nineteenth century. (See Norman Brosterman's 1997 Inventing Kindergarten, with splendid photographs by Kiyoshi Togashi.)

And a stronger point could be made about the need for varied activity and exercise. "By alternating among these three options-kneeling, sitting and standing-we can avoid many back and neck injuries which can result from long periods of remaining in a single position", writes Michael Bertsch. Good advice for adults and children-advice that fits well into the policy of spending less time and money on computers. One just wishes an editor would have pointed this out to the authors.

The editor, Jennifer Glossop, also failed to render a key service at one of the most important points in the book. The most compelling piece of information for either side in the debates over the use of computers in schools is missing a full and correct reference. There is no way of dating the source of this absolutely crucial benchmark: "Teacher training will not be effective if it is confined to a one-time introductory course. Apple Computer has discovered that it takes an average five to six years for teachers to change their method of teaching so that they are using the computers in a way that benefits students. This might well explain why, in a national U.S. survey, the prestigious Bank Street School of Education in New York concluded that only 5 percent of those teachers using computer technology in American schools could be counted as `exemplary' users."

I have a hunch that these users would come from liberal arts backgrounds. This hunch is based on Thomas Scoville's The Elements of Style: UNIX As Literature, which wryly asks, "If there's nothing different about UNIX people, how come so many were liberal-arts majors? It's the love of words that makes UNIX stand out." It would be nice to verify the supposition and as an inquisitive reader ready to intervene in policy debates, I want to know when the study was conducted. I want a breakdown of the sample. And I want a listing of the criteria used to determine "exemplary" use. At the very least, I want a proper note to lead me to the answers. I also wouldn't mind some prestige fact-checking. It is the Bank Street College of Education that Lucy Sprague Mitchell founded some eighty years ago and for which she established a credo that concludes: "Our work is based on the faith that human beings can improve the society they have created." Now to be fair, the College does operate a Graduate School of Education. Details, details, details.

Improving the quality of the books is as much on the agenda as improving the quality of software. But the best software and the best textbooks are worthless without appropriate student-teacher ratios and adequate prep time.

Learning is a social activity. Armstrong and Clement adopt as the paradigm of computer use, the lone user seated in front of a screen. They are not alone. Heather-jane Robertson reports on an amusing study where "a researcher followed up on claims that computer use fostered `joint authorship' and `collaboration' among young writers. He gave two students one piece of paper and one pencil to share. They also collaborated." I am further amused by contemplating a possible topic for their composition: how schools can work without electricity.

It is Heather-jane Robertson's own example that gives me the inspiration to extrapolate. I chuckle when I imagine education enthusiasts willing to band together with environmentalists and raise money for schools by installing photoelectric panels and wind combines to generate cleaner power that they can sell back into the power grid. Work fair. It is a spelling lesson that will ensure that a collective vision of the common good prevails and translates into the necessary collaboration to keep our educational infrastructures spry so that we may all, children and adults, play well. 

Francois Lachance teaches both online and offline. He coordinated the evaluation of e-learning environments for the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto.

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