Educator Urges Schools to Approach Computers Cautiously

Release Date: March 2, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If you think that "computer Utopia" is right around the corner, you might want to spend some time talking with Hank Bromley about the use of technology in America's schools.

An assistant professor in the Department of Educational Organization, Administration and Policy in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education and associate director of UB's Center for Educational Resources and Technologies, Bromley has extensive experience with computers and the ways that schools use them.

Unlike many in his field, however, he is skeptical that computers' potential to help students think and learn will be easily realized.

"Simply dropping technology into a classroom doesn't improve things," he says. "There is often an agenda attached to the technology which focuses on narrow measures of student performance-scores on standardized tests, for example."

In statements like these, and in articles and papers, Bromley has tried to position the computer age within the social and educational context, arguing that computers, as human inventions, are quite capable of magnifying the shortcomings of their inventors and their advocates.

For Bromley, the shortcoming most deeply embedded in the computer is the tendency to substitute raw data or facts -- information -- for knowledge, learning or intelligence.

He cites the recent popularity of "Integrated Learning Systems," software programs that present material, test students and track student progress within a single automated package. "Administrators who find the technology very attractive because of the efficiency it promises," says Bromley, "...may not recognize the student-as-cog-in-the-machine model it imposes on the classroom."

The word "imposes" is significant. While many in the technology field would say that computers are neutral tools, able to be used for or against genuine learning, Bromley asserts that a tendency to homogenize and restrict thinking is built into the machine. Calling computers neutral, he says, "...utilizes the same logic as the slogan 'guns don't kill people, people kill

people' -- it is true that guns can murder only through the agency of humans' murderousness, but guns as a technology lend themselves to certain uses."

While computers may not be neutral to Bromley, neither are they all-powerful. If teachers, administrators and computer users understand what uses computers naturally lend themselves to, what values they embody and what context the technology will be functioning in, they can use the computer in ways that run counter to its own tendencies.

"The technologies as they exist establish certain parameters," says Bromley. "They may make it easier or harder to do certain things, but that's just half the story. People can take that situation and try to do something with it."

It is not an easy task, however. "We need to ask what it is about the characteristics of the technology, and how they interact with the social context of its use, that benefit some people at the expense of others (and) reinforce existing power relations."

As examples, Bromley discusses the access, or lack of access, that girls and students of color had to computers during the 1980s. Despite the impression that things have changed, Bromley says numerous studies suggest that these patterns are continuing.

How do these ideas and theories play out in the classroom and in the schools? For starters, says Bromley, they mean that schools should not buy new technologies until they know what they plan to do with them and who will have access to them. And schools should assess whether the technologies they do purchase are actually increasing learning, and for whom.

It may sound like common sense, but Bromley points out that the pressure teachers and administrators face sometimes rules out common sense. He notes that politicians often push for quantitative "results" that computers are built to provide, corporations are eager to gain access to young consumers and parents are widely convinced that their children will fail in the job market unless they have a computer in the classroom.

Bromley believes the last notion to be a myth. "High-tech schooling is largely irrelevant," he says. "Productivity on the job is essentially unrelated to what happens in school, and the skills needed are overwhelmingly acquired in the workplace."

The myth, he adds, may have grown out of the fact that "parents are legitimately worried about the job prospects of their children."

Having spent some years in the computer field after obtaining his bachelor's degree, Bromley has a personal sense of how the high-tech job market operates. He left the field to pursue a career in education, earning his doctorate in educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1994, he assumed his duties at UB.

"I'm often misread as being anti-technology," he says, "but my concern has been that (good educational results) aren't going to happen automatically…and the tendency is for the opposite to occur if you're not specifically looking for certain problems."

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