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Computers are means to an end — not panacea

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Probably every schoolkid has dreamed of the day when scientists would invent a learning pill. Just pop a couple of them in your mouth each day and all the knowledge in the world would be downloaded indelibly onto your brain.

No doubt, this would make those multiple-choice questions a lot easier. But it wouldn't do much for the essay questions.

The problem with this fantasy is that knowledge, by itself, has little value. An education involves more than simply acquiring facts, just as driving a car involves more than simply assembling an engine. It has to do with knowing how to apply those facts to bring some greater meaning to the world. It has to do with making valid judgments. In short, it has to do with the ability to think.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with all the talk in Washington and elsewhere these days about the so-called "digital divide," the gulf between the people who have access to computers and the people who don't, and the billions of dollars in taxes it will take to bridge the difference. Politicians see computers as a type of learning pill. But the evidence accumulated so far doesn't bear that out.

The latest twist on this comes from Kirk A. Johnson, a researcher with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. He has just completed a study that shows the availability of computers in classrooms has virtually no effect on reading scores. Johnson studied the results of the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests and devised a system that accounted for race, income levels and the training teachers had received to use computers in class. The computers didn't seem to hurt, but they also didn't seem to help, which makes all the fuss over the digital divide seem more than a bit overblown.

Today's generation is hardly the first to think new technology would bring educational shortcuts. Consider this quote, for instance: "The motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and . . . in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks." Thomas Edison made that prediction in 1922.

Or how about this one: "The time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard." William Levenson, the director of the Cleveland public schools said that in 1945.

Both quotes come courtesy of Todd Oppenheimer, an associate editor at Newsweek Interactive, who authored a study in 1997 called "The computer delusion." They sound strikingly similar to the quotes coming today from President Clinton, who has proposed a $2 billion program to equip low-income schools with Internet connections.

It also sounds similar to the conclusions of a report presented last month to the United Nations. According to The Associated Press, the report said the world has a responsibility to provide Internet access to everyone on the planet by 2005. That is the only way to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor nations.

"It is incumbent on us . . . that by the end of 2004 a farmer in Saharan Africa should be able to get a point of access, let's say in half a day's walk or riding on a bullock cart," said one consultant.

Of course, the government in charge of that Saharan African nation may not want farmers to have access to the subversive ideas available on the Internet, nor would many farmers be able to read them if they had access. Who would walk half a day to check e-mail? Would Saharan farmers set up their own personal Web pages or forward the latest cyber jokes to each other? The report's authors are counting on an "economic prosperity pill," which is even more ridiculous than a learning pill.

The biggest danger with this official belief in technology as a shortcut to success is that it diverts attention from the things that matter most.

Computers are indeed important in classrooms, just as motion pictures and radios have their place. They are tools that can enhance the real learning experiences. They are not substitutes.

Yet school districts and politicians seem eager to devote precious resources toward buying these things while school orchestras, physical education programs and other vital pursuits are eliminated or severely reduced.

Without the protection of basic human rights and freedoms, an African farmer has as much use for a computer as he would for a beeper. As for low-income students in this country, politicians should worry about the things that really matter. Give a child a computer and he can spend all day in chat rooms and looking up Web sites; but teach him to think, and he can use a computer to open the world.

Deseret News editorial page editor Jay Evensen may be reached by e-mail at even@desnews.com