He Only Knows Three Words of Computerese: Microsoft, PowerPoint, and *(&@*&#$!

This article from the Lewiston, Maine, newspaper filled me with fear about the next generation's education. It should be hopeful. Maine signed a deal to bring tens of thousands of Apple computers to its students and educators, along with some kind of budget for training, maintenance, etc.

Of course, no cost-benefit analysis was performed comparing that one-time and then renewed outlay against hiring more teachers, offering teachers more training or smaller class sizes, or buying more textbooks or offering more in-class resources. A textbook might cost $50 and last 10 years. An iBook costs $1,100 (in its basic mode) and thousands of dollars of support per year in actual and staff costs. An iBook could hold thousands of textbooks, if they were available in that form, which most are not yet. Electronic textbooks rarely cost less than their paper counterparts, cannot be shared among students, and typically require annual fees instead of one-time purchases.

The article contains many disturbing comments. "The thing is, back in February these kids didn�t know what a PowerPoint was," said teacher Steven Williams. If anyone can explain why this is a good thing, I'd like to hear it. Quite a lot has been written about how PowerPoint has destroyed business discourse and is on its way to destroying academic discourse. It's not Microsoft's fault. Also, you can learn PowerPoint in about a day. Why should students, even as part of job training, need to learn it for academic classes?

Teach them how to outline, not how to make three bullet points. PowerPoint tends to reduce the options you have to fit them on a screen. Outlining, an important skill I was taught in elementary school, is something I still use today.

Teacher Steven Williams marvels at Nadeau�s creativity. She made drawings, didn't use clip art, so bully for her, but how would an opaque projector -- ancient technology -- not have worked as well here?

Six months ago, Williams' students would have drawn a poster and written a short speech for their social studies project. Last week, they created electronic presentations, complete with animation, sound effects and digital photographs. Explain to me how a written speech is inferior to multimedia? At least it sounds like most of the elements are their own. Hmm...maybe not. Animation? Sound effects? My fiancee's brother is an animation sound effects engineer. There aren't many jobs in that industry.

Old-fashioned trips to the library have been replaced with surfing the Internet. Handwritten essays have been replaced with polished reports typed and e-mailed directly to teachers. Strangely enough, the Internet doesn't contain the sum total of human knowledge, nor more than the contents of a few books found in the average library. Some of the public domain works are available, but most of the primary and secondary research students would need is not availble on the Internet. Some exciting primary documents are available, however, which is mostly of importance in the sciences (where research can be found and used), not the arts. And, geez, one more handwritten essay and those students might actually have developed readable writing. Of course, electronic documents offer no opportunity for encyclopedia cut-and-paste plagiarism, either.

Other teachers have noticed that grades have improved and attendance is up....While the teachers have marveled at improved attendance and greater motivation from their students, the kids have marveled at the machines. We need the math teacher: let's quantify this subjective impression, please.

Fuzzy thinking, Internet research, and a state budget deficit (read the whole article)...damn, those kids might have to go back to the old boring library and read books again.

Update: Paul Boutin, who is from Lewiston, noted one part of the story I failed to highlight: they're teaching critical source evaluation as part of the curriculum. Bravo! His post. Paul writes, I wonder what 7th-graders in Maine think of an essay written on a computer and posted to a weblog saying that they should go read a book instead. Adults who already have the good jobs are always talking like that.

My good sir! Specious, specious, specious! I'm not discounting the use of a computer, but rather the common uses cited in this article. Internet research is an incredibly powerful tool for a limited but deep subset of information. For most humanities, the Internet is only a partial or totally incomplete solution. Can I find the definitive works of Robert Frost online? No. I can find pirated and samizdat versions, but I'm not going to find the literary executor estate version of the poem.

When I was in AP English in high school, our instructor (the superb Don DeWitt, who deserves a Google shout-out in this entry) took us through the executor's changes to Frost's punctuation in Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. The executor had changed "the woods are lovely, dark and deep" -- a cadenced set of words with a pause -- into "the woods are lovely, dark, and deep," a short laundry list of the quality of the woods.

Using the mighty power of Google, I can find an authorized version of the poem (though oddly lacking the copyright notice, just a courtesy of label). I can also find stanzas with the alternate punctuation. But without the copyrighted full work in front of me with the thousands of notes which the executor used to explain or document his choices, I cannot have the same insight into the poem.

If I were trying to research butterfly migration patterns and numbers, as some scientists are doing in cooperation with school kids, the computer's use is extraordinary, unprecedented, part of real science, a thrill, and educational. But teachers, as in this article, conflate professional looking -- the clean electronic ASCII characters, the animation and sound in a presentation, the nifty bullets in PowerPoint -- with original, coherent thought.

I like to defer to Herr Professor Doktor von Weinberger, esteemed author of interesting things to read like Small Pieces, Loosely Connected. His point on modern education is: why are kids forced to work always in a solitary manner when, in fact, most of life is about collaboration. Think about any work environment, any project, and it's all about teamwork. Just like in sports, office life is about the collective, coordinated efforts of individuals.

In that sense, I'm very pro-computer: using instant messaging and email to collaborate, plus small wireless networks, plus face-to-face all seems like a set of multiple modalities that would be very powerful.