The Flickering Mind Book Review

   
   
   
   
   

About five years ago, Todd Oppenheimer published an extensive critique of the use of computers in North American schools. When I opted to research technology-in-education for a philosophy of education course, his book appeared to be an excellent resource. Having brought the book home, though, I became apprehensive.

Would I be able to read the book without making comparisons with OLPC? Had technology (and schools) changed enough in five years that the observations in the book were no longer valid? Would I really enjoy reading a 400-page book subtitled "saving our children from the false promise of computers?"

I needn't have worried. The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology is extremely readable and, despite the subtitle, not polemical. But spontaneous OLPC comparisons were inevitable.

Digging through piles of standardized test scores, Oppenheimer unearths a surprising truth: computerized classrooms do not lead to improvement in State testing. For example, he cites a study by the San Jose Mercury News in which they examined test scores from 227 schools in California. Oppenheimer quotes the conclusion of the study:

In general, the analysis showed no strong link between the presence of technology - or the use of technology in teaching - and superior achievement"

Progressive educators might argue that simply looking at standardized test scores does not reveal any truth about actual improvements in education, that a more concrete approach is required. Oppenheimer takes this into account. The majority of his book is filled with extensive qualitative case studies. From schools in urban New York, to rural West Virginia, to suburban California, Oppenheimer observes the same patterns.

He found that when computers are used in classrooms, students were distracted, sending emails to each other instead of listening to the teacher, covertly playing violent video games, and generally staying off-task. Computers also became the attractive method of research in History classes, even though the information available via the Internet was poor.

olpc games
That's all we need, a XO?!

Indeed, computer-only research leads students to become dependent on authority for knowledge. Using the Internet as an information source they do not develop the same sort of critical evaluation of sources essential for historical research. Worse, Internet research makes plagiarism easy and appealing: one can simply copy an web page, run it through a computerized thesaurus, and hand it in as original work.

The most compelling part of Oppenheimer's argument is his disapproval of the trendy nature of high technology in schools. He notes that Thomas Edison had predicted that the motion picture would obsolete textbooks and lead to education that was 100% efficient.

The motion picture trend was then replaced (respectively) by radio, then television, then videodisk, then computer, then Internet. Each of these trends cost the education system large amounts of money, attracted enthusiasm for a limited time, and ultimately failed to save schools. Furthermore, they were all forced upon schools by politicians, who were influenced by business.

For example, in 1982, Apple Computer donated a large number of computers to schools in California. Bud Colligan, and a former education specialist for Apple Computer said that "Apple always knew that its school initiative to seed its market. As children became devoted to a brand, parents would too". IBM's Bob Wallace recognised a similar opportunity, saying "As people are exposed to personal computers in the schools, this will become an excellent way to interest folks in home computers..." Corporate influence in education extended to the highest levels of government.

The US Federal Government's KickStart initiative spent billions of dollars to bring computers into classrooms across the country. Two thirds of the taskforce that recommended the program worked for high-tech or entertainment companies. Despite these revelations, Oppenheimer ultimately decides the value of computers in education in terms of tradeoffs. Every priority necessitates an anti-priority. Across the United States, the money to buy computers was obtained by cancelling visual arts, theatre, and dance programs in schools, reducing teaching staff, and deprecating libraries.


Seymour Papert

Oppenheimer's criticisms of Seymour Papert are less convincing. He portrays Papert as a false prophet who constantly predicts that technological innovation will magically improve education. However, this bears little resemblance to Paper's actual argument.

In the same way that a jigsaw cannot build a playground set on its own, neither can computers change education without the proper software and - more importantly - the right teacher with the right theory of knowledge. The sort of computer assignments that Oppenheimer criticises - electronic math quizzes and internet research - are sorts of sorts of computer use that Papert was opposed to.

Today, computers are being used to prepare students for standardized tests, while boxes of LOGO software lie abandoned in the dusty closets of computer labs. Some of the book's descriptions of computer software are particularly puzzling. Oppenheimer describes the the 'FORWARD 30 RIGHT 90' paradigm in LOGO as if it were introduced as a dumbing-down measure in newer versions of the software. He also describes Kid Pix (one of my favourite computer programs of all time) as "essentially a children's version of PowerPoint."

Of particular interest to OLPC fans would be the chapters "Fooling the Poor with Computers", which deals with the concepts of computers as a catalyst for improved education for the impoverished, and "Starting from Scratch with a Computer on Every Desk", which investigates a school with a curriculum re-designed to be computer-oriented from the start.

Oppenheimer's harshest criticism, however, is not targeted at technotopian educationalists, but at computer and software companies. He devotes an entire chapter to a company called Renaissance Learning, which sells thousand-dollar computer programs that quiz students on the books they have read.

What can OLPC learn from this book? As I read each chapter, the a disturbing message emerged: Nobody asked the teachers. Technology integration, contrary to the hopes of Seyomour Papert, was a movement imposed by Government (and often at the behest of the high-tech industry). Teachers had no choice in the matter. The result was wasted time and resources on implementing programs that undermined the needs of teachers, and perhaps students as well.

Considering that OLPC will only make million-dollar deals with governments, rather than deal directly with schools, I wonder if they might might benefit from Oppenheimer's precautionary tale.

Thanks to Gabriel Hurley for this book review. Have you read an OLPC-related book too? Then email your thoughts today!

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22 Comments

"What can OLPC learn from this book? As I read each chapter, the a disturbing message emerged: Nobody asked the teachers."

What is even more disturbing is that nobody is asking at least now, the teachers that currently use it!
It is up to them (individually I may add!) to come up and CONVINCE OLPC/SugarLabs/developers what and how should be changed/added!!!

"covertly playing violent video games"

my proudest moment in college was during my first first of my freshmen year when I proposed a cultural based theory as to why we had slavery in america while playing the demo to quake 4.

too bad i was laughing. and even worse, got caught. It was still great though.

I see a trend here.

This "study" looks a lot like doing an (imaginatory) study on the introduction of heating and electrical light in schools in say Costa Rica.

Such a study will find that neither heating nor electrical lights will improve State Test results in Costa Rica much. Explorative studies in Nicaragua, Panama, and the Philippines will find the same results, proving the general nature of these findings.

From these studies it can be concluded that no educational benefits can be expected from installing heating and light in classrooms.

These results are now extrapolated to schools in Yakutia (Northern Siberia). The advice is to spend no money on heating or lighting in schools as studies have shown this to be a waste of money.
(If you do not get this example, look up their climate eg,
http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/yakutsk-journey-to-the-coldest-city-on-earth-771503.html)

The same in this book. The idea of replacing teachers with technology is at the hearth of this book. And we might say that, indeed, we cannot do without teachers.

Now for the OLPC. The OLPC works for children who do not have the qualified teachers they need. Moreover, they lack the books, libraries, notebooks etc. that are the bread and butter of Western education. So the OLPC tries to help these children to get the books etc, and to increase the productivity of the children for the hours they have NO access to teachers.

In my opinion, one of the most important functions of the XO is the communication with peers, teachers, and the world. These are children that have no books, libraries, TV, telephone, magazines, newspapers, Internet, and often no radio. School and hearsay is their ONLY window on the world beyond their village or quarter.

Would this be relevant to US (European, Japanese) children. Hardly at all. They do have teachers, books, libraries, radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, (mobile) telephone, Internet. What can a computer in the classroom add to that but distraction?

I wrote more extensively about this:
http://www.olpcnews.com/use_cases/education/olpc_xo_improve_teachers.html

Winter

Well said!

That's an interesting hypothesis, but evidence to date suggests the opposite. For example, on research conducted in the U.S. on use of computers BOTH at school and at home, students from high-socioeconomic families and communities get the most academic benefit from access to and use of computers, and students from low-socioeconomic families and communities get the least academic benefit (and, according to several studies, no benefit at all but actually harm) from access to and use of computers.

Now, the situation could change when looking at impoverished children in developing countries, but at least we can say this: there is no general rule that students with the fewest resources and the worst teachers get the most benefit from access to computers. Research to date suggests the opposite.

@Mark Warschauer:
"students from high-socioeconomic families and communities get the most academic benefit from access to and use of computers, and students from low-socioeconomic families and communities get the least academic benefit (and, according to several studies, no benefit at all but actually harm) from access to and use of computers."

That is not a surprise. It is almost invariably found that those in higher-economic strata benefit more from any type of support. The rich always get more out of any infrastructure or services than the poor.

For instance, it would really surprise me if the same would NOT be found for the "free" NHS medical support in the UK. The same also holds for roads and public transportation.

But the point here is a different one:
Roads and clean water benefit rich and poor, probably the rich more than the poor.
Can, in the same vein, education of really poor people in developing countries (ie, with little infrastructure) be effectively improved using 1:1 computing?

That is, do the children of the poor benefit from programs like the OLPC.

I have no problems with the expectation that children from the richer families will benefit even more than the porer families. Such is life.

Winter

I don't mean to nitpit here (and I don't mean to speak for Professor Warchauer), but I think he meant to conclude his comment by saying "Research to date *from OECD countries largely* suggests the opposite".

Research from developing countries (at least the quality stuff) is silent on this topic.

The most relevant research that I know of from outside the OECD comes from Romania (admittedly a bit of a special case, given that it is a EU member eligible for IBRD loans):
http://www.columbia.edu/~cp2124/papers/computer.pdf

Mark, could you point me to some of these studies you're mentioning, I'd be vey interested in taking a closer look at them!

Thanks,
Christoph

Here are four references, with some brief annotations (again, with the stipulation that these are all based on US data only):

Attewell, P., & Battle, J. (1999). Home computers and school performance. The Information Society, 15(1), 1-10.

(A quantitative study based on very old data that indicates that high-socioeconomic-status [SES] students get much more benefit on school test scores than low-SES students from having a home computer]

Attewell, P., & Winston, H. (2003). Children of the digital divide. In P. Attewell & N. M. Seel (Eds.), Disadvantaged teens and computer technologies (pp. 117-136). M├╝nster, Germany: Waxmann.

(a qualitative study that indicates the dramatically different ways that high-SES/white and low-SES/Black & Latino students use computers at home and at school)

Clotfelter, C. T., Ladd, H. F., & Vigdor, J. L. (2009). Scaling the digital divide: Home computer technology and student achievement. Retrieved July 9, 2009 from http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/events/colloquia/Vigdor_ScalingtheDigitalDivide.pdf.

(a quantitative study that claims that there is a large divide in the results on academic achievement from home computer and Internet access in North Carolina, with low-SES and African-American students who gain computer or Internet access actually suffering losses in academic achievement)

Wenglinsky, H. (2005). Using technology wisely: The keys to success in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

(This is a book, but one chapter presents national quantitative data that shows that high-SES students academically benefit from computer use at school, whereas low-SES students suffer academic decline from such use).

All of these studies suggest that the "social envelope" that surrounds computer use is at least as important as provision of the computer itself, and that merely passing out computers will not overcome divides.

@Mark Warschauwer:
"All of these studies suggest that the "social envelope" that surrounds computer use is at least as important as provision of the computer itself, and that merely passing out computers will not overcome divides."

I am afraid that this is not limited to computers.

I know of few interventions in society that can decrease the divide between social strata. Except, that is, compulsory education for children.

But we all know that schools with rich children tend to become better than those for poor children. So education too requires constant vigilance to prevent poor children from getting low quality education.

Winter

I am researching on differentiated use of computers by gender, not race or socioeconomics. Any suggestion, Mark?

Thanks!

@Yama
Here are a couple of studies in the U.S. you might want to take a look at:

Goode, J., Estrella, R., & Margolis, J. (2006). Lost in translation: Gender and high school computer science. In J. M. Cohoon & W. Apray (Eds.), Women and information technology: Research on underrepresentation (pp. 89-114). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Andrews, G. G. (2008). Gameplay, gender, and socioeconomic status in two American high schools. E-Learning, 5(2), 199-213.

Thanks a lot for the information, much appreciated!

While I agree that standardised tests should not be the only way to look at the effectiveness of teaching methods, I must point out that most research suggests that lighting does have an effect on test scores, so your argument doesn't hold.

I wrote a short essay on the topic of lighting in schools. You can read it at http://www.everything2.com/title/Natural+Lighting+in+Classrooms

@Gabriel Hurley:
"I must point out that most research suggests that lighting does have an effect on test scores, so your argument doesn't hold."

I do know that light is important for education. The study you mention has a nice quote:
"Bright daylight, large windows, and skylights that diffused light throughout the room were associated with high achievement."

Note that this "study" I mention was a tong-in-cheek joke. But I will spell it out.

Costa Rica and neighbors are in the tropics and have high daylight levels and temperatures year round. In this case, just some windows and ventilation will do better than electrical lighting and heating. This is a poor country, so the light levels and temperatures in the classrooms are not really the factors limiting student performance.

The US lies in a temperate zone, with low winter temperatures and light levels in many parts. So a study will find that the usefulness of artificial lighting (and heating) will depend on state and time of year.

Yakutia is the coldest place on earth. It is very dark and extremely cold in winter (-60 C). Implementing the conclusions from Costa Rica in Yakutia would kill students.

Rob

Oh, sorry, I understand now. It's true that the book only focused on the US and that results in other countries might vary. You'd have to ask Todd Oppenheimer what he thinks about that.

@Winter: "Now for the OLPC. The OLPC works for children who do not have the qualified teachers they need. Moreover, they lack the books, libraries, notebooks etc. that are the bread and butter of Western education. So the OLPC tries to help these children to get the books etc, and to increase the productivity of the children for the hours they have NO access to teachers.

I keep hearing opposing views from the OLPC community. One group of people say "No it isn't really for the dire poor", and another that says "It's the only hope for any education at all!" Which is it?

One of my continuing gripes with OLPC is the seeming lack of educational content / material. If the OLPC is the sole form of education for a child, I would think this is even more important.

I read this book several months ago when someone here first recommended it. I've referred to it several times in posts, to the point that Wayan was bugging me to do a review. I'm glad someone else did. :)

I highly recommend anyone interested in OLPC read this book. You needn't agree with everything the book says, but it should give you some ideas of potential issues that really do face the project, and that in a way it's nothing new.

One important point made in the book is that frequently technology is "dumped" on teachers / schools with little to no training, support (including how to integrate it into the curriculum), and infrastructure development. I forget the exact beakdown he gave, but basically 50% of money spent on a technology project should be devoted to these areas, which is frequently not the case (15% commonly being spent on this areas). The focus shouldn't simply be on capital purchase of computers.

The book mentions unopened computers sitting in storerooms, which we've heard before with OLPC. Also with OLPC it's supposed to be constructivist, so magically teachers and students will "just know" how to integrate it into lessons. That's not how the real world works.

I read this book a few years ago and I didn't find it particular sophisticated or persuasive. Oppenheimer does not present research, but ideology. The only useful thing about the book is it a necessary corrective to people who take the other extreme, i.e., who view technology as automatically good for education. But I don't consider this any kind of scientific evidence or even particularly interesting opinion.

This is the way it works. If you go to schools (or any social setting), and look for good things happening, you will find them. If you similarly look for bad things happening, you'll find them too. So it's pretty easy for an ideologue on either side to report either all good things or all bad things, if they are not committed to systematically investigating a phenomenon.

Let me give you one example, just because it stands out in my mind from having read the book a few years ago. One of the most popular educational software programs in K-12 schools is called Accelerated Reader (AR). AR basically is a test bank of short quizzes associated with thousands of children's books. Students read any book they want that's on the list (usually found in the school library), and then take a short quiz. If they pass the quiz they get points. Once they successfully take quizzes on a few books at the same level, AR recommends books for them at the next level, and so on.

Oppenheimer discusses AR extensively, and vigorously attacks it for supposedly not teaching reading. He makes the point that it would be much better to have a teacher who teaches reading well than to use AR.

Well, of course, Oppenheimer's critique is way off the mark. AR is not intended to "teach reading." Rather, it is intended to promote reading development by encouraging and tracking independent reading of books. The question is not whether AR is superior to a good reading teacher, but rather the students of a good reading teacher that uses AR will typically achieve more than the students of a good reading teacher that doesn't use AR (and whether the benefits achieved are cost-effective). There is debate among scholars as to the effectiveness of AR, but Oppenheimer poses the question in such a ridiculous way that he can't even contribute intelligently to the debate.

And so on.

For those who need a corrective against the equally false view that technology is automatically good, then Oppenheimer's book may have some use. But for a sophisticated and balanced analysis of the role of technology in K-12 schools, I would look elsewhere. Those interested in books may want to have a look at Wenglinsky's "Using Technology Wisely" or, if I may, my own "Laptops and Literacy".

"If you go to schools (or any social setting), and look for good things happening, you will find them. If you similarly look for bad things happening, you'll find them too. So it's pretty easy for an ideologue on either side to report either all good things or all bad things, if they are not committed to systematically investigating a phenomenon"

Mark, you really got it. Thank you for holding us accountable, sincerely. I know for one that I have committed that sin, and hopefully I am getting better at systematic research - very hard when data is hidden as if on purpose...

@ChristophD

Two more non-U.S. references that might be of interest:

Computers and Student Learning: Bivariate and Multivariate Evidence on the Availability and Use of Computers at Home and at School
http://ow.ly/j53l

Too much computer and Internet use is bad for your grades, especially if you are young and poor: Results from the 2001 Brazilian SAEB
http://ow.ly/j53v

Thanks a lot for the links:-)

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