Computers can be a useful tool, but they must be used wisely. The plans to significantly increase the amount of computer hardware in the elementary and secondary schools of the local school board are a start, but careful forethought about, and guidance of the implementation of this plan is essential. The first question that must be asked, is why. The board must decide, and should attempt to codify what they wish to accomplish with this plan. Among other things, the board wishes to explore the possibility of using computers as a curricular tool. You are to be lauded for your decision to consider this important question before implementation. All too often, decisions like this are taken without appropriate consideration of their consequences and implications.

Computers are tools

Computers can be a very useful tool in developing, delivering and exploring a curriculum. Teachers can use them to develop and refine lesson plans, explore new ways of presenting material, and keep up to date on developments relevant to the curriculum. Of course, teachers could perform numerous administrative tasks with computers, but those are out of the scope of this discussion. Students can use them to review difficult material, explore curriculum-related topics that interest them, and do assignments etcetera. Of course, none of this will happen on its own. The advantages to both teachers and students must be explained, and demonstrated if possible. Both teachers and students will have to be trained in the use of this rather complex tool. Various other administrative and maintenance tasks will have to be performed on an ongoing basis to keep the systems functioning properly, but those also are outside the scope of this discussion.

Computers have strengths and weaknesses

One of the fundamental strengths of computers is in performing repetitive tasks. This makes them very well suited to helping teachers with certain tasks, such as performing mundane calculations, regularly retrieving information, and organizing materials consistently. It also makes them very well suited to helping students with certain tasks, such as rote memorization, searching reference materials, and reviewing material. Just as important though, is that one of the fundamental weaknesses of computers is their utter lack of creativity. Computers are not capable of performing the least creative task. They cannot think of a new way to explain a difficult concept, they cannot recognise analogies, they cannot come up with an interesting lesson structure. They can do only what they have been programmed to do, and nothing more.

Teachers have strengths and weaknesses

Teachers also have strengths and weaknesses, not only in an individual sense, but as people in general. It is a very rare and special set of teachers that never get bored during the course of their duties. They suffer from certain other fundamental weaknesses as well: they have limited patience; they are prone to minor errors in mundane tasks; they are susceptible to illness, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. They are however, endowed with imagination, and true understanding. They can twist ideas to fit into young minds that they know well. They can invent new and interesting ways of teaching. In fact, it seems that given the respective strengths and weaknesses of computers and teachers, they can be complementary in the rather complex task of teaching.

Teachers and computers are complementary

A computer can not be thought of, or used as a replacement for a teacher. A computer is a tool that teachers and students can use to enhance and assist in the process of teaching and learning. Simply sitting a student down in front of a computer running educational software is not an effective way to deliver knowledge and facilitate understanding. A student must be guided through the process of learning by a teacher. Similarly, a teacher should not be thought of as an alternative to a computer. Performing the mindlessly repetitive tasks that teaching sometimes entails is not an efficient use of a teacher's time and energy, particularly when it must be directed at individual students. With proper training, a teacher could install and setup appropriate software to do the job (eg. multiplication flash cards), and then let the computer do what it does best.

A balance must be struck

At this point, it should be clear that there is a balance to be struck between computers and teachers (and other materials outside the scope of this discussion). There are certain things that computers do well, and certain other things that teachers do well. This balance will not always be the same. It will depend on the teacher, the students, the computer, and the material to be taught. While it is difficult to comment in general on teachers, students, and computers, since they vary widely and wildly, certain things can be said about the material to be taught. The nature of different areas of a curriculum can make computers and teachers more or less suitable for development, delivery, and/or exploration.

Look carefully at the curriculum

Aside from specific types of things that computers do well, it may be useful to examine the standard curriculum to see whether computers would be well-suited to particular parts of it. At first glance certain things seem obvious, such as avoiding computers when teaching "artistic" subjects, such as drama, and encouraging computers when teaching "scientific" subjects, such as mathematics. It is exactly these sort of quick and easy conclusions that this exercise is intended to avoid. Certain aspects of mathematics adapt well to computers, such as multiplication flash cards for memorization, and calculator functions for performing menial number-crunching. The essential part of teaching mathematics however, is in understanding concepts. Particularly in higher grades, the mundane aspects of mathematics become less important, and advanced concepts become the focus. Teachers, with their understanding, and their ability to be very flexible in how they explain things, are much better suited to delivering and exploring this area of the curriculum. Conversely, while it is true that the essence of drama is creativity, there are many mundane things that must be done in order to make this creativity possible. When a computer is used to make these activities (eg. developing and distributing scripts, laying out lighting plans, set design) easier and more efficient, students are free to concentrate on the real point of the material.

Just be careful

There is much more to be said on this subject. The long term effects of substantial computer usage cannot yet be known. Extensive computer usage may have an effect on the relationships between teachers and students. Not to mention the physical health implications of using computers in their current form. Suffice it to say that there are certainly some educational roles that computers can fill well and appropriately, and there are just as certainly some that they cannot. Introducing computers into schools is not an inherently good or bad idea, but careful examination and planning could mean the difference between an effective enhancement of education, and a disaster. Asking for input from outside parties is a good first step, and I trust that the board will continue to act in good faith, carefully examining the impact and consequences of this plan.