A CRITICAL VIEW OF THE "ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD" PROJECT
Valdemar W. Setzer
Dept. of Computer Science, University of São Paulo
Original: Nov 17, 2007; last revision: Feb 26, 2009
This paper was accepted by the 12th World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics: WMSCI 2008, June 29 - July 2, 2008, Orlando, Florida, U.S.A. -- click here for its submitted final form (half the size of this paper); a reduced version was accepted by the WCCE 2009 (IFIP World Conference on Computers in Education)
The "One laptop per child" project (OLPC) aims at providing each elementary and middle school (grades 1-8) student with an inexpensive computer, and is being considered by governments of many developing countries, in particular my own, Brazil, where it is being tested in pilot tests in some public schools. This paper has the intention of opening discussions about local and universal problems concerning this project, which is being accepted without deeper considerations – the technology hype is so big nowadays, that every novelty is automatically considered as being a good one.
This paper is based on the paper [SET 07] in Portuguese, which was presented in two conferences in Brazil.
Section 2 brings an overview of this project. Section 3 presents some of the Brazilian educational, social, economical and political problems, which may impair the success of this project. Most these problems certainly apply to many other developing countries. Section 4 deals with universal problems concerning the use of computers in education, valid for any country or community. In particular, section 4.7 has a review of some recent statistical research showing that the use of computers is damaging to education; one of them, made at a European Community in Germany, used results of standardized tests applied to Brazilian schools. Section 5 describes and comments an article concerning a pilot study of the OLPC that appeared in the Veja Brazilian illustrated magazine, and an article which appeared in The New York Times about the use of laptops in American schools; both confirm my objections to the OLPC. Section 6 presents some final considerations and conclusions.
2. The project
The OLPC originated at M.I.T.’s Media Lab. Nicholas Negroponte, the project’s founder and great propagator, visited many countries, including Brazil, trying to sell the idea by means of convincing the federal governments to buy a large number of these computers and having them distributed, free of charge, to public school students.
Examining its site at http://www.laptop.org, one immediately sees a phrase by Negroponte, stating that this is an educational project: "It's an education project, not a laptop Project – Our goal: To provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves." Nevertheless, there are only vague statements covering its educational aspects. For instance, it is possible to find a record of all the progresses made (at www.laptop.org/vision/progress/), but the news cover only the development of the machine and its software. The project clearly concerns with the development of a cheap laptop computer, and of software that permits its utilization in basic tasks, group work and intercommunication among computers and access to the Internet. The original objective was to produce a relatively robust computer, presently called XO, with these characteristics, and which could cost just US$100; apparently the estimated present price is US$175 (see section 5).
The only educational consideration which exists in the OLPC is the principle that, giving computers to children and adolescents, they will automatically make an educational progress. As we will see in section 4, this premise is false, both from the point of view of my conceptual analysis of the use of computers in education, as well as from the results of various scientific research. On the contrary, the use of computers by children and adolescents is harmful for their education and general development.
The lack of an educational program accompanying the OLPC shows, once more, that means are wrongly being considered as ends. This approach is already destroying nature; section 6 will show what is being destroyed with the use of computers in education, both at home and at school.
3. Local considerations
In the case of Brazil, the original news were that the federal government was going to buy 1 million of these machines to distribute them to public school students. Lately, the news was that every state school student would receive a laptop – this would make a total of about 30 million units.
As mentioned in the introduction, the arguments presented here probably apply to most developing countries.
An educational project of this magnitude should at first be examined from the point of view of priorities. What is by far the most urgent educational investment that should be made in Brazil? In my opinion, three measures should be taken in parallel: 1. Drastically raising teacher’s salaries; 2. Improving the schools’ administration; 3. Introducing independent students’ assessments to evaluate teachers’ and schools’ efficacy.
Today, Oct. 8, 2007, as I am writing these lines, one of the main newspapers in the country, O Estado de São Paulo, brings in its page A14 news about a new federal law being discussed in Congress establishing a minimum monthly salary of R$950,00 for public teachers. This means today about US$530. The same article says that the present minimum salary is below this value in all states. 43% of all teachers at public elementary and middle schools (first 8 grades) which work 40 (!) hours per week earn an average salary of R$591,00 (about US$330).
If one takes into consideration not just the salary, but also public teachers’ working conditions, one has to conclude that either they don’t know to do anything else, or else there is no other work to be done in their region – with honorable exceptions of a couple of idealistic teachers. Speaking about working conditions, after a lecture I gave in the important capital city of Belo Horizonte, a lady came to me and asked if I knew what were the conditions public teachers were facing there. She told me that they cannot drive their cars (those relative few who have one) to the schools because they were being vandalized by the students; and just the day before a student broke a chair on his teacher’s back. One has to admit: working as a pulic school teacher is in general not anymore a dignifying job in my country. I myself went to a public middle school – at that time, 56 years ago, they were the best schools in the city of São Paulo. Moreover, is it possible to imagine the motivation of a teacher who has to give 40 hours a week of classes, sometimes in different schools?
Speaking about working conditions, coincidently, the same edition of that newspaper brings in its page C3 a report on a research done by the Union of Public School Teachers of the state of São Paulo (the most industrialized state in the country). 87% of the interviewed teachers told that they knew about violence their schools; 70% of the reported violence was due to drug trafficking and 67% to drug abuse. In the East part of the city of São Paulo, 75% of police calls in schools due to drugs were in public schools, and 25% in private schools; this year, there has been an average of one call per school day. The article reports that sports courts in schools are preferred places for drug trafficking and consumption, and physical education teachers are in panic because of the danger this situation represents.
The same newspaper brings in its edition dated November 8, 2007, p. A30, a result of a survey made by a state organization (Saresp), which has shown that 70% of 4th grade students in the State of São Paulo, "don’t have the basic competences in Math, such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing [in my experience, they probably don’t know the multiplication table, see examples below]. And 48.4% don’t know how to fully read and write." Someone that knows Brazil will immediately infer that in most other states the situation must be far worse. The article further says that, because of this catastrophic situation "next year the first 45 days of classes of state public [there are also municipal and federal schools] schools will be dedicated just to Portuguese and Math."
Administration is a big problem because in general principals don’t control teachers’ absences. In many public schools, principals are elected by their pears, and to get elected they promise to favor their voters. Regarding the rate of chronic absences, in fact the low salaries public teachers are receiving make for effective high salaries.
By independent students’ assessments I mean that standardized tests should be applied to verify teachers’ efficiency in each class. Without such assessments, it is impossible to verify if a teacher is really doing a good pedagogical work and if a school is really teaching something.
As I said, these three factors have to be installed simultaneously; just changing the state of one of them will not produce any results. Let us now examine other, secondary but very important factors.
Another critical point is that public schools are in general in shambles. If such a school has a roof, the ground is on rough soil, if there are tiles or wood on the ground, there are no proper sanitary installations or in working conditions, etc. etc. In general, the aspect of state schools is deplorable. They look more as indecent prisons as nice hotels, as they should. In such conditions, how can the students love and respect their schools and their teachers, essential attitudes for showing enthusiasm for learning? How can a teacher show enthusiasm in her classes if the physical atmosphere is depressing?
Other high priorities are better training for teachers, and exclusive jobs, that is, teaching in just one school.
There is a big discussion in Brazil concerning what is here called "continued education", that is, no flunking. Assessments with grades, used for promotion to a higher class are made in "cycles" of 2 or 4 years. This method was based upon a UNESCO recommendation for continued education, which in its turn was based upon the successes of total continued education used in Waldorf Schools around the world since 1919, from elementary to high school (1st to 12th grades). The problem with the use of this method in our public schools is that teachers and parents were not prepared for discontinuing the flunking system, because teachers lost their main pressure means over their students (as far as discipline and forcing them to study is concerned), and the system is permitting that students learn almost nothing. I had the experience of teaching Math to a 17-year old girl who passed to the last high school grade, and to a 13-year old boy who was in grade 7. Both didn’t know the multiplication table! The latter told me that he had heard many of his teachers telling the students during class something like "If you don’t want to learn, that’s OK with me – at the end of the month I’ll receive my salary anyhow." His Math teacher gives a problem to the class, "waits 30 seconds (sic)" and then gives the answer; if the students don’t know the multiplication table, how come could they possibly solve a Math problem?
I told these personal experiences because I wanted to show some examples of how tragic the public school system is in Brazil. If anyone wants to assess this system, please ask the multiplication table to any student in any public school class.
Let me clarify that I am not against the non-flunking system – what does it mean giving a bad score to a 7- or 10-year old student? It just means that he didn’t have the responsibility of studying or concentrating like an adult, or had no interest in the subject (a fault of his teacher), or had personal problems, etc. In any case, it’s absolutely unjust to penalize a child for his bad scores – besides the fact that scores tell absolutely nothing about the student’s interest, dedication, maturity, etc. and that flunking creates great psychological problems (one may imagine the resulting frustrations of such a student and his parents) and puts a student in a class where the other children are not so generally mature. Moreover, this system disrupts the social integration of a class; it is easy to grasp the social development that Waldorf school students undergo by having the same class comrades for 12 years.
Another urgent reform should be made in the curriculum. When I was in middle school, every student in Brazil had 4 years of music theory and choral singing (a program instituted by none less than Villa Lobos, our greatest composer – I first learned music in school, later on I became a musician and a concert soloist) and 4 years of handicrafts. This has completely disappeared. The introduction of good training in arts is, in my opinion, a high priority change in our educational system. When well done, arts at any educational level, including college, always dignify and produce self-esteem, besides providing for a necessary balance to the unilateral abstract, intellectual teaching of our days.
Another priority would be to turn public schools real public. For this, governments should allocate funds for communities or neighborhoods which would administrate them to install and maintain their own schooling system. One may imagine how much more efficient and less corrupt (see next section) the schooling system would be. Can anyone imagine that a community would tolerate a bad school for its children? Due to eventual personal and lack of culture problems, independent entities should control what is being done with the allocated funds.
On the OLPC page www.laptop.org/vision/mission/, the chapter "It is time to rethink this equation" contains the following statement "Given the resources that developing countries can reasonably allocate to education—sometimes less than $20 per year per pupil, compared to the approximately $7500 per pupil spent annually in the U.S. – even a doubled or redoubled national commitment to traditional education, augmented by external and private funding, would not get the job done." It is told that traditional investments, like "building schools, hire teachers, buying books and equipment" are good but inefficient methods. Then in the next section, comes the panacea: giving one laptop to each child, so that the child learns how to learn (see section 4.5 below). As if, without a minimum of schooling, it is possible to learn anything besides what is taught by life itself – and computers help nothing in this direction.
Never will computers solve those urgent and deep problems of our public school systems listed above, and many other. With bad and unmotivated teachers, with lack of decent physical conditions, with the disrespect and violence which exists in schools, etc., no educational material will make any difference. Instead of spending huge amounts of money buying computers, providing for connection to the Internet and maintenance, etc. they should be spent where the root of the problems are. In these terms, the OLPC is like circus to the masses, deviating the attention froom real problems. It’s like giving tasty cakes for starving people, containing only carbohydrates and lots of chemical additives which are bad to health.
Criminality in Brazil is extremely high. About 40,000 people are killed each year in the country (population of about 200 million). By the way, in 2002 25,427 more were killed in traffic accidents (data from the National Department of Transportation, DNT), a high percentage thereof due to alcohol abuse: 38.3% of the people who died in traffic accidents in the state of São Paulo had excess alcohol in their blood, according to a study of the Faculty of Medicine, University of São Paulo.
It is absolutely sure that the laptops of the OLPC will be stolen from the students. My own son, at that time a high executive with Oracle Corp. had his company’s laptop stolen: two men followed his taxi from the airport on a motorcycle, and when he stopped in front of our home they menaced him with a gun and took his computer – the only thing that interested them. (Never again he traveled wearing an executive suit and carrying his laptop in a computer case; as many people do, he started carrying his computer in a plastic bag or in an old, unsuspecting backpack.)
If every child or adolescent of a public school receives a laptop and carries it home, what robber will not take advantage of this knowledge and the weakness of a child or adolescent? The argument that one could forbid selling those types of computers is not a valid one: control is almost non-existent in this country (see, for example, the uncontrolled forest fires along the whole country, responsible for a significant percentage of carbon emissions in the world). And if it exists, it is generally corrupt. By the way, it is well known that police itself is highly corrupted. Many people fear more the police than criminals.
One may imagine the psychological problems a child or adolescent will have if his dreamed-of computer is stolen. Moreover, teachers will not be able to count on each student having a computer to pass special homework requiring its use.
I want to suggest the reader making a test: finding just one Brazilian who, knowing the amount of money involved (US$100 million to 3 billion, calculating for a US$100 price per laptop), will guarantee that the OLPC project will not be subjected to corruption. If the cost of physical facilities, network connection, and maintenance are considered, the total will be much higher. Corruption in Brazil is absolutely epidemic, starting with the Congress and going through all levels of federal, state, and county governments. It is told that some large American companies closed their offices in the federal capital Brasília because it was impossible to do business with the government without bribery (in general, they use intermediate Brazilian companies to do the dirty work). The recent local scandal with Sisco, Inc. is just the tip of the iceberg (its main office in the USA declared that it was not aware of what was happening here).
Now imagine that the corruption that will surely be involved with the OLPC is uncovered. One thing is knowing about corruption involving some enterprise, politician or unknown people, another thing is getting to know that the computer you are carrying was subjected to corruption. What will be the psychological effect of such knowledge upon children and adolescents who will be using those computers?
3.5 Political advantages
There exists a popular belief that computers help education and are eventually essential to it. (In section 4 I will show that this is a fallacy.) Thus, a government which gives students computers as gifts gives the impression that it is doing a big educational good, therefore it will receive more votes. Besides corruption, it is possible that this is the main motivation for the introduction of the OLPC in Brazil. If the interest is really educational, public education would not have degenerated as it did, and corrective measures would have been taken a long time ago. Giving away computers to students has a visible result (the children using the machines); any real investment in education has no immediate visibility or effects, and thus produces no political advantages. Politics is always short-sighted.
3.6 Digital inclusion
One of the arguments used for justifying the OLPC is based on the fact in developing countries public school students belong in general to less favored economic classes than those of private schools. Due to their more favorable economic status, the latter have computers at home and in their schools, and this situation give them an unjust advantage.
As I will show in section 4, children and adolescents who use intensively a computer damage their mental development, because of an undue intellectual acceleration, with bad consequences for academic achievement. Moreover, they spend precious time that should be dedicated to their homework and studies. Furthermore, more cultured parents tend to help more their children than uncultured ones, and this certainly applies to the use of computers and the Internet. Thus, digital inclusion does more damage than good and tends to increase social gaps.
Nevertheless, suppose that digital inclusion is something very important, which I agree with as far as adults are concerned. How should it be done? Mark Warschauer described experiments done in India [WAR 03]. Digital inclusion only works effectively with people with very little schooling when there is a kiosk manager available: a person who assists those who want to use the computer or the Internet, showing them how to do it, how to obtain the information they are looking for, the various software possibilities, loads the most useful software into the local net, etc. The paper mentions that open, free-access kiosks, without anyone helping the users simply don’t bring any benefit. In this case, children and adolescents, and even adults, end up using the equipment to do worthless tasks, such as playing video games, chatting, visiting pornographic sites, etc. Warschauer tells a story of a parent saying: "My son used to be doing very well in school, but now he spends all his free time playing computer games in the kiosk, and his schoolwork is suffering." [p. 37.]
Thus, true digital inclusion should be made in appropriate rooms, with managers who also do simple maintenance to the net and to the equipment. This person should obviously control the adequate use of the latter, mainly by children and adolescents, taking into consideration the objectives of the room and preventing inadequate use for the particular age and maturity of each user. Just imagine how many of these rooms could be implemented with the OLPC budget!
One of the educational arguments for making computers widely available to students is that they may follow distance learning (DL) courses. DL has been praised as a cheap solution for improving education. Where are its spectacular results? The number of students graduated in such courses does not tell much: the important thing is what has been learned with them. A DL specialist has told me that it only effectively works with small "classes" of up to 20 students, and with an intermediator who is permanently available; certainly, this situation is a rare one, due to its cost.
I have absolutely nothing against effective DL as far as adults are concerned, for regions where there are no college courses available, or they are too expensive. But DL requires from the student quite a bit of self-discipline, and in Brazil the general easy-going temperament typical of tropical regions does not fit this requirement. Moreover, if a child or adolescent has such a discipline, he has accelerated his development to the behavior of an adult; this means a loss of the necessary childhood or adolescence..
3.7 Cultural level of parents
One of the biggest educational problems in Brazil is that in many regions or neighborhoods parents have practically no schooling and almost no culture. They don’t know what they should require from the schools, they cannot check what their children are learning and cannot help them with their homework – if it exists: in general, students receive very little homework, because this would mean a big effort from their teachers in correcting and grading them. How much time and patience a teacher who teaches more than 40 hours a week has, in order to decently correct their students’ homework? This is one of the reasons why public schools are so bad, as expounded in section 3.2. This also means that parents will not control the use their children will be making of the computers they will get under the OLPC. Instead of improving their education, those computers will be used for futile objectives and will deviate students’ attention from their learning activities, without any control from their parents. By the way, the use of TV and video games is in general not controlled by parents; how come one should expect that the use of computers will be?
4. Universal considerations
In this section I will briefly cover my arguments for being absolutely against the use of computers by children and adolescents, at least up to the beginning of high school. I will be brief, because I have already written extensively about this (see e.g. [SET 89], [SET 01] and various papers on my web site, such as A review of arguments for the use of computers in education and Electronic media and education: TV, video game and computer). My arguments are based upon what a computer is, the physical, mental and emotional state of its users, and the developmental concepts of children and adolescents which constitutes one of the basis of Waldorf Education, which has been successfully applied since 1919, now in about 1,000 schools around the world, not including thousands of isolated Waldorf kindergartens.
4.1 The computer and its user
Computers are mathematical machines. Every program is a mathematical formalism, a sequence of activation of functions which manipulate symbols. Any command issued to a computer, be it in the form of text (e.g., those that are used in the prompt window of Windows operating systems, or parameters such as margin specifications for printers), or under the form of activation of icons or choosing an alternative from a list in a menu, produce the execution of a sequence of actions in the computer. These actions consist of executing mathematical functions for symbol processing. Many people think that computers add two numbers, but in fact what a computer does is to combine formal symbols in such a way as to produce the desired sum. Therefore, when using a computer a person has to exercise a mathematical thinking. As these functions and the language for activating them are quite different from the usual mathematical formulae, people don’t notice that they are being forced to use a formal language and a mathematical reasoning. Nevertheless, it is impossible to give any command to a computer without having to think in a logical-symbolic way, and express this thinking in a formal way. This thinking has to fit the functions presented by the software being used. This means that the user has to think in such a way that his thinking may be expressed by a command accepted by the machine. A trivial example is that of someone using a text editor, and wanting to give a form to a paragraph: he is forced to choose just one of the available little icons – in the case of MS Word, with hints "Left", "Center", "Right" or "Justify". He cannot think of automatically imposing another type of vertical alignment, for instance in a triangular form (e.g. in a concrete poem or a Christmas message in the shape of a tree), or alternating in the same paragraph lines left- and right-justified. I call "machine-thinking" this kind of symbolic thinking, exercised and formulated in such a way as to be possible to introduce it into the computer, and to be correctly interpreted by it.
4.2 The development of children and adolescents
Anyone may observe that children don’t think and don’t express themselves in a formal way; this may be noted through grammar errors. Up to age 8, a healthy child doesn’t even distinguish fantasy from reality. In fact, the younger a child is, the more she lives in an animist world, full of fantasy. This happens as long as she has not lost a great part or her capacity of imagination; this loss is in general produced by the use of screens, be it on TV, video games and computers. The images come ready on screens, and there is nothing more to be imagined. This was the reason why neurologist Manfred Spitzer, head of the psychiatric clinic the University of Ulm, Germany, gave his extraordinary book the title which can be literally translated as "Attention, Screen!" [SPI 05].
Forcing a child to think and express herself in a formal way goes totally against her nature. When a child uses a computer, she is forced to think and act as an adult, e.g. sitting and typing for a long time. In other words, in this case one is stealing her childhood from her. This is a tragedy, because in education and in individual development there can be no jumping of steps: a baby does not learn how to walk without being able to stand up, algebra is not learned before arithmetic, or physiology before anatomy. A child who has not fully passed through the phase of childhood has a big chance of becoming a maladjusted young person or an adult. And how many of these cases are there nowadays! When I was a boy, I never heard of psychologists and therapies…
A guaranteed way of stealing a child’s childhood is making her use a computer.
With adolescents, the situation is not as bad. Nevertheless, in the concepts and practice of Waldorf Education, a young person should only exercise a purely logical thinking after puberty, in high school ???citation???. It is in this phase that thinking becomes free and individualized and the capacity for abstraction may be directed to formalisms which have nothing to do with reality – as theorem proving in Mathematics. Before then, this type of thinking, typical of the excessively abstract ways of teaching which is practiced in general, is damaging to a balanced development of a child or adolescent. Thus, the recommendation is very clear: children and young people should not use a computer before high school age.
One may consider that this recommendation is radical and utopian. It happens that, if something is damaging to children, it has to be avoided, and there is no middle way. In this sense, parents are constantly being radical, e.g. when forbidding their children of playing in streets with heavy traffic, not giving them alcoholic beverages, not permitting them to drive a car, etc. The problem here is that, according to my concepts and experience, computers are damaging to children, and very few people recognize this fact.
I recognize that my proposal seems utopian, because it is nowadays very difficult to avoid children using computers; they would do it when visiting friends or relatives, or at school. However, just compare the time a child uses a computer when available at home, or much worse, in her own bedroom, with the time a child uses it when visiting friends or relatives. As for schools, I also recognize that it will be more and more difficult to find one without using computers in education. Bill Gates wrote: "I believe most countries will decide to make increased investments in education, and computer use in schools will catch up to its use in homes and businesses. Over time – longer in less developed countries – we are likely to see computers installed in every classroom in the world." [GAT 95.] He certainly envisions each student having her computer on her desk in the classroom: "Each pupil will be able to have his own question answered simultaneously with the other students’ queries. A class will spend part of the day at a personal computer exploring information individually or in groups." [p. 187.] Nevertheless, I have some hope that schools will recognize that computers are damaging to education, as it has already happened in some cases (see section 5). Parents who recognize that I am correct should look for schools which do not use computers, at least extensively.
4.3 Out-of-context education
Education, at home and at school, is always highly contextual. For instance, a teacher teaches some subject obviously taking into considerations what she has been teaching to that class. If she is a good teacher, she will teach the same subject in different ways to different classes, certainly in a different manner to each grade. In Waldorf Education, contextualization is enormous: different teachers of a class integrate the contents they bring to that class, and their way of teaching. For example, if the class teacher – ideally, in WE each class has the same teacher from grade 1 up to grade 8; she teaches all the main subjects; specialized teachers teach foreign languages, arts, handicrafts, etc. – is speaking about old China, the arts teacher will make the students draw and paint in the old Chinese style.
As far as the home is concerned, take for instance the case of a parent who wants to buy a new book for her child. (This is not a very good example in Brazil, because relatively few people appreciate books – if they have the money to buy them.) Ideally, she examines the children’s books section at a bookstore, and chooses one that is adequate for the maturity of her child, and whose style corresponds to what she feels educationally appropriate. By the way, I and my wife have great difficulties finding books here in Brazil that we consider appropriate to our grandchildren (aged 1 to 11): very rarely one finds a book containing artistic illustrations, suitable for a child’s ingenuity. What we find in general are books with pictures of monsters (including dinosaurs), or caricatures (very frequently with animals imitating human beings or in the terrible style of cartoons). Texts are in general not adequate to children, or the originals are terribly distorted, as in Disney’s fairy tales.
Thus, all education is traditionally contextual. But education made with a computer, and specially through the Internet, totally lacks context in relation to the child or adolescent who uses it. In fact, even if a certain educational software is installed (for instance, for teaching how to read or to do arithmetic), it is certainly not produced for a specific child, but for a mass of them. However, every education that does not respect the particular individual in his context and maturity is in fact a miseducation – and that is precisely what is produced by a computer. The same applies for TV and video games, but these are other subjects; see my web site for papers covering them.
4.4 Libertarian learning with the Internet
Besides the problem of lack of contextualization regarding children and adolescents, the Internet presents a grave problem: the fact that they don’t have the discernment to choose what is appropriate for their context and maturity. A parent may eventually choose a program to load into the family’s computer, e.g. to teach how to read and to do arithmetic, but if a child or adolescent accesses the Internet without the constant presence and control of an adult, they will have a whole virtual world at their disposal.
Many people consider that it is beneficial for children and adolescents having the freedom of access to the Internet, because this way they learn to discern and to criticize. But if a child or adolescent learns to distinguish what is good or bad for themselves, and to be critical, they would not behave as infants or juveniles anymore – they would have accelerated their maturation, and that is terrible from an educational point of view. In education, there is a proper timing for everything; unfortunately, the old intuition that this timing should be respected has in general been lost. An example of this fact is the tendency of accelerating the learning of reading and writing. In the European Union there is (or is being planned) a new law forcing schools (public and private) to teach how to read at age 5. In the concepts and practice of Waldorf Education, this is a complete nonsense: it recommends and uses the minimum age of 6½ to 7 for the beginning of this learning, which is done very slowly because it is the first great effort of an intellectual abstraction required from children. Our Latin letters are dead, abstract symbols (see my paper on this subject on my web site).
The use of the Internet in education, specially when there is no control over the visited sites, configures a libertarian education. I am completely against this type of education: children and adolescents know, at least in their unconscious, that they need constant orientation and are dependent on adults. A lack of this orientation, very common in our days, produces many psychological disturbances, such as lack of security, ignoring limits, behavior and attention problems, etc. It is obvious that some freedom has to be given to any child, and even more to an adolescent. This could be the case, for instance, when one lets the child choose a toy to play, among those available and previously selected by her parents or teachers according to its educational relevance and the child’s context.
I consider that there is absolutely no need for a child or adolescent to use the Internet, on the contrary, it is detrimental to their harmonic development. But if a parent erroneously finds it essential for his children, my recommendation is that s/he should be constantly at their side while they are using the Internet, controlling the sites they access and explaining their contents. Gregory Smith recommends the use of software for automatic monitoring and limiting the access to the Internet [SMI 07].
The same considerations apply to computers. Early learning of how to use them ("computer literacy") is also not necessary – certainly almost all the adults above age 30 did not learn how to use a computer when they were children, and have easily learned it as adults. One should not let a child use a computer alone, for instance deciding to load programs into it. This means that, in a family, the computer should always belong to the parents, and never to a child or adolescent. Unfortunately, many of the latter have a computer in their bedroom, totally out of control from their parents. This applies, in still a much greater scale, to TV sets; in my opinion this is a real world tragedy (I estimate that about half of humanity watches it every day) – see, for instance, the excellent book by Susan Linn, Consuming Kids [LIN 05]. She calls the attention to the fantastic influence TV has on its viewers, mainly children and adolescents. For instance, her book called my attention to a research done by Thomas L. Robinson and collaborators, with 1533 ninth grade students, showing that "[D]uring the 18-month follow-up, 36.2% of baseline nondrinkers began drinking and 50.7% of baseline drinkers continued to drink. Onset of drinking was significantly associated with baseline hours of television viewing [...], music video viewing [...], and videotape viewing [...], controlling for age, sex, ethnicity, and other media use. [...] each increase of 1 hour per day of television viewing was associated with a 9% average increased risk of starting to drink alcohol during the next 18 months, each increase of 1 hour per day of music video viewing was associated with a 31% average increased risk of starting to drink alcohol during the next 18 months, and each increase of 1 hour per day of VCR video viewing was associated with an 11% average decreased risk of starting to drink alcohol during the next 18 months." [ROB 98.]
The OLPC has as one of its goals giving a computer for each child, who may take it everywhere (while it will not be stolen, cf. 3.2 above...), and use it without any control whatsoever. I can imagine no worse lack of educational knowledge. Particularly, I am sure that those computers will be mostly used for electronic games, mainly violent, because these are the most appreciated ones. As I am writing, I am examining the June 2005 of the Brazilian magazine on video games EGM (which boasts to be the #1 video game magazine in the country); in its pages 66-79 it contains a section reviewing 11 games; 10 are explicitly violent, and the other one is a car race game. Krahé and Möller did a research in Germany with 231 12 to 14-year old adolescents [KRA 04]. Besides having corroborated that violent video games increase aggressiveness (they were careful to separate innate aggressive children), they found in a very high correlation that those that frequently played games, played violent ones. Furthermore, they discovered that the mostly recommend games by boys to their friends are violent.
4.5 Learning to learn
As I mentioned in section 3.2, in the OLPC web site (www.laptop.org/vision/mission/ ) one reads "A computer uniquely fosters learning learning by allowing children to ‘think about thinking’, in ways that are otherwise impossible." This looks like Papert and his LOGO system [PAP 80, 93], mentioned in the story of the OLPC origin (see www.laptop.org/vision/progress/). For a whole chapter of one of my books on computers in education criticizing Paper, see [SET 89]. Briefly, LOGO, being a programming language, forces the child or adolescent to do programming. The fact is that computer programming is one of the most abstract and formal activities, because it is equivalent to proving mathematical theorems – with the difference that LOGO, an interesting language for simple graphic processing, permits the programmer to see graphic results of the execution of his programs displayed on the computer screen. It has been demonstrated that children learn by heart how to use some LOGO commands without understanding what they mean. Papert advocates the use of LOGO from age 4 on. But at what age do children being to understand what angles are and how they are measured, and that the 90 in the right 90 command stands for a 90o angle, producing a corresponding rotation of the cursor displayed on the screen (euphemistically called "turtle")? Moreover, programming with LOGO or any other language provides for an open intellectual space – just compare it with the limited space of arithmetic calculations, which use always the same few algorithms. Even in the solution of problems in elementary Math the space of possible solutions for a given problem is quite limited. Therefore, programming with LOGO introduces a kind of libertarian education quite different from traditional education. As I mentioned in section 4.4, I find libertarian education highly damaging to the necessarily slow intellectual development, specially of formal abstractions.
In an unconscious way, children do very well by themselves what they should in order to learn what they need, for instance by playing, moving, speaking, etc. On the contrary, using a computer requires consciousness and attention – the same degree of attention necessary for doing correct Math (just try to do an arithmetic calculation by hand without paying attention, to see what happens...). Thus, the consciousness required in a general use of a computer and, in particular, programming in LOGO, is totally inappropriate before high school, because one would be accelerating the development of self-awareness magazineand self-control in an inappropriate age and, even worse, using a formal, logical-symbolic system.
It is impressive how Papert ignores the fundamental characteristics of children and adolescents. Thinking about thinking requires mental independence, individualization and freedom in thinking, which should occur much later. Normally, we never think about our thinking, because the latter usually concentrates on sense observations, in remembrances or in mental associations. Thinking about thinking is a process of introspection and means self-controlling the mental process. It is a typical activity of meditation, and should only be exercised by adults. If one asks a child not yet mentally distorted by TV, video games and computers/Internet, with what part of her body she thinks, she won’t even say that it is with her head! Ask her how her thinking unfolds, and she will regard the interrogator with a face that she is not understanding what he is wishing. This shows how unconscious the thinking activity of a child is, and should be. If forced upon children and adolescents, the consciousness of the thinking process produced by the LOGO system, as Papert believes, produces early intellectualization and mental development. This means an undue acceleration of intellectual abilities, a stealing of the necessary childhood and adolescence from young people that should not exercise these types of mental activities and should not have such worries. If a child learns how to do, say, multiplications with numbers of many digits, she simply memorizes the steps that she has to follow, and goes through them without being conscious that her thinking has to follow those steps. Using Papert’s LOGO system the child is forced to think as any programmer, using mathematical statements and functions. These statements and functions are formal and abstract, but to a much higher degree than the multiplication algorithm.
4.6 The maturity required when using computers
The question of self-control leads to the problem of maturity. Someone using a computer has an enormous freedom of action, limited only by what the software being executed permits one to do. Being a virtual machine, there are no dangers of causing physical disasters, as it would be the case, for example, by using a hammer. The disasters will be related to the influence on will, emotions and thinking. As they are not apparent, one believes that computers are harmless. We have already examined the kind of symbolic, algorithmic thinking required to use a computer – exercising such a thinking for hours obviously has an influence upon it; thinking may become rigid, requiring always full logic connections and relations of cause-and-effect. But life in general, and specially social life, do not follow this pattern. In terms of feelings, ill effects can be the excitement that an attractive program may produce, or the excitement due to the fact that one does not succeed in doing something one is sure of being able to do (e.g. remembering a command that was used some time ago, or finding a certain web site which one is sure that exists, etc.). These are some of the factors which make people use a computer or the Internet without stopping, which diminishes the will force.
The freedom presented by computers reaches a high point in the use of the Internet. Here the user has a full virtual world at his disposal, and an enormous power of discernment and self-control has to be exercised, in order not to be attracted by sites he is not looking for, or which are improper for his maturity. It is also necessary to have a high degree of self-consciousness and self-control to stop using the Internet, because the material available through it is in general made to attract the user. The question of improper sites for children and adolescents do not have to do just with pornography or involving pedophilia, which immediately come to mind. Some decent subject, like global warming, may produce undesired effects upon children who cannot really understand what it means. The newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, already cited in section 3.2 above, brings in its edition of April 4, 2007, p. A24, an article titled "Environment deprives children of their sleep", where it is told about the "tremendous [avassalador] effect that the news on global warming is having upon children, which live with the fear of its consequences." What the article does not say is precisely the enormous influence that communication media, mainly TV, maybe also the Internet, is having over children and adolescents, particularly on this subject.
Due to their lack of knowledge as well as restricted mental capacity, children and adolescents do not have the discernment power and the self-control necessary for not being attracted by the visual cosmetics, or contents inadequate to their maturity, as well as for limiting the time they spend with computers or the Internet.
One of the consequences of children and adolescents using computers is that they end up losing an enormous amount of time playing with the machine, instead of dedicating themselves to studying and doing school work, as well as doing something more constructive. Years ago, when PCs were not so common, I had the experience of bringing to my Faculty senior high school students for a workshop which I called "Computer Day" (see papers on my web site on educational material for teaching what computers and algorithms are). The workshop covered theoretical and practical notions of what a computer is, what it is useful for, and its impact upon its users (see my papers The Paper Computer: a pedagogical activity for the introduction of basic concepts of computers, The HIPO computer: a tool for teaching basic computer principles through machine language, and Algorithms and their analysis – a pedagogical introduction. It became absolutely clear to me and my collaborators that only about age 17 the young person begins to have the capacity of facing the computer in a serious way, as a useful instrument and not as a play toy, confirming my conceptual conclusions.
If one examines the so-called "educational" software, one notices that they are attractive because in general they work as video games. By the way, any software, to be attractive, must have this characteristic. Obviously, adults may be attracted by interesting texts, without graphic cosmetics.
Parents and teachers worried with the students’ falling academic achievement have been inviting me to give lectures in schools. Statistical research has sufficiently shown that, the more students use computers, the worse their academic achievement. Let’s examine some of these results.
4.7 Research results
A book by Armstrong and Casement brings a full chapter with serious restrictions to the use of computers to teach how to read [ARM 00]. They cite various studies about one of the most popular of these projects, IBM’s WTR (Writing to Read), designed to help pre-school and 1st grade students to develop the abilities of reading and writing. They indicate that "A number of studies have found that WTR has little or no effect on children’s reading and writing" [p. 91]. The description they make of the project is absolutely astonishing: it is a true conditioning program, with 5 steps, called "stations"; a tone is rang every 15 minutes advising the children that they should change "station". Curiously, only 2 of these "stations" use a computer [p. 211]. In the last one, "children use various materials – sticks, clay, wires and paper cutouts – to form words, letters and sentences" [p. 212]. Maybe just in the "stations" which don’t use a computer children learn something…
Angrist and Lavy analyzed the outcome of a huge program in Israel, called Tomorrow-98, of installing computers in schools [ANG 02]. The project began on 1994 and had as its objective reaching a rate of 10 students per computer in the participating schools by 1998. The research examined results of 200 schools in 1996. Math and Hebrew tests were given to grades 4 and 8. In their conclusions, the authors write that "The results reported here do not support the view that CAI [Computer Aided Instruction] improves learning, at least as measured by pupil test scores. Using a variety of estimation strategies, we find a consistently negative and marginally significant relationship between the program-induced use of computers in 4th grade Math classes. For other grades and subjects, the estimates are not significant, though also mostly negative. [...] [The research detected] a negative effect of CAI on 8th grade math scores in models with town effects. A possible explanation for our findings is that CAI is no better and may even be less effective than other teaching methods." They call the attention to the high cost of installation of computers in schools: "Program schools received an average of about 40 computers, for a cost of $120,000 per school. In Israel, this amount would pay the wages of up to 4 teachers. Assuming a depreciation rate of 25% on hardware and software and ignoring any training costs, the flow cost of the computers is about [an additional] one teacher per year per school". The final conclusion is that "On balance, it seems, money spent on CAI in Israel would have been better spent in other inputs."
Fuchs and Woessman [FUC 05] published a study that made quite an impact: they analyzed the results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) assessment of 2000 for 15-year old students of 31 countries. They compared the results of Mathematics (96.855 students) and reading (174.227), with the use of computers. They were careful in making a multivariate statistical analysis, that is, keeping certain variables constant, thus eliminating their influence in the result of other variables. They call the attention to the problems arising from bivariate analysis. By the way, Manfred Spitzer brings in his extraordinary book an interesting example illustrating the problems of the latter: a correlation between the shoe size and salaries is highly positive, because unfortunately women earn in general less than men… [SPI 05, p. 174]. Fuchs and Woessman write: "While the bivariate correlation between the availability of computers at school and student performance is strongly and statistically significantly positive, the correlation becomes small and statistically indistinguishable from zero once other school characteristics are held constant. The multivariate results illustrate how careless bivariate interpretations can lead to patently false conclusions. [...] At home, the negative relationship of student performance with computer availability contrasts with positive relationships with the use of computers for e-mailing, webpage access and the use of educational software. Thus, the mere availability of computers at home seems to distract students from learning, presumably mainly serving as devices for playing computer games. [...] the relationship between student achievement and the use of computers and the internet at school shows an inverted U-shape. That is, students who never use computers or the Internet at school show lower performance than students who sometimes use computers or the Internet at school. But students who use them several times a week perform even lower. We offer two possible explanations for this pattern. On the one hand, teachers might refrain from using computers with students of a low ability level. Then, the first part of the pattern may simply reflect an ability bias, and the second part of the pattern may reflect that computer use might actually have decreased student learning, as has also been found in a previous quasi-experimental study (Angrist and Lavy 2002). On the other hand, assuming that there is no ability bias left after the extensive controls that we include in the regressions, the pattern might suggest that there is an optimal level of computer and Internet use at school, substantially below a use intensity of several times a week." Finally, "Having a computer at home and using it at school will almost certainly raise some computer skills. What our results suggest is only that this may come at the expense of other skills. However, the results in Borghans and ter Weel (2004) show that these other (math and writing) skills are the ones that yield significant labor-market returns, not the computer skills."
Maresma Sprietma, a researcher at the Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany, did a statistical study which is quire relevant to this paper, because she analyzed the data of the Brazilian SAEB (Sistema de Avaliação do Ensino Básico – System for Assessment of Elementary and Middle Schools), for 1999, 2001 and 2003 for 8th graders [SPR 07]. In a personal talk, she told me that the SAEB data are excellent. She detected that "The use of computers as a pedagogical resource has a small but significant positive impact on test scores of 3.1 percent of a standard deviation in test scores in both disciplines. Moreover, the proportion of pupils that have a computer lab in the school significantly affects Maths test scores downwards by 33.5 versus 12.7 percent of a standard deviation in test scores for Portuguese." She also says that "The schools with a lot of labs would have made the wrong investment choices. In addition, pupils in schools with a computer lab could spend a lot of time there chatting or playing instead of doing other more constructive activities. The proportion of schools that have a computer lab is significantly negatively correlated with the average number of hours of homework done per week (the correlation coefficient is of -0.12 at cohort level)." This means that the more the students use computers in their labs, the less time they dedicate to the school work at home. She found a positive correlation between the use of the Internet by teachers and students achievements. This suggests to me that the project should be much less expensive "One computer per teacher" and not "per student"...
Tom Dwyer, Jacques Wainer and collaborators, of the University of Campinas (one of the main public universities in Brazil), have also used the SAEB 2001 results, involving 287,719 students, analyzing those of grades 4 and 8, subdivided by social-economic classes and by subject (Math and Portuguese), and the information they provide regarding their computer usage [DWY 07]. Students answered the question "Do you use a computer to do the homework assigned by the Mathematics teacher?" The possible answers were "always", "almost always", "rarely" and "never". The researchers present various graphics showing the gain or loss in points obtained in the tests, according to the students' social-economic class and computer usage. In their words, "The first result is that students who always use a computer, independently of the social-economic class, obtained worse performance than those who never use a computer. The second conclusion is that, for classes A2, B1, B2 and C [the highest class is A1, and the lowest are D and E], students that rarely use a computer do better in the tests than those that never use it. For classes D and E, the result for those that rarely use it is worse than the result for those that never use it. For class A1, the difference among the groups was not significant […] Speaking in another way, independently of their social-economic class, 4-grade students which always use a computer have achieved a smaller result in the Math test, in comparison to those that don't use it. Secondly, poorer students have a bigger chance that the use of a computer, even if rare, be associated to a reduced performance in Math tests. […] For both subjects [Math and Portuguese] using a computer is always associated to a worse result in the tests, comparing to the group that never uses a computer. […] [T]he richer classes have a benefit from a moderate use, but the students of poorer classes perform worse in the tests even with a moderate use." They finish their paper with: "Our research shows that the creation of a 'digital equality' could lead not just to a simple reproduction of social inequalities by the educational system […] but to a more perverse effect: the increase of inequalities. It would be a sad irony, resulting from ill-thought policies, and also from the frailness of scientific investigations criticizing this area."
Clotfelter, Ladd. e Vigdor [CLO 08] did a statistical research using data from almost 1 million students in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005, verifying especially the access to computers and the Internet at home. According to the authors, "Our preferred specifications indicate that 5th through 8th grade students generally perform best on math and reading tests when they do not have access to a computer at home. Conditional on owning a computer, the “optimal” rate of use is infrequent, twice a month or less. For the average student, introducing home internet service does not produce additional benefits. For school administrators interested in maximizing achievement test scores, or reducing racial and socioeconomic disparities in test scores, all evidence suggests that a program of broadening home computer access would be counterproductive." (p. 35.) This also addresses the "digital divide" question (see section 3.6 above).
Thus, one sees that statistical studies are corroborating my conceptual conclusions on the damaging effect of using computers in education. Let it be noted that the first time I published a paper (at the annual meeting of the São Paulo State Academy of Sciences, of which I am a member), calling the attention to this fact was in 1976 (see this paper, unfortunately in Portuguese).
As we have seen in section 4.6, the problem of the negative influence of computers in academic achievement is not just a consequence of the time students spend using them. Let us see other negative influences.
4.8 Degrading the human being
There are many other negative influences of computers on children, adolescents and adults. In the first two cases, they are much worse, because one may suppose that an adult has completed his basic development; a child or adolescent still in development are much more subjected to bad influences upon their mind – which is precisely where computers mostly act upon, for instance forcing a logical-symbolic thinking (see sections 4.1 and 4.2). I am not going to elaborate this topic further; I will just cite the factors that I consider the most important ones for this section, with brief comments in parentheses.
– Induction of an admiration for machines. (Computers surpass human beings in many thinking functions and their functioning is not understandable by children and adolescents.)
– Induction of ideas that machines are more perfect than humans. (There has never been such a strong metaphor as the computer for – wrongly – considering humans as machines; see my paper AI - Artificial Intelligence or Automated Imbecility? Can machines think and feel?)
– Induction of a materialist view of the world. (See my paper Is there just matter or also spirit in the universe?)
– Damaging sociability. (In general, computers are used in an isolated way; social contacts through computer nets are virtual and not physically personal; computers induce a deterministic view of the world and the idea that everything may be foreseen, which are not characteristics of humans.)
– Induction of the impulses of doing everything rapidly and many things at the same time;
– Damaging the capacities for mental concentration, contemplation and patience.
– Induction of a reductionistic view of the world. (One of the techniques for solving problems with a computer is "divide and conquer", that is, subdividing a problem in small parts and solving each one of them separately; but this does not fully apply to living beings, which constitute a totality, as was pointed two centuries ago by Goethe – a modern example would be examining a cell out of an organism; obviously it does not have the same functions as it had in its original place.)
– Damaging creativity. (Creativity must be exercised in ill-defined spaces, such as social relations and arts; computers present a well-defined mathematical space; by the way, artistic activities are the antidote which I recommend for those that have to use computers intensively – see my paper An antidote to computer thinking.)
– Damaging memory. (Unilateral exercising of memory using logical-symbolic entities, as well as distorting the capacity for thinking; there is no more need for memorizing information which may be classified and rapidly obtained in a computer.)
– Induction of the view that learning is the same as playing. (To become attractive, software must be presented as a video game, cf. section 4.6.)
5. Two recent publications
All the rest of this paper, inclusive the next section, was ready in its original Portuguese version, and available on my web site in its version of April 24, 2007, when there appeared two articles, the first in the electronic version of The New York Times of May 5, 2007, which I inserted into my web site, and the other in the main illustrated magazine in Brazil, Veja ("See"), Vol. 40, No. 19, May 16, 2007, pp. 86-93. It is worth while briefly commenting both comparing them and relating their contents to what I had written in this paper. Attention: I am not comparing the credibility of The New York Times with that of Veja!
The title of the NYT article is "Seeing No Progress, Some schools Drop Laptops". The emphasis is showing that the project of giving (or requiring) a laptop per child has not produced any educational improvement, on the contrary, it presented many problems. It mentions 5 concrete cases of schools in various parts of the USA, which abandoned the project. All of them did not observe any improvement of students academic achievements and verified exaggerated increases in costs.
On the lack of educational improvement with the intensive use of computers, the article cites the following: "In one of the largest ongoing studies, the Texas Center for Educational Research, a nonprofit group, has so far found no overall difference on state test scores between 21 middle schools where students received laptops in 2004, and 21 schools where they did not, though some data suggest that high-achieving students with laptops may perform better in math than their counterparts without. When six of the schools in the study that do not have laptops were given the option of getting them this year, they opted against. [!]". There is a citation by Mark Warschauer, exactly the author of the Scientific American paper cited in section 3.6 above, mentioning that "[he] also found no evidence that laptops increased state test scores in a study of 10 schools in California and Maine from 2003 to 2005. Two of the schools, including Rea Elementary [in Costa Mesa, CA], have since eliminated the laptops."
The school with the biggest number of citations in the article is Liverpool High in Liverpool, NY.; the head of its Math department is mentioned as having said something worth mentioning: "Let’s face it, math is for the most part still a paper-and-pencil activity when you’re learning it,"
It is interesting to observe that, in my opinion, due to a lack of courage of being fully contrary to the technology wave, the paper does not mention educational damages, unless for anecdotal evidences as, just at its beginning, "The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did)."
This suggests me a topic I did not cover above: the possibilities of illegal acts made with computers and through the Internet and local nets. It seems to me that they are much higher than, say, the possibilities of stealing goods in stores, and much more difficult to be discovered. As there is a certain challenge and excitement in a adolescent if he manages to break some system, I think with the availability of computers and nets we are truly educating criminals. This is an extension of the argument I have already used in other papers: the facility for illegally copying software, music, films, etc. and the incentive for doing it coming from parents and friends, means an education for criminality. Anyhow, the article shows in this and other examples the preferences given by students in the use of computers: in general they are not interested in using them for learning, but for their own amusement, as I mentioned in section 4.6.
With respect to the increase of costs in schools, and yet other arguments already mentioned above, it would be interesting to mention some of the phrases in the article. "Matoaca High School just outside Richmond, Va., began eliminating its five-year-old laptop program last fall after concluding that students had failed to show any academic gains compared with those in schools without laptops. Continuing the program would have cost an additional $1.5 million for the first year alone, and a survey of district teachers and parents found that one-fifth of Matoaca students rarely or never used their laptops for learning. [...] Two years ago, school officials in Broward County, Fla., the sixth-largest district in the country, shelved a $275 million proposal to issue laptops to each of their more than 260,000 students after re-evaluating the costs of a pilot project. The district, which paid $7.2 million to lease 6,000 laptops for the pilot at four schools, was spending more than $100,000 a year for repairs to screens and keyboards that are not covered by warranties." At Liverpool High, "a room that used to be for the yearbook club became an on-site repair shop for the 80 to 100 machines that broke each month, with a ‘Laptop Help Desk’ sign taped to the door. The school also repeatedly upgraded its online security to block access to sites for pornography, games and instant messaging – which some students said they had used to cheat on tests."
One notices the typical American question of cost/benefit. I fear that this argument will not be so important with the OLPC computer. I call the attention to the fact that my main argument is not economical, but the highly damaging effect of computers, in any type of use, to children’s and adolescent’s minds.
The end of the paper brings at last some deeper argument, well in accordance to my line of reasoning: at Liverpool High "In the school library, an 11th-grade history class was working on research papers. Many carried laptops in their hands or in backpacks even as their teacher, Tom McCarthy, encouraged them not to overlook books, newspapers and academic journals. ‘The art of thinking is being lost,’ he said. ‘Because people can type in a word and find a source and think that’s the be all end all.’"
One sees in the article the realization of some of my conceptual forecasts. I hit the target because I know very well what a computer is, the inner state of its users and, in a wide scope, what does the development of children and adolescents means.
Let us now pass to the Veja article, where one may verify that, again, I was correct. Just at its beginning, it mentions the case of a public school in the southernmost important capital city, Porto Alegre, which received 100 laptops from the OLPC, "as a pilot study for an experience sponsored by the federal government, whose (still far away) objective is to give as a gift a laptop to each one of the 30 million children in the public school system." This is the source of my statement in section 3.1 above, and the considerations in sections 3.4 and 3.5. This gives even more emphasis to the problem of the laptops being stolen from the students (3.3). On this subject, the article shows on p. 90 how I fully hit the target: "Another barrier which is worth mentioning in the Brazilian case is the lack of security of computers in public schools, frequent targets of robberies. In the Luciana de Abreu high school in Porto Alegre, one has a more concrete view of the problem. As most of the classes do not have door handles, the 100 new laptops being tested by the school stay locked in the principal’s office overnight." (The lack of door handles confirm my statement in section 3.2 about the poor physical conditions of public schools. The following phrase is a direct confirmation of my arguments in that section: students of grade 6 of that school "used to attend classes with open doors due to the lack of door handles and to step on floors that for years has lacked some covering, [...] took a [virtual] trip to the 5 continents."
The problem I consider one of the most grave ones, the undue acceleration of intellectual development, is mentioned as being positive (p. 88): "Studies [the article don’t mention which ones] emphasize two positive effects of virtual communities: First, they open a new dimension to the intellectual exercise, in which children are given incentive to develop speed of reasoning to give on-line answers and to expound ideas for hundreds of virtual colleagues. The second positive fact is that nets teach how to do group work. ‘Learning to produce using a net is a prerequisite to 21st century children’, summarizes José Armando Valente, of the informatics center applied to education at the State University of Campinas [one of the most important in the country]." Firstly, there is here a confirmation of my statements regarding the early intellectual development done by computers; the difference is that to me this is very bad, because it negatively affects the whole development of children and adolescents. Secondly, Prof. Valente should excuse me, but group work using a net is not what children should learn. They should learn to work together and cooperate in real environments, because virtual ones are detrimental to sociability and restrict the work being done just to intellectual types – which should be left for a much later phase in the children’s development (see sections 4.2 and 4.6 above). By the way, he and I made in Nov. 25, 2006, a presentation of our points of view in a public session organized by the Department of Electrical Engineering of the Faculty of Engineering (Escola Politécnica) at my university. This department was testing the OLPC computers, and I don’t recall hearing him making an objection to any of my arguments. The emphasis he gave was his experience with adults in poor neighborhoods. I repeat that there is absolutely no need for children learning how to use computers and networks; they may perfectly well learn it at the end of high school.
Going back to the problem of theft, notice this phrase [p.90]: "One detail: part of these computers should be taken home by the students, as planned in the project. But parents resist the idea. As their children take [public] buses [there is no school-bus system in Brazil], they fear that the laptops (produced in a phosphorescent green color) will call the attention of robbers."
Apparently, in part the Veja article was based upon the one of the N.Y.Times, without giving it the proper credit. This is clear in a phrase saying (p. 89): "[...] schools which distributed laptops to children turned the project down because they reached a frustrating conclusion. The high cost had not contributed to improving the students’ performance" and some other lines exactly with the same contents as the latter article. Well, this contradicts almost all the rest of the Veja article, where it posits frankly in favor of the introduction of computers in education. The article tries to diminish the impact of these negative results, saying, in the same page, that "The main cause of the failure of these projects is the lack of preparation of teachers." I expect to have shown that the reasons are different: it does not help preparing teachers, the problem lies with the machine and what it does with any user.
The article says (p. 91): "One of the advantages of European and American schools was to have programmed the machines to give immediate answers: students are advised at once when they make some mistake or give a correct answer." First, there is no mentioning which research reached the conclusions about the good results of these "advantages". Secondly, it becomes clear that in this case it was a programmed instruction system (its introducer, Skinner, is cited on p. 88), which conditions the student, instead of educating him. Papert himself was always against programmed instruction (see section 4.5 above).
"When laptops are distributed to Brazilian students, one opens them the gates to a gigantic digital data base." (p. 93) To me, as I expounded above, this is just awful. In the sequel, Veja touches a crucial point: "With new information accumulated day to day in the net [Internet], the challenge is another one: it became vital to develop a capacity for finding what one needs in this seemingly unlimited exploration universe." The problem here is that children and adolescents don’t have the maturity to have this capacity and, if acquired, they are not childish or juveniles anymore, cf. section 4.2 above. Furthermore, what children will do with their laptops is not to get additional information or education, but using the computer and the Internet to play with. On the other hand, it is more than enough if young people learn how to use them in high school – how many adults have learned to use them by themselves or with some help from relatives or friends?
The article says that Geography becomes a fascinating subject when students have the possibility of taking a virtual trip (p. 91). I am not against the use of a TV set or a computer in a classroom for showing illustrations to the subject being learned. But it has to be directed by the teacher, maybe from grade 7 on. By the way, in general students adore going to special audio-visual classrooms, because there they may sleep at will, recovering perhaps part of the lost sleep from last night when they were using their computers or the Internet in late hours...
Veja magazine should show that it really wants to inform, by leaving aside its emphasis to apparent positive aspects of machines, and start treating them with more objectivity, showing with the same emphasis their negative effects, which includes now the destruction of nature and humanity, as will be covered in the next section.
6. Final considerations
In the whole world, that is, in rich and poor countries, euphemistically called "developing countries" (is there anyone that in full consciousness and honestly may say that Brazil will someday be a developed country, if one takes into consideration the enormous social injustice, the rampant corruption, the bad and inefficient public administration, the greed and lack of culture of politicians and governments which we are used to elect?), it is imperative and urgent that the school system be improved. But the most essential change is that it becomes more humane, and not more technological. On the contrary, introducing more technology into education turns it more inhumane. Machines are, from a certain point of view, subnatural – compare, for instance, the richness of the million-year history of a pebble, or of a crystal, with any machine, as complex it can be. It is symptomatic that Waldorf Education, with its strong emphasis on humanistic and artistic education (besides its strong scientific education, mainly in high school), which tries to treat students with the highest love, humanity and respect (see, for instance, how a class teacher shakes hands with every student at the beginning of a class day, from grade 1 on), is such that no real Waldorf school use computers before high school. They are used for teaching what they are and how they may be employed in useful ways, for instance for students obtaining through the Internet material for their special high school graduation work (in general involving a theoretical as well as a practical side). I strongly recommend readers to visit a Waldorf school to see all this with their own eyes. In particular, anyone that visits a Waldorf kindergarten anywhere in the world feels such an involving and tender atmosphere that he will have desires of becoming a child again.
For a high school curriculum proposal for introducing computers in the Waldorf spirit, see my paper with Lowell Monke [SET 01].
It is very important and urgent to recognize that the environmental problems we are suffering now are a consequence of the way technology is cherished and admired, and its use for the sake of egotism and greed. A typical technological way of seeing the future is Bill Gates’ book [GAT 95]. It seems to me that this worship of technology is the fundamental reason behind the OLPC, already mentioned in section 2: the more technology in education, the better. The improvement, and probably survival of humanity goes necessarily through a change in the view of the world. Machines have to be put in their right place, and we should free ourselves from the slavery we have made them impinge upon us (see my essay The mission of technology). A break should be put in the will, emotional and mental disasters caused by the use of computers by children and adolescents; but for this we must develop a consciousness of the problems they cause. This paragraph was already written in the original in Portuguese when an article appeared in the supplement Link dated April 9, 2007, in the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, pp. L1, L6 and L7, speaking about the worship of technology and the psychological problems, particularly stress, caused by electronic equipment, specially computers. The article covers only problems with adults; one may imagine the much bigger impact on children and adolescents.
We are now conscious of the terrible destruction of nature presently going on. In my opinion, its surreptitious intention is the destruction of humanity, and it is obvious that some direct attacks to the latter were going to occur. There is nothing more efficient along this line than to attack children and adolescents through TV, video games, computers and the Internet, impairing their harmonic and healthy development. This way, anti-social adults will be developed, without compassion and creativity, passive, with fixed ideas and fanaticism. We are already encountering more and more people of this kind.
[ANG 02] Angrist, J and V. Lavy. New Evidence on Classroom Computers in Pupil Learning. Economic Journal, Oct. 2002, 112 (482), 735-765 and Discussion Paper No. 362, Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), 2001, available at http://ftp.iza.org/dp362.pdf.
[ARM 00] Armstrong, A. and C. Casement. The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk. Beltsville: Robind Lane, 2000.
[CLO 08] Clotfelter, C.T., H.F. Ladd and J.L. Vigdor. "Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement". Duke University, July 29, 2008. Available at http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/events/colloquia/Vigdor_ScalingtheDigitalDivide.pdf
[DWY 07] Dwyer, T., J. Wainer et al. "Desvendando mitos: os computadores e o desempenho no sistema escolar" ("Unveiling myths: computers and school performance"), Educação & Sociedade (8) 101, Sept./Dec. 2007, pp. 1303-28. Available at http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0101-73302007000400003&lng=en&nrm=iso
[FUC 05] Fuchs, T. and L. Woessman. Computers and Student Learning: Bivariate and Multivariate Evidence on the Availability and Use of Computers at Home and at School. Ifo Working Paper No. 8. München: Institut for Economic Research, Univ. of Münich, 2005. Available at http://www.cesifo.de/pls/guest/download/Ifo%20Working%20Papers%20(seit%202005)/IfoWorkingPaper-8.pdf.
[GAT 95] Gates, B. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking, 1995.
[KRA 04] Krahé, B. and I. Möller. Playing violent electronic games, hostile attributional style, and aggression-related norms in German adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 2004, pp. 53-69. Available at www.lionlamb.org/research_articles/study4.pdf.
[LIN 05] Linn, S. Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising. New York: The New Press, 2005.
[PAP 80] Papert, S. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books, 1980.
[PAP 93] Papert, S. The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
[ROB 98] Robinson, T.N, H.L. Chen and J.D. Killen,. Television and Music Video Exposure and Risk of Adolescent Alcohol Use. Pediatrics Vol. 102, No. 5, Nov. 1998, p. e54. Available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/102/5/e54.
[SET 89] Setzer, V.W. Computers in Education. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1989.
[SET 01] Setzer, V.W. and L. Monke. Challenging the Applications: An alternative view on why, when and how computers should be used in education. In R. Mufolleto, Education and Technology: Critical and Reflective Practices. Cresskil: Hampton Press, 2001, pp. 141-172. Also available at http://www.ime.usp.br/~vwsetzer/comp-in-educ.html.
[SET 07] Setzer, V.V. Considerações sobre o projeto ‘Um laptop por criança’ (Considerations about the ‘One laptop per child’ project). Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Information Systems and Technology Management, São Paulo 2007, pp. 4,060-4,083. Available in a new version at http://www.ime.usp.br/~vwsetzer/um-laptop-por-crianca.html.
[SMI 07] Smith, G. How to Protect Your Children on the Internet - a Road Map for Parents and Teachers. Westport: Praeger, 2007.
[SPI 05] Spitzer, M. Vorsicht, Bildschirm! Elektronischen Medien, Gehirnentwicklung, Gesundheit und Gesellschaft (Attention, Screen! Electronic Media, Brain Development, Health and Society). Stuttgart: Klett, 2005. See also www.uni-ulm.de/klinik/psychiatrie3/leitung.html.
[SPR 07] Sprietsma. M. Computers as pedagogical tools in Brazil: a pseudo-panel analysis. Discussion Paper 07-040, Center for European Economic Research (ZEW), April 2007. Available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=997234.
[WAR 03] Warschauer. M. Demystifying the digital divide. Scientific American, Vol. 289, No 2, August 2003, pp. 42-47.