June 18, 1996
One of the most alarming reports on American public schools was quietly published by the U.S. Department of Commerce recently with little attention. Entitled, "Falling through the Net: A Survey of the 'Have-Nots' in Rural and Urban America", the census data point to the root of a major chasm that has been created with the advent of educational software.
In a nutshell, many well-meaning educators and parents are falling into a "let them eat cake" mentality. They want to talk about interesting cutting edge developments in home computing - Internet connections, CD-ROM drives and PC-based instruction - as solutions to many of the problems facing our schools. They've apparently not spent much time in the homes of urban, rural or middle suburban students lately.
The census data are very clear. Disadvantaged and middle income children do not have access to technology in their homes. Over 90 percent of our children have no home-based computers equipped with modems to access the Internet or CD-ROM drives to run "edutainment" software. The only computer technology available in the vast majority of homes is the game machine (SEGA/Nintendo) which has virtually no educational content or value. Youngsters have limited access to computers in school, but can supplement their school-based learning with "homework".
Many assignments can or could be completed using technology. Home computers, however, are not readily available to most students. This is particularly true of the economically disadvantaged who need the most help. In these homes, computer technology is not affordable, little understood, and not highly valued. This is creating not just another gap but a bigger gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
The history of American public education is deeply rooted in the concept of equal educational opportunity for all. Court decisions, legislative mandates and executive orders have weathered a variety of political storms to "ensure equality." The goal has been to preserve the principle of equal access to educational opportunities.
The marvelous new concept of educational software at home has the potential to seriously compromise the central purpose of Horace Mann's "common school" - universal availability of the tools of teaching and learning. Simply stated, "edutainment" is instructional software in a game format.
Through public schools, Mann sought to expand the benefits of privilege equally - regardless of socioeconomic class. While technological innovation can bring unparalleled, individualized instruction to many, the "edutainment" movement threatens students in those homes not well equipped for the information age.
We greatly admire the work of those developing programs such as "A to Zap!", "Amazing Writing Machine", "Carmen Sandiego", "Aviation Adventure", "Freddi Fish", "Kid Pix Studio", and "Me and My World". What better way to inspire love of learning than to put education in a format enjoyable to pupils? Everyone knows most children love video games. The transition from "play" to "schoolwork" is simple and universally well received.
The minimum price tag for a reputable system with a color monitor and printer is about $1500. That's a steep price for a welfare mother or a family struggling with unemployment. Many low-income families compare the cost of a computer to several month's rent, or a luxury like a large screen TV. The computer is not likely to be high on their priority list.
The census data confirm a high correlation between family education and home computer ownership. Even when the parent(s) can afford a computer, if they are not computer literate they are less likely to make such an investment. A computer is not like a stereo or television. The expectation is that the owner will interact with the computer on the keyboard or with a mouse. Parents with little education or poor computer skills are unlikely to seek opportunities to embarrass themselves in front of their offspring. We already have a public educational system in which parent education is the highest predictor of school success for their children. The "edutainment" phenomenon is likely to further extend an educational caste system.
A trip to the local retailer marketing VCR tapes, computer games and SEGA or Nintendo action games like "Mortal Kombat" or "Street Fighter" highlights the issue. Good educational software is, in most cases, only compatible with IBM- or Apple-type personal computers.
In the quest to provide the best technology to our students, it seems important to consider the consequences of the emerging "edutainment" trend. Responsible parents, educators, corporate leaders, government officials and entrepreneurs need to explore ways of making technological advances available to everyone. In this case, the medium is just as important as the message.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data