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The Child and the Machine: Why Computers Put Children’s Education at Risk

by Alison Armstrong & Charles Casement

The title of this book defines the argument: computer-based education is deleterious to the learning process, stifling creative thinking and cannibalizing scarce resources while separating the child from the teacher and limiting sensory/emotional learning processes.

The authors are Alison Armstrong, an education writer, and Charles Casement, a scholar from Cambridge who co-authored a government report on literacy. Armstrong examined classroom computer use in both high-tech and inner city elementary schools, particularly those purported to have successfully embraced the transition to computer-based learning. Casement reviewed the literature, providing a very extensive bibliography of studies. They have organized their findings into 10 chapters such as “The Illusion of Progress,” “The Real Cost of Computerizing Education,” and “The Disembodied Brain,” with discussions of the physical effects of computers, child-targeted advertising, the role of computers in teaching writing and reading skills, and an analysis of the way children access and weigh data on the Internet and CD-ROMs.

Their conclusions are sobering. Hi-tech labs in charter technology schools sit empty, wanting software and hardware. Corporate donations never include upgrades and maintenance. The iconography of the networked computer as a magic bullet that will equalize social disparities and accelerate learning is exposed as not only pedagogically invalid but demonstrably regressive; class sizes increase, kids lose social skills, and other learning modes are subsumed by the analytical, results-oriented model of linear problem solving. Consequences often include reduced teaching staff, elimination of costly arts programs, libraries, and field trips (use the virtual frog dissection and save the swamp), and the substitution of flawed programming models for experiential learning.

The authors admit “the most influential of the dominant classes these days are the business elite, so the corporate agenda looms large.” But they do not provide a political model to counter this agenda, nor do they provide guidance in ways to use computer-aided learning as an adjunct to teacher-mediated instruction. This hard-line credo is understandable, but limiting. Activists may use the bibliography (and the Internet) to generate their own campaigns.