There are two concepts around the use of computers in education that are frequently misunderstood. These concepts are teaching with computers and teaching about computers.
In the earliest days of computers, the only computer education was about computers. At that time, computers were huge, expensive and rare. Computer education was limited to those students with exceptional mathematical aptitude. After all, that’s what computers were all about – solving mathematical problems.
We, and computers, have come a long way since those days. Now computers have invaded every aspect of modern life. Education is no exception. Much has been made of using the computer as a tool in education. Word processors for writing, spreadsheets for mathematics and science, and databases for organizing information. Lately, the Internet has become recognized as a research tool. The need for computer literate people knows no bounds. Schools have been quick to jump on the computer bandwagon. Well, quick for a system that traditionally moves as slowly as education.
Unfortunately, in many schools computer education has become an educational ghetto. Computer departments, or all too often the "computer teacher", are isolated with their offerings having a tenuous connection to the rest of the curriculum at best. Computers are used to teach about computers. Computers are not being used as tools to teach other subjects.
There are, of course, many exceptional schools where computers and other technology are being integrated into the curriculum. These schools are not yet the norm. To be fair, part of this is the fault of the way we design our curriculums. English is English, history is history, math is math and mixing subjects is seldom done. Most subjects are taught in isolation. This is so common that students often question a teacher who tries to tie subjects to closely together.
Teaching binary arithmetic to a class of sixth graders I was once approached by a student. "Mr. Thompson, this stuff is math. Why are we learning about it in computer class?" Now I had tried to explain why binary arithmetic was important to understanding computers but this student’s filter was so thick that he couldn’t see it. Rather then try and explain the first 10 minutes of class over again I asked him a question. "Is this English class?" "No" "Then why are you talking?" He left understanding a little better that different subjects can be related. But it was a new thought for him.
What we need to do is teach the how of computer use as part of other subjects. Students should not go to a computer lab to be taught how to use a word processor by a computer specialist. They should be taken to a computer lab by their English teacher and shown how to write using a computer. The same elementary teacher who shows a student how to draw a letter shows her how to make words from those letters. The same teacher also shows the student how to read those words to understand history.
Spreadsheets should not be taught by a specialist in isolation. Rather a math teacher should show a class how to use it to solve problems. Or students in a social studies class should be shown how to use a spreadsheet to examine and graph population data. Sometimes, especially where there is a shortage of computer literate teachers, there should be a specialist to assist the subject matter teacher. But computers as a separate subject should probably not be taught until junior high or high school.
Most colleges expect incoming students to be fluent in the big three applications - spreadsheet, database and word processing. We need to move towards where high schools can expect the same. Elementary school students should learn those tools as part of their normal curriculum just as they learn to draw letters, add numbers, and take tests.
Once in high school, with basic computer literacy taken care of, schools can move into computer courses as a separate subject. Though even here, computer courses need to be expanded and broadened to relate to other subjects. Courses in multi media applications and desktop publishing are obvious examples. Both can relate to art and graphic design. Both can involve making educational presentations on every subject. Both also have fairly obvious use for the student going on to post secondary education or from school directly to work.
There is an additional area of computer education that is in even more serious need of expansion. That area is computer programming. The is a tremendous shortage of programmers. Estimates of the number of programmers currently needed in America range from a low of 190, 000 up to over 450, 000. The US turned out only 24, 000 bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences in 1994, the last year for which statistics are available. The good news is that it really doesn’t take a degree to make a good programmer.