Chapter 2

Mitigating Forces: Early Failures and Misconceptions

Mrs. Murphy's fourth grade class received a new addition to their classroom, a brand new computer. It appeared at the back of the classroom one day on a little table. All of the students gathered around as Mrs. Murphy searched for the "on" switch. She finally found it in a odd place on the back of the computer out of sight and out of reach. Unfortunately, when it started up she did not know what to do next. She told the class to go back to their seats and that she would figure it out for tomorrow.

After class was over that day Mrs. Murphy asked Mr. Pedigrew, the principle, if he knew anything about how the computer worked or if he knew of anyone who could help. The answer was, "No." She was on her own. That night Mrs. Murphy pored over the manuals that came with the computer and a couple of pieces of software.

The next day the class gathered around again as Mrs. Murphy inserted a floppy into the disk drive to start up a program. Meanwhile Jeff was nudging his way to the front. As Mrs. Murphy was pausing to decide what to type in next at the prompt, Jeff interjected, "Mrs. Murphy, I have that program at home. Type 'Load' and 'Run.' Here let me do it." Jeff moved onto the keyboard and took over.

Mrs. Murphy was somewhat relieved as she let him start it up and show the class how it worked. But she had an uneasy feeling about what would follow. Over the next months Mrs. Murphy had little to do with the computer. A group of four or five boys, led by Jeff, played with it when they could and the rest of class just ignored them and the computer.

While this scenario was not universal, it was all too often the case in classrooms across the country. The initial introduction and use of computers in schools has been fraught with problems. Some have characterized the introduction of computers in the classroom as the failure of the decade. A survey of current applications reveals numerous problems, shortcomings, and failures of computers in education (Holden, 1989). Furthermore, there have been clear problems in the misapplication of technology, the lack of funding, and the lack of training and support (Kearsley & Seidel, 1985).

During the 1980's from kindergarten to college, there has been a growing use of computers in the midst of much enthusiasm, controversy, and numerous problems. The early advocates of computers in the classroom argued that the computer would revolutionize education by liberating students from rigid, sterile instruction and by relieving teachers from the drudgery of instruction and the monotony of recording keeping and administration (Posner, 1980). The computer advocates have made a strong and compelling case for the use of computers in education and since then we have seen many programs and some successes. Computers have been used for many different purposes: individualized instruction and programmed learning, simulations of scientific experiments, teaching programming, and training on specific applications, etc.

However, in most cases the advocates have oversold the benefits of computers in education to the administration; they have created false and unrealistic expectations on the part of students and teachers; they have not provided the necessary hardware and software to make it happen; and they have not taken into account the amount of training and technical support needed by teachers.

On the other side, the skeptics of computers in education have played up the fear that the computer would replace the human teacher, that students would loose human contact and become like machines themselves, and that students would rely on the computer for answers and would not learn the basics of arithmetic, spelling, or even reading.

Things have changed substantially since the early introductions of computers in the classroom. Today computers are much more powerful and are beginning to be used in new and different ways. However, if we are to understand the current thrust for electronic classrooms and are to avoid the failures of the past, we must take time to consider the pitfalls and how to avoid them in the future. We are now at a point in the introduction of computers in the classroom where we can learn from past failures and avoid many of them in the future. The remainder of this chapter discusses previous and current problems and ways of avoiding them.

Premature Introduction:

Whenever technology is applied to solve a problem before that technology is mature, it will be fraught with problems. New technologies may still be unreliable, unsupported, unstable, not fully functional, and hard to use by the general populous. Early users of the technology may become frustrated and forever abandon the technology under the old adage: "Once burned, twice shy."

The early introduction of computers in the classroom failed for many reasons. On the hardware side machines were slow; they did have not enough internal memory or external storage; the quality of the displays was poor; and they were hard to use requiring technical knowledge not related to education or to the class material. On the software side, operating systems had little functionality and were hard to use. There were either not enough good educational programs for the classroom; or there were thousands of amateurish programs flooding the classroom with poor design, software bugs, little functionality, and no support.

It was no wonder that teachers were frustrated. The early computers and the early software demanded too much for the marginal benefit that they promised in education. Only a select few teachers and students, who were willing to devote the time and energy, were able to make headway and use classroom computers in a productive way. The rest wisely held back and many continue to do so today.

Inappropriate Use:

Often the use of computers in the classroom had very little to do with educational objectives. There are a number of types of inappropriate use that arise from a missmatch between software function and classroom objectives.

Computers have too often been seen only as an end in themselves. Rightly or wrongly, the emphasis was that all students should learn about computers because they are important in and of themselves. It seemed at times that computer literacy was elevated in importance to that of the ability to read and write. While it is important to understand how computers work and to learn how to use them, what students were taught was all too often too technical, tangential, irrelevant, and arbitrary. Too much depended on the particular hardware, operating system, programming languages, and application programs that were here today and obsolete tomorrow. For example, even learning the disk operating system and file commands has been without much lasting benefit. These systems change every few years; and the amount of learning that transfers, for example, from CPM to the Macintosh Finder(TM) or from MS-DOS(TM) to Windows(TM) is negligible. Thus, we have spent much effort to achieve computer literacy only to find that in five years we are illiterate again and have to learn the new language of the next generation of operating systems.

Other inappropriate uses of computers have occurred because software was introduced without integrating it into course objectives. While a program may have had its merits, it was tangential to the subject. Rather than finding or developing a program to meet the specific educational needs of the classroom, inappropriate programs are introduced and adapted. Teachers have been tempted to use programs because of their availability, their novelty, and their advertising claims. Classroom objectives are often reformulated to revolve around the software. Since the software deals will topic X, the teacher changes the class content from Y to X. While this is sometimes justified as with any type of new educational material (e.g., textbooks, audio/visual materials, and laboratory exercises), the problem with computer software has been the unprecedented height of the miss-match between software and course objectives.

Perhaps the most inappropriate use of computers in the classroom has been the use of software as a time filler, an entertaining diversion, or as a reward for good behavior. When the student has completed a written assignment, he or she is now allowed to play with the computer. Such use is not necessarily bad and is probably justified in many cases; but it must be recognized for what it is. The problem is when reward and entertainment function of the computer is the primary use in the classroom rather than for meeting specific educational objectives.

Bad Programs and Bad Interfaces:

The lure of computers and the ability to program educational software has led to a rapid proliferation of thousands of programs, most of them bad. Educators with minimal training in programming, often self taught, started to write programs. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, most had little experience in quality programming. Without formal training and a knowledge of good software design, they have generated the unreliable, unstable, inconsistent and unusable software mentioned above. Finally, without enduring institutional or corporate support, they could provide no lasting technical maintenance or support for their software. Users were on their own.

To manage the flood of educational software generated each year, Educom was started to act as a clearinghouse for organizing, evaluating, and disseminating these programs. In recent years there has been a significant thrust for quality and award winning software. Nevertheless, there has yet to be appear an interface design document that would promote consistent, reliable software.

What makes an educational software program good or bad? There are many different things, but they boil down to three basic factors: interface design, functionality, and educational merit. Interface design pertains to easy of use and consistency of the software; functionality refers to the number and complexity of things that the program can do; and educational merit has to do with the depth and breadth of material and the mechanisms to facilitate learning. Table 2.1 presents a number of features to look for in good educational software.

Table 2.1

Good design features for educational software

Interface Design

Good flow of control: Smooth and efficient flow of interaction from the beginning of an activity to the end. Minimal amount of backtracking, opening, and closing of objects such as windows, files, and menus. Close mapping between the steps of the activity and the interaction with the interface.

Clear navigation: Well-labeled menu options. Distinctive icons with text labels. Broad and shallow menu hierarchies that minimize the number of selections and maximize choice at each level. Good use of graphics, maps, and diagrams to help the use navigate.

Use of direct manipulation: Allows the user to directly control, move, change objects on the screen rather than enter sequences of commands.

Good screen layout: Consistent placement of objects on the screen. Reasoned organization of objects on the screen. Appealing graphic design. Clear borders and separation of foreground and background.

Good feedback: System keeps the user informed of its progress or state. Positive error handling: Well-written error messages to the user that are framed in a positive tone and give clear instructions of what to do.

Effective use of graphics, color, and audio: Avoids over use of pointless graphic images, garish colors, and obnoxious audio. Uses graphics, color, and audio in a sophisticated, compelling manner.


Adequate capacity: Has sufficient size to accommodate all learning activities and educational materials needed for any one activity.

Appropriate complexity: The software is complex enough to perform the required task, but not so complex as to confuse the user, require lengthy training, or impose too many options or steps to the user when performing a simple task.

Has full text editing functionality: Ability to edit fields, cut, paste, and copy between fields.

Undo and backup features: Allows the user to undo any command or action that has been selected. Keeps backups of files to allow the user to return to previous states.

Good ability to present multimedia: Fast enough to load graphics and play sounds, animations or movies without annoying pauses and breaks. High enough resolution to not appear grainy.

Good reliability: Free of software bugs and crashes, especially those that loose data.

Maintainability, upgradability and extensible: Software should be easy to maintain, have good support, should be upgradable with new hardware and operating systems, and should be expandable to include new materials, levels of difficulty, etc.

Educational Merit

Reasonable model of instruction: The model of instruction, whether drill and practice, exploration and discovery, engagement and construction, or whatever, is clear and well-implemented.

Clear learning objectives: The scope and sequence of the activity is well-defined. Objectives are clear and obtainable in terms of performance and/or products.

Effective reinforcement: Reinforcement is reasonable and not gratuitous. It is used sparingly and is related to task completion. Diagnostic of mistakes: Errors on the part of student are clearly diagnosed and feed back into the instructional model.

To the point: Minimal use of unrelated tasks and skills. Activities are focused on the learning task rather than on the interface or on entertainment.

Good record keeping: Stores useful information on student performance to be used by the instructor and/or by the system.

User Accommodation: Sufficient options of accommodating different learning styles, speed of learning, and user input limitations for the physically disabled.

Much of computer aided instruction is boring, drill and practice. While rote learning is essential in some circumstances, most of these programs are no better than flash cards and often much harder to use. Even with multimedia, animation and sound, these programs can quickly become monotonous or distracting from the actual content to be learned. Games can be engaging but they must not draw attention away from the material.

Lack of Teacher Training and Support:

In contrast to the small, elite group of computer buffs in education, there exists a vast population of semi-enthusiastic instructors who have had little or no prior exposure to computers. In too many cases, computers have been introduced into the classroom with little or no teacher training and insufficient support. The computer appeared in the classroom, the teacher was expected to use it, but at best only instruction manuals were supplied. No one was available to set up the system, answer questions, or even fix the computer if something went wrong. Sometimes one teacher would take the lead to help others or a bright student in the class would act as a helper, but all too often the computer would go unused and eventually end up in the storage closet.

To avoid this disaster in our next round with computers, we must consider what we have learned so far and what steps can be taken to remedy the problem. Interestingly, the lessons to be learned are the same three that business and industry had to master to survive the first computer revolution. The recommendations are as follows:

(a) Ensure that all users receive at least a minimum amount of training.

(b) Create a small cadre of users who are well trained that can assist and support others throughout the system.

(c) Provide an infrastructure for the support and maintenance the equipment.

Finally, educational institutions must factor into their budgets support for these three objectives. Moreover, they will have to come to grips with the fact that in the long run the cost of support and maintenance may well exceed the initial investment in the hardware.

Piecemeal and Unintegrated Use:

Quite apart from the success of any particular application, computers have often been used in the classroom as supplements and alternatives rather than as an integrated system of instruction. While each application, whether computer assisted instruction, an intelligent tutor, a simulation or a word processor, has is merits, the lack of connectivity across various activities of instruction has severely limited their impact. Each program has been thought of as a little world in itself rather than as a set of related applications that share information and a common objective. Students have had to switch between paper-based material (e.g., textbooks, notebooks, and handouts) and computer-based materials (e.g., computer assisted instruction, simulations, gaming) and back.

Even when there are a number of computer programs, students have had to quit one application before they can start up another. Two programs could not be run at the same time. Information from one application could not be copied to another. Hence the output of a simulation could not be pasted into a written report. The upper panel of Figure 2.1 illustrates the hodgepodge of disconnected applications in education.

Figure 2.1. Flow diagrams for activities using educational software. The upper panel shows the use of disconnected pieces of software in a project. The bottom panel shows the use of an integrated system of software modules.

The remedy to this problem is obvious. Educational applications should be hosted in a unified environment that allows seamless transfer of input and output from one application to another (see the lower panel of Figure 2.1). Fortunately, this is the current trend in operating systems. The Macintosh(TM) and Windows(TM) environments provide tools for copying information and linking programs and files together. Moreover, integrated packages have been appearing for use in office automation such as Lotus 123, Claris Works, and Microsoft Works. These programs bundle word processors, spread sheets, databases, and communications in one more or less seamless package. These systems plus other environments in using hypermedia and stackware will help to support a unified, integrated medium for education. Part II of this book will present such a system in detail.

Too Few Computers/Too Many Students:

Imagine a class in which students were each expected to take notes, but there was only one pencil to be shared by the entire class. Or another in which everyone was expected to follow along in the text during the lecture, but there was only one book. These are descriptions of impoverished educational resources that one might encounter in developing countries. But if computers represent the primary educational resource of the next generation, then today we are drastically impoverished. When it comes to computers, we need to consider our current situation as if we were a developing country.

Classrooms in K-12 have had only one or two computers for 20 to 30 students. In better schools computer labs have been built, but they are in separate rooms from general classroom instruction. Consequently, students have had to rely on traditional hardcopy notetaking and verbal interaction in class. Computers have been used only during non-class time in computer labs or at home. Thus, the classroom itself has lagged behind computer labs and even use of computers at home. Students have done homework and exercises on computers outside of class and had to print hardcopy output to bring into the classroom. It is as if computers are being switched on everywhere except in the classroom which remains in the dark. It is time to put computers in the classroom where they are most needed.

For computers to achieve a central role in education, there must be at least one computer for each student. We cannot limit access or take turns using computers. They must be available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. With current trends in costs and market penetration, there is no doubt that eventually the pressure from the proliferation of computers outside the classroom will be felt inside. Both students and faculty will buy them and bring them in on their own. However, if educational institutions are to facilitate and manage this change, they will have to be proactive in providing computer resources up front rather than reactive just waiting to see what happens.

Lack of An Integrated Infrastructure:

Even when computers have been used in the classroom for demonstrations and presentation, in the lab by the students for exercises and simulations, and for homework and assignments, there has nevertheless been a systemic disconnect. The problem has been the unbelievable proliferation of incompatible and inconsistent packages on the market from operating systems that can't communicate with each other to word processors and spreadsheet that cannot read each other's documents. We are only beginning to develop the bridges, file exchange programs, and common architectures that are necessary for totally networked, interoperable system.

In the educational market, integration of software is even worse. The thousands of educational programs require different system configurations, do not communicate input and output with other programs, and cannot be linked in any useful way for a seamless sequence of events in the classroom. Thus, instructors have to exit one application and reconfigure the system to go another. Students have to run a simulation, write down the results on a piece of paper and copy them into a word processor for inclusion in their written report.

The absence of an integrated, common, seamless architecture for educational hardware and software has crippled the advantages of using computers. Too much time is wasted starting, stopping, and switching gears.

Lack of An Systems Approach:

The ultimate problem and reason for the failure of computers in the past has been the lack of an integrated top-down systems approach to the design and application of computers in education. The achievements of individuals and particular schools have been wonderful, but they have been inherently limited by starting from a bottom-up and piecemeal approach rather than a top-down and systematic one. The result has been a number of very fine railroads, but all with different size track. Whatever commerce goes through has to be unloaded from one and loaded unto another by sheer manual labor.

What is needed is a top-down systematic approach to educational computing. A balance must be struck between the freedom of individual expression and innovation and the standards for inter-communication and interface design. While the contents of this book make a measured stab at such a top-down systematic architecture, it must be considered at this point as only a prototype for further exploration and development and not the ultimate design.

Unrealistic Expectations:

Finally, we must come full circle back to our expectations about what computers are really going to do for us. Too often the introduction of computers is accompanied by unrealistic fanfare. The advocates of computers in education including this author should not promise that computers will solve all of the problems of education. It has not taken long for teachers and administrators to become disenchanted, disgruntled and discouraged by the unfulfilled promises of computers in education.

At this point a realistic level of enthusiasm and expectation is required. Many are convinced that computers will have a universal, beneficial, and significant impact on education. However, computers will not automatically close the gap between objectives and outcome in education. Computers will not replace the teacher. And they will not replace the effort required on the part of the student to learn the material. However, they will enhance and enrich materials; they will automate retrieval, storage, and record keeping; and they will provide higher levels and new channels of interaction and communication.


It is clear that we need to take a measured approach to the application of computers in education. The blind introduction of computers in the classroom will fail. However, with realistic expectations, informed of the benefits, the pitfalls, and the liabilities of computers, the potential of computer-based technology in the classroom is tremendous. In the past we have only scratched the surface. The early power and functionality of computer systems were minimal compared to the computer power today. If past and current rates of change are suggestive of the future developments, the computers of tomorrow will dwarf those of today. While this chapter has been critical of current and past accomplishments and primarily negative in tone, the next chapter will turn the corner. The promise of computers in classroom is more positive than ever as technology matures and as the educational community comes up to speed.

Exercises and Projects

1. Find articles in the newspaper or magazines about computers. Are they advocates or skeptics? Are the authors realistic in their expectations or their fears?

2. Identify a particular project in which computers are being used in education. Analyze the pros and cons of the application in terms of the positive objectives found in Chapter 1 and the mitigating forces listed in this chapter.

3. Identify two older programs from the public domain (such as those distributed on the CD-ROM Macademic) and two newer commercial programs. Analyze each program in terms of the objectives and design features listed in Table 2.1.

Suggested Readings

Holden, C. (1989). Computers make slow progress in class, Science, 244, 906-909.

Jensen, R. E. (1993). The technology of the future is already here. Academe, July-August 1993, pp. 8-13.

Sheingold, K., & Tucker, M. S. (1990). Restructuring for learning with technology. Center for Technology in Education, Bank Street College of Education and the National Center for Education and the Economy.

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