US call for back-to-basics in IT

May 9, 1997

Alan Cromer is an American university physics professor, science education consultant and former academic software developer. But as far as he is concerned, the most important technological innovation in the classroom isn't the computer. It's the chalkboard.

In his book Connected Knowledge, to be published in the United Kingdom in July by Oxford University Press, Dr Cromer argues for slowing down the pace of educational technology. Educators, he says, cannot keep up with the explosive pace of the high-tech revolution when advances come so quickly that teachers do not have time to master new computer-based curricula.

"Schools that try to keep up with the latest technology will, like the Soviet Union, exhaust themselves running a race they can't win," Dr Cromer writes. Meanwhile, he says, "technology may be replacing, at great expense, less expensive and equally effective methods."

Dr Cromer's own department at Northeastern University bought a costly multimedia computer system that projects its output on a large screen. But he says it takes his colleagues hours to write a single lecture "with no evidence that it has any effect on learning that couldn't be achieved with a few live demonstrations".

Dr Cromer, who founded and then sold a small educational software company in the 1980s, said he once thought technology would revolutionise teaching. But the curriculum didn't change.

"We're totally trapped in what I call a slide rule mentality," he said in an interview. "The textbooks have not changed in 50 years, and the problems are still what I call slide rule problems. Money gets allocated for technology and teachers get trained in technology, but nothing new is really going on."

Dr Cromer proposes de-escalating the technology race by developing standardised, low-cost computers whose basic design and software would remain fixed for at least five years, allowing time for teachers to incorporate them into their curricula.

"Educational technology often looks like a solution in search of a problem," he said. "It's easy to fall in love with high-tech gizmos - I've done it myself - and to lose sight of the ultimate objective: the education of a student."

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