First Monday - Section III: Why Computers are Ineffective Today
First Monday
Section III: Why Computers are Ineffective Today


Chapter 7: Problems Confronting Teachers
Chapter 8: Problems Confronting Programmers

Chapter 7: Problems Confronting Teachers
Since small or personal computers first appeared, teachers have been using them in classrooms to supplement their instruction. Although some studies confirm that this use enhances learning, other research shows less positive results [ 28 ]. Teachers are seldom forced to use computers. They usually are permitted to make a choice. Their initial decision to incorporate computers into their instruction has a prerequisite: they must be taught to use computers.

This need for training of teachers creates an immediate and major obstacle to full use of computers in today's schools because hundreds of thousands of teachers lack the needed expertise. Additionally, future teachers now being taught in schools of education are not being equipped to teach with computers. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education recently surveyed ninety schools of education. They found that "the faculty rated only 58 percent of the students as prepared to teach with computers." Apparently even that discouraging figure had been optimistically inflated by the education school professors because researchers also found that "only 29 percent of the education students felt ready to teach with computers [ 29 ]." These figures won't readily improve since the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment also discovered a "lack of expertise of many education school faculty [ 30 ]" with computers.

Moreover, initial teacher training is not enough. As the Office of Technology Assessment states, "Teachers need continuing training as the technology changes, as new and more effective applications are developed, and as more is learned about learning with technology [ 31 ]." Preparing teachers to use computers is a process that is never completed.

If computers were used to teach without an intermediary instructor, the need for constant training and retraining of teachers would be eliminated. Teachers need and want continuing education, but it is more valuable if it is given either in their area of expertise or in methods of helping students, not in computer basics.

The lack of training is one of the reasons why only a small percentage of the teachers in the nation use computers in their classes. The Office of Technology Assessment pointed out that:

"teachers who have taught with computers agree that - at least initially - most uses of computers make teaching more challenging. Individualizing lessons, matching software to curriculum, scheduling student computer time, monitoring use, providing assistance, and troubleshooting - all add burdens to the teacher's time... The net effect is increased demand on teachers' time and creativity... very few teachers have adequate time for planning and preparing to use technology [ 32 ]."

If we examine each challenge from the Office of Technology Assessment separately, a pattern develops showing clearly that the frustrations that fall on teachers when they use computers would vanish if computers were used without teachers as intermediaries.

Challenge 1: "individualizing lessons"
Even the best teacher finds it a monstrous difficulty to individualize lessons for each student in any classroom. Students are at different learning levels, and dedicated teachers struggle continually to surmount this immense obstacle. When computers are used in today's classrooms, problems are intensified because at another level, the computer, exists between teacher and individual student. Theoretically, when using computers, teachers might assign different students to different parts of lessons depending on the progress of pupils. That, however, would require that the teacher be able to analyze accurately the condition of the learning of thirty students on that particular day and know the intricacies of the computer lessons with uncanny thoroughness. Even if teachers had these skills, computer programs intended for only one class will lack many instructional steps demanded by the differing requirements of students. If teachers had different programs available, they still could not decide exactly what level of computer instruction was optimum for each student.

Computers, if they were unhindered, could easily analyze and determine individual student needs and provide appropriate lessons. I will explain this ability more explicitly in Chapter 9 (in the January, 1997 issue of First Monday). Any attempt to individualize instruction provides a monumental burden for teachers without the gains that computers can provide.

Challenge 2: "matching software to curriculum"
Teachers must choose a software program that they have decided will help them and supplement their instruction, while keeping their curriculum requirements always in the forefront. Programmers can create software that will satisfy the needs of the total curriculum, but only if computers are responsible for the complete education of students. If computers were instructing without a teacher, they would not be bound by predetermined limits of a software package intended for only one class. If a machine discovered that a student was missing information or skills that should have been learned four years earlier, it would return to that level. If it found a student or students ready to go to the next level, it would immediately provide the advanced material. It would integrate learning to a degree impossible today when computers are used only to augment the instruction of a teacher. Again, teachers waste their valuable resources trying to match software to curriculum because software writers can do it more easily and more efficiently.

Challenge 3: "scheduling student computer time"
Teachers must try to accomplish what would be automatic if computers were responsible for teaching. If students had full access to a machine as they would in computerized education, scheduling problems would vanish. Providing an individual computer for every student in present classes is impractical. Most teachers will not use them, and the others will employ them only for brief periods.

Challenge 4: "monitoring use"
Teachers must try to supervise how thirty pupils use their individual computers. Every teacher, who has thirty eyes operating independently of each other, finds this task is easy. For those who have only one pair of eyes and can focus on only one object at a time, it is more difficult - impossible, may be a more apt term. Computers are better able to oversee their use by individual pupils than is a teacher. Software writers could build monitoring into lessons. As a simple example, they could program machines to query students when a certain length of time had elapsed without interaction from the student. The machine would immediately set about solving the difficulty, whatever it might be. It could take appropriate remedial action if frivolous interactions took place. If necessary, programming could alert authorities. Each machine would be responsible for one student instead of one teacher trying to watch and supervise thirty students.

Challenge 5: "providing assistance and troubleshooting"
A few teachers become adept at computer usage. Most do not. People who use computers regularly are often ill equipped for troubleshooting. This help could be provided by the computer by being incorporated into the original programming. In complete computerized education, programmers will arrange for automatic feedback to them of problems, and they will then make changes in programs to decrease constantly the difficulties students encounter. If more help was needed, students could reach outside experts at any time. I will discuss this option in Chapter 21 (in the January, 1997 issue of First Monday).

Teachers are not prepared for new roles as computer experts or technical wizards. It is inefficient to put teachers into those positions, because it wastes their valuable time and gives them another useless burden. The need to assist students is increased further because software has to be written to manage the countless variations among teachers, interposed between pupils and programs.

All these daunting problems now confronting teachers - when they try to use computers in their classrooms - would vanish if computers were teaching.

Teachers are already grossly overburdened. Recall the message from the Office of Technology Assessment: "very few teachers have adequate time for planning and preparing to use technology." With these problems confronting teachers, their attitudes are, understandably, often tepid and sometimes antagonistic toward the machines. Present use of computers burdens teachers and provides minimal help for education.

The basic difficulties facing teachers, when trying to integrate computers into their classrooms, explains part of the reason why these devices have had a negligible effect upon education. Even if by some miracle all teachers were suddenly made computer literate and were all filled with a desire to use computers, another and more potent obstacle would still remain. That is the subject of the next chapter.

Chapter 8: Problems Confronting Programmers
In the short history of computers, software producers have been remarkable in developing successful programs for banking, communications, management, medicine, finance, space, accounting, publishing, manufacturing, research - the list is almost endless. One giant exception stands out: education. According to the U. S. Congress' Office of Technology Assessment "there is a general consensus that most software does not yet sufficiently exploit the capacity of the computer to enhance teaching and learning [ 33 ]."

Why have software producers been able to revolutionize other industries but not education? An obvious and preliminary question first needs an answer: have they tried hard enough? They should have, if only because the number of potential customers ought to activate their profit-making juices. Every student in America could utilize many programs. Forty million potential customers are waiting in the United States, hundreds of millions more in other nations.

Without question, software companies understand that there is a huge market awaiting them. They have made massive efforts. When the Office of Technology Assessment issued its complaint about inadequate educational software in 1988, over nine hundred companies had already developed over ten thousand educational programs in the United States! Additions to the stock of educational software have continued unabated since then. Lack of outstanding software, therefore, is not due to half-hearted attempts by companies. Something is different in education that hinders development of superior programs.

These mediocre results are due to the ways that schools employ computers today. The present procedures make it virtually impossible for programmers to develop and sell distinguished software to schools, and for schools to use software of the highest caliber.

Teacher Variations
Computer software doesn't have the responsibility for educating pupils. Teachers have that obligation. Teachers decide how it should be done and they must choose software to help them carry out their ideas of instructing. Software developers can't start with the sole objective of writing programs that will teach children as well as mechanically and digitally possible. The primary goal of programmers must be to assist teachers to teach children as well as humanly possible, as a mechanical and digital assistant to teachers, not a replacement. Although in theory these two goals may seem the same, there are profound differences. The individual teacher's method must remain the predominant element in every classroom. Programmers developing educational software must create software that will aid instructors and appeal to them.

Obviously, teachers have unique talents. Their differences are pronounced, and education has always allowed for these variations - even encouraged them. Although standards for classes have been established, each teacher necessarily has considerable leeway in conveying the required material to students. The instructor's choice is not based on an arbitrary whim. It depends on his or her skill, knowledge, energy, and training. Each teacher has a unique combination of natural traits and acquired background.

Teachers have many valid reasons to avoid using computers, as the last chapter (Chapter 7) brought out. If, however, they decide to employ machines, all their individual characteristics influence them as they consider how they want to prepare students before they use computers, how much to have computers cover, where to place computer instruction into their teaching plan, how to integrate computers with their testing and grading, and how much time to give students to interact with computer lessons.

The absolute quality of software cannot predominate in purchasing decisions by teachers. They must select a program that is compatible with their style of teaching. Otherwise, they and the computers will be out of harmony. Even when many teachers wish to use computers to teach the same subject, each may prefer different software because of his or her unique skills and training.

This need to accommodate programs to individual traits of instructors creates an immense hurdle for software publishers. Millions of different teachers mean multitudes of preferences and goals. This overriding obligation to deal with the personal and diverse requirements of teachers is basic to the inability of programmers to develop educational software that will take full advantage of the power of computers.

Cost of Programming
A pragmatic obstacle also hinders software writers: making a profit by developing software is made more difficult because diverse teacher wishes and needs result in a smaller market for any one program. This hindrance is less damaging than teacher variations, but flows from them and warrants mention here.

Programming is costly and companies engaged in development need to make money. Despite the huge numbers of students, teacher variations limit potential customers for any one program. The result is less impetus for companies to expend substantial amounts of time and money developing successful educational software. Interestingly, Microsoft, the foremost software producer in the world, has failed to make a significant entrance into the potentially mammoth educational software market.

The Office of Technology Assessment suggested a solution to the problem of costs. The Office, in its report, proposed that the government take some part in developing software [ 34 ]. This federal involvement might allow programs to be written without regard to how well the programs would sell. Although the idea has some merit, this policy would be costly without ensuring an improvement in education. Teachers would still use only the software that fits their needs even if it were free. The core problem of divergences among teachers would remain.

In recent years, software producers have been trying to overcome the financial handicap of this diverse market by directing some of their sales pitches to school boards and superintendents. These authorities can choose programs for the entire system, buy many copies, and impose them on large groups of teachers. Software companies avidly embrace this plan of marketing: it allows them to sell larger quantities of the same program. Teachers, however, don't like it. Where they do not select software, but find it specified by school authorities, they have a history of overt or covert rebellion. Their hesitation is understandable because their many natural variations rule out the possibility that one computer program can serve them all well. When software is imposed upon them, instructors have to alter their methods to achieve optimum results. Teachers often can't make these changes. They are not being obstinate. They just can't revise drastically their methods unless they can also do the impossible: change their individual talents, training, experience, and energy.

At times, teachers ignore computer programs that are imposed by higher authorities almost completely. Sometimes they merely go through the motions of employing computers. I must repeat that teachers cannot be blamed for this impasse. Simultaneously, programmers are not at fault because they can't create one software program that will conform to innumerable different teaching methods and styles. It is nearly impossible to write a program that will be exceptionally effective in classrooms with students who also have different abilities and needs.

The multiple and major differences among teachers explain a portion of the inability of companies to develop remarkable educational programs. Hesitation of software companies to expend the large sums necessary to develop products that will be used only by a few teachers adds another hurdle. These, however, are only part of the problem; other serious obstacles also challenge makers of software.

Time and Curriculum
Two substantial restraints that always bedevil teachers also hinder software development: the hours available to teachers are limited, and the requirements of the curriculum they must follow are rigid.

Teachers who use computers must finish their lessons in the periods allotted, and instructors find they usually could use additional hours. The time they give students to interact with the machines comes from that block of available hours. Theoretically, computers should help them complete their teaching in less time. This savings apparently doesn't help them appreciably as is shown by the little time they allot their students in the computer labs. According to the Office of Technology Assessment,"Most computer-using students still spend only about one hour per week with the computer [ 35 ]." Programmers, therefore, must develop programs that assist teachers with whatever time might be available in school to use computers.

The ever present and important curriculum requirements are another obstacle. Teachers are responsible for covering a specified amount of material in their classes. Basic student weaknesses affect learning in many ways, but teachers are unable to address all individual needs and still cover the assigned material. An instructor attempting to teach ninth grade literature must focus primarily on covering the authors required for that class, not on improving basic sixth grade reading skills, although some students would profit more from literature if they could read better.

Writers can produce programs that will ferret out student needs and provide fitting antidotes for almost all student shortcomings. Remedying defects that are normally addressed in other classes, however, is not the reason teachers choose their products. Programmers must, therefore, concentrate on producing software that will agree fully with the primary consideration of teachers: covering the assigned part of the curriculum. They must leave unattended the more basic needs of certain students.

Review and Confirmation
This chapter began with a question asking why American companies producing software for education have been unable to duplicate their successes in other fields. The answer is that programmers cannot aim primarily to teach children, but must try to help teachers, with varied skills, teach children. Their programs must simultaneously meet the time and curriculum requirements placed on teachers. The struggle is hopeless, and consequently, the world's stellar producers of programming have created little exceptional educational software. Poor software means that the almost unlimited power of computers has had a negligible impact in education.

I can offer additional substantiation that these conclusions are correct. This evidence is derived from an occurrence that seems incredible at first sight, but is understandable with the reasoning of this chapter: teachers do not regularly use the best software that programmers have created. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment decries:

"... a fundamental predicament: products that are highly rated by "Experts" because they represent the most innovative uses are not necessarily the ones preferred by most teachers [ 36 ]."

I stress that teachers are a dedicated group, and although they bypass the best programs, they do not deliberately wish to shortchange students. They choose inferior software simply because of the necessary criterion for any selection: the programming must agree with each instructor's teaching agenda, individual talents, and specific time and curriculum requirements. No one program, even if it is objectively outstanding, can match the needs of many teachers because their requirements vary widely. Therefore, only a small percentage of instructors will find any particular program suited to their individual needs, however good it may be.

The Answer
Present use of computers by teachers dramatically limits the potential of computers, but does not greatly enhance the capabilities of teachers nor make their jobs less difficult. Under the present system, the awesome teaching power of computers can never be fully used, and teachers can never be relieved of the time-consuming tasks that interfere with their true abilities to educate children.

The solution is simple: free teachers from their usual duties and let computers teach students without an intermediary human instructor. This step will also permit teachers to use their talents and dedication in other more productive manners.

If the primary goal of programmers were to provide the best education for students without worrying whether the programs conform to the different styles of teachers and their particular time and specified class curriculum restraints, these developers could create software that would enable computers to teach every student effectively. They could build on the unsurpassed ability of the machines to provide individual instruction.

Why haven't schools taken what seems a logical step and let computers teach? Part of the difficulty is the need to change established patterns, but part may also be because teachers fear that this use of computers will denigrate their position in education. Their anxiety is unfounded. Computerized education will not harm teachers. Quite the contrary! Their results will improve. Their status will be boosted. The poor morale that riddles their ranks today will be bettered. They will be relieved of the boring and frustrating tasks that consume huge portions of their educational hours. They will devote more of their limited time to their primary passion - educating youth. I will return to these important ideas in Chapters 18, 19 and 20 (in the January, 1997 issue of First Monday).

During the previous chapters I have explained many drawbacks to the present use of computers in schools. I have also made references to the potential advantages of computerized education. In-depth examination is now appropriate of the windfalls that will accrue when computers are used effectively in education, the sorts of effects that computers have had on other disciplines and fields. End of article

Frederick Bennett
Fred Bennett received his undergraduate degree in business administration. When he finished, he thought that he would never have to be in school again. After college, he started working as a salesman and later established a book distribution business.

Idealism then got the better of him and he decided to change the world. He chose to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. It was back to school again and he received an STL (Licentiate in Sacred Theology) from the Pontifical University Angelicum in Rome, Italy. Returning to the U. S., he taught Greek and performed ministerial functions.

He returned to school again and received M. A. in counseling from the University of New Mexico, and then a Ph.D. in psychology from University of Utah in 1971. After the advanced degrees, he helped set up a treatment program for clergy with alcoholism and also worked in an inner city mental health center. In these environments, he first confronted the reality that some people without education could not get a job, regardless of how much they wanted to work.

Eventually, he realized he was not changing the world and left the priesthood. He directed public addiction treatment programs in Colorado and Florida and married a Ph.D. chemist, who was an excellent teacher. He then established, owned, and directed a group of private addiction treatment centers. He also became interested in computers and began to write programs to handle the paperwork for his company.

In 1990 he sold the business, moved to Sarasota, Florida, and began new projects. He wrote a computer program for artists, which he markets throughout the United States. He also started to think seriously about the problems in education and spent several years studying the subject. His wife's background in education was of immense help. Finally, he sought to bring together what he had acquired from his studying and education, from his experience working with people at all levels, and from his knowledge of computers. The result is this book, "Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education."

Frederick Bennett can be reached at

The entire book is ©1996, Fred Bennett.

A Note of Thanks
My thanks go to Marge, above all, who was always so helpful and supportive as this book took shape, and to whom it is dedicated. A number of other people also offered many helpful suggestions, although they did not always agree with all my ideas. These people, in alphabetical order are Gene Best, Isa Dempsey, David Ellison, Margaret Kemner and Earl Krescanko. To all of them, my sincere thanks, and also to Paul Messink who first suggested that I put it on the Internet, and gave me so much help in getting it there.

28. James A. Kulik and Chen-lin C. Kulik, 1989. "Effectiveness of Computer-based Instruction," School Library Media Quarterly, (Spring), pp. 156-159.

29. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379), p. 100.

30. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379), p. 115.

31. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379), p. 88.

32. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379).

33. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379), p. 122, cf. pp. 142-3.

34. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379), p. 145.

35. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379), p. 143.

36. U. S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988. Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (OTA-SET-379), p. 132.

Copyright © 1996, First Monday
Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education by Frederick Bennett.
First Monday, Volume 1, Number 6 - 2 December 1996

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.