Buxton, W. (1999).  A Few Thoughts about Common Sense, Computers and Education.  Unpublished manuscript.

A Few Thoughts about Common Sense, Computers and Education



Bill Buxton
Chief Scientist
Alias|Wavefront Inc.
Toronto, Ontario

Die Zukunft war früher auch besser.
(The future was better in the past, as well.)

Karl Valentin

We are in the midst of significant technological change, and one of the places where this is manifest is in our schools and educational system. Governments are being pressured to put a computer on every student's desk, and parents are living in fear that if their child is not on the internet with the fastest computer and modem, that they will fall behind their peers and be handicapped for the rest of their life.

Is this pressure justified, and is it directing us to invest in the right areas and focus on the right problems? I have to confess that, despite being in the computer industry and a scientist, I have severe reservations, and these I want to share with you.

If there is one thing that we know about technology it is that things are changing at a rapid pace. But what does that have to say about computer literacy for children? For me, it says that whatever we teach them today is going to be obsolete by the time they finish school. So at least in terms of specifics, its future value is not what it may first appear.

But let us consider the question of "computer literacy" more deeply. I frequently hear people claim that through experience with video games, and the internet, for example, children today are becoming far more literate about computers than the previous generation. They then make the intellectual leap that as a consequence, when they grow up, these children will either not have the difficulties with computers that the current generations have, or that (through their increased literacy) they will have the skills to cure the ills that plague us today.

I think that nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that there is a valid counter argument that says that, as a percentage of those exposed to computers, children 15 years ago were far more literate about computers than those today. And this is despite all of the computer literacy courses that we see in the schools.

Why do I say this? Because in the days of the Apple II or Commodore 64, a significant proportion of children using a computer knew not only about the basic components of the hardware and their function, but also the fundamentals of programming. This is in marked contrast to most users today who, while they know how to use programs written by others, they are far less competent than their predecessors at writing them.

Of course, all of this is occurring at precisely the same time that the underlying technologies are becoming more and more complicated. So, tell me again how the emerging generation is equipped to better design technologies that are fit for human consumption?

And, while we are on the topic, if you have ever been frustrated by how poorly your computer was designed, consider this: to my knowledge there is not a university in the world where, in order to graduate with a degree in computer science, it is necessary to have ever written a program that was used by another human being, much less be marked on your ability to do so! But do not be too worried - the same is true in all other countries too.

What does this say about our values and priorities? How important are people in this whole equation? As a tax payer and a parent, how does this make you feel when you think that such ill trained people are the ones making the very same technologies that you are being told is essential for your children to have in order to be educated?

Here is what I think. First, stop concentrating on computers. Since technology is changing so fast, it is far more important to develop our ability to think, learn and problem solve, than to master Microsoft Office. Sure, you can develop these skills using computers. But personally, I think our time is generally much better spent studying music, history or even hockey. The key thing to focus on is the development of intelligence, as defined by the great cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, namely: the ability to adapt to and assimilate to a changing environment.

Our ability to develop such intelligence is not going to come from concentrating on hardware or software. Rather, it will most likely emerge from focussing on the development of "wetware" (remembering that the brain is 90% water.)

So where does all of this leave us in terms of the classroom and the home? Should we forget about computers? Of course not. They are part of our culture and should be taken seriously. In fact, far more seriously than they are today. But they should also be viewed with balance, and in context.

Let me step back and discuss the future in the context of history. My example comes from Volume II, Plate 55, of the Historical Atlas of Canada [1].  What the plate does is document the introduction of the blackboard into schools in Upper Canada in the period between 1856 and 1866.

Now you will be excused if you are now asking yourself, "Why do I care about blackboards in the 1800'sin Canada no less?". Nevertheless, I beg your patience.

The key to the example (regardless of year or country) lies in posing the following question: "What preceded the blackboard?"

Figure 1: The introduction of blackboards into schools in Upper Canada between 1856 and 1866. From the Historical Atlas of Canada, Volume II, Plate 55

With just a little reflection one will come to the obvious answer: "The slate."

But, you might ask, "Is not a slate just a little blackboard? If so, this cannot be very important."

Well, from a technological perspective, the answer is yes, slates are just small blackboards. They are made from the same materials, and in the jargon of today, employ the same "user interface", the same "text editor", "operating system" and even the same "erase" operator.

Consequently, one might quite legitimately ask, "What is the big deal?" After all, "all" that they did was make a bigger slate and put it on the wall.

Well, I would argue that this seemingly "simple" change was a "big deal". In fact, I believe that an argument can be made that the introduction of the blackboard has had more impact on classroom education than any innovation in technology since, including the introduction of cheap paper or the introduction of the internet and personal computers!

That may seem like a bold claim. But for my point to work, you only have to concede that this argument is plausible. It need not be true. The gist of the example is to illustrate that a very significant impact resulted from a change in scale, location and usage, rather than a change in technology per se. The change was social and educational, not technological in the common sense of the term.

Leaping ahead, this example from the mid-1800's sheds some light on the deployment of technology in today's schools as well. What it suggests to me is that perhaps we should be spending as much time looking into the potential of computer-driven electronic whiteboards, at the front of the class, as we are spending in the seemingly ubiquitous quest to put a computer on every student's desk. However, my perception is that his is not even remotely the case, to the misfortune of future students, I fear.

Mostly, the example simply says that the past suggests that we might want to look at the future differently than we have been.

In much of what I have said, it may sound that I am some kind of Luddite, and against technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. My life has revolved around technology for years, in the arts as well as science. I see great potential for these technologies. I am simply frustrated by how we seem to be wasting that potential through lazy thinking and discourse which is muddled by what could best be described as "cyberbabble."

If I leave the reader with any message, let it be the following: the problems and opportunities of the future are not going to be addressed by engineers or technologists. At least not alone. They simply do not have the requisite skills. Second, the issues can be articulated in common language. Cyberbabble exists to keep the debate in domain of the computer priesthood. This is unacceptable. Third, trust your common sense. You may not know much about computers, but through a lifetime of living, you should know something about people, and they are by far the more important technology. And finally, as my blackboard example hopefully reinforces, many (if not most) of the issues and problems facing us are not all new, and if we use our innate creativity, we can utilize our experience from the past to guide us in making better decisions in the future.

It is probably misleading to talk about "the future" in the singular. There are many futures. By our decisions today do we lay the foundation for the future of our children. Perhaps the best long term educational device that we have at our disposal is not to be found in the computer store, but rather in the decisions that we make in shaping that foundation.


[1] Moldofsky, B.R., Gentilcore, L., Measner, D., Matthews, G.J. & Walder, R.H. (1993).  Historical Atlas of Canada II:The Land Transformed, 1800-1891, Toronto:  University of Toronto Press.