The Flickering Mind:
The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom
Todd Oppenhemier. New York: Random House, 2003. 512 pages.
composition folks tend to be an optimistic bunch. The "techno-evangelism"
common a decade ago has calmed, but I suspect that most of the target
audience for Computers and Composition Online believe that, on the whole,
computers and related technologies are good for teaching. We're still
"glass half full" kinds of people, and deep down inside, most
computer and composition specialists, optimists that we are, believe that
the real answer to the question "are computers beneficial in the
classroom?" is "yes."
Todd Oppenheimer is not an optimist. His glass, if he has one at all, is completely empty.
His book, The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved is essentially an extended version of his award-winning 1997 Atlantic Monthly article "The Computer Delusion." In exhausting detail, Oppenheimer chronicles the ways in which computer technology in the schools has been an utter failure, a complete waste of time, effort, and money. Oppenheimer's focus is on elementary and secondary schools, and while he does mention the use of computer technology in language arts and English classes, particularly in elementary reading classes, his primary area of interest is in math and science courses. Nonetheless, The Flickering Mind is clearly relevant to computers and writing specialists working in college classrooms because of its relentless focus on the ways in which computers in the classroom have failed our students.
His journey through the false promises of technology in elementary and secondary schools is sobering, but ultimately, it is excessive. Oppenheimer is so intent on advancing his "failure of technology" argument that he seems afraid to admit that there have been any successes with computers in the classroom. Those of us who know better will spot these omissions, but the majority of Oppenheimer's audience won't, and these readers will be left with an overwhelmingly one-sided, negative, and ultimately unfair perspective on the role of technology in schools.
In his first chapter, "Education's History of Technotopia," Oppenheimer reminds us of a series of failed attempted uses of technology to solve the problems of teaching. Besides discussing the early history of the personal computer, the early role of the computer industry in getting computers in the classroom, and the reoccurring nature of the "digital divide," Oppenheimer also describes technological failures such as early film, radio, and even the telephone. In each case, Oppenheimer reminds us of the all-too common cycle of technological solutions in the classroom: initial enthusiasm, followed by unmet expectations, followed by doubt, and concluded with a dismissal of the technology.
The rest of part one, titled "False Promises," chronicles Oppenheimer's travels to schools across the country. In Harlem, Oppenheimer travels with one of the few computer techs working in the school district, visiting classrooms where the teachers know little about basic computer tasks and where the primary use for computer labs by students seems to be playing games. In the small town of Hundred, West Virginia, he visits a highly wired high school where he describes the failed experiment of bringing distance education classes from area community colleges to the school in part by tracking the experience of one gifted and bitter student. In suburban Washington, D.C., he visits Montgomery County, Maryland's Blair High School, which has been "widely celebrated for its special 'magnet' program in computer science, general science, and mathematics" (121). While he notes that the students attending the magnet program within the school seem to be performing well, the majority of the "normal" students lack math skills because of their reliance on graphing calculators (130-131). In Napa, California, Oppenheimer visits New Technology High School, a small high school designed from the ground up in partnership with the nearby computer industry to produce technology workers for the twenty-first century. While the school is impressively wired, the hardware and software in the school means little homework for students (166) and few classes in the arts or even advanced math (167-8).
After five years of research and travel to schools all over the country, Oppenheimer has few good things to say about computers in the classroom. And after reading what's wrong for 200 or so pages, I began to doubt Oppenheimer's impressions because they seem so completely different from my own experiences with computers in classrooms. Granted, I was aware first or second hand of all of the problems that Oppenheimer reports; but in these same settings, I was also aware of at least some successes as well. For me, the effect of Oppenheimer's polemic approach and his failure to acknowledge the fact that it is possible to teach well with computers casts some doubt on his perspective and credibility.
II: Hidden Troubles," where he discusses the troubled relationship
between technology industries, for-profit education companies and the
schools, Oppenheimer concludes in "Part III: Smarter Paths,"
three chapters and a conclusion that promise solutions or at least better
ways to educate. Unfortunately, Oppenheimer's solutions seem to hinge
on some incredibly unrealistic scenerios. This is perhaps best exemplified
by his discussion of the New York City Urban Academy High school, a "shockingly
tiny school, comprising a mere 120 student and a main campus of eight
classrooms, all of which reside on a portion of the second floor of a
five-story building" (325) and which employs eleven teachers. These
teachers, many at school past 6 p.m. (327), include "super teachers"
like Wally Warshawsky, described by Oppenheimer as a "legend"
who "walks the school's hallways like a Caucasian version of Toshiro
Mifune, the late Japanese film star known for his portrayals of larger-than-life
samurai warriors" (336). Warshawsky, who also teaches philosophy
and ancient history, is Urban's math teacher, pitting his students against
each other in math competitions and sending them off on trigonometry field
trips on the Staten Island Ferry.
Smaller, alternative schools certainly can represent models of success, but by definition, "alternative" schools are not "mainstream," and they are expensive. Interestingly, while Oppenheimer goes into great detail about the money spent on computer technology, he is curiously silent about the costs of schools like Urban Academy. And while we would all like to have taken classes from a Wally Warshawsky (or even be a Wally Warshawsky), teaching is no different from any other profession in that not everyone can be an over-achiever. Finally, neither of these things-- alternatives to traditional schooling and better teaching-- are mutually exclusive with computers in the classroom.
Ultimately, Oppenheimer's book tells us something most who study the use of technology in classrooms already know. He concludes that computers are here to stay and that "The challenge for schools, therefore, is to be smarter about how and when they use technology, and how they separate its wheat from its chaff" (393). Oppenheimer does an admirable job showing us what's wrong with the way schools use computers in teaching, and it is a useful book for curbing the enthusiasm for well-intentioned, albeit misguided, uses of computers in elementary and secondary schools. But that's the easy part. The hard part is finding those smarter uses of computers. For that, perhaps Oppenheimer should observe and interview the optimists among us.
"Digital Gap Among Minority Children" on NPR's Tavis Smiley Show (Oppenheimer was one of the guests on this show)
"One Flew Over the High School" (A review of The Flickering Mind" in From Now On by Jamie McKenzie)
Reviews of The Flickering Mind on booknoise.net (Reviews from many sources, including The New York Times, Newsweek, and School Library Journal)
Flickering Mind" on NPR's Talk of the Nation Show" (Oppenheimer
on the NPR call-in talk show)