Week 2 2014 Becker (1984)

Becker, Henry Jay (1984). Computers in Schools Today: Some Basic Considerations. American Journal of Education, 93(1), 22-39.


Becker draws attention to the uncertain connections between learning and computer use. That debate continues to this day. What I like to think of as “how” questions are the ones that keep on being asked over and over again, e.g. How best to use a computer to teach underwater basket weaving; how best to use an iPad in teaching year 8 mathematics etc.

The second question is the one about programming. This debate has muted a little over time but the recent interest in computational thinking and notions of "big data" and "machine learning" have brought these debates back to some degree.

Douglas Rushkoff has an interesting argument in his recent book: Program or be programmed1 in which he makes a strong case for the importance of programming in a broad sense.

Becker presciently points to the likely importance of searching and of the use of computer modelling in schools. He also raises an important point about deploying computers to cater for difference and also notes, what was then an important issue, that of resourcing2.

There is a useful tracking of the term computer literacy, a term that seems to wander in and out of popularity3.

His list (pp 26-27) of the logical value of computers for kids is one that has been repeated over and over. The research questions that flow from this argument are familiar ones.

It is worth noting that the predominance of drill and practice he reports did not occur to that degree in Australia where word processors and similar applications were used. It is interesting that the irony of using machines to teach things that machines are good at, i.e. the recalling of facts, was missed4.

Another important issue that is briefly canvassed, getting machines to do the things good teachers do, has persisted over time. The emergence of easy video distribution has allowed many universities to distribute lectures given by their showcase staff. It has allowed things like the Khan academy and Udacity to provide educational experiences to very large numbers of students. The issue of cost effectiveness which Becker raises is something that these large scale online educational facilities clearly achieve.

It is interesting to read about the issues/questions/debates that relate to the use of word processing in classrooms and how much and little some of these have changed over time.