Computers and our continuing education

Governors, with the latest round of state of the state speeches and budget

proposals, have made their priorities clear: Every region needs access to

high-speed Internet connections, and every school should have computers

in its classrooms.

Unfortunately, our nation's leaders tend to frame such proposals in

vague terms, invoking the need to foster a tech-savvy workforce and to keep

U.S. companies competitive in the global market.

What's missing is an explanation of how computers translate into educational

and economic advantages. The sound bites suggest that learning word processing,

electronic spreadsheets and e-mail provides the needed edge, like a modern-day

equivalent of typing and bookkeeping.

But such an assumption is comparable to equating bookkeeping with online

stock market trading. If we approach education — of either children or adults

— with that mindset, we'll never realize the full benefits of computers.

Take my typical workday as an example. For much of the day, when I'm

editing stories, I use my desktop computer as a souped-up typewriter. I

insert text, move paragraphs and erase mistakes. I sometimes play CDs, which

wasn't an option with the Brothers electronic typewriter I used in college,

but that's about it.

But for several hours a day, I'm on the World Wide Web, and that's when

everything changes. The concept of the hyperlink epitomizes the difference.

The hyperlink, a staple of every Web site, has trained me to search for

information by free association, not logical analysis.

That is because the content available on the Web far exceeds the scope

of any particular search engine. When researching a story, my first stab

at Yahoo! or HotBot usually does not turn up the kind of Web pages I have

in mind. But those pages often have links to other sites my search terms

hadn't uncovered.

During the past seven years, I have learned to make effective use of

this rather messy way of doing research, often coming up with new lines

of research I never would have considered.

It's not just a matter of learning tools and techniques, but learning

a certain way of thinking. Like a relative of mine who designs video games:

He can master just about any video game in a short time because he instinctively

understands how they work.

A true computer literate is not just someone who can install software

and defragment a disk, but a person who knows how to tap the vast resources

the Web has made available.

It's not much of a sound bite. But that is why our states should invest

in ensuring that everyone has access to the Internet. That is why computers

should play a role in our schools and in everyone's continuing education.

John Stein Monroe



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