Economically-disadvantaged students learn to do what the computer tells them

Bored student on computer

Here are two quotes for you:

Economically disadvantaged students, who often use the computer for remediation and basic skills, learn to do what the computer tells them, while more affluent students, who use it to learn programming and tool applications, learn to tell the computer what to do.

Neuman, D. (1991). Technology and equity. Available at


Those who cannot claim computers as their own tool for exploring the world never grasp the power of technology… They are controlled by technology as adults – just as drill-and-practice routines controlled them as students.

Pillar, C. (1992). Separate realities: The creation of the technological underclass in America’s public schools. MacWorld, 9(9), 218-230.

Twenty years later, these quotes still ring true. What is your school doing to close the technology usage divide (not just the technology access divide)?

Hat tip: Miguel Guhlin and Solomon, Allen, & Resta

11 Responses to “Economically-disadvantaged students learn to do what the computer tells them”

  1. Tech use is simply an amplification of ongoing realities, Scott. I liked your quotes. Here is one of my favorites along the same lines:

    … children in one set of schools are educated to be governors; children in the other set of schools are trained for being governed. The former are given the imaginative range to mobilize ideas for economic growth; the latter are provided with the discipline to do the narrow tasks the first group will prescribe.

    from Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities, 1991


    • Doug, I like this quote. I am quite convinced that the over-testing in schools is meant to create a populace that does not think but just does and believes what it is told.

  2. Program or be programmed!

  3. Interesting that these statements were uttered in the early infancy of HTML and the web browser which today make drill and practice deceptively attractive.

  4. The whole Watt quote is as follows.

    “When computers are introduced into suburban schools, it is often in the context of computer programming and computer awareness courses. In less affluent, rural or inner-city schools, compuer use is more likely to be in the context of computer-assisted instruction of the drill and practice variety. Affluent students are thus learning to tell the computer what to do while less affluent students are learning to do what the computer tells them.”

    • Now sadly, almost no one is getting Computer Programming. Given the best pay, benefits, and working conditions that anyone who can program can get from the Business world, it is extremely difficult to get them to consider education. Those of us in education who can teach it, have had the programs cut since staff is needed to teach required courses and programming is an elective.

  5. Here’s what we are doing at Challenger Middle School in Colorado Springs:

    (1) Implemented Personal Learning and Creation Time where kids get to learn/build/create something that they are interested in.

    (2) Some kids use this time to work their way through the Javascript lessons at

    (3) We installed Scratch on 11 in-class computers for another group of kids to explore game and animation programming and creation.

  6. Fantastic quotations! I am worried that too many schools are not engaging the professional development necessary to really utilize technology tools effectively. Hopefully quotations like these will challenge schools.

    I will argue that there are teachers in my district that I communicate with regularly that are trying to challenge these ideas. Working to develop students that control and utilize technology effectively. Teachers using some great Web 2.0 tools like Ning, Diigo, Wikispaces, and Twitter. There is some really exciting stuff going on and I know that we are fortunate to work in a district that supports teachers’ innovation. I just hope to see increased effort to provide more teachers with the professional development necessary to move in this direction.

    I think that these quotations highlight the challenge that many school districts face… there are so many changes and initiatives and only so much time for professional development. Quotations like these highlight the importance of providing technology integrated ideas into professional development opportunities.

  7. I take your point but I’d add an element of optimism. My students these days are interacting with a web that enables creation without the programming requirement. eg – look at Classroom 2.0 – that kind of social structure exists because no one teacher has to learn a line of code.

    The web this current cohort will live/work/love within is increasingly creation-friendly. The challenge is moving teachers towards developing QUICKLY an understanding not only of where the tech is today but having a handle on the picture 5 years from now.

  8. It is unfortunate how those with little access to technology fall so far behind. In this day and age, having skills in tech are extremely important and get more and more important with age. Schools and teachers must work to incorporate technology into curriculum so that students without access to a computer at home can learn and keep up with their more privileged peers.

  9. Great topic. There is a pervasive assumption that open tools will eradicate the technology access divide and (by extension) the technology usage divide. Yet, there is evidence that educational technologies are used less effectively in poor schools than in rich ones. Berkmann Center Fellow (and EdTechTeacher Co-Director) Justin Reich gathered data on the usage of 180,000 publicly accessible wikis and found that wikis were generally less helpful to poor schools than rich one. Wikis were abandoned quickly in poorer schools and students had fewer opportunities for 21st-century skill development .

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