Getting Our Priorities Right on Computers
In our desire to improve the quality of Education in the Philippines, our top priority for reform and change, we sometimes look on computers as a panacea or universal remedy for the ills of Philippine education. It is felt in some quarters that if we put our children in the barrios in contact with computers, we shall put them on the path of rapid progress and on the way to the twenty one first century. To use the terms now being used by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, we shall jumpstart the towards development and help them leapfrog into the future.
There is nothing wrong with these terms. They apply to societies such as ours and they certainly apply to individuals who are getting ready to “colonize” the twenty one first century. However, panaceas rarely work.
Computers are powerful electronic tools; they evolved from labor-saving speedy calculating machines which eased the burden of long computations by hand and by the brain. As such they are extensions of some functions of the human brain; as we discover more and more about brain functions and as we know more and more about electronics, we are able to develop faster and quite accurate electronic substitutes for some of these brain functions. But as computer specialist told us early i the game, “Garbage in, garbage out.” That is to say, the computer is a machine tool; it does work well if instructed to do work well. It cannot of itself think for human beings but frees the human being from the monotonous and tedious work of record keeping, storage, retrieval, and complicated mental calculations which must first be done by the human brain; a program is then created to imitate or reach the same end through a proper sequence of instructions for the machine.
In developing countries such as ours, the first thing we must each our children is to be computer literate, that is to say, to know what computers can do and cannot do and how computers can do and cannot do and how computers have changed and will continue to change human living through the facilities they offer. The other marvelous development we must tell the young is the wonders of telecommunications or distance communication through waves reflected by satellites circulating the globe or through powerful optical cables that transmit electronic messages almost instantaneously and at the speed of light. We can do this through science classes in basic electronics. We can begin computer literacy by using the computer as a super efficient typewriter, teach the students the touch system using the computer, then use the newer word processing programs to make typing easier. But this is only the first step: this can be dome as early as grade school. Computer literate children, who can use existing programs or “software,” must advance in high school and in college to be able to create their own sequences of instructions or programs to make the machine work for them. Using a computer only for typing and word processing is an expensive although convenient way of utilizing the machine since the machine can do so much more in computations and solutions in science, for electronic storage of date and the processing of date for statistical analysis, accounting computations that take away the tedium of long and multi-step calculations and the possibilities of mistakes because of human distractions and fatigue, automatic follow-up of routine instructions and processes done with error-free repetition in the case of manufacturing. The uses are infinite.
However, the solution for remedying the quality problem of Philippine basic and advanced education is not being prey to salesmen who have their machines to sell and who exploit the greed of decision-makers with promised commissions in cash or in kind so these decision makers will select their products. More important than the hardware is the software of programs and human skills to use these programs. We should put priority on training teachers and administrators to be computer literate and eventually sophisticated to match the rapidity with which the children will learn to use the machines and the wonders of telecommunications. The computer can likewise now be use for telecommunications or distance communication through the relatively cheap way of electronic mail and Internet, joining the individual student with the worldwide network to communicate with people and to share data with them. The training of teachers and administrators on what computers can do, how they work, what uses they can be creatively put to, the proper choice of configurations, the choices with regard to models and their capabilities, the creation of networks within a school and with other schools and eventually with the world outside, are the things we should be spending money on. Before machines are ordered, schools already know what they are ordering the machines for and what they intend to use them for, not the other way around, which is what is happening in most schools.
Above all, there is the bread-and-butter issue of maintenance, proper power sources without fluctuations (we cannot take these electric requirement for granted in the provinces and even in many cities), trouble-shooting when the machine is “down” and using the machines creatively rather than for word processing which can be learned in a couple of hours.
After we have clarified with the school heads and teachers what they want the computers for and what they will want the computers to do for them, after we have determined the teaching programs we want for the pupils and trained the teachers to be able to handle these programs, then it is time to discuss the machines and the configuration or the machine with its peripherals or side equipment to be set up and bought. In this way the investment is worthwhile and we can use the computer as a tool, to jumpstart our children towards development and to help them leapfrog int the twenty one first century. However, the computer will remain a tool; more than the use of the tool, the concepts of science and their principles as well as their applications in technology or engineering are what will jumpstart Filipinos into the twenty one first century, not the computers.