JITE v38n3 - Book Review - A Critical Analysis of The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children's Education at Risk

Volume 38, Number 3
Spring 2001

Armstrong, A., & Casement C. (2000). The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children's Education at Risk. Beltsville, MD: Robins Lane Press. $16.00, 254 pp. (ISBN 0-87659-210-8).

Brian K. McAlister
University of Wisconsin-Stout

The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children's Education at Risk is a must read for all parents and educators. Although the authors, Armstrong and Casement, have obvious biases as indicated in the title of the book, their feelings do not overwhelm an interesting discussion of the issues. They raise many thought provoking questions that the general public should consider when evaluating bond referendums to fund the implementation and support of computer technologies in schools.

The book is introduced with a preface, followed by 12 chapters that address myriad issues related to the effects of computer use in schools. This content is supported with a notes section, a complete bibliography, and an index of terms keyed to the appropriate pages where topics are discussed in more detail.

One of the key arguments posed during the introduction is that computers are being adopted in education with no real objectives in mind. Armstrong suggests that parents seem to be stronger proponents of computer technology than are teachers. Some parents cite the pervasiveness of computers throughout work and society as justification for their need in schools. Armstrong believes that "what has been excluded from the debate [is] scientific evidence" (p. XI). The authors' response is to split the responsibilities of the book, with Casement reporting on published research while Armstrong describes visits to schools that are recognized for exemplary use of computer technology. Armstrong and Casement focus on elementary schools, and use the question "Do computers improve the quality of instruction in schools?" (p. XI) to frame their investigation.

Armstrong does an excellent job with the preface, building high expectations for what is to follow. It left this reader anxiously anticipating a critical analysis of computers in schools. The twelve chapters are organized around major themes and all follow a similar format. Each chapter begins with one or two quotes that work well as advanced organizers. The highlights of each chapter will be described here.

The authors' clear biases are reflected in the title of chapter 1: "Educational Technology and Illusions of Progress." This topic works well as the first chapter because it addresses many of the issues regarding educational technology at the macro level. It simply poses the overarching question, "Why?" The authors propose that students have become part of a social experiment that involves a radical change in the structure and delivery of education. This change is being driven by a perceived need to keep up with changing technology. This pursuit of technology is being embraced without questioning benefits or effectiveness. Computer literacy has now become the mantra of many educational technology proponents, although it is clear that there is no consensus on a practical operational definition. What does it mean to be computer literate? Should this be an important goal for public education? The authors conclude that "just because computers can be used in schools is not good enough reason for deciding that they should be used"(p. 18). This argument parallels one made by Marx (1997) in his essay "Does improved technology mean progress?" His conclusion is that we must first answer the question, "progress toward what?" Armstrong and Casement suggest that computers are leading to a system in which "speed and control are emphasized at the expense of thoughtfulness and understandingÂ…a high speed search for information, followed by rapid review, replaces a slower, more deliberate buildup of knowledge and formation of ideas"(p. 12). In a response that parallels Marx's view, they ask whether this type of learning is good for the "healthy development of young minds" (p. 12).

Chapter 2 shifts gears by addressing the "real" cost of using computers in schools. It is not necessarily that there are a lot of hidden costs, but that many of the stakeholders in education are not aware of all the expenses involved. The authors use examples to expose the costs that follow the initial monetary outlay for hardware and software. Many schools have horror stories related to unforeseen costs related to installation, infrastructure upgrades such as electrical and data line access, maintenance, hardware and software upgrades, compatibility issues, computer security, and more. One of the areas that is often overlooked is the cost of teacher training. The studies cited suggest that schools should spend anywhere from 50 to 70% of their computer budgets on training. In addition, the authors emphasize a concern about where money isn't being spent if it is all going towards computers, especially since there is little evidence that computers improve education in a significant way. One of the most telling supporting quotes used by the authors is from Steven Jobs, who said " 'I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent'"(p. 35).

Chapter 3 addresses the authors' concerns that many educators have become overly focused on developing children's minds while paying little attention to their bodies. The key point the authors make is that children are exposed to the outside world through their senses, and that learning is dependent upon their ability to use their senses to decipher their environment. Thus, according to these authors, "the narrow sensory range of computer-based learning should be a concern, especially in terms of its cumulative, long term effects" (p.51). The one criticism I have of this chapter is the amount of time devoted to berating Seymour Papert's work with the programming language Logo. Papert's book Mindstorms was written over 20 years ago; there must be more current examples that could be used to make valid arguments. I equate it to using the model T to argue about current safety features in automobiles.

The impact of computers on learning is explored in chapters 4, 5, and 6. Chapter 4 focuses on academic achievement in general, while chapters 5 and 6 focus on the impacts of using computers for reading and writing, respectively. The authors report that the results of research in these areas are inconclusive. They note, "generally, boys appeared to perform better than girls, and low achieving students showed more improvement than average students" (p. 64). Any time the authors report positive results, they follow it up with warnings such as cautioning against the reliance on findings of short-term studies and being wary of novelty effects. This reporting would be easier to accept if the authors were not so clearly biased against the use of computers in schools. I do not question the integrity of the authors. They never claim to offer a balanced view. But it is hard to blindly accept reports of findings as conclusive when such biases exist.

One of the concerns raised by the authors is that much of the content being addressed in computer-based instruction is limited in scope. In other words, the content covered is of the type that can easily be assessed using standardized-tests. Computer based instruction, therefore, can serve to promote the negative effects noted by critics of standardized testing (McAlister, 2000), such the tendency of teachers to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test.

Research is used effectively to support the authors' views in both chapters 5 and 6. Reading ability correlates with good auditory skills, and reading aloud to children is still thought to be the best preparation for becoming a proficient reader. In Armstrong and Casement's view, "voices from the screen are no substitute for a parent's speech because they are not connected with a human presence that directs the children's attention to what is going on around them and responds to their actions"(p. 80). A weakness of tools like CD-ROMs is an over-reliance on hot links that result in actions such as animation on the screen. The authors conclude that "the danger is that the multimedia dimensions of electronic books will lead to less attention being paid to the story itself and will therefore do less to develop listening and reading skills than the traditional activity of reading aloud" (p.85). They also propose that animation and sound effects can be distracting to the point that "children are quite likely to lose track of the story altogether" (p. 86).

A major focus of chapter 6 is on whether the word processor enhances students' writing skills. The answer seems to be yes and no. The authors report that effectiveness is linked to the way that teachers introduce word processing. Students who are provided more freedom to select topics are more likely to benefit. Therefore, creative writing packages with prompts to guide students are not as effective in teaching writing skills. Another variable is teacher interaction. Students need guidance throughout the writing process, and according to the authors "no amount of technology can replace a teacher's guidance" (p. 103). One of the arguments that I take issue with relates to the authors' claim that students are reluctant to review text generated on a computer. They assert that students would rather revise onscreen than print text out. Having to scroll through a document is thought to discourage the editing process. This is a claim that I would like to see backed up by research.

A contemporary book would not be complete without a chapter devoted to the Internet. Chapters 7 and 8 fill that need. Many of the authors' concerns regarding the use of the Internet in schools parallel those shared by the public at large. Surfing the Internet can be frustrating to the novice, and finding credible information can be frustrating for the expert user and the novice alike. If students don't have a grasp of the topic they are researching, their success will be limited. It is proposed that students need high levels of guidance when using the Internet. In addition, the authors pose concerns regarding the cost involved in wiring schools, especially when it is being done at the expense of libraries whose budgets are being stripped to support electronic media and data connections. The main issue raised in chapter 8 deals with the infiltration of commercial advertisers on the Internet. Children are already being bombarded with advertisements through radio, television, and print media. The authors rightfully question whether advertisers should be allowed another avenue through which they can influence children in our schools.

Chapter 9 is used to report research regarding the physical effects of computer use. While I have read numerous articles that raise concerns for workers who sit at terminals all day, this is the first time I have ever read anything that inquires about the physical impacts of prolonged computer use on children. As one might expect, all of the problems that have been experienced by adults can carry over to children. Areas of concern range from headaches and neck ache to repetitive strain injuries and eyestrain. The major point made is that very little research has been done to study the physical effects of prolonged computer use on children. This is especially disconcerting when you consider that most computers and support furniture are developed for adult users. I applaud the authors for devoting a chapter to this issue.

The authors stray from a direct assault on computer use in education in Chapters 10 and 11 to discuss alternative approaches that they believe should be used in schools. Chapter 10 is used to make a case for the study of the performing and visual arts, while chapter 11 is used to promote experiential learning through interactions in the natural world. Key arguments revolve around the distribution of resources. It is argued that the arts provide a richer educational experience than computers and at a fraction of the cost. The authors claim, "the arts provide far greater opportunities for interactive learning and critical thinking skills than anything a child will receive from a computer" (p. 173).

Armstrong and Casement argue for the use of "real world" experiences in chapter 11 by pointing out the shortcomings of computer simulations. They suggest that simulations give students a false sense of the natural world. The argument that I have the most difficulty with is the idea that allowing students to experiment with variables such as time paints an unrealistic picture of the world. One of the major benefits of simulations is that users can control variables that allow them insights into how the world works. Some simulations use hard data to provide depictions of the interactions between variables. Students can input variations in the data to play "what if?" games. When time is a factor, this may not be possible in the real world. This is a prime example of the authors' biases coloring their arguments, and it hurts the credibility of the arguments made elsewhere in the book. I am a firm believer that, if it is at all possible, students should learn by experiencing the world around them. But one cannot ignore the opportunities that some computer technologies bring to education.

The final chapter is used to discuss the authors' views of the role computer technologies should play in education. They use it effectively to summarize most of the points made throughout the book. It is clear that they believe the implementation of computers in schools is an elaborate social experiment whose benefits have yet to be realized. Armstrong and Casement do not believe computers should be used in elementary schools and promote a limited use of computers in middle schools. They believe that the appropriate place to start teaching with computers is at the high school level. They also suggest that computer funds should be redistributed to support smaller class sizes, increase teacher salaries, and support the arts and direct experiences.

There are many valid concerns raised in this book about the implementation of computers in schools. For that reason alone, I highly recommend that parents and education professionals read it. One of the biggest drawbacks is the tendency of the authors to overuse the terms may, might, and maybe. Armstrong and Casement follow up many of their legitimate concerns with weak statements that cannot be validated any more than some of the claims they disparage about the importance of computers in schools. But although the authors have an obvious bias, the book contains too many valid arguments to ignore. One does not have to agree with the authors to see value in addressing these concerns.


McAlister is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Communication, Education, and Training at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, WI. He can be reached at mcalisterb@uwstout.edu.


Marx, L. (1997). Does improved technology mean progress? In A. H. Teich (Ed.), Technology and the future (pp. 3-14). New York: St. Martin's Press.

McAlister, B. (2000). The authenticity of authentic assessment: What the research saysÂ… and doesn't say. In R. Custer (Ed.). Using authentic assessment in vocational education. (ERIC Information Series No. 381, pp. 19-31). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.

Tracy Gilmore