IT in Schools

[This letter came in response to the Oct. 22 email newsletter, which mentioned the Japanese government's plans to get 10,000 schools online. -- Editors]

It has now been roughly 23 years since the first US university required computer literacy for all students hoping to graduate. Prior to that, the only mandatory non-academic requirement was a swimming test imposed by places such as Harvard (they still have that, too). Requiring purchase of a computer followed as recently as 1986 at several engineering schools, albeit almost all private institutions. I know of no accredited US institution that has yet to impose a computer literacy requirement among tertiary institutions, public or private.

Now that PCs have been so thoroughly integrated into the curriculum, the first US university to require a mandatory course over the Internet for 'resident' full-time students has been announced starting next fall. So even if you are a day student, attend full time, and might never have thought to do it, you'll soon have to take at least some of your academic work online at some institutions.

To do all this is rather simpler in the US because so many students are resident on campus, living in wired dormitories or nearby accommodations. Also, from the beginning US institutions have entered into partnerships with both hardware and software firms to distribute at reduced prices, and sometimes with special features, various products. Thus students with proper identification could buy a fully equipped PC at significantly lower prices than the general public could.

The pervasiveness of the PC nowadays has meant that as many as 90 to 95 percent of entering first-year university students are already computer literate, and most have their own PCs and software. The cost of such requirements to institutions is thus much less than it might seem to be.

The problem for public institutions is that often students socioeconomic backgrounds have deprived them of the access to computers and computer literacy available to those choosing to attend private institutions, and whereas the families of many students look on PCs as an 'investment', others simply see them as an 'expense'. That is a deep psychological barrier to a fully 'wired' society. Having everyone functioning from the same platform whatever their socioeconomic status is a valiant attempt to keep technology from creating, or perpetuating, a significant class imbalance.

You have accurately pointed out that a major stumbling block in Japan are teachers who have heretofore not seen the need to train themselves, or be trained, in advances in technology. In Japan school is a place to 'gamman', no less for the teachers than for the students. There is a tendency to think that the presence of computers will somehow solve all the educational problems in schools, and perhaps even some of the societal problems that surface there in the form of ijime and rebellion. That won't happen, and merely mandating change without there being accompanying programs to help the transition to the 'new' will not release the mounting frustrations that everyone in Japanese society encounters. The propensity for corruption isn't new in Japanese society, nor in others, but Japanese authorities don't seem to learn much from experience when they set up a budget program, or perhaps they do these things on purpose. Whatever the case, I would not look to the government to solve Japan's IT future. It is more likely to be in the hands of innumerable young people, currently in junior high school, who will eventually overwhelm their elders simply by application of their native brain power. The older generation in Japan will simply not be smart enough to keep up.

There are still many out there who would resist the imposition of technology on their lives, and who don't embrace computers as a new member of the family. I have an uncle, an otherwise intelligent and with it man, who refuses to have anything but a 'rotary dial' telephone in his house. Because he is protected by a 'grandfather' clause designed to protect citizens from being forced to accept new technology if it comes at a significant additional cost, the local phone company must maintain dual technology to cater to this one recalcitrant person. They have offered to install the new phones for free, but he is adamant in refusing. We should not assume that everyone is as enthused about our 'brave new world'. A sign of the future might be that this same man's grandson, at age 5, taught his own father and mother, one an executive vice president of a Wall Street bank and the other a vice president of an international bank, how to use a PC. My money is on the 5-year-old, not only in the US, but also in Japan.

Thomas T. Winant