Knowledge matters

Slashdot readers discuss computers in the classroom, set off by a review of Todd Oppenheimer’s new book, The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved. Like Oppenheimer, most Slashdotters are techno-skeptics, but not Luddites.

I was struck by this quote from the book:

“When employers who were fretting about this gap were asked what skills mattered to them, this is what they said: Most important of all is a deep and broad base of knowledge. “Want to get a job using information technology to solve problems? Know something about the problems that need to be solved.” This statement reflected the sentiments of nearly two thirds of the Information Technology Association of America’s members. Following far behind this priority was “hands-on experience” with technical work, which less than half the nation’s IT managers considered critical (Most apparently felt perfectly capable of teaching those skills on the job.)

One of the great fallacies in education today is the idea that students don’t need to know things because they can look everything up on the Internet. Without a base of knowledge, people can’t understand and evaluate what flickers on the screen.

About Joanne


  1. “the idea that students don’t need to know things because they can look everything up on the Internet” is simply a newer version of the idea long propagated by many educators, that “students don’t need to know things because they can look everything up in books.” Both formulations seem to me to be based on a mistaken idea of how the human mind actually works. They seem to assume that (to use a computer analogy) the mind is like the *program* and the information is like *data* stored passively on a disk until the program does something with it. But I think that in the case of humans, the “data” is actually part of the “program”..unless you have a certain level of context, you won’t know what other data to look for.

    Somewhat convoluted…hope it makes sense.

  2. “… the blind faith that educators and politicians place in computers as solutions to education’s woes.”

    I don’t know if I would call it blind faith, but they sure like high tech stuff and it plays well with parents. One private school in our area trumpets their “Laptop learning environment”. (Yuck!) Computers can be helpful in the learning process, but I am quite negative about how I have seen them used. In many cases they are a distraction and a time waster.

    If you use a word processor to require students to edit and rewrite papers more often than if they were doing it by hand, then that is good. If you are using a word processor to show how many fonts, graphics, and different formats you can use, then that is a distraction. The goal is to learn to write, not become a word processing technician. If you use a spreadsheet to analyze and solve problems, that is good. If the spreadsheet is used to avoid learning algebraic manipulation, that is bad.

    You want to use computers to amplify the learning process, not replace it with learning how to use a computer. When I was in college, the rule was that no college credit was to be given to learning how to use a program. Credit was only to be given for the product of using the computer. I still remember the complaints. “You mean we have to learn how to use the FEM program AND model a non-trivial structural problem?” That was 30 years ago.

  3. One of the “standard” comments on IT majors was that they had all the answers, but didn’t know how to ask the questions.

  4. Perhaps I don’t fully appreciate the context of this quote, but taken at face value, it strikes me as demonstrably untrue. Spend a little time browsing IT job postings, and you will see how few refer to anything resembling a “broad base of knowledge,” and how they universally demand an advanced technical degree and specialized, hands-on expertise in the latest technologies.

    Generations of graduating liberal arts students have soothed their fears of unemployment with the guidance counselor’s assurance that corporations are looking more than anything for people who can write well and speak persuasively–people who have a grasp of history and an understanding of the big picture.

    Lies. All things being equal, of course employers would prefer to hire people who have a “a deep and broad base of knowledge.” That is merely to say that if they had their druthers, they would prefer to hire top-notch programmers who are also expert user-interface designers, or marketing whizzes, or even (why not?) presidents of their local Toastmasters club.

    In the real world, however, breadth almost always comes at the expense of depth. And when forced to choose between the two, as hiring managers were during the recession, they overwhelmingly privileged applicants who could perform the narrow technical duties of the position with little or no further training. The protestations of the Information Technology Association of America notwithstanding, the notion that IT managers prize general knowledge over technical experience is an utter crock.

    This should come as no surprise, given the highly specialized nature of modern work. The greater mystery is that the fiction of the sought-after Renaissance man (and woman) has survived so many economic downturns. Re-employment, it seems, is an unquenchable spring of sweet forgetfulness.

  5. Another problem with this thought that the internet will, in essence, turn the function of the classtoom into one big google instruction session is that you do need the critical ability to decide whether the result you have obtained on the internet is INFORMATION or FACT. The distinction between the two has become increasingly blurred. We, with our liberal arts education, know that just because I read it in the newspaper doesn’t make it true. The person who gets his information from the internet regularly seems to think that because he saw it online it has to be true. If what you say is true, Joanne, we will have a nation of fast typing conspiracy theorists!

  6. I had a student who failed my final exam. Seems his calculator broke down before the exam. I offered him my calculator, but it was a different brand from his and he didn’t know how to punch the buttons, so he couldn’t do the problems. The funny thing was, I’d written the exam so that you didn’t really need a calculator except to get estimates of values in the word problems. I’d been warning him all semester about using his calculator as a crutch (he had one of those that would do symbolic integration). Guess he didn’t listen.

  7. The idea that students can just look up what they need to know on the internet is silly. How can you look things up if you don’t know they exist? The internet is a great tool but you have to know what you want to use it for.

    A couple of months ago my daughter remarked that the Assyrians were the most feared people of their day. (This was appropriate to the conversation, but I can’t remember what we were talking about. Possibly terrorism.) I told her that the only thing I knew about the Assyrians was “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold; his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” I didn’t know the title of the poem, or the poet. She thought that sounded cool, and so did my husband, so I typed in just that much on Dogpile and did a search. Well, it’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Byron, and it’s a terrific story out of the Old Testament. I read the poem aloud to my family. They were charmed, and the kid asked me to print it out for her. This is the kind of thing I love about the internet, and I don’t know how we struggled along without it. But unless you at least know the corners and bits and pieces of things, how is the internet going to do you any good?

    I do like the way my kid’s teachers have had her use the internet to do research. There are some really cool websites out there. When she read The Scarlet Letter earlier this year she had to do a project about the Puritans. I learned all about Anne Hutchinson and the heresy of antinomianism just by reading over her shoulder. We never went that in-depth in my day. There just were not the resources for it.

  8. “Spend a little time browsing IT job postings, and you will see how few refer to anything resembling a “broad base of knowledge,” and how they universally demand an advanced technical degree and specialized, hands-on expertise in the latest technologies.” Probably true for pure programming and system design jobs. But if you’re hiring someone for, say, technical sales support, then writing and presentation skills become more important. Doubly true if you’re hiring a sales person, even if the product being sold is highly technical.

    And there seems to be an implicit assumption that most jobs in corporate America are basically IT jobs…this is far from true.

  9. Technology is a tool, and like anything else, can be used or abused. The issue of technology in the classroom is a double-edged sword, and when I was in high school, computers were just becoming available in the classroom, and most programming was done over a terminal connected to a mainframe computer.

    All that being said, if a students doesn’t have a good grounding in basic skills (math, science, english, social studies, government, history, etc), all the technology in the world won’t be able to help that students (see the article Joanne put up about kids and calculators if you have any doubts).

  10. David,

    The quoted passage referred to the concerns of IT hiring managers, so I focused on IT in my reply. But it’s true, you hear the “broad and deep” canard from all sectors of business. Can you think of any field, which, during the recession, tilted its hiring practices away from depth and towards breadth?

    As for less technical IT jobs, you are certainly right that writing and presentation skills are important for sales support, but they are not considered as important, in a pinch, as a technical background.

    During the boom, relatively nontechnical people could land jobs as sales engineers (I knew a number). When the recession came, those same jobs demanded a MS in EE or CS. I will grant you that pure sales is another story. But somehow I don’t think the IT managers in question were wringing their hands over their salespeople’s lack of a broad and deep body of knowledge.

    Understand, I’m not saying that IT managers don’t value writing, communication, and the like. I’m saying they don’t value them as much.


  11. I’ve at least gotten a few people thinking by my remarks along the lines of “I work in computer systems development, and I would be willing to pay money to keep computers OUT of the classroom – unless the course directly requires them.”

  12. I went into computers in my late 30’s. I could not believe how ingnorant the students were about business (most of them were typical college age). I wasn’t nearly as good at basic code as they were but I beat them every time because I knew that to write code for an invoice entering system you had to know what an invoice is and does for a business. Time and again I found my “broad knowledge base” invaluable in writing code. In fact, you look up code anyway as a pro, but you can’t look up what you don’t know you don’t know.

  13. Re: the specific field of IT jobs. Yes, as Chris said, many IT jobs require specific and in-depth technical skills. That is what the employer is looking for.

    But if you’re the employee, you need broad, general knowledge skills and the demonstrated ability to learn new skills and disciplines. Why? Because job markets change very fast, especially in technology fields. Today’s top pick, technical whiz kid may be tomorrow’s has-been who’s out of a job. Unless he can adapt and learn the NEW tech, and fast.

    And it’s really not an either-or situation. Some jobs in tech industries require in-depth and specialized knowledge. Some require broad-based information and good general skills. What several folks are missing here is that both kinds have their place, and people can find jobs that fit for them.

    But over the long haul (and here I’m talking about your lifetime career path or paths), broad general knowledge and demonstrated ability to learn and learn quickly and well will be valuable skills in the workplace – they will be what keeps you employed when the narrow-field specialists are let go.

    Case in point (don’t you just love anecdotes? But we all make judgements based on our personal experiences, don’t we?) concerns a colleague of mine. She’s a Ph.D. analytical chemist, graduated four years ago. She just got outplaced. Why? She was in a job (that she should never have accepted) that was responsible for product stewardship. This is a job that combines both technical knowledge with an understanding of legal and regulatory requirements, safety and environmental, and customer service, including direct interaction with customers, suppliers, salespeople, purchasing managers, legal attorneys, government regulators, etc. My colleague’s narrow and in-depth advanced degree didn’t provide the kind of broad knowledge she needed to navigate in this kind of job, and she couldn’t develop it fast enough – experience takes time. She’s being replaced by a person with a bachelor’s degree in general chemistry, but who has over 15 years of experience in regulatory and customer service jobs, as well as production and quality control. The college degree is irrelevant; in business, when you reach somewhere around 5-7 years after college graduation, your actual degree becomes somewhat irrelevant and your ongoing learning and skills that you acquire and work experiences become more the determining factor of what you do and how long you are employed.

    An advisor once told me that, so far as business and industry are concerned, a college degree is just a learner’s permit. It shows you have the basic qualifications for the job. The real test is whether you can do the job, and you have only a relatively short time to do that. Technologies come and go, and can become obsolete almost as fast as they become fashionable.

  14. dhanson says:

    One thing to realize is that the ads and descriptions for those IT jobs are mostly written by Human Resources people who have no idea about what is needed for the actual jobs. I used to work for a state university and knew many of the IT staff. They were often frustrated because Human Resources decided on the job title and qualifications necessary for new employees, based on requirements set by the state. Human Resources then chose a limited number of applicants, based on these (often misleading) qualifications. The people who would be working with these new employees had little input as to what skills could be required and who would be interviewed.

    Of course it wasn’t just the IT people. All departments went through the same game. My own department lost the chance to hire some talented people because they didn’t meet the HR definition of “qualified.”