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Opinion: Execs need to teach teachers about IT


February 15, 1999
Web posted at: 6:04 p.m. EST (2304 GMT)

by Allan E. Alter

(IDG) -- As business technologists, we've learned to be realistic about computers. As parents and school volunteers, we should be teaching educators to be realistic, too. We know the PC is just a tool, and a darned-hard-to-manage one at that. We know you can't just toss technology at problems; computers won't be effective unless behaviors change. Yet the education establishment, unaware of what we've learned, treats the PC as a savior. The Clinton administration is spending close to $2.5 billion to connect schools to the Internet and help them buy computers and software.

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Schools are forgoing books, repairs and arts programs to buy computers. Meanwhile, educators and investigators are finding no firm link between academic achievement and classroom computers.

"Computers in classrooms are the filmstrips of the 1990s," wrote Clifford Stoll, who studies the social implications of technology, in his 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway.

How can business technologists help educators learn computer realism? Talking about the limits of computers is a start. But the full answer lies in our business half. We should encourage schools to teach the skills that make people effective at deploying and using computers.

These aren't technical skills, but life skills our best professionals have honed to excel at our trade. It begins with analytical skills, reading and mathematics, but it goes well beyond that.

Let's start with listening. It's hard to think of a more important skill, yet nobody except management trainers teaches it.

Successful IT professionals know listening is more than hearing. Understanding people who are different from you is hard work, as any top-notch manager, help desk worker or application developer can tell you.

But kids think listening means shutting up while a grown-up drones on. That's a shame. We should have schools teach pupils the same listening techniques we learn in our leadership development programs.

Which brings us to another life skill: leadership. We've learned leadership is a teachable skill, not something you're either born with or without like a birthmark.

Leadership skills are important at all levels, not just the top. Motivating people, coaching, learning how to say "no" and developing and projecting values are the stuff of true leadership and all are skills we can gain through character development. In the world of effective IT deployment, these skills are all important. Aren't they also important for students to learn?

If we want educators to keep computers in perspective, a good way to help them is by keeping computers in perspective ourselves. Don't just volunteer to wire your local schools, as helpful as that is. Ask educators to add the "soft skills" to their K-12 and college curriculums and volunteer to help teach them. You've learned to be more realistic about computing. Who better to teach that to others?

Alter is Computerworld's department editor, Managing. His E-mail address is

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