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MIT professor's qualms about computers in education

From his comfortably cluttered office above Tech Square, Joseph Weizenbaum espouses ideas that have made him something of a ''computer dissident.'' His message: Kids may not be learning the right things from computers.

He urges more caution in how the machines are used in classrooms, especially with very young children, and questions whether they really improve the quality of education.

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''I seem to be one of the few certified computer professionals willing to say publicly anything negative about them at all,'' says Dr. Weizenbaum, a professor of computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the book ''Computer Power and Human Reason,'' (1976, W. H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco).

His message has particular urgency as schools across the nation rush to plunk computer consoles onto the desks of students and teachers.

Dr. Weizenbaum is concerned that the addition of computer courses may crowd out other worthwhile subjects, especially those in the humanities. ''There are a limited number of hours in a school day,'' he says, ''so whenever you squeeze something new in you must squeeze something else out.''

A more unsettling thought, he says, is that children may be conditioned by computers to think all problems can or should be reduced to computer terms. In this sense, computers have the potential to skew how children view reality, since most problems in the real world defy such simple definition.

''What happens is that somebody comes along and translates it into computer terms anyway - capturing only a tiny slice of the problem,'' says the mustachioed professor.

A vivid example, he says, is a computer simulation he saw in which grade-schoolers reconstructed elements of the Falkland Islands war. The children made decisions about military hardware and troop movements - and seemed fascinated by the project.

Weizenbaum contends this teaches children ''that even a simple model of reality says something important about reality.'' But in fact, he says, the simulation captured only a fragment of the problem.

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Even more serious, however, children learn to distance themselves from the human situation - in this case a tragic war. He says the long-term effect could be to induce a sort of tunnel vision in youngsters, whereby they no longer appreciate the complexity of human existence.

''They get the idea that only things that are computable, that can be stuffed into a logical framework, are true or worthwhile.''

Of course, he adds, there are fields in which most factors can be boiled down to purely computer terms, such as math. Learning to use computers to handle such problems gives students a powerful tool. But what's worrisome is that kids aren't being taught to distinguish between tangible and intangible problems.

The MIT professor also takes issue with popular notions of ''computer literacy,'' something he considers a bit of a ''red herring.'' You don't need to become a programmer to run a computer, he says, the same way you don't need to know how to tune up a car to be able to drive.

The kind of computer literacy children are likely to get through computer instruction, says Weizenbaum, is roughly the same as the literacy exhibited in being able to write short, simple sentences and read street signs. It's going to be very rudimentary for most kids.

''There's a mistaken idea floating around that a few years of computer exposure in school is going to make computer professionals out of these kids,'' he says. ''What's necessary to move around in today's America, and will probably be more necessary in the future, is a kind of information-machine savvy.''

This savvy is little more than a common sense attitude toward technology.

He offers an example of something which happened to him in an airport recently. The plane ticket he wanted to buy was dispensed from an automated teller which required him to push a series of buttons indicating destination and the class of travel he wanted.

Somewhere in the middle of the operation, he flubbed a command and had to start over. ''People with information-machine savvy can figure things like that out without any difficulty. That's the kind of skill most people are going to need in the future.''

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