Are computers killing the arts?

Schools get more computers, but some say they are misused

Since the personal computer boom began more than 20 years ago, the number of computers in California’s schools has grown at a rapid rate. At the same time, however, there have been many complaints about schools cutting back on programs such as music, theater and visual arts in order to be able to cover other expenses, including computer costs.

Are computers taking away from the arts? That’s hard to say. But some Sacramento residents believe that an important first step in solving the problem could be made simply by killing two birds with one stone—that is, by encouraging students to develop artistically through the use of computers.

William Bronston, head of Sacramento’s Tower of Youth community arts association, has held two meetings during the past month with the intent of getting more media-based technology such as computer animation and film editing into California’s high school classrooms. The meetings, which were attended by local business people and educators, covered topics ranging from whether teachers are properly trained to handle technology to how a certain portion of this year’s budget could be spent on programs with a more creative curriculum, Bronston said.

“You have a situation where schools aren’t putting in arts-related technology,” Bronston said. “They’re putting in academic-related technology.”

Bronston said he would like to see technology such as video production equipment, Web design software, animation software and computer-generated-imagery (CGI) software available in classrooms. These would open up all kinds of new doors for students, he explained. “They need to have the ability to do more than arithmetic and writing on the typewriter,” Bronston said.

Though a lot of money from the state budget will be spent installing new computers in schools in the coming years, there doesn’t seem to be a plan that really maximizes the potential of the technology, explains Gary Martin, the chair of Communications Media at Cosumnes River College. “Shouldn’t some of that [money] also go into a high-tech program supporting communications as an industry?” he asked.

Currently, Sacramento-area high school students are using computers for everything from science and physics to research and writing, but not animation and design, explained San Juan Unified School District Director of Technology and Services Tim McCarty. He said that using programs such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases and the Internet provides students with the essential skills they’ll need to succeed in life. “I think that the core of technology still is the basic applications that kids are going to have to use well in their careers,” he said.

Ron Cooper, executive director of the community media center Access Sacramento, thinks students could only benefit from having more-creative programs available to them. He talked about a woman he once met who said she never really attended high school because “it tasted like sand,” meaning there was no reason to get excited about it. “How many kids will avoid going to high school because ‘it tasted like sand'?” Cooper asked rhetorically.

Bronston said he has a number of concerns about the state’s current plan for technology in schools. One of those is that, with $210-$230 million of the state budget set for technology in high schools, the state may begin dropping computers into classrooms without giving teachers the proper training to use them.

That portion of the budget, which has been slated to go to schools with high student-to-computer ratios and too few college-level (AP) courses, could be better used for putting computers and software specializing in design and animation in schools and setting up training programs for teachers and parents so that they can be used correctly, Bronston said.

There are factors working against Bronston’s ideas, however. Mainly, there is no extra money in the budget this year, since the portion he refers to has already been allocated, explained Barbara Ross, Sacramento County director of institutional technology and learning resources for K-12.

Ross said the money has been designated specifically for smaller schools that aren’t supported by the UC, CSU or community college systems. “If technology does anything at all, it ought to even the playing field for kids in rural towns,” she said. “Those targeted dollars are really aimed at the digital divide.”

Bronston, Martin and Cooper all agree that spending the money on the schools with few AP courses or computers isn’t a bad thing. However, Bronston said he thinks there would be plenty of money left for these schools after installing more high-tech computers in classrooms, and that spending money on both of those could do nothing but good for the students.

“The idea of creativity, of production, of information, is not what this money is going to be spent on," Bronston said. "People [think] that this money is going to be used in a very mechanized way."