04/08/2011 09:18 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2011

Kill the Computers and Save the Children

While laying in a work-induced semi-stupor at 4 a.m. on a recent morning, I had a dreamlike metaphorical vision. Like all 4 a.m. thoughts, stress or substance induced, it was much more interesting then than in the harsher milieu of sunrise and caffeine. Nonetheless I share.

I saw a nest of young eaglets with laptop computers in their immature claws. They were taking an online flying course. The icons on the screen were colorful caricatures of field mice. The background was a photograph of an azure blue sky and a beautiful forest of Douglas firs. They clicked and clucked through interactive screens that taught them the elements of aviation. Thrust/lift/air currents. They seemed to love the game. Their small talons were increasing agile. They learned many facts about flying. The flight simulation module was particularly popular.

After several months, admittedly with some reluctance, the laptops were taken away and their attentive mother nudged them, one by one, to the edge of the nest and over. Each one, in gruesome turn, flapped frantically while freefalling to death on the granite rocks 70 feet below.

Yes, I know. That's a pretty trite metaphor, but it was 4 a.m.

There's a lot not to like about online education, and the frenzy of enthusiasm over digital learning is infuriating on many levels. Put aside (for now), the transparent self-interest of many of its computer industry advocates. (I wonder why Bill Gates likes schools with lots of computers?) In that respect it's like the frenzy some years ago over phonics-first reading programs. They too were lobbied into ubiquitous favor by the profiteering creators of the materials.

Life is organic, not digital. As our world has become increasingly obsessed with technology, we are losing perspective. A digital representation of something is not the same thing as the "something", no matter how many pixels and how marvelous the resolution. In the rush to digitize experience, particularly among students in and out of school, we are denying the children the actual experiences on which the digitized representations are based. Putting aside (I seem to be putting a lot aside) the frightening explosions of sexting, cyber-bullying and child exploitation, even the innocent use of technology to foster relationships is detracting from the human, organic dimensions of love and friendship. A real relationship is built through a touch, a trembling expression, a blush, calibrating each gentle advance and retreat in a very rich context of visual, tactile, olfactory and auditory cues. Love or friendship through a digital medium is a deceit worse than a costume. And education through a digital medium is a deceit too.

Too much of education is already lost in the over-emphasis on the symbols and algorithms that represent actual experience. Mathematics is not real. Mathematics is the symbolic representation of something real in the physical universe. While the symbolic representation is enormously useful, its use diminishes in direct proportion to the distance its users have from the "something real." It's why children should play with geometric shapes and blocks long before they are asked to prove a theorem. Similarly, literature is merely a symbolic representation of real or imagined events that make the heart throb or break. What use is it to ask students, of any age, to memorize things about experiences they aren't allowed to experience? Children now study trees without having climbed one, or learn about flowers without having smelled one. They read a love story in Times New Roman and then open their Facebook page and think they are in love.

Enough romantic mourning. The more practical fault with online education is that it diminishes the neurobiological experiences that foster real learning. Kids at computers (or in too many "sit up straight and shut up" schools) are not expressing, testing boundaries, taking risks, getting flushed with excitement, talking, arguing, feeling, singing or otherwise being fully alive. They don't have a chance to engage in a lovely intellectual dance that is very much like the love dance -- filled with give and take, a rich stew of visual, tactile, olfactory and auditory cues.

The end result of online learning is that students may learn something about mathematics, art, music, history, literature and science. But they won't be mathematicians, writers, artists, musicians, historians and scientists. And isn't that what we want?

Like the eaglets in my silly semi-dream, increasingly sterile pedagogy, especially online learning, is ill-preparing children to fly. Mechanized, corporatized digital education is going to send many children in this generation crashing to hard ground when they discover, too late, that they really don't know much at all.