Prepared by Steven Koenig
Students and educators are able to access more information, and at a faster rate, than ever before. In a world that is increasingly interdependent, economically and otherwise, students must learn more about the rest of the world, and new technologies enable them to do so more than ever before. In a world that increasingly relies on technology, students are becoming familiar with new technologies at an early age. The Internet gives people of all ages -- no matter where they attend school or even if they do not attend a formal school, direct access to a vast number of informational sources around the world. The rapid pace of technological change and the sheer volume of information available present new challenges to educators, students and others involved in learning.
Dr. Barbara Means and Dr. Seymour Papert have been perceptive observers of the expanding relationship between technology and education. Recently, they reflected on this phenomenon.
Question: Many children in the U.S.
already have experience with computers (either through
games or through "serious" learning programs) long before they
enter school. How will this
familiarity with technology affect the students and adults of the
Dr. Means: Students' increasing familiarity with technology use offers a great opportunity for schools, if schools and teachers have the wisdom and self-confidence to take advantage of it. Rather than trying to learn how to use every new piece of software and Internet tool themselves and how to do all of their own systems administration and troubleshooting, teachers can start to think of themselves as instructional designers and managers, with interested students contributing needed technology skills. Teachers who are confident enough to focus on the content, student diagnosis and assessment aspects of classroom activities while letting students who happen to have needed technical expertise help their peers master the technical aspects of using software or the Internet, have many more options for technology use in their classrooms. In addition, this kind of collaboration, with different individuals contributing different kinds of expertise, is a good model for the kind of "learning community" that many education reformers advocate.
An interesting example is Generation WHY, a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant project. This project is training high school students in how to work with teachers in helping to implement technology-supported instruction in their classrooms. The students receive training, not only in technical skills, but also in consulting skills to prepare them for working with their teacher clients.
There's a tremendous opportunity here as long as current
school staff are not so anxious about
"losing control" or "not knowing everything about class content"
that they fail to take advantage
of the burgeoning student skills. At the same time, there is a
serious equity issue. Not all
students have home access to computer technology and even with
prices coming down the
disparity is likely to continue. It is precisely because of this
disparity that school access to using
technology tools is an important public policy issue.
Dr. Papert: It is quite obvious that in the long run the lives of children will be radically changed as a result of the presence of computers or digital media or whatever the descendants of our computers will be called in the next generation. The most promising direction of change is acquiring greater independence as learners. Children will grow up knowing that they can learn what they need to know when they need to know it.
Q: Some educators feel that the presence of technology in
society is a major factor in changing
the entire learning environment. How can schools keep pace with
technological changes, and
what are the implications if they do or do not? Are they lagging
behind? How important are
questions of physical access to technology and the ability of
educators to understand and convey
understanding of the technology?
Dr. Papert: It is obvious that schools are
lagging behind deep changes in our society. They are
still organized on the model of production line factories. The
deepest reason for the lag is neither
the lack of physical technology nor the ability of educators to
understand its meaning. The
biggest reason is the built-in self-preservationist conservatism
of the education system. To my
mind the best analogy is the way the Soviet bureaucracy held on
to power even though it could
see that its economy was going downhill fast. It gave up only
when it was in total collapse. I
hope the education system is able to change before it collapses.
Dr. Means: Many have argued that schools lag way behind the business and government sectors in the effective use of technology. Certainly the average classroom today is not very different from the average classroom of 40 years ago and we would not say that about very many businesses. Nevertheless, if we take the age of the staff into account, I do think that many teachers are ahead of their peers in the general public when it comes to the use of technology. The main concern is not one of physical execution of the steps in using technology but rather a matter of seeing technology's potential to serve specific educational goals and having the time, creativity and courage to try to capitalize on that potential.
Many of us are calling on teachers to move away from cookbook
approaches of lectures and
totally scripted student activities toward teaching styles where
students have much more latitude
in exploring questions they care about, conducting research and
creating presentations using
technology tools where appropriate. Such approaches call upon
teachers to be activity designers,
consultants and coaches as well as skilled diagnosticians and
evaluators of student work. It is the
preparation for these roles that requires so much time and
Q: How will technology change the nature
of teaching, including what is taught, where it is
taught and who does the teaching? For example, Arthur Levine of
Columbia University asked,
in a recent article, whether the ability to teach electronically
means the end of the need for the
physical plant called the campus. He suggested that the best
instructors could teach across state
boundaries and across large distances.
Dr. Means: As I've argued, if students use technology as tools and communications devices to engage in complex projects and investigations, teachers take on a role quite different from that which dominates today. Teachers will spend less time lecturing and doing rote grading and more time designing, facilitating and coaching.
The World Wide Web is opening up possibilities for new kinds of learning at a distance but I, for one, am not predicting that physical plants and face-to-face contact will wither away. Studies of groups of people collaborating through telecommunications have found repeatedly that an electronic group is more likely to maintain itself members they have had some face-to-face contact. Although we can now have synchronous communication through video conferencing and multi-user virtual environments, most of us still crave the nuances and subtleties of face-to-face contact.
Technology is a wonderful complement when such face-to-face
contact is inconvenient,
expensive, or impossible, but I believe that given a choice,
people will continue to opt for
opportunities to learn in a face-to-face (as opposed to virtual)
social setting. I do think, however,
that we will see exciting and engaging teaching (with course
credit and degree granting) through
the World Wide Web and other new technologies; this will put
pressure on those providing
in-person education and training services to do a much better
Dr. Papert: The best teacher is someone who
brings personal knowledge, warmth and empathy
to a relationship with a learner. The effect of the new
technologies is to provide better conditions
for such teachers to work directly with their students. Of course
tele-teaching has a role, but I
hope it will never be the primary form.
Q: Will advances in technology affect the
involvement of the private sector in education, both in
terms of support and expectations of the qualifications students
should have when they
graduate? Do you see more of an emphasis on technical, rather
than liberal arts education,
even before the university level?
Dr. Papert: I believe that the development of the knowledge-based economy will bring recognition that the most important qualification is not technical knowledge but the ability to learn and to work independently. To foster this we need to replace lock-step curriculum-driven schools with the kind of flexible learning environment made possible by the new technologies.
Dr. Means: We are seeing increased private
sector involvement in education, particularly in
major initiatives involving technology. In my experience,
however, the private sector is not
asking schools to turn out students with greater technical
proficiency. They believe students can
get those skills in post-secondary training or within industry
itself. What they want are students
with strong basic skills and with the "new basics" of learning to
learn, collaboration and effective
Q: So far, we have only talked about
access to the Internet. Would you speculate on how other
technologies could affect American education?
Dr. Papert: I was not talking about access
to the Internet. I was talking about something much
deeper in which computers serve as materials for construction as
well as providing access to
knowledge. For example, in collaboration with the Lego company
[a toy manufacturer],
I and my colleagues at MIT
have developed little computers that can be incorporated in the
models that small children build.
Thus they make behaviors as well as physical structures. When,
as will soon happen, such
devices become widely available, they will enormously increase
every child's opportunity to
know what it is like to carry out a complex project using very
advanced ideas from engineering
and from psychology.
Dr. Means: Computer modeling makes it
possible for us to represent abstract concepts through concrete
visual images that can be manipulated. We
are only beginning to explore the
tremendous potential of such technologies to make what we have
regarded as difficult subject
matters much more accessible; for example, teaching calculus to
middle school students. There
is tremendous potential here, if we invest in solid research and
development, to understand how
best to support learning with the new technologies available to
Q: How will the technologies we have been
discussing affect other countries, especially
underdeveloped countries which do not have the economic resources
of the United States, Japan
and Europe? Is the technological revolution, the information
highway, something that will
benefit primarily the more developed countries of the world?
Dr. Means: Many developing countries are
starting to look at educational uses of technology as
an important strategy for economic development. Learning from
the lessons of more developed
countries that invested in technologies and approaches that are
now considered out of date, they
are hoping to "leap frog" into advanced technology uses in ways
that pay off for economic
competitiveness. Also, you could argue that information
technologies may have a greater effect
in countries with limited resources. Consider the potential
value of an Internet connection in a
country that cannot afford to buy textbooks, let alone stock
libraries for their secondary schools.
Suddenly their students have access to a world of information
Dr. Papert: This is not a matter for
speculation about what will or will not happen. It is a
matter for decision. I think it would be very foolish of the
developed world to lose the chance to
help the developing world acquire the benefits of the new kinds
of learning environments. I
myself have joined with Nicholas Negroponte and a few others to
create an organization called
the 2B1 Foundation to serve this purpose.
Q: Universities are already interactive
in many ways, but do you think that education can be
globalized, or will we continue to stay in our linguistic and
Dr. Papert: It will eventually be globalized
but the conservatism inherent in universities as
organizations will probably result in wasteful delays.
Dr. Means: My experience in studying
projects involving participants from multiple countries suggests
that even given all the options
the Internet, you need to give
teachers a very compelling reason to want to collaborate with
teachers from other countries and
language groups to get any kind of sustained participation.
There is great interest in international
collaboration in concept, but a limited number of teachers that
really follow through unless you
find the right hook. But such hooks can be found, for example,
in tracking the effects of El Nino
Q: We've talked about how technology is
shaping education. Is education also shaping
Dr. Papert: Unfortunately not. I think that
it is shameful that the education world has allowed
the computer industry to impose its idea of what a computer
should be and how it should be
Dr. Means: Unfortunately, the education
market is so dwarfed by the business and home
technology markets that it has had a relatively small impact on
the design of technology. The
technologies we are using in schools today were designed
primarily for offices. Experts in
educational content and in how children learn are rarely involved
in technology development.
Improving upon this situation is one of the goals for the Center
for Innovative Learning
Technologies, a new research consortium consisting of SRI
International, the University of
California at Berkeley, Vanderbilt University and the Concord
Consortium (with funding from
the National Science Foundation). Through an Industry Partners
Program, researchers in this
center will be bringing their research on the most effective uses
of technology and on student and
teacher technology needs to the corporations that develop new
technologies and software.
Q: Dr. Papert, you stated (in testimony
before the United States Congress) that the cost of
technology is exaggerated in the minds of education policy
makers. Could you please elaborate?
Dr. Papert: The cost is a matter of simple
arithmetic. The cost of giving every child a $750
computer with a five-year life would add only 2 percent to the
average cost of educating a child
in the United States. With a little R&D [research and
development], the computer industry could
easily halve or quarter that number.
Q: Dr. Means, one of your books is
entitled Technology and Education Reform: The Reality
Behind the Promise. Do you think there's any danger that
expectations for results are too
high, or, conversely, too low?
Dr. Means: John Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has underwritten many of the most successful new technology start-ups over the last 15 years, argues that the Internet is seriously under-hyped. We do not yet have a full appreciation of how this system of communication will change our homes, offices and schools. He may be right. The problem is that technology-driven change often is not linear. It is very difficult to foresee on the basis of extrapolating present trends. I don't claim any great accuracy as a visionary, so I'll give you an extrapolation of what I see now.
Many members of the general public have a strong belief in
technology's power to transform
education either because of technology's "mystique" or because
they have experienced
technology's power in other settings. There are problems when
technology is brought into school
systems with high expectations but no clear thinking about how or
why it is to be used. The
power is not in the technology per se but rather in the social
and instructional context it can
support. The opportunity to infuse technology into a school can
become a catalyst for rethinking
how the school should structure its use of time and personnel,
what it's trying to teach students,
and how its staff believes students learn and can demonstrate
Q: Finally, perhaps you could summarize
your thoughts on technology and education -- where
we were, where we are, and where we are likely to go in the
Dr. Means: Taken together, the continued exponential advances in information technology, the huge interest in network technologies, our increasing understanding of human cognition, and the widespread concern for educational quality provide the elements for what could be a decade of educational revolution led by technology.
New network technologies could foster collaborative learning between peers anywhere, involve new players in the support of student learning (e.g., scientists, retirees, experts), and end the isolation of classrooms from real-world concerns and resources. It should be possible to offer a rich selection of world-class courses and learning activities to anyone, anywhere. Informal learning through collaboration with people who have important kinds of expertise should be a major facet of learning in schools, on the job, and at home.
All of this should be possible, but we are not yet there
either on the technology or the
organizational infrastructure front. Electronic conferencing
software has been awkward and
largely restricted to text. Threaded discussion groups have
proven difficult for novice learners to
understand and use. We are just beginning to see applications
that combine synchronous and
asynchronous communication in ways that support learning and
professional development (see
for example, SRI's TAPPED IN, a virtual teacher professional
development institute, which can
be found on the World Wide Web at
http://www.tappedin.sri.com/info/about.html). The next
decade is sure to be an exciting
one both in terms of technological advances and in terms of
increased knowledge gained from
early efforts to harness these capabilities in the service of
Dr. Papert: Let us make a comparison with some other technologies. When the movie camera was invented, its first use was pretty close to putting the camera in front of a stage on which actors performed as they always had. It took a long time for camera-aided theaters to turn into what we now know as cinema and television. The use of technology in education is mostly at the first stage, in which technology is used to enhance what people did before without it. In the next two decades, we will begin to see change in how people think about learning as deep as the changes technology has brought to how we see entertainment. This will be much, much more than putting a lot of computers in otherwise unchanged schools teaching an otherwise unchanged curriculum.
It is impossible to predict what the school of the future
will be. History always outsmarts the
futurists. But it is easy to predict what it will NOT look like.
I am sure that the practice of
segregating children by age into "grades" will be seen as an
old-fashioned, and inhumane,
method of the "assembly line" epoch. I am sure that the content
of what they learn will have
very little in common with the present day curriculum.
Dr. Barbara Means is Vice President of the Policy Division of SRI International, a California-based research, technology development and consulting firm that recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a Center for Innovative Learning Technologies. Dr. Means is co-author of Technology's Role in Education Reform (1995), and editor of Using Technologies to Support Education Reform (1993) and Technology and Education Reform: The Reality Behind the Promise (1994), among other works.
Dr. Seymour Papert is a researcher at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Papert headed the Media Lab's "School of the Future" project, which included studies on "Children's Learning of Computational Ideas in a Multicultural School" and "Technological Fluency," the latter focusing on the study and development of technological fluency in pre-college students. An early pioneer of Artificial Intelligence, Dr. Papert co-founded MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab in the early 1960s. He is creator of the LOGO programming language and author of several books and articles, the most recent being "The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap" (1996).
U.S. Society & Values
U.S.I.A. Electronic Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, December 1997
U.S. Society & Values