Technology And Education

How will American education cope with the "electronic age"?

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 29
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

To date, all too often, the habit of mind has been to minimize and to segregate attention to technology.

  • Teachers, students or parents get enamored of one gadget or another;
  • Administrators buy some "boxes" such as microcomputers or VCR’s, stick those boxes into schools and act as if by installing the boxes, they have improved schools;
  • Leaders discuss issues of education and of technology as if these were two spheres, like lenses in a pair of eyeglasses. They don’t see one "education" through the two lenses, as they should.

"School", let me suggest, is but one "technology" of education. School results from the inventiveness of America in the 19th century. There are many other technologies of education, the results of 20th-century inventiveness.

Educators can – and they or someone will – blend the older and the newer technologies.

The issue of our times is how – if at all – to blend the technologies we call "school" with the many, many electronic tools of education.

What are the electronic tools of education? Video in all its forms including videotapes and discs, cable TV and broadcast TV and direct broadcast satellites. Computing, in all its forms including computer-aided instruction, simulation, word-processing, electronic databases, spreadsheets, networks and more. Robots. Graphics. Artificial intelligence. Recording media of many kinds, including audiotape, phonograph records, compact discs (in many forms, such as the forthcoming CD-I and DVI interactive forms). Distance communications technologies: satellites, fiber optics, microwave, etc.

These technologies are not only stand-alone technologies. They can be blended into very powerful multi-media environments. This is analogous to the blend of books, chalk, bells, pencils and notepads, teacher lectures, tests, grades and sequenced curricula which combine into the environment we call "school". One need only look to training of adults in corporations; to interactive video desk-top systems; to distance learning; to the best of instructional television (such as Sesame Street); to the best videodisc products (such as The Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century) or the best compact disc products (such as the Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia); these are contemporary examples of the blending of electronic technologies into multi-media educational tools.

These technologies are students’ technologies. Students do the work of learning – and technologies (including but not limited to school) can be helpful. Audiotapes, word-processing, homework hotlines, software for home computers, calculators all are educational assistants to students as they work.

These technologies are teachers’ and administrators’ technologies. Tasks such as test preparation and grading, record keeping, scheduling, reporting, and decision-making based on data are the workaday functions of school employees. Many can be done faster; some can even be done better, if computer networks or other tools are at hand.

But even more important, teachers and administrators’ effectiveness with students can increase when they can work with the new media together with students. For example, reading instruction has been improved in many schools when teachers, using IBM’s Writing to Read system, have been able to teach reading in new ways. The teaching of history, art, civics, science and many other subjects is enhanced when teachers use NEWS ACCESS, NSBA’s unique classroom news service. Teaching of writing may be improved when all involved use word processing because the technology speeds the writing process and makes revision swift and sure. Teaching of communications skills can be broadened by including the making of video reports, now that video cameras have become portable and inexpensive.

Technology tends to have five categories of impact, when used wisely in educational ways:

  • Visual learning is enhanced. Schools are places dominated by words, spoken and in print. Many subjects, and many students’ learning abilities, are enhanced by pictures.
  • Time is saved. Some tasks can be done faster, freeing time for other work. Some tasks, (such as certain laboratory experiences) would otherwise be too time consuming but can be compressed into available time.
  • Better decisions are made. Information can be more readily available in a timely way to support decisions. More people can conveniently participate in certain decisions, when information is readily available to all.

Moreover, in the name of spreadsheets, databases, project planners and expert systems, aids to decision-making are becoming available.

  • New curriculum and new services are possible. Distance learning, for example, is making it feasible for students in small school districts to study Latin, calculus and other subjects which previously were too expensive to deliver to sparsely populated areas.
  • Cost savings occur. Sometimes, use of new technology is simply less expensive than doing things the old way. Automated library catalog systems, for example, not only speed everyone’s decision making about book use and book purchases, they speed and reduce clerical processes, reduce errors and result in less operational cost.

These benefits of technology can – and should – be sought by schools. That is the role for today’s educational planners and policy-makers.

Just as important, these benefits are not limited to schools. They occur in homes, offices, driving in a car (listening to recorded books, for example), museums, day care, and any other setting where people wish to learn.

Public school educators may, if they wish, strive to influence the ways that education occurs in these many other settings. Schools may lend tapes for home viewing, provide computer software, initiate their own television programming, co-sponser events at museums and libraries, provide databases online to students at home, and much more. Moreover, educators may establish businesses or not-for-profit ventures that exploit the new technologies in novel ways (such as the trend toward children’s museums, non-campus colleges and universities, and remedial learning centers in community settings.) Examples exist of such innovation, but they are not yet commonplace. (See "The Electronic School: Innovative uses of Technology in Education" in the July, 1987 editions of the AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL or the EXECUTIVE EDUCATOR.)

Whether or not public schools educators act, someone will! The technologies are available by which the nation will boost the level of education of all its citizens. What’s needed are vision, imagination and willpower.

James Mecklenburger is Director of the National School Boards Association’s Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education (1680 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314 or 703/838-NSBA). As he mentioned in this article, their work includes the production of "NEWS ACCESS", a special current events program for schools that combines CNN’s "The Week in Review" with a weekly study guide and news index, all delivered electronicly. Write for more information on how to be a participating school.