Moursund's IT in Education Home Page

Editorials

Volume 14 1986-1987 Editorial (with Retrospective Comments)

Reprinted with permission from Learning and Leading with Technology (c) 2000-2001, ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education. 800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 541.302.3777, cust_svc@iste.org, http://www.iste.org/. Reprint permission does not constitute an endorsement by ISTE of the product, training, or course.

1. Aug.-Sept. 1986 The Future of Computers in Education
2. October 1986 The "Right Ways" to Use Computers (Guest Editorial by Beth Lowd)
3. November 1986 The Installed Base
4. Dec./Jan. 1986/87 The Information Explosion
5. February 1987 Lower-Order and Higher-Order Skills
6. March 1987 Chesslandia: A Parable
7. April 1987
8. May 1987

Reprinted with permission from Learning and Leading with Technology (c) 12001-2002, ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education. 800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 541.302.3777, cust_svc@iste.org, http://www.iste.org/. Reprint permission does not constitute an endorsement by ISTE of the product, training, or course.

The Future of Computers in Education

Moursund, D.G. (August/September 1986). The Future of Computers in Education. The Computing Teacher.

During the past year, I have given a number of talks on the future of computers in education. These are fun to give, partly because many members of the audience feel some personal involvement in the rapid progress that has occurred and is likely to continue.

Recently I organized my "Futures" presentation into a paper for a conference proceedings. I wrote about the past, present and future of hardware. There [In hardware] the progress has been nearly unbelievable, and rapid progress will continue. I wrote about systems and applications software. Progress has been steady, and continued steady progress seems inevitable. I wrote about progress in telecommunications and networking, and the rosy future of these fields. I wrote about computer science, which is slowly maturing into a solid academic discipline. I addressed computers in education, using a variant of the "Tutor, Tool, Tutee" model developed by Robert Taylor. I wrote about teacher training and instructional support materials.

As the paper got longer and more complex, I began to ask myself if all of the length and complexity were necessary. "Why can't I capture the essence of the future of computers in education in a few paragraphs, written so that all educators can understand?" All educators already understand the importance of information and how one processes information to solve problems. A computer is merely a very fast machine designed to aid in the storage and processing of information.

With this simple model of computers in mind, the future of computers in education is easy to represent. One begins with a few observations about the importance of accessing and making use of (that is, processing) information. The basics of education (reading, writing, arithmetic, speaking, listening) are all concerned with accessing and processing information. Thus, any aids to this endeavor are potentially quite important to education.

Next one points out a couple of things that all educators know. First, if you want a student to learn to use a tool, you give specific instruction in its use and you provide an environment in which the tool will be routinely used. Second, tools (such as paper, pencil and book) shape thought processes. That is, one's whole way of working with intellectual problems is intertwined with the intellectual tools one uses.

The next step is to point out four rather obvious facts about computers.

  1. Computers are useful components in many manufactured products (cars, microwave ovens, wrist watches), and such use will continue to increase.
  2. Computers are a useful aid to productivity (office workers, engineers, factory automation), and such use will continue to increase.
  3. The cost of a given amount of compute power (raw CPU speed and primary memory) continues to decline because of progress in integrated circuitry technology.
  4. Computers are making information more accessible, and are increasingly helping people process information to solve intellectual problems.

Finally, one states several conclusions that are probably self-evident.

  1. Eventually almost all students in this country will grow up in a computer-rich environment, having easy access to very powerful computers both at school and at home.
  2. The content of the curriculum will need to adjust to take into consideration the changing capabilities of students who have grown up with computers.
  3. Use of computer-assisted instruction will grow steadily.
  4. Educators will need to adjust to the changing curriculum, instructional environment and students.

A few closing remarks complete the presentation. For example, one might make a prediction that computers-in-schools' progress during the next 15 years will be many times what it has been in the past 15 years. Or one might point out the need for more money and more teacher training to help us achieve the full potential that computers offer in education.

Three things strike me as particularly interesting about this presentation. First, I will be able to use the same paper five or 10 years from now, making only a few changes to reflect some details of technological progress! Second, the presentation has a relatively low level of high-tech ideas and terminology. An educator doesn't need to have taken a computer course, or even used a computer, to follow the general ideas being discussed. Third, relatively few educators are strongly involved in changing their current educational behaviors in a manner consistent with the future being predicted. That is, computers have had relatively little impact on the content or pedagogy of the conventional curriculum. To a very large extent, computers have been an add-on part of our school curriculum.

For me, this analysis identifies the key issue for the future of computers in education. If computers remain mainly an add-on part of the curriculum, they will continue to have relatively little impact or significance. When computers are integrated into the everyday content and pedagogy of the ordinary classroom, education will have moved into the information era. The key to this is integration of appropriate information-oriented problem solving ideas and processes into the regular curriculum. Eventually every teacher will need to be involved. Are you involved now?

The "Right Ways" to Use Computers

Lowd, Beth (October 1986). The "Right Ways" to Use Computers (Guest Editorial).The Computing Teacher.

What are the goals of the computers-in-education movement? Is uncertainty about goals the reason that involving more educators is becoming more and more difficult? I think the answer is yes. Many computer enthusiasts seek change, and a great many of our colleagues are resistant to change. Some of our promises, our views of the future, don't sound so great to them. And I believe the reason has less to do with confusion over the goals for using computers than with disagreement over what the overall goals of education should be.

Face it. Many of the leaders in computers in education are innovators who originally entered education to make it better. We perceived the schools as less than perfect, autocratic, rigid, unimaginative, stilling, lockstep, teaching trivial rote learning, and peopled far too much by insecure teachers who needed to be dictators in the classroom or incompetents who could not make it in the competitive world. We have been looking since the '60s for ways to make schools more humane, thoughtful and child centered. We have tried other panaceas: open education, team teaching, discovery learning, etc. We are always ready to try a new idea which might make schools better.

So now we've hopped on this new, fascinating bandwagon called technology. Depending on our beliefs about the nature of students and teachers and the world's ills, we describe the goals of computer use in education in one of several ways. I list five of them below, which seem distinct to me, but I recognize that most people espouse parts of more than one of these points of view:

  1. Computers can help make teaching teacher-proof, mechanize it, ensure learning, make possible the step-by-step mastery of the basics for every student, give immediate feedback and private correction, tell us when students are meeting criteria, make possible mastery learning by machine, teach the traditional curriculum better.
  2. Computers can provide more levels for kids to work at, allow time for recognition of different needs and styles, help teachers manage diversity better, keep kids from failing by teaching them at their own levels, individualize, target, diagnose and prescribe, help each learner work up to his/her potential.
  3. Computers can challenge the best minds, teach logic and critical thinking skills, help us train minds in the rigorous discipline of programming (the new Latin), become students' intellectual jungle gym, encourage students to see that there are multiple solutions to most real problems.
  4. Computers with open-ended software can help good teachers revisit discovery learning, enrich the environment, let kids think for themselves, get kids away from memorizing facts to start analyzing data and synthesizing solutions, encourage cooperation and humane classrooms where mistakes aren't a sin, empower the child to learn, motivate, simulate and stimulate complex problems for solution.
  5. Computers can put kids in charge of their own learning, give them unlimited access to feedback and information and let their curiosity do the rest; they can allow teachers to be coaches, to give kids real tasks to do that are useful, to enrich the resources available to kids electronically, to give them access to real feedback from a learning community of their peers and others (not just the teacher).

Sound familiar? Can computers really do all of this? Do we want them to? Do most teachers want any of these scenarios? Do most administrators? With the resources and personnel now at our disposal, are any of these goals achievable on a nationwide basis?

The major publishing companies have taken the conservative view that the first and second (and maybe third) scenarios are possible enough to be marketable. We are inundated with software to individualize, reinforce, and manage the learning of traditional testable knowledge and skills. For some of us that is not enough. We want the fourth and fifth scenarios to begin to come true, too!

And there, I think, is the source of the confusion of goals. Do we want computers to help schools do more effectively what they have always done, or do we want to change the goals of the schools and thereby their methods?

My answer, and the answer of many who are in education to make the system better, is that computers bring us a golden opportunity to improve education through scenarios four and five. We want to make education not only more humane, but also more relevant to our rapidly changing world. Don't students who will live in the 21st century need different skills than those who lived in the past? Isn't the education that's needed for citizenship in the information age (and the nuclear age) any different from that which was needed during the industrial age?

Studies provide ample evidence that the emphasis in education should change. Basic skills are important, but not sufficient. Students need more practice in locating, organizing, analyzing and evaluating real data in this information-swamped society. They need practical experience in having to make decisions when given incomplete information, and in flexibly altering decisions as information changes. Schools need to be modeled less on the autocratic factory and more on an environment that encourages independent thinking, conflict resolution, and cooperative decision making.

I believe these changes are terribly important: the survival of our freedoms and even of the planet may depend on students' mastering some of these new skills. I also believe, strongly, that computers can help us achieve these changes. But we must face the fact that most educators are content with the status quo and see no need to revise the schools' goals. Our hurry to make changes is offensive to them, and it is making computers scary and unpopular by association. For example, those of us who would like to see changes happen quickly (i.e., revolution) too often denigrate computer uses which are fairly traditional (goals one and two). We make our colleagues uncomfortable by insisting that only goals three, four and five are acceptable uses of this wonderful new technology. In so doing, we turn them off from computers completely!

We must stop confusing the "right" goals for using computers with our unpopular idea that education must change. Computers need not be used exclusively to make these radical changes; they can support more commonly accepted philosophies of learning as well. Moreover, encouraging people to use computers for tasks with which they are comfortable will keep them from becoming turned off entirely from the new technologies. The first three goals will do nicely for most people, and their magnitude will certainly put enough strain on the shrinking resources available to education.

Meanwhile, we should continue making our own classrooms as humane, stimulating and empowering as possible and try to create scenarios four and five for our students. We should share our methods with friends who show interest, concentrating on evolution, rather than revolution.

Outside of the classroom, we can work toward the development of new goals for the whole of education. We can join committees and councils and work there for recognition of the need for new skills to face a changing and dangerous world. Over time, as the need for new types of learning becomes slowly obvious, a consensus on the new goals will evolve. Then changes in methods, organization and attitudes will begin to take place, and we can show our colleagues how nicely computers can help them teach the new skills as well as the old ones.

[Beth Lowd, Computer Specialist, Lexington Public Schools, Lexington, MA 02159.]

The Installed Base

Moursund, D.G. (November 1986). The Installed Base. The Computing Teacher.

The idea of an installed base is well understood in business. The term is used to describe the nature of a company's market, production and sales facilities, and previous sales. For example, consider a computer company that makes three types of computers: A, B and C. Type A sells in the price range of $1,000 to $10,000; type B sells in the price range of $10,000 to $50,000; and type C sells in the range of $50,000 and up. The company has sold large numbers of each of these three types. It has separate production, sales and support staffs for each of these major product lines. This combination of products, staff and previous sales constitutes an installed base.

Now suppose that a technical breakthrough allows the company to produce a type B machine that could quite profitably be sold for just $2,000. What should the company do? If it begins to sell a type B machine for $2,000, it will capture a large share of the market for that type of machine; it may wipe out its competitors. However, it will also severely damage its own market for type A machines and its previous type B product line. Also, should the new machine be produced, sold and supported by the A product line staff or the B product line staff? These questions and their answers involve changes to the installed base.

This type of problem is routinely faced by high-tech companies. Decisions may be made based on competition, maximizing profits, and maintaining the overall strength of the company. For example, if there were no competition the company might suppress production of the new product or price it at about $10,000. It is clear that competition is a key force in the computer industry!

By now, you may be asking what does all this have to do with education? In the precollege computer education field, the installed base of microcomputer hardware is nearing two million machines and is still growing rapidly. For any particular school or school system, one brand and model of machine is apt to dominate. At any school, the installed base includes a particular combination of hardware, software, trained teachers, books and manuals, trained students, and so on. As with a company, an installed base represents inertia that resists change.

Now, suppose that a school or school district has funds to acquire additional computer facilities. Then inertia, following the line of least resistance, will likely lead to acquiring more of whatever facilities are already in place. This is now routinely happening. More and more I hear statements like, "We are a Brand X Model Y school. During the next three years we expect to purchase quite a few more Brand X Model Y machines." This is often said with considerable pride.

There is substantial "logic" to continuing to acquire more and more Brand X Model Y machines. No retraining of staff or students is needed. The current software, print materials, and curriculum materials can be used. Perhaps comfortable contacts have been established with vendors.

The trouble is, some of the new hardware and software becoming available is far superior to the older hardware and software. Thus, there is a conflict between wanting to protect one's installed base and wanting to take advantage of the technological progress that has been occurring.

In a company such as our hypothetical computer company, considerable thought goes into how to position a new product and when to introduce it. The new product we discussed might be sold initially at $8,000, and its introduction might be delayed until the type A and type B computers have had a 40 percent price decrease. During the interim, there can be appropriate staff retraining and modification of production facilities to accommodate the changes. Whatever the decision, there is careful thought about maintaining and improving profits, market share and the overall strength of the company. The decision is made by high-level administrators.

Now, how can/should schools respond to the issue of installed base versus rapid progress in new products? This is a difficult question, especially since competition and profit are not driving forces in education. The quality of education being received by students is difficult to quantify. What difference does it make if students use microcomputers based on technology that is 10 years out of date? How will students benefit from use of 16-bit or 32-bit microcomputers with a half-megabyte or a megabyte of memory and bit-mapped graphics, as compared with the more common 64K, 8-bit machines with lesser graphic capabilities?

The answer lies in a careful examination of the purposes for having computers in schools. These purposes divide into three major categories. The first type of purpose is to address specific educational problems. For example, computerized drill and practice may be used to address a problem of poor performance on tests of basic skills. If the educational problem is being adequately addressed by currently available hardware and software, there is little reason to change. If new computer facilities are clearly more cost effective in addressing a specific educational problem, there is solid incentive to acquiring the new facilities.

A second type of purpose is rather general. It can be described as a combination of "to keep up with the Jones'" and to expose students to computer technology. To a large extent, almost any computer equipment suffices for this. Quantity, not quality, is the overriding issue. However, it can be an embarrassment to have to admit to using types of equipment that have not been manufactured or sold for many years. Thus, there is some pressure to have a recognized "name brand" of computers, and there is some pressure to own one or more "newer" computers. All in all, this second purpose exercises a greater influence on school purchase of microcomputer facilities than most of us would like to admit.

The third type of purpose is to provide a high quality education for continuing lifelong learning, and for work, play, and responsible citizenship in our (rapidly changing) Information Age society. A computer is a tool based on a combination of hardware and software. The computer tool aids human thinking, problem solving, and productivity. Thus, the computer tool is at the very heart of the underlying mission or purpose of our educational system.

I believe it is important that students receive their computer-related educational experiences in an up-to-date computer environment. Modern versions of the computer tool are far superior to older versions in their ability to aid thinking, problem solving, and productivity. This, then, is an appropriate driving force for schools to acquire newer, more powerful computer facilities.

As new hardware and software products come to market, they should be examined in two ways. First, can these new products help solve current educational problems in a more cost effective manner than current approaches to solving the same problem? Second, are these new products significantly better aids to human thinking, problem solving, and productivity than older products? An answer of "yes" to either question should serve as a strong reason for acquiring the new products. Computer education leaders should resist the inertia of the installed base.

Retrospective Comment 8/1/05.

In the May 2001 issue of Learning and Leading with Technology I published an editorial titled "Educational Innovator's Dilemma." This was based on the book:

Christensen, C.M. (2000). The innovator's dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. NY: Harperbusiness.

Christensen's book presents a careful analysis of the problem that companies face when new technology becomes available. He gives a number of examples where companies made the decision to stick with the old, rather than to innovate and go with the new technologies. The typical consequence of such a decision was that the company eventually went out of business.

The editorial then discusses possible consequences of our public education system not appropriately adopting the innovation of educational use of computers. At the time I wrote the editorial, I had forgotten "The Installed Base" editorial published in November 1986. It is interesting to look back now, nearly 19 years later, and see that I had already begun to explore the ideas of the innovator's dilemma.

Our educational system has struggled mightily during the past two decades. Huge amounts of money have been spent to try to improve our educational system. Although there has been progress in many areas, test scores in the basics such as reading, writing, math, and science have not changed appreciably.

Spending on Information and Communication Technology in schools has increased, but it is still at a quite modest level (approximately 2% of total school budgets). We now have many times as many computers in schools as we had then, the computers are far more powerful, and many of the computers are networked to the Internet (and thus, can do email and access the Web).

In my opinion, we have made only modest progress in adopting and thoroughly integrating the computer innovation into our educational system. Interestingly, this slow rate of adopting the computer innovation has had only a modest impact on our public educational system. It has provide some fuel for school voucher programs and Charter Schools. It has helped the Home School movement. But these competitors of the traditional public school system enroll, in total, less than five percent of our precollege students.

Some Charter Schools are now providing most or all of their instruction via distance learning (online courses). This is a new innovation, and some public schools have adopted or partially adopted this innovation. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long run.

Here is some interesting data about private schools in the United States, quoted from the Council for American Private Education (accessed 8/1/050 http://www.capenet.org/facts.html.

November 2003 -- More than six million students--11.5 percent of the nation's elementary and secondary school population--are attending private schools in 2003-04, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (Projections of Education Statistics to 2013, table 1).

According to the report, "Enrollment in private elementary and secondary schools increased 18 percent between 1988 and 2001, and is projected to increase 7 percent between 2001 and 2013." By way of comparison, enrollment in public schools "increased 19 percent between 1988 and 2001, and is projected to increase 4 percent between 2001 and 2013" (p. 6).

This data suggests that the public schools have been holding their own in competition with the private schools.

Chesslandia: A Parable

Moursund, D.G. (March 1987). Chesslandia: A Parable. The Computing Teacher (Learning and Leading with Technology.) Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Chesslandia was aptly named. In Chesslandia, almost everybody played chess. A child's earliest toys were chess pieces, chess boards, and figurines of famous chess masters. Children's bedtime tales focused on historical chess games and on great chess-playing folk heroes . Many of the children's television adventure programs were woven around a theme of chess strategy. Most adults watched chess matches on evening and weekend television.

Language was rich in chess vocabulary and metaphors. "I felt powerless--like a pawn facing a queen." "I sent her flowers as an opening gambit." "His methodical, breadth-first approach to problem solving does not suit him to be a player in our company." "I lacked mobility--I had no choice."

The reason was simple. Citizens of Chesslandia had to cope with the deadly CHESS MONSTER!. The CHESS MONSTER, usually just called the CM, was large, strong, and fast. It had a voracious appetite for citizens of Chesslandia, although it could survive on a mixed diet of vegetation and small animals.

The CM was a wild animal in every respect but one. It was born with an ability to play chess and an innate desire to play the game. A CM's highest form of pleasure was to defeat a citizen of Chesslandia at a game of chess, and then to eat the defeated victim. Sometimes a CM would spare a defeated victim if the game was well played, perhaps savoring a future match.

In Chesslandia, young children were always accompanied by adults when they went outside. One could never tell when a CM might appear. The adult carried several portable chess boards. (While CMs usually traveled alone, sometimes a group traveled together. Citizens who were adept at playing several simultaneous chess games had a better chance of survival.)

Formal education for adulthood survival in Chesslandia began in the first grade. Indeed, in kindergarten children learned to draw pictures of chess boards and chess pieces. Many children learned how each piece moves even before entering kindergarten. Nursery rhyme songs and children's games helped this memorization process.

In the first grade, students were expected to master the rudiments of chess. They learned to set up the board, name the pieces, make each of the legal moves, and tell when a game had ended. Students learned chess notation so they could record their moves and begin to read chess books. Reading was taught from the "Dick and Jane Chess Series." Even first graders played important roles in the school play, presented at the end of each year. The play was about a famous chess master and contained the immortal lines: "To castle or not to castle--that is the question."

In the second grade, students began studying chess openings. The goal was to memorize the details of the 1,000 most important openings before finishing high school. A spiral curriculum had been developed over the years. Certain key chess ideas were introduced at each grade level, and then reviewed and studied in more depth each subsequent year.

As might be expected, some children had more natural chess talent than others. By the end of the third grade, some students were a full two years behind grade level. Such chess illiteracy caught the eyes of the nation, so soon there were massive, federally-funded remediation programs. There were also gifted and talented programs for students who were particularly adept at learning chess. One especially noteworthy program taught fourth grade gifted and talented students to play blindfold chess. (Although CMs were not nocturnal creatures, they were sometimes still out hunting at dusk. Besides, a solar eclipse could lead to darkness during the day.)

Some students just could not learn to play a decent game of chess, remaining chess illiterate no matter how many years they went to school. This necessitated lifelong supervision in institutions or shelter homes. For years there was a major controversy as to whether these students should attend special schools or be integrated into the regular school system. Surprisingly, when this integration was mandated by law, many of these students did quite well in subjects not requiring a deep mastery of chess. However, such subjects were considered to have little academic merit.

The secondary school curriculum allowed for specialization. Students could focus on the world history of chess, or they could study the chess history of their own country. One high school built a course around the chess history of its community, with students digging into historical records and interviewing people in a retirement home.

Students in mathematics courses studied breadth-first versus depth-first algorithms, board evaluation functions, and the underlying mathematical theory of chess. A book titled "A Mathematical Analysis of some Roles of Center Control in Mobility." was often used as a text in the advanced placement course for students intending to go on to college.

Some schools offered a psychology course with a theme on how to psych out an opponent. This course was controversial, because there was little evidence one could psych out a CM. However, proponents of the course claimed it was also applicable to business and other areas.

Students of dance and drama learned to represent chess pieces, their movement, the flow of a game, the interplay of pieces, and the beauty of a well-played match. But such studies were deemed to carry little weight toward getting into the better colleges.

All of this was, course, long long ago. All contact with Chesslandia has been lost for many years.

That is, of course, another story. We know its beginning. The Chesslandia government and industry supported a massive educational research and development program. Of course, the main body of research funds was devoted to facilitating progress in the theory and pedagogy of chess. Eventually, however, quite independently of education, the electronic digital computer was invented.

Quite early on it became evident that a computer could be programmed to play chess. But, it was argued, this would be of little practical value. Computers could never play as well as adult citizens. And besides, computers were very large, expensive, and hard to learn to use. Thus, educational research funds for computer-chess were severely restricted.

However, over a period of years computers got faster, cheaper, smaller, and easier to use. Better and better chess programs were developed. Eventually, portable chess-playing computers were developed, and these machines could play better than most adult citizens. Laboratory experiments were conducted, using CMs from zoos, to see what happened when these machines were pitted against CMs. It soon became evident that portable chess-machines could easily defeat most CMs.

While educators were slow to understand the deeper implications of chess-playing computers, many soon decided that the machines could be used in schools. "Students can practice against the chess-machine. The machine can be set to play at an appropriate level, it can keep detailed records of each game, and it has infinite patience." Parents called for "chess-machine literacy" to be included in the curriculum. Several state legislatures passed requirements that all students in their schools must pass a chess-machine literacy test.

At the same time, a few educational philosophers began to question the merits of the current curricula, even those which included a chess-computer literacy course. Why should the curriculum spend so much time teaching students to play chess? Why not just equip each student with a chess-machine, and revise the curriculum so it focuses on other topics?

There was a call for educational reform, especially from people who had a substantial knowledge of how to use computers to play chess and to help solve other types of problems. Opposition from most educators and parents was strong. "A chess-machine cannot and will never think like an adult citizen. Moreover, there are a few CMs that can defeat the best chess-machine. Besides, one can never tell when the batteries in the chess-machine might wear out." A third grade teacher noted that "I teach students the end game. What will I do if I don't teach students to deal with the end game?" Other leading citizens and educators noted that chess was much more than a game. It was a language, a culture, a value system, a way of deciding who will get into the better colleges or get the better jobs.

Many parents and educators were confused. They wanted the best possible education for their children. Many felt that the discipline of learning to play chess was essential to successful adulthood. "I would never want to become dependent on a machine. I remember having to memorize three different chess openings each week. And I remember the worksheets that we had to do each night, practicing these openings over and over. I feel that this type of homework builds character."

The education riots began soon thereafter.

Retrospective Comments 3/31/02

In 1997, a computer beat the reigning world chess champion in a six-game match. It seems likely that by the end of the current decade a microcomputer will be able to beat the human world chess champion.

I think Chesslandia: A Parable is my all time favorite editorial. It seems as relevant now as it was when I wrote in. During the next two decades, it is quite likely that computer systems will be built that are at least 1,000 times as fast as current machines. People will have routine access to microcomputers that are a thousand time the speed of current microcomputers. People will have routine access to networks that are a thousand times as fast as today's networks.

What will our schools be like????

Lower-Order and Higher-Order Skills

I begin one of my favorite workshop activities discussing the idea of effective procedure—that is, the types of procedures that computers can carry out—and how this relates to problem solving. I then ask the workshop participants to identify disciplines that seem to have a relatively high or relatively low concentration of effective procedures. Mathematics is usually the unanimous choice for the discipline with the highest concentration of effective procedures, although the physical sciences sometimes run a close second.

The fun begins as workshop participants start to name disciplines with relatively low concentrations of effective procedures. Art is frequently mentioned, but I then suggest that the graphical or commercial arts seem to make major use of computers. Sometimes the social sciences are mentioned. But by then some workshop participant will give a solid argument that the organization, storage, retrieval, and presentation of information is greatly helped by computers.

Eventually a pattern emerges. Each discipline has some parts where computers are very useful and other parts where computers are of modest or no use. Even math fits this pattern. Math is viewed by many mathematicians as an art form, as a field requiring a great deal of creativity, and as a field where computers are mostly useful in carrying out routine computational or manipulative tasks.

Skills for Problem Solving

Within each academic discipline there is a continuum of knowledge and skills. Bloom's taxonomy is a division of this continuum into (1) knowledge, (2) comprehension, (3) application, (4) analysis, (5) synthesis and (6) evaluation. Many educators refer to the first three as lower-order skills and the latter three as higher-order skills.

It seems evident that problem solving requires both lower-order and higher-order skills. For example, suppose one is faced by the problem of writing a descriptive narrative using pencil and paper. Then spelling, grammar, and penmanship are lower-order skills that will enter into the final product. But no matter how well these lower-order skills are used, the writing may turn out to be very poor. Good writing has style; it has appropriate and rich use of vocabulary; it communicates clearly. The production of good writing requires use of such higher-order skills as information retrieval, organization, drawing on a rich vocabulary, understanding the intended audience and the purpose of the writing, revision, and so on.

The problems in each academic discipline can be analyzed in this same way. In arithmetic, one has many lower-order skills such as writing the numerals, counting, and performing the four basic arithmetic operations. One has higher-order skills such as representing real-world problems as arithmetic computations, applying problem-solving techniques such as breaking a big problem into more manageable pieces, estimating, detecting computational errors, and interpreting computational results in light of a real-world problem that one is working to solve.

Educators have long understood the dichotomy of lower-order versus higher-order skills, and each curriculum reflects a balance between them. But even within the school systems of a single state, there may be major difference in emphasis on higher-order and lower-order skills. In some schools the balance is heavily weighted toward lower-order skills (rote memorization is stressed) while in other schools there is more emphasis on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

The balance between lower-order and higher-order skills can change in an educational system over a period of years. Education in the United States began a “back-to-basics” movement more than 15 years ago. This movement included increased emphasis not only on reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also on the basic skills in these and other disciplines. Now many educational leaders in the United States are arguing that the back-to-basics movement was a mistake and that we should be placing much greater emphasis on higher-order skills.

One argument for increased emphasis on higher-order skills is based on an examination of the steady decline in college entrance exam scores that extended over many years and just recently appears to have bottom out. An analysis of such test scores indicates that the basis skills component of these scores actually increased. It was the higher-order skills scores that declined drastically and dragged down the total scores.

A second argument should be made by computer education leaders. Most of the effective procedures that computers can carry out fall in the lower-order skills area. For example, in writing, one can have a word processor (as contrasted with penmanship) and one can have both spelling and grammar checkers. In arithmetic one can have a calculator. The argument is that appropriate use of computers can be a partial substitute for some lower-order skills.

To me the argument seems clear. A good education must be balanced between lower-order and higher-order skills. Computers have a greater impact on lower-order skills than on higher-order skills. For example, in a wide variety of disciplines, computers make it more appropriate to retrieve information than to memorize it. Computers can carry out routine manipulative tasks that require substantial schooling for humans to learn to perform. Thus, some of the time currently being spent on lower-order skills can be replaced by a combination of appropriate use of computers and more time spent on higher-order skills.

In several recent workshops, I have raised the idea that we might replace much of the cursive writing penmanship curriculum by keyboarding. (This idea was suggested to me by my colleague Keith Wetzel.) While there is an initial round of outright shock and laughter, the majority of participants in my workshops support such an idea! The next time you want to provoke an argument with traditional educators, you might suggest that penmanship is of rapidly declining importance. When the argument begins to wane, suggest that everyday voice input to computers is now visible on the horizon.

There are many things that people can do better than computers—especially if they have an education that emphasizes higher-order knowledge and skills. An appropriate education for the Information Age must take into consideration the capabilities of computers. The education must prepare people to work with computers, rather than compete with such machines. All computer educators should be encouraging a greater emphasis on higher-order skills.

The Information Explosion

Every once in a while I come across a statement that the totality of human knowledge is doubling every N years. Depending on the author, N might be as little as four years or as many as 12 years. All of the authors are trying to capture the idea that we have increasing numbers of researchers who are using increasingly sophisticated tools to build on the work of previous researchers. We have an explosive, geometric growth of accumulated knowledge.

Generally, people don't carefully define what is meant by the totality of human knowledge. I suspect that this is difficult (if not impossible) to do, so I won't attempt it in this short editorial. However, I have a picture in mind that comes from my days as a student of mathematics. I picture mathematics as a broad-based, but relatively vertical discipline, with the research frontiers built on hundreds or even thousands of years of solid progress. Researchers in a university discuss some of their new ideas in graduate research seminars. A few of the ideas filter down to regular graduate courses. Over a period of decades some of these ideas enter the undergraduate curriculum. Over a period of hundreds of years, some of the ideas enter the precollege curriculum. For example, most of the precollege "new math" movement of the 1960s was based on math that was well over a hundred years old.

A troubling factor in this information explosion is that the capabilities of the human mind do not appear to be increasing. This leads to the situation that a student beginning the study of a particular discipline will be able to learn a decreasing percentage of that field. Scholars who want to become researchers in a particular field respond by selecting narrower and narrower areas of specialization.

But what is the ordinary student or the generalist to do? How can one gain a solid grasp of a wide variety of fields, understand progress that is occurring, make use of the new knowledge that is being developed, and feel intellectually comfortable with the rapidly growing base of human knowledge? These questions are fundamental to the Information Age.

The answer lies in learning to build on the work of others—to avoid reinventing the wheel. This is the guiding principle of much of our academic coursework. The goal is to help students rapidly learn what researchers and scholars struggled with for years. For example, Newton and Liebnitz invented the calculus about 300 years ago, and this was a monumental achievement. But some high school students now learn more calculus than these initial researchers knew, because we have very good calculus books and calculus teachers.

Mathematics provides a good example of the progress we can make through coursework, but also illustrates the major dilemma. As a rough estimate, I would guess that over the past 100 years a significant percentage of the college mathematics curriculum has been moved to two years earlier in the curriculum. That is, freshman and sophomore mathematics majors study a great deal of material that was common in the junior and senior curriculum of a hundred years ago.

But unfortunately, during that time the totality of mathematical knowledge may have increased by a factor of several hundred! Moreover, there has been an explosive growth of knowledge in many other disciplines. And new disciplines have arisen, such as computer science and genetic engineering. Thus, there are ever-increasing demands on the student's time and learning capabilities.

Continual development of new curricula, better texts and learning aids, and better teaching methods are all essential and helpful. However, the fundamental issue is whether we can find still other ways to build on the work of others.

Computers offer a new, two-part answer. The first part of the answer is computer-assisted instruction. Research evidence strongly supports the contention that via CAI many students can learn significantly faster. For this reason it seems inevitable that CAI will eventually be commonplace in our schools.

The second part of the answer lies in computer-as-tool for the storage, processing, and retrieval of information, and as a general-purpose aid to problem solving.

One can view a computer system as a passive information storage and retrieval device. In that sense it is like a library. But it is a significantly changed library. A 12-cm CD-ROM can store the equivalent of 500 books. A videodisc can store 54,000 pictures. Our telecommunications systems can provide easy access to computerized materials stored at distant locations. It is evident that computers, telecommunications, and storage technology are significantly improving our access to information. Such access is essential to building on previous work of others.

However, the key to dealing with the information explosion does not lie just with improved (passive) access to information. The key mainly lies with the ability of computers to process the information. Computer storage of information differs significantly from library storage of information precisely because computers can also process the stored information.

For example, a computer can store demographic information along with maps, programs to represent the data on maps, programs to graph the data, programs to extrapolate trends, programs to perform statistical analysis such as correlating sets of data, and so on. These software tools can help solve some of the problems one addresses through use of the data. Such computer capabilities truly represent an extension of the human mind.

Essentially all of computer science is concerned with such extension of the capabilities of the human mind. However, artificial intelligence focuses specifically in this area. Recent progress in artificial intelligence, including knowledge-based expert systems, is exciting! In essence, AI researchers have given us a method for capturing some of the knowledge of a human expert in a form so that the computer can use it to solve problems. A human can learn to use such a system, and thus to solve some problems at the level of an expert in a particular discipline, without spending the time necessary to become an expert in the discipline.

All educators should be following this progress, since it is at the very heart of a new interface between education and the information explosion.

I draw two conclusions from the line of reasoning discussed above. First, schools should focus increased attention on information storage and retrieval, and they should place particular attention on computer-related improvements in this field. Second, within every discipline, students should learn to use computer-as-tool as an aid to solving the problems of the discipline. The capabilities and limitations of computer-as-tool should be a clearly defined part of every academic course. This capability is our current best new aid to coping with the information explosion.