The Future of Information Technology in Education
An ISTE Publication


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Chapter 3
Education Systems Change Over Time

Overall Goals of Education

  •    David Perkins' book (1992) contains an excellent overview of education and a wide variety of attempts to improve our educational system. He analyzes these attempted improvements in terms of how well they have contributed to accomplishing the following three major goals of education:


    • Acquisition and retention of knowledge and skills.


    • Understanding of one's acquired knowledge and skills.


    • Active use of one's acquired knowledge and skills. (Ability to apply one's learning to new settings. Ability to analyze and solve novel problems.)

       These three general goals-acquisition, understanding, and use of knowledge and skills-help guide formal educational systems throughout the world. They provide a solid starting point for the analysis of any existing or proposed educational system.

       The next three paragraphs expand on the three goals stated by Perkins. These paragraphs capture the essence of changes that Perkins, your author, and many others feel are needed in our educational system.


    • Acquisition and retention. The totality of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. Estimates of the doubling time vary, with some people suggesting a doubling of knowledge every 5 years, and some suggesting an even shorter doubling time. The amount of knowledge that one can acquire and retain is a very tiny fraction of the totality of human knowledge-and this fraction is rapidly decreasing. An alternative to trying to acquire more information is to develop the skills of a research librarian. Learn to make effective use of the emerging global libraries that can be accessed by use of computer networks.


    • Understanding. Rote memory is no substitute for understanding. Similarly, the ability to retrieve information is no substitute for understanding what one retrieves. Our educational system must substantially increase its emphasis on understanding and on higher-order thinking skills.


    • Active use of knowledge and skills. Information technology in schools empowers students. Given appropriate opportunities and facilitation, students can learn to make second-order effect uses of a wide variety of information technology. Thus, students can accomplish tasks and solve problems that were beyond the capabilities of adults before the information technology became available. Students can address real-world problems and produce useful results.

Education in the United States

  •    July 4, 1776, was the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was the dawn of a new nation-the United States of America. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the United States was an agrarian country. Fully 90% of the people lived and worked on farms.

       Thomas Jefferson was one of the main writers of the Declaration of Independence. He went on to become the third president of the United States. He was a broadly educated man, an inventor, and a visionary.

       One of Jefferson's visions was for a greatly improved educational system. In his home state of Virginia, he envisioned and worked toward an educational system that included primary schools that were readily accessible to students. In his plan, 3 years of grammar school would be available to all citizens, with the state paying the tuition for families that could not afford the tuition. (Slaves were not considered to be citizens. Note also that the intent was that the schools would only be free to those who could not afford tuition charges.)

       Students could continue beyond the 3 years of schooling, at their families' expense. In addition, the state would pay the tuition for a modest number of boys that displayed great academic potential. These ideas were far too revolutionary for the time, and they were not implemented.

       The next hundred years saw slow but steady progress toward an increasing number of students receiving an increasing amount of education. While a grammar school system was well established, relatively few students progressed beyond that level. In the 1870s the high school graduation rate in the United States was only about 3%. The United States was still an agrarian nation and education at the high school level or above was for the elite.

       Indeed, in 1890, well under 10% of high school aged students were actually enrolled in a high school. In 1890 Harvard president Charles W. Elliot noted that of the 352 students admitted to Harvard the previous year, only 97 came from public high schools. Since most of these Harvard students were from the state of Massachusetts-the state that probably had the nation's best public educational system-these data suggest that the public educational system left much to be desired.

       However, in the late 1800s, the United States was industrializing. Industrialization brought with it increasing educational demands. Many of the main ideas and components of our current educational system were developed and implemented during that time.

       In the years that followed, there was a substantial increase in public secondary school education. States began to fund such systems and established requirements for attendance. People debated how much schooling should be required. They also debated college-preparation types of curriculum versus vocationally-oriented types of curriculum. In those days, college preparation included a substantial amount of studies in Latin and Greek.

       The secondary school curriculum that gradually emerged bears a striking resemblance to the secondary school curriculum of today. Although there were no national standards, a relatively common core of courses became available at schools throughout the country. The idea of the Carnegie Unit (a year-long course meeting one period a day) was developed. Many colleges throughout the country began to base college admission on students having successfully completed a number of Carnegie Units of coursework from a basic core of nine different subject areas.

       During the past half century, the high school graduation rate in the United States has steadily increased, as has the number of students going on to college. This is also true for much of the rest of the world. Improvements in transportation and communication have made it easier for the educational systems in the various countries to build upon ideas from other countries and to compare themselves to educational systems in other countries. We are seeing the gradual development of worldwide goals and worldwide standards for education.

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

  •    Reading, writing, and arithmetic-the three R's-have long been considered to be the basics of education. Thomas Jefferson understood that even 3 years of grammar school instruction in the three R's can produce a useful level of skills. That is because even a rudimentary level of knowledge and skills in the three R's allows one to make use of knowledge that has been stored in books. That is, one can build on the accumulated knowledge of the writers in solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

    The three R's empower people in a number of different ways. For example:


    • The three R's are an aid to communication.


    • The three R's are an aid to the human mind. They help to overcome limitations of the human mind such as limitations of short-term and long-term memory. (Have you ever tried to do long division in your head?)


    • The three R's have made possible a steady accumulation of human knowledge in a form that people throughout the world can access and use. For example, probably you studied Euclidean geometry when you were in high school. Euclidean geometry is a type of mathematics developed about 2,000 years ago.

       It takes a great deal of time and effort to develop a useful level of skills in the three R's. What constitutes a "useful level" has gradually increased over the years. While universal third grade education was considered too revolutionary in Thomas Jefferson's time, it is now totally inadequate. Our formal educational system has a major focus on the three R's that continues even on into college, where most freshmen are required to take writing and math coursework.

       Information technology is adding new dimensions to the three R's. Writing with pen and ink is different than writing with a word processor and desktop publication system with a built-in outliner, a spell checker, and a laser printer. This, in turn, is but one step toward developing effective interactive hypermedia documents that make use of text, color, graphics, audio, and video.

       Computer-based information systems can be used to store books. However, consider the new dimension that is added when one can store both "how to do it" information and have a computer system that can actually "do it." The handheld graphing calculators that are now commonly used in high school math and science classes provide a simple example. Such calculators contain a large number of built-in functions and can automatically produce the graph of a function. Many such calculators also have a "Solve" key. That is, there is a program built into the calculator that can automatically solve an equation that has been entered into the calculator. Stated slightly differently, the calculator stores information about graphing functions and solving equations-and it can automatically carry out the work of graphing a function or solving an equation. Needless to say, the capabilities of a modern microcomputer far exceed those of such handheld calculators.

       Reading, writing, and arithmetic are not about to go away. Instruction in these mind tools will continue to be a central focus in education. However, the environment for learning and using these mind tools is changing. An increasing number of students are learning to use information technology at the earliest grade levels-indeed, many students are learning to use these tools before they enter school. Many students are growing up in computer-rich environments. They have good access to information technology at home, and they have had excellent one-on-one instruction from parents who are computer professionals, or who make routine use of computers at work. It is evident that there is a marked difference between such students and those who are obtaining the modest amount of information technology instruction and use that our schools are currently providing.

Information Technology in Schools

  •    In 1982, our K-12 schools had approximately one microcomputer or timeshared computer terminal for every 125 students. In 1995, the ratio had improved to approximately one microcomputer per nine students. At the time this book was being written, the ratio had improved to approximately one microcomputer per eight students.

       In the past few years, information technology in education has become part of the national political agenda.

    Clinton Proposes Computers In All Classrooms


    • In his State of the Union speech this week President Clinton said: "Every classroom in America must be connected to the information superhighway, with computers, good software and well-trained teachers. We are working with the telecommunications industry, educators and parents to connect 20% of the classrooms in California by this spring, and every classroom and library in America by the year 2000." The Department of Education's preliminary cost estimate for the proposal is about $10 billion; a McKinsey & Co. consulting study completed last summer for the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council estimated the cost for the kind of system proposed by the President (i.e., a computer for every four or five students) to be about $47 billion.


      New York Times. (1996, January 25). p. A9.

       It is inevitable that students will be provided with steadily improving computer facilities and connectivity. Although the current pace of change in schools seems slow relative to what has been occurring in business and industry, it is torrid relative to the pace of change that schools are used to. And, there are strong pressures to step up the pace of implementation of information technology in education.

       The goals that Clinton has listed are both modest and inadequate. They do not adequately reflect information technology as a natural extension of the three R's. A goal of one computer per four or five students is somewhat like a goal of one pencil and one book per four or five students. The educational benefits that can come from information technology will only occur when students are able to have routine access to the technology, in the same way that they now have routine access to pencil, paper, and books. The goal must be adequate facilities, curriculum, and instruction to move all students into routine second-order level uses of the information technology.

Conclusions and Recommendation

  •    The educational systems of the world and of the United States have changed substantially over the years. To a large extent, the changes have been driven by changes in science and technology. The movement has been toward ever increasing levels of knowledge and skill for all students.

       The current educational system in the United States is strongly rooted in meeting the needs of an Industrial Age society. However, the United States is no longer an Industrial Age society; it is an Information Age society.

       The typically-suggested changes for technology in schools-for example, the Clinton agenda-are rooted in Industrial Age thinking. This thinking envisions a computer as a tool that one "goes to" and uses occasionally, somewhat like people used to use mainframe computers. The Clinton agenda does not provide for every student to have routine access to powerful computers and high bandwidth connectivity. It does not envision students routinely making second-order level uses of the technology.

       The next chapter contains an overview of computer and communications technology in education.



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