The Future of Information Technology in Education
An ISTE Publication


<<< Chapter 4


Chapter 6 >>>


Chapter 5
The Information Age-What is it?

  •    In the United States, the Information Age "officially" began in 1956 when the number of so-called white collar jobs first exceeded the number of blue collar jobs. This chapter introduces the key ideas that help unify the book and serve as a foundation for many of the forecasts. In brief summary:


    1. Science and technology during the Industrial Age focused mainly on the understanding of matter at the atomic level. Progress led to the development of an infrastructure and a society that dealt with the manufacturing and distribution of physical goods such as cars, electric motors, refrigerators, and books consisting of ink on paper.


    2. Science and technology during the Information Age includes a major focus on information represented as bits (binary digits). The developing infrastructure includes information highways and superhighways, computers to store and process information, and the field of Computer and Information Science (which includes the field of Artificial Intelligence).

    Four "Ages"
    Mind Tools
    Development of the Computer
    The Age of Bits
    Person Plus
    Conlcusions and Recommendation

Four "Ages"

  •    Human history is sometimes broken into four major time periods or "ages:"


    1. Hunter-gatherer Age. All of human history, up to about 10,000 years ago.


    2. Agricultural Age. Helped to ensure larger and more stable food supplies.


    3. Industrial Age. Began about 200 years ago; based on engines and their fuels.


    4. Information Age. Began about 40 years ago; based on computers and connectivity.

       Until about 10,000 years ago, all people on earth could be classified as hunter-gatherers. Education during the hunter-gatherer age was informal-learn by imitating adults, and learn by doing. Schools and the formal education system that we now take for granted did not exist.

       About 10,000 years ago, people began to raise crops and to domesticate farm animals. The ability to store and accumulate food produced major societal changes. After about 5,000 years, cities began to emerge, and reading, writing, and arithmetic were invented. Learning the "three R's" required quite a long period of formal instruction and practice. Thus, formal educational systems were developed. In many ways, the classrooms of 5,000 years ago looked quite a bit like the classrooms of today (Logan, 1995).

       Of course, for many thousands of years reading materials were scarce and only a few people received the instruction and practice needed to become proficient at reading and writing. Even then, however, reading and writing contributed greatly to an accumulation of human knowledge. This accumulation was slow, because transportation was slow and the electronic communication systems that we now take for granted did not exist.

       The Agricultural Age was still continuing when Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press that made use of moveable type about 550 years ago. This invention made possible the mass production of books. It led to more widespread formal education and the societal changes that accompany having a better educated population.

       The Industrial Age began in Great Britain in the late 1700s, not much more than 200 years ago. The invention of the steam engine made possible the augmentation of human power for manufacturing and transportation.

    Steam Power


    • It is estimated that the power of steam in Great Britain is equal to the labor of 170,000,000 men, in a population of only 28,000,000.


      Scientific American. (1845, October).

       The quote indicated that little more than 50 years into the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, the installed base of steam power was equivalent (in terms of pure physical power) to about six times the physical power of the entire population of Great Britain. A somewhat different way of representing this information is that the total steam power amounted to a little more than one horse power per person. (One horsepower is about the same as five or six "personpower." Think about that the next time you push down the gas pedal on the 100 horsepower gasoline engine in a car!)

       By 1845, Great Britain was the industrial powerhouse of the world. Of course, not every person in Great Britain was working in a factory that made use of steam power. We can speculate that perhaps the average worker in such a steam-powered factory was making use of steam power equivalent to the physical power of a hundred strong people. It was this factor of 100 change that led Great Britain to its world dominance in industrial manufacturing.

    The Spread of the Industrial Revolution


    • Britain did not long remain the only country to experience an Industrial Revolution. Attempts to specify dates for the Industrial Revolution in other countries are controversial and not particularly rewarding. Nonetheless, scholars generally agree that the Industrial Revolution occurred in France, Belgium, Germany, and the United States about the middle of the 19th century; in Sweden and Japan toward the end of the century; in Russia and Canada just after the turn of the 20th century; and in parts of Latin America, the Middle East, Central and southern Asia, and Africa about or after the middle of the 20th century.


      (Microsoft Encarta, 1994)

       It is important to make two points. First, the developments in science and technology that led to the Industrial Revolution gradually spread to the whole world. Second, the steam engine that fostered the beginnings of the Industrial Age was actually only the tip of the iceberg. For example, electricity, vacuum tubes, the internal combustion engine, and the jet engine were still to come. These facilitated such devices as the telegraph, telephone, electric motors, electric lights, automobile, airplane, radio, and television.

       World Wars I and II helped to transform the United States into an industrial nation. By the end of World War II in 1945, the United States was the world's leading industrial nation. The huge pent up demand for industrial goods fueled still more growth of industrial manufacturing. In the years after the war ended, well over half of all workers in the country had jobs that were classified as industrial/manufacturing.

       Interestingly, most of these jobs required relatively little formal education. The assembly line jobs were designed to require about a fourth grade education. The "thinking" and decision making was done by a hierarchy of management-level people who had a much higher level of education. A top-down form of management was used.

       This pinpoints one of the weaknesses in our current educational system. It was designed for an Industrial Age society, and it uses a top-down form of management and curriculum development. The front line workers being managed-the teachers and teaching assistants-are now highly educated. Many have as much formal education as their managers.

       Continued progress in science and technology during the Industrial Age laid the groundwork for the development of an electronics industry, the invention of the electronic digital computer, and the eventual transformation of the United States into the world's first Information Age society.

Mind Tools

  •    Humans have developed a marvelous range of tools-aids to their physical bodies and to their minds. It is people plus their tools that make possible reading, writing, arithmetic, communications satellites, and artificially intelligent computer systems. It is people plus their tools that fuel the steady march of science and technology.

       The transition from the Hunter-gatherer Age to the Agricultural Age made use of considerable insight into nature, along with some simple tools. This was a long and slow process. Even after the development of reading and writing, the worldwide pace of change remained very slow.

       The Industrial Age came about through steadily increasing insight into science and technology, along with the development of more sophisticated tools to aid the human body.

       The Information Age is based on a rapid pace of progress in science and technology, supported by steady improvements in computer-related technology. We can think of such technology as aids to the human mind, or mind tools. It is these mind tools that are now changing our world.

Development of the Computer

  •    The early history of computers is one of researchers and inventors working to develop faster and more automatic aids to doing arithmetic computations. Mechanical calculators have existed for hundreds of years. When driven by an electric motor, such a calculator required several seconds to complete a multidigit multiplication or division. Of course, that is far faster than can be done using paper and pencil. However, it is slow relative to the computational demands of modern science and engineering.

       Work on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), began in 1943, and the machine first became operational in early 1946. It is considered to be the world's first fully operational general purpose electronic digital computer. It could do about 350 multiplications or 40 divisions in one second. Moreover, it could store both the numbers being worked on and the results, so that it could do a sequence of computations without anyone having to re-key in numbers. Roughly speaking, this computer was a thousand times as fast as a person using an electric calculator-a factor of 1,000-surely the thing that major changes are made of!

       Nowadays, a medium-priced microcomputer is more than 100,000 times as fast as the ENIAC. This means that it can do arithmetic about as fast as 100 million people working with electric calculators. How can one explain millions of people owning such machines, even carrying portable machines in their briefcases? Who needs to personally own a machine that can do the work of 100 million people working with electric calculators?

       The answer lies in how such computers are used. We have moved beyond the first-order effect levels of computer use. Most computers are not used to do calculator-like arithmetic computations. Rather, they are used in more demanding tasks such as the storage and retrieval of databases of information, in creating and manipulating graphics, in developing spreadsheet models of business problems, as switching circuitry in telecommunications systems, and in processing digital information from scientific instruments.

       We are continually developing tasks that challenge the capabilities of the most powerful computer systems. For example, the combination of continued progress in the underlying science of speech recognition and in building faster microcomputers is just now making possible reasonably priced voice input systems. You can well imagine how voice input will affect the teaching of reading and writing.

       Progress is occurring on the computer translation of spoken natural languages. This is an extremely difficult problem. Some futurists feel that the problem will be solved within 15-20 years. How will it affect education and the societies of the world if such automatic translation systems become readily available?

       A virtual reality can be considered as a type of simulation. Continuing progress in the hardware and software used for virtual realities is producing simulations of ever increasing quality. Learn about Mars by taking a walk on the surface of Mars, with scientific instruments in hand. Learn about the Antarctic or the deepest parts of our oceans by taking simulated trips into these environments. High quality virtual reality systems demand computing power beyond the fastest of today's microcomputers.

The Age of Bits

  •    Nicholas Negroponte (1995) talks about the industrial age as being a time in which we developed great skill in manufacturing and transporting physical goods made from atoms. For example, a book is ink printed on paper. We have a huge infrastructure that grows and harvests trees, produces paper, prints the ink onto the paper, and distributes the books. A companion infrastructure assembles the ingredients used to make ink, produces ink, and distributes it to places where it is used, such as to printing plants. The paper and ink are made of atoms-they are physical entities. A significant part of the cost of a book is the cost of shipping and warehousing its atoms. Moreover, economies of mass production at the printing press dictate that a relatively large number of copies be printed at one time-often this turns out to be far more than can be readily sold. Since the cost of warehousing is relatively high, books go out-of-print and new copies are no longer available.

       Contrast this with an electronic book, perhaps stored on a magnetic or laser disk. Although the storage medium consists of atoms, the book itself can easily be copied and copies can be cheaply transmitted to other locations at nearly the speed of light. There is no warehousing problem, transportation costs are minimal, and there is no need to print a large number of copies in advance, in the hopes that they will eventually be sold. The book never goes out-of-print.

       The representation of information as bits is a revolutionary idea. It is more than just storing, making copies, and transmitting the bits. We can also use the bits to direct the operations of machines such as automated factory equipment, data gathering devices, and robots. Bits can be stored in a form to facilitate interaction with people who want to make use of the bits, such as in an interactive encyclopedia or in computer-assisted learning.

       The representation of information as bits, and the aids that computers provide in the storage, manipulation, and transportation of bits, bring new dimensions to human intellectual endeavor. As we come to better understand the potentials of these new dimensions, we can come to understand needed changes in our educational system.

       Many people consider Nicholas Negroponte to be an astute visionary. Part of his vision of the future is captured in the following quote. It forecasts continued rapid progress in information technology, communications technology, and Artificial Intelligence.


    • Early in the next millennium your right and left cuff links or ear rings may communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites and have more computing power than your present PC. Your telephone won't ring indiscriminately; it will receive, sort, and perhaps respond to your incoming calls like a well trained English butler.


      Negroponte. (1995) p. 4.

       In brief summary, the combination of computer and communications technology with continued research in all academic areas suggests:


    1. More and more of the collected information of the world will be represented as bits. This is less expensive, provides easier and cheaper access, and uses less resources than storing atoms and moving them around.


    2. More and more people will have easier and easier access to the information that is stored as bits. The nations of the world are making rapid progress in building information superhighways. Knowledge is a form of wealth, a form of power, and it is of ever growing importance.


    3. If a problem can be appropriately represented on a computer and solved by a combination of computing power and people power, increasingly that is the way it will be done. Computers and telecommunications will play a steadily increasing role in solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

       Alvin Toffler (1980, 1990) is author of a number of visionary books. His ideas regarding the changes going on in our world are rooted in careful research and thorough analysis. Toffler's 1990 book focuses on how information technology is leading to a shift in who has the power. Knowledge is power. A smart, well-educated, hard working person can acquire a great deal of knowledge (power). Moreover, formal education credentials are not the only measure of the person's education. "Street smarts"-practical, down to earth, knowing how to get things done-is increasingly important.

Person Plus

  •    Human ingenuity, computers, and communications-together they are a powerful combination for solving problems and accomplishing tasks. People have long used tools to supplement their physical and mental powers. In recent years, perhaps due to the growing importance of mind tools, the idea of Person Plus has been developed (Perkins, 1992). The basic concept in Person Plus is that it is people plus tools that solve problems and accomplish tasks. Thus, education should include a major focus on preparing students to work in this Person Plus environment. Both instruction and assessment should be done in environments in which mind tools such as computers and telecommunications systems are readily available.

       Figure 5.1 illustrates key concepts of Person Plus as they relate to the Information Age. These concepts are explained in subsequent paragraphs.

    Figure 5.1. Person Plus in the Information Age.

       Figure 5.1 shows Person Plus at the center of a triangle of three rapidly changing components:


    1. The totality of human knowledge and information is steadily growing. Researchers throughout the world are aided by the steady growth of knowledge and information, improving telecommunication and transportation systems, and improving tools such as computers to aid them in their research.


    2. Fiber optics, communications satellites, and cellular telephones are the basis for very rapid growth in the world's telecommunications system. It is becoming steadily easier for people to collaborate on projects and to share information.


    3. The capabilities of computers are growing steadily, and the worldwide installed base of computers is growing rapidly. This growth in computer capabilities comes from progress in both hardware and software. Significant effort in research and development by the world's researchers is going into developing computer tools that they (and others) can use-both to aid in research and to aid in making use of the research results.

       The net result is that the capabilities of Person Plus are growing quite rapidly in many different problem-solving areas. People who are skilled at functioning well in a Person Plus environment have a distinct advantage over those who lack the knowledge, skills, and access to the facilities. Such analysis leads to the prediction that Person Plus will become a central theme in education.

Conclusions and Recommendation

  •    The transition from an Industrial Age to an Information Age can be viewed as a transition from an emphasis on the manufacturing and distribution of physical goods (made from atoms) to the manufacturing and distribution of bits. Of course, the goods and services of agriculture and industry are still needed. However, bits are of rapidly growing importance.

       The transition from an Industrial Age to an Information Age can also be viewed as a transition from an emphasis on Industrial Age mind tools (the three R's, paper and pencil, printed books) to Information Age mind tools (information technology).

       Person Plus is a shorthand phrase for a person building on the collected knowledge, skills, and wisdom of other people. One of the unforeseen second-order effects of information technology is that it would prove to give such a powerful boost to Person Plus. This boost, all by itself, is more than enough justification for a major restructuring of our school curriculum.

       In recent years we have been seeing a steady increase in the amount of computer and telecommunications technology being used in our educational system. This is opening a window for innovations, competition, and major change in our educational system. Many of the current components of our formal educational system will be hard pressed to meet the challenge, implement appropriate innovations, and survive the changes that are inevitable.

       The next chapter includes some forecasts about the information technology industries. It lays groundwork for forecasts about technology in education.



<<< Chapter 4


Chapter 6 >>>

Return to Cover Page