Moursund's IT in Education Home Page


Volume 27 1999-2000 Editorial (with Retrospective Comments)

Dr. David Moursund has been teaching and writing about information technology in education since 1963. In 1979, he founded the International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE). In 1989, ICCE merged with the International Association for Computing in Education to form ISTE. Dr. Moursund currently serves as ISTE’s executive officer for research, development, and evaluation.

Ten Powerful Ideas Shaping the Present and Future of IT in Education

Moursund, D.G. (August-September 1999). Ten powerful ideas shaping the present and future of IT in education. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading With Technlogy. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Consider the following two statements:

  • The field of information technology (IT) is changing so rapidly that it boggles the mind and overwhelms the ability of most educators to keep up.
  • There are a number of underlying Powerful Ideas of IT use in education that are changing very slowly and that will serve today's students and educators now and far into the future.

Although at first glance these two statements seem to contradict each other, I feel that they are both correct.

Powerful Ideas

Seymour Papert's seminal 1980 book is titled Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. In this Logo-oriented book, Papert discusses empowering children&endash;making use of computers to facilitate children doing exploratory projects and developing mental models that will help their learning throughout their lifetimes. He talks about computer-based constructivism, in which students build on their previous knowledge and learn by doing. These are examples of powerful ideas that have continued to be at the forefront of information technology in education over the past two decades. Powerful ideas tend to provide an enduring framework for educational renewal and improvement.

Today's microcomputers have thousands of times the compute power (speed, memory) and vastly improved software compared to the microcomputers of 1980. The pace of technological change during the past 20 years has been overwhelming. But, Papert's Powerful Ideas&endash;as well as Logo&endash;have endured and are still quite relevant to our educational system.

Ten Powerful Ideas

The remainder of this editorial is a list of Powerful Ideas of IT in education that I feel will have enduring value. These ideas can help guide educators in their work with students. For each Powerful Idea, I include a very brief discussion. I will discuss some of these Powerful Ideas in more detail in future issues of Learning and Leading With Technology.

  1. Connectivity. IT has facilitated the development of a Global Digital Library as well as other huge databases that are in routine use, and IT aids in communication among people. The world is being changed by communication systems that cut across national boundaries. Mobile computing is making possible anywhere, anytime access to information and to people. This supports increased educational emphasis on understanding and on library research skills, as compared to rote memory.
  2. Information appliances (Norman, 1998). We are still in the early stages of a megatrend toward computers becoming invisible&endash;much in the same way that electric motors are built into all kinds of appliances and are no longer emphasized. When a technology reaches the appliance stage, the focus switches from learning the technology to learning to solve problems and accomplish tasks using the appliance.
  3. Effective Procedure. An Effective Procedure is a detailed step-by-step set of instructions that can be mechanically interpreted and carried out by a specified agent, such as a computer or automated equipment. Procedural thinking includes developing, representing, testing, and debugging procedures.
  4. User interface. We all understand the significance of the development of the graphical user interface (GUI) that includes the mouse. We are just at the beginnings of routine use of voice and virtual reality as part of the human/machine interface.
  5. IT as integral part of the content of non-IT disciplines. Logan (1995) points out that IT is a language that cuts across all disciplines and is increasingly part of the content of various disciplines. Examples include spreadsheet, geographic information systems, computer-aided design, and mathematics systems such as Mathematica and Maple. This trend means that each discipline-oriented teacher needs to have an increasing amunt of knowledge of roles of IT in knowing and doing the discipline.
  6. IT-assisted problem solving. One of the most useful strategies in problem solving is breaking big problems into smaller, more manageable sub problems. Increasingly, IT is a tool that can solve these sub problems—thus, greatly increasing the problem-solving capabilities of computer users.
  7. Modeling and simulation. The 1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to two computational chemists. Computer-based modeling and simulation is now a powerful aid to knowing and doing all of the sciences as well as many other disciplines such as economics and business. For example, a spreadsheet is now a routine aid to developing business models.
  8. Communication in Cyberspace. This includes desktop publication, desktop presentation, e-mail, videoconferencing, and interactive hypermedia. IT has opened up entirely new ways to communicate in both synchronous and asynchronous modes that include text, graphics, sound, color, and video.
  9. Empowering students through project-based learning (PBL). IT is a powerful aid to doing the work on a project and to representing the results of this work. PBL is an excellent vehicle for implementing constructivism, cooperative learning, and collaborative problem solving (Papert, 1980; Moursund, 1999).
  10. Lifelong learning—anywhere, anytime. IT has added new dimensions to learning, such as distance learning, computer-assisted learning, intelligent computer-assisted instruction, and learner-centered software. Progress in learning theory, brain theory, and artificial intelligence is being incorporated in software that is designed to help people learn—often in a "just in time" environment.

Final Comments

As you work with your students, you will want to help them gain a functional understanding of the Powerful Ideas outlined in this current article. A good way to do this is to weave these ideas into whatever aspects of IT you and your students happen to be using. Also, you may want to develop lessons that specifically focus on some Powerful Ideas. These Powerful Ideas will serve your students far into the future.

Quite likely you have your own ideas of possible additions to the list of Powerful Ideas given in this article. I hope that you will share your Powerful Ideas with others and me.


Logan, Robert K. (1995). The fifth language: Learning a living in the computer age. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart Publishing Company.

Moursund, D. (1999). Project-based learning using information technology. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Norman, Donald A. (1998). The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Powerful Lesson Plans

In the September 1999 issue of L&L, I listed 10 powerful ideas that are helping shape the present and future of information technology (IT) in education. Each of these powerful ideas cuts across many disciplines, makes effective use of IT, and has enduring value.

Lesson plans can be designed to help students simultaneously learn powerful ideas in IT and in other fields. I call these interdisciplinary IT (IIT) lesson plans. This month’s editorial discusses desirable features of IIT lesson plans.

The Principle of “And”

A good lesson plan has multiple, mutually supportive goals, all targeted toward supporting student learning. A good IIT-oriented teacher might make the following type of statement about a lesson plan she or he is developing: “In this constructivist-based lesson I will help students learn one of the really important ideas in math and learn one of the really important ideas in IT and practice cooperative learning and work on their higher-order problem-solving skills and reinforce their basic skills.” Note the ands in this sentence. As a teacher gains knowledge, skills, and experience, the teacher’s lessons tend to include more and more ands.

Features of a Powerful IIT Lesson Plan

This section lists and briefly discusses six features of a powerful IIT lesson plan. This list may help you as you develop powerful lesson plans for your own use and to share with others.

  1. A powerful IIT lesson plan is practitioner oriented. It can be adopted and adapted by teachers with significantly different backgrounds, knowledge, and skills. It will work with a wide range of students in widely varying learning and teaching environments. It is respectful of the amount of time a teacher has to prepare lessons.
  2. A powerful IIT lesson plan is rooted in the best practices from practitioners and researchers. The teaching and learning strategies are research based. Often such a lesson openly engages both the teacher and the student as action researchers, exploring the theory and practice of teaching and learning. Students learn about learning theory, brain theory, themselves as learners, and learning to learn.
  3. A powerful IIT lesson has multiple content goals, including:

    A. a focus on one or more powerful ideas in disciplines outside of IT. These powerful ideas are rooted in and supportive of national, state, and regional standards in the disciplines.

    B. a focus on one or more powerful ideas in IT. These powerful IT ideas are rooted in and supportive of national, state, and regional IT standards, such as the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) that ISTE has developed.

    C. a focus on how the combination of 3A and 3B empowers students to solve problems and accomplish tasks that cannot readily be accomplished without the combined knowledge and skills from the non-IT and IT fields.

  4. A powerful IIT lesson has an explicit focus on higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills and on transfer of learning. Thus, each of the powerful ideas is named and explicitly explored. Students are facilitated in exploring uses of these powerful ideas in different areas—and especially, uses that they have made in the past and that they may want to make in areas of particular interest to the students. (This general approach to transfer of learning is sometimes called High Road Transfer.)
  5. A powerful IIT lesson has clearly defined assessment that is communicated to students. The lesson provides ample opportunity for students to self-assess and to take responsibility for their own learning. It is designed to help students grow as independent, self-sufficient, lifetime learners. The assessment supports student growth in higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills and in transfer of learning.
  6. A powerful IIT lesson plan is designed to facilitate and encourage the principle of “and.” It can be incrementally improved over time, based on input from practitioners, researchers, and students. The lesson incorporates all or most of the five ideas listed above.

An Illustration

This section illustrates some of the thinking that might underlie the development of a powerful IIT lesson.

Graphing is a powerful idea from mathematics. Students learn to graph functions, relations, and all kinds of data. Such visual representations are useful for a wide range of problems and are fundamental to knowing and doing mathematics.

IT brings us computer graphics—the ability to use a computer to graph functions, relations, and all kinds of data. The use of computer-based graphing brings new power to people working to solve math problems. Even such a modest tool as a graphing calculator is having a significant effect on the math curriculum.

Next, think about transfer of learning. Developing and using visual models is a powerful idea in many disciplines besides mathematics. For example, architects and engineers develop visual models of the structures they are designing. With the aid of computer graphics, they can allow such models to be viewed from different directions (including from the inside) and under different weather and lighting conditions.

Visual models are a key component of virtual realities. Virtual realities are a type of simulation, and computer simulation is a powerful idea from IT. With the aid of powerful computers, virtual realities (more generally, computer simulations) can be constructed that aid learning and problem solving in any discipline.

Notice how the discussion has moved from the relatively concrete (graphing in math, use of computers to do math graphing), to visual representations as an aid to representing and solving problems in many disciplines, to use of computer graphics in virtual realities. Virtual realities are an overarching IIT idea that will eventually have a profound effect on teaching, learning, and problem solving.

Moreover, virtual realities are a topic that many students find inherently interesting. Many of the computer games that girls and boys enjoy playing make extensive use of graphics to depict simulated worlds. These simulation games can be thought of as examples of virtual realities.

Final Remarks

It is not easy to develop a powerful IIT lesson plan. It can be very helpful to have input from practitioners, discipline-oriented specialists, IT specialists, and educational researchers. That is the approach that ISTE has been using in the second phase of its NETS project. In this phase, sample IIT lesson plans have been developed. These lesson plans are available online at

Lifelong Learning: A Powerful Idea Shaping Education

This fall, I have been discussing 10 powerful ideas that help shape the present and future of IT in education. Each of these powerful ideas cuts across many disciplines, makes effective use of IT, and has enduring value. This editorial is about lifelong learning —#10 on the powerful ideas list. For the whole list, visit

Historically, education has been viewed as a time-limited endeavor. We go to school, we get educated, and then we continue on with our lives. This model worked fine in a time of very slow technological and societal change, but it does not work well now. Lifelong learning is needed because one’s limited number of years of formal schooling soon become seriously out of date.

Learning to learn and working toward being an independent, self-sufficient, lifelong learner are now important educational goals. IT is both one of the reasons for this and an aid to accomplishing it.

The Inquisitive, Playful, Fearless Learner

Consider the following scenario. You receive a package containing a new piece of hardware (such as a scanner, digital camera, or modem) or software. Which of the following best describes your approach?

  1. Wait until someone else installs the new hardware or software and gives you a personal tutorial in its use.
  2. Schedule yourself to attend a workshop that includes detailed step-by-step instructions provided in a hands-on environment.
  3. Read the directions and follow a tutorial on how to install and use the new hardware or software.
  4. Open the box, take out its contents, plunge right in, begin to experiment, and learn by trial and error

Most adults take a cautious approach—closer to 1 than to 4—to learning new hardware and software. This is in marked contrast to the way many children see such a learning task. Many children approach new hardware and software in an inquisitive, playful, fearless manner. They explore—they learn by doing. If they are with a group of their peers, they share their learning. Most IT educational leaders feel this is a very good approach.

Wouldn’t it be great if all children had this set of learning characteristics, applied them both to IT and to everything else they wanted to learn, and maintained this approach throughout their lives?

This fearless approach suggests two educational goals. First, teachers should provide opportunities for students to develop and maintain their naturally inquisitive and exploratory approach to learning new hardware and software. Second, teachers should foster transferring this approach to learning from IT to other fields.

Some Implementation Ideas

1. Time is a precious commodity. Students have only a limited amount of time to learn what they need to know. Thus, educational content needs to be balanced among a variety of learning tasks, such as rote memory of important facts, developing higher-order cognitive and problem-solving skills, and learning to learn. Every lesson teachers prepare and every topic students study should be viewed as an opportunity for students to make progress toward these learning goals. Examine several of the lesson plans you have recently used. For each, estimate the percentage of student effort you feel was directed toward:

  • rote memory of facts,
  • developing higher-order cognitive and problem-solving skills, and
  • learning to learn and to become an independent, self-sufficient learner.

Then discuss these three general areas of content with your students and have them make similar percentage estimates for several of your lessons. Discuss the results with your students. With your class, brainstorm ways to change these percentages so students receive a better education.

2. Routinely bring new pieces of software into your classroom. (This activity assumes that you have one or more computers for student use in your classroom. It can be modified to work in a computer lab.) As time and computer access allow, a student takes a new piece of software, installs it on the computer, and learns to use the software. The student then deinstalls the software and writes a brief report on the learning experience. This report focuses on the learning approach used, successes and failures, and insights gained—especially insights about learning. This same activity can be used with hardware.

  1. An excellent variation is to have the learner facilitate another student in learning to use the new piece of hardware or software. This “each-one-teach-one” approach is an effective instructional model. In addition, it can increase a student’s motivation to learn, because he or she will have to learn well enough to teach a peer.
  2. Direct the student to a computer in which the hardware or software is not working correctly. (You have deliberately “damaged” it in some way, such as unplugging a power cord or connector, changing the preferences on the software, moving a frequently used application into a different folder or removing it from the computer, and so on.) The student attempts to deal with the problem and then writes an introspective report focused on the learning experience.

3. Take a look at the menu options in any relatively sophisticated software application such as a word-processing or graphics program. There may be dozens of options, and many of these may have suboptions. In total, there may be hundreds of different settings, choices, and options—enough so that a person seldom masters all of them. A student can be directed to explore one of the options, learn some uses, help a fellow student learn it, and write about the overall learning experience.

4. Every few weeks, have every student do a “Learn on Your Own” assignment. A student selects a topic and develops an initial level of knowledge, skill, and expertise on that topic. Students set their own learning goals and self-assess. They write a report on each of their learning projects, with major focus on what they are learning about themselves as learners and the overall learning and self-assessment process. Some variations:

  1. Develop a barrel of learning challenges. Seed the barrel with a number of slips of paper that briefly describe a topic, problem, or learning task. Students who are unable or unwilling to define a learning task for themselves can pull a random topic from the barrel. Students who develop their own learning challenges get to add them to the barrel.
  2. In addition to writing about one’s learning experience, require each student to teach a small group of students about what has been learned—both about the area being studied and about learning.

5. Browse the Web (or have your students do so) to find tutorials suitable for use by your students. Periodically (every few weeks), each student uses a tutorial to accomplish a learning task. The students are to self-assess the nature and extent of their learning and report on what they have learned about their own learning. This same activity can be used with computer-assisted learning tutorials available on disks and CD-ROMs.

Lifelong Learning in Your Classroom

What do you do to help your students learn to be independent, self-sufficient, lifelong learners? Please e-mail me some of your most successful practices.

A Typical Student in 2016

Moursund, D.G. (December/January, 1999/2000). A typical student in 2016. Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

What will the new millennium bring? Change! And, one of the major areas of change is apt to be education. The following scenario depicts some ideas about what I believe is likely to occur by 2016.

A Day in the Life of a 21st Century Student

It is still raining and cloudy early in the morning when Saundri finishes her breakfast and opens her personal education assistant (PEA). Clouds and rain mean the household solar energy system is not producing much power. Today is Saundri’s 15th birthday, and she is looking forward to a busy and fun-filled day. She hopes the weather will improve so that a lack of electrical power will not interfere with her evening party plans.

Glancing at her PEA, Saundri notices that the wireless connectivity to the Internet is solid at 2 MB per second. The battery level indicator is at the one-third level, indicating that she has about five hours of power. She will have to charge the batteries later in the day.

She also notes that her PEA’s free memory is down to 25 GB—soon she will have to do some cleaning.

With a few voice commands, Saundri sends her previous evening’s homework to her various teachers. While doing so, she thinks briefly about her math teacher located in

London; her science teacher in Washington, D.C.; her global studies teacher in Mexico City; her health teacher in San Diego; and her ancient history teacher in Athens. It would be neat to someday meet them face -to-face. Being in secondary school is fun, but she misses the face-to-face contacts of elementary school, when the teachers and students came together each school day.

Next, Saundri checks her inbox. She sees that she has quite a few e-mail, voice mail, and videophone messages.

A lot of her friends and fellow students from around the world have messaged her for her birthday. Also, all of her course instructors have provided feedback on the schoolwork she turned in yesterday, and her teammates have sent messages about several group projects.

Saundri opens the birthday greetings and talks to a couple of her friends. Because of time zone differences, many are not available, so she leaves messages. Several of her friends speak and write in languages Saundri does not know, but her PEA provides reasonable translations in real time. One message contains a gift for a free video (two viewings). She asks her PEA to download Gone with the Wind, her current all-time favorite. She will share it with a few friends and her family this weekend.

In her courses, Saundri is working on several large projects. In math and science, for example, her project is to explore situations in which research in mathematics has led to new discoveries in science and vice versa. She is one member of a four-person team collaborating on this project. Her specific task is to understand what led to the development of the math topics she is currently studying. One of the team members is working on developing animations based on drawings, paintings, and photographs of some of the research scientists and mathematicians. The intended audience for this team term project is students located throughout the world who are interested in both math and science. The team will publish its report as an interactive Web site designed to help the user learn about how math and science have benefited each other.

Saundri is working on another project individually. It combines global studies with health education. She is particularly interested in how the various levels of education in different countries around the world may be affecting levels of health—and vice versa. This is a project near and dear to her heart, because one of her brothers died from an infectious disease when he was only six years old. So, Saundri decides to work on this project for awhile.

She sets herself the task of looking at death rates from infectious disease
among people up to age 15 in the countries of the world and the number of years of schooling of their parents at the time of the deaths. She knows that she is looking for possible correlations. But, this situation seems too complex for the correlation techniques she has studied in the past. She asks to speak to her Statistical Consultant (a computer-based “agent”). After a brief conversation, the Statistical Consultant senses that Saundri is in over her head and begins to provide her with an interactive tutorial on possible statistical techniques to use in this situation. In addition, the Statistical Consultant suggests that Saundri first study data from just two countries (rather than from the whole set of 273 countries in the world). This will allow her to quickly carry out some trial-and-error experiments that will help her more fully define the problem.

Meanwhile, her PEA has searched its own databases and begun a Web search. It reports that its own databases contain baseline data on education in the 273 countries, but that the desired health data is scattered over many thousands of databases available on the Web. Saundri picks two countries for her pilot study and tells her PEA how to set up the database. Her PEA indicates this will take at least an hour to explore the 72 Web sites that seem relevant. A number of commercial databases that contain this type of data are also available, and the PEA will check out the costs.

Rather than sit and twiddle her thumbs, Saundri asks to speak to her Personal Tutor. Her Personal Tutor is another computer-based agent that works with her as she uses the intelligent computer-assisted learning (ICAL) materials in her PEA. It immediately appears on screen and praises her for beginning her schoolwork so early in the morning—and, on her birthday! Her Personal Tutor has complete records on what Saundri has studied, her interests, her preferred learning styles, and her areas of greatest intelligence from Howard Gardner’s most recent list of 10 intelligences. Saundri’s Personal Tutor and the ICAL system make it possible for her to study anything that she happens to want to study, at any time she wants to study it. The nature and level of instruction is always appropriate to her current knowledge and skills and incorporates the best current theories of teaching and learning.

Later in the morning Saundri takes a virtual reality (VR) field trip to a small village on Crete—2,200 years ago. She wanders around the Greek village, stopping from time to time to observe in detail what the people are doing. This type of VR is a routine tool in the ancient history course she is taking.

Shortly after lunch, the sun shines bright and clear. Saundri plugs her PEA into the household solar energy system to recharge it while she is out for soccer practice. She remembers to give a mental “Thank you!” to UNESCO and the World Health Organization for providing a full scholarship and the PEA for her secondary school education. Many of her friends dropped out of school at age 12. Saundri has her heart set on becoming a doctor, and her secondary education is the necessary next step.

The bus into Nairobi will be coming through her village in a few minutes, and Saundri is looking forward to this afternoon’s workout with the soccer team. Because this is Wednesday, she will have to be on time getting back to her village, because she has an important meeting with the village planners late in the afternoon. Saundri is developing a computer model of the environmental and infrastructure resources in and around her village. She is using geographic information systems (GIS) and decision support software to help village planners address problems the village faces. Part of the plan is to improve the water system to help prevent disease.

On the other four days of the week Saundri has choir practice and band practice early in the evening. She enjoys participating in the village's choir and band.

IT as Language and Content

Moursund, D.G. February, 2000). IT as language and content: Powerful ideas shaping our educational system. Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

In my September 1999 editorial, I listed 10 powerful ideas of information technology (IT) in education. (Read them online at Each of these powerful ideas cuts across many disciplines, makes effective use of IT, and has enduring value. Powerful Idea 5 is addressed here.

Logan (1995) argues that IT is a language-the fifth in the series that begins with natural language, reading/ writing, mathematics, and formal science. What is particularly interesting about the third and fourth languages- mathematics and formal science-is that each is both a "language" and a content area. For example, the language and tools of mathematics are inextricably intertwined with its content.

IT as language and the discipline of computer and information science are, of course, inextricably intertwined. But, IT has emerged as an aid to representing and solving problems in academic areas outside computer science. Thus, we have an entirely new phenomenon.

IT is becoming an integral component of both the language and the content of every academic discipline. This is gradually changing what it means to know and work in the various academic disciplines.

Some Examples

The spreadsheet was originally developed for use in business, and it certainly has changed the content of business courses. However, the spreadsheet is useful in representing and helping solve problems in a wide variety of disciplines. For example, a spreadsheet can be used to represent population data, do computations on the data, and draw graphs using the results of the computations. Because of its capability, the spreadsheet has affected the content of math, science, social science, and other subjects.

Geographic information systems (GIS) are a powerful aid to problem solving in geography, cartography, environmental engineering, and related fields. (GIS are spreadsheet-like, specifically designed for creating graphical representations of data stored on or with maps.) GIS contribute to major changes in die ways of representing and solving a wide variety of social science, science, engineering, and environmental problems.

In math, we have long had powerful math problem-solving and manipulation systems such as Mathematica and Maple. Many secondary school mathematics courses now make routine use of handheld calculators that can automatically graph functions or solve equations. These and similar powerful tools are now routine parts of the ways of understanding and using math throughout all areas of science and engineering.

Graphic design software has completely changed mechanical drawing and graphic artist coursework. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) software and related hardware have changed the music industry. Desktop publishing software has changed the publishing industry. Computer-based animation and computer-based editing have strongly affected the movie industry. In each of these examples, the content of the discipline and how one solves problems in the discipline are becoming inextricably intertwined with IT.

Some Implementation Ideas

These teaching ideas focus on IT as interdisciplinary language and content.

  1. Each academic discipline is characterized by the types of problems it addresses, its accumulated body of knowledge, its specialized vocabulary and methodology, its ways of knowing and doing, its history, and so on. Divide your class into teams. Each team is to select a different discipline and develop a presentation that clearly defines the discipline and illustrates how the content of the discipline is being affected by IT. Some variations:
    1. Students can be assigned to teams on the basis of courses that they are taking from other faculty. Thus, for example, the First-Year Algebra Team would explore how IT is integrated into the content of algebra and specifically how it is affecting the content of the course they are taking.
    2. Broaden the scope of disciplines or areas that students can select. Examples of areas that might be studied include sports, collecting (e.g., coins, stamps, trading cards), games, travel, and retail selling.
  2. Many disciplines make use of special symbols or notation in their writing. For example, music uses musical notation, math uses a wide range of special math symbols, and foreign languages use diacritical marks and a variety of symbols not in the English alphabet. Divide your class into teams. Each team is to select a discipline and explore the symbols and notations that are common to the discipline but are not routinely used in other disciplines. Then, the team is to find and learn to use desktop publishing software that includes the symbol set. They are to explore how this software has changed publishing within the discipline. Hint: Many word processors (such as Microsoft Word) contain very extensive symbol sets.
  3. IT helps nonspecialists in a particular field solve some of the complex problems of their field. For example, a spreadsheet contains a variety of graphing routines, statistical routines, and computational formulas. Students can use these routines without having the knowledge and skills of how to carry them out by hand. A computer system can accept music as input and produce musical notation as its output. The Global Positioning System (GPS) can pinpoint one's location on earth. There are a huge and growing number of artificially intelligent expert systems that have come into routine use. Working individually or in teams, develop a bulletin board display and/. or whole class presentation of such examples. Quite likely, you will want to use scanned images and those downloaded from the Web. This project might extend throughout a semester or year.
  4. Working in teams or as a whole class, develop a generic list of modes of communication that cut across all disciplines and that are facilitated by IT. E-mail, desktop publishing, desktop presentation, and interactive hypermedia are examples. Also, make a list of the general areas of study provided in your school.
  1. Rank each course area taught in the school on the basis of the relative value of each of these modes of communication for understanding and working in the discipline.
  2. Then, working in teams, explore the nature and extent to which each general area or department in the school facilitates, encourages, allows, discourages, or does not allow students in their classes to make use of these aids to communication
  3. We are familiar with writing across the curriculum. Have your class select an IT-based communication mode, such as hypermedia. The class then works on a whole-school project (for example, hypermedia across the curriculum), encouraging and facilitating all teachers in the school to help their students gain increased fluency in this mode of communication.

Final Remarks

IT is of growing importance within the content of each academic discipline. Therefore, each teacher needs to help his or her students learn how IT is affecting the disciplines he or she teaches. Schoolwide and districtwide planning and coordination are needed in this endeavor, with a special emphasis on articulation across different courses and grade levels.


Maple is available from Waterloo Maple, Inc. Find out more by visiting www.waterloomaple. com or calling 800.267.6583 or 519.747.2373.

Find out more about Mathematica by calling 800.441.MATH or 217.398.5151 or by visiting Wolfram Research’s Web site at

Word is available as a stand-alone product or as part of Microsoft’s Office suite from your local software reseller or at

For more on geographic information systems, visit, and for more on the Global Positioning System, visit


Logan, R. K. (1995). The fifth language: Learning a living in the computer age. Toronto, ON: Stoddart Publishing Company.

Dr. David Moursund ( has been teaching and writing about information technology in education since 1963. In 1979, he founded the International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE). In 1989, ICCE merged with the International Association for Computing in Education to form ISTE. He currently serves as executive officer for research, development, and evaluation.

Communication in Cyberspace: Powerful Ideas Shaping Our Educational System

In the September issue of L&L (vol. 27 no. 1), I briefly discussed 10 powerful ideas that are helping shape the present and future of information technology (IT) in education. Each of these powerful ideas cuts across many disciplines, makes effective use of IT, and has enduring value. Communication is an underlying theme in many of these powerful ideas and is especially emphasized in #1 and #8. For the whole list, visit

Humans are social creatures. They have developed many different aids to communication, such as written language and the telephone. These aids to communication have helped change the world. Now many of us make routine use of cyberspace aids to communication such as e-mail, the Web, and interactive hypermedia.

Communication (reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing) is part of the basics of education. Logan (1995) argues that information technology is a language (a new form of communication). Our educational system is faced with the challenge of deciding what we want students to learn about the cyberspace communication aids.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication

A face-to-face conversation is a synchronous communication. The speaker and listener alternate roles—indeed, both may talk at the same time. The telephone and videophone facilitate a synchronous interactive communication between people who are separated by great distances. Such a two-way communication can be carried on through the Internet.

Sending and receiving letters provides an example of an asynchronous communication. The communication may be interactive or one-way, and typically there is a substantial time delay between the sending of the communication and the receiving of the communication. The telegraph and e-mail both facilitate asynchronous communications.

Publishing and Broadcasting

Book and magazine publications, as well as radio and television broadcasts, tend to be one-way communications. Of course, you can write a letter to the editor or call a talk show. Thus, these forms of communication have some of the same characteristics as synchronous or asynchronous interactive communication. However, the level of interactivity is generally quite low.

The Web and Hypermedia

At first glance, one might think of a Web site or a hypermedia document as just another form of publishing or broadcasting. But wait! A hypermedia document or a Web site can be designed so that it is interactive. In essence, the hypermedia or Web site creator can design various types of immediate response to help give the communication some synchronous interactive features. This is a new type of communication, a sort of blend between the interactive and the one-way types of communication. In the remainder of this article, I will call it interactive broadcasting.

One of the goals of research and development in artificial intelligence (AI) is to significantly improve interactive broadcasting. Gradual progress is occurring in developing AI software that can “understand” incoming communications and that can respond (for example, by providing various types of written or oral output) in an “intelligent” manner. Perhaps you use a primitive form of such software to filter your incoming e-mail, dividing it into various categories, and perhaps automatically responding to some of the messages.

Some Implementation Ideas

A key idea to keep in mind is that the “older” forms of communication are not going away. A student needs to develop facility in both the older and newer forms of communication and learn when each is most appropriately used.

1. Have your students work in teams to make a list of modes of communication and classify each communication as interactive, broadcast (low or no interactivity), and interactive broadcast. The teams are to give examples of common uses of each of the modes of communication. Additional activities:

  1. Develop a time line illustrating when each of these modes of communication was initially developed and when it came into common use.
  2. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages (strengths and weaknesses) of each of the modes of communication. Give examples for each mode of communication as to when it is particularly appropriate and when it is relatively inappropriate.

2. Have your students do research on Alan Turing (“Alan Turing,” 1998). One of Turing’s contributions to the field of computer and information science is now called the Turing Test. Turing challenged computer scientists to develop hardware and software that could carry on a conversation (for example, using e-mail) with a person. The test is to develop a conversation program that is so good that people cannot readily tell if they are communicating with a person or with a computer. Some additional activities:

  1. Discuss with your students how a person communicating using e-mail can easily pretend to be someone else. How can you tell if the people you are communicating with are accurately representing themselves and telling the truth? What can you do to protect yourself from fraud and deception in this type of communication?

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Information Appliances: Powerful Ideas Shaping Our Educational System

In my September 1999 editorial (L&L vol. 27 no. 1), I briefly discussed 10 powerful ideas that are helping shape the present and future of information technology (IT) in education. This editorial is about information appliances—number 2 on the list. It also touches on ideas from number 4 (user interface) and number 6 (problem solving). See the whole list at

What Is an Information Appliance?

Many years ago, I memorized the statement, “A computer is a machine for the input, storage, processing, and output of information.” In those days, my “model” of a computer was a mainframe housed in an air-conditioned building and supported by a large staff of technicians and computer operators. Eventually minicomputers and then microcomputers were developed. The need for a special air-conditioned building and staff disappeared. The human–machine interface improved to the level that ordinary people could use a computer to accomplish tasks such as writing and e-mail communication.

However, microcomputers are not very user friendly. The human–machine interface favors the machine, not the human.

Contrast this situation with the smart card. A smart card looks like a credit card, but it has embedded electronic circuitry. It can be used for the input, storage, processing, and output of information—that is, it satisfies the definition of being a computer. I recently saw a newspaper article indicating that 1.25 billion smart cards were produced this past year. That is approximately one smart card for every five people on earth. They cost about $4 each to manufacture.

A smart card is an example of an information appliance. It can be thought of as a special-purpose computer designed to accomplish a specific task. For example, the task for a smart card might be fiscal (a credit card and a device that actually stores money) or medical (storage of medical records). The human–machine interface is quite easy to use, and the focus is on the task to be accomplished, not the technology.

How many handheld calculators do you own? My wife and I collectively have a dozen or more. They are scattered around our various work and home offices and at convenient locations around the house. The handheld calculator is an information appliance. A person tends to have more than one of an appliance, like a radio or television, that is particularly useful. Moreover, the brand name tends not to be important. All four-function calculators are pretty much alike. They all can accomplish the task they are intended for, and it is quite easy to transfer one’s calculator knowledge and skills from one of these inexpensive information appliances to another.

Chances are you have used a digital camera or a scanner. Digital cameras are still relatively expensive—they can be thought of as an emerging information appliance. Scanners are now available for less than $100, and some are now quite specialized. For example, one can purchase a scanner for digitizing photographs. Both a digital camera and a scanner are quite easy to use, and each is oriented to accomplishing a specific task. From a user point of view, the focus is on learning to accomplish the task, not on learning to use the technology.

Disruptive Technologies

Donald Norman (1998) presents a comprehensive picture of the gradual but accelerating emergence of information appliances. He also analyzes how a new technology can disrupt an industry. You are probably familiar with how IBM failed to adjust to microcomputers (a disruptive technology) and was severely damaged by this failure. Similarly, Microsoft was slow to adjust to the Web (a disruptive technology) but then rapidly made the necessary changes.

From the point of view of our education system, distance learning (especially Web-based distance learning) is a disruptive technology. At the postsecondary education level, distance education has introduced new courses that compete with existing courses and will eventually supplant some of them. Clearly, higher education will be disrupted. Moreover, such distance education is already available to a number of secondary school students. Disruption at the secondary level will also occur.

Information appliances are disruptive technologies. They disrupt businesses, and some of them will disrupt education. We see signs of this with calculators, which have affected math curriculum content and assessment. We see signs of this with handheld messaging devices (which may also be calculators, dictionaries, or word processors) that students may use to exchange information when taking a test. And, of course, students carrying electronic pagers or cell phones can be quite disruptive in class.

A deeper issue is illustrated by the following questions: If an information appliance can accomplish a task that we currently teach students to do by hand or by other means, how should this affect education? Should curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment change to reflect inexpensive, readily available information appliances?

To stretch your mind a little bit, think of the emerging electronic digital global library. Imagine each student having a library appliance. It contains a huge built-in library, and it automatically accesses the global library as necessary when wireless or wired connectivity is available. Moreover, the user can readily add to this library with a personal database of people and documents and an appointment calendar. This library appliance contains the books and other resource materials that the student is studying now and has studied in the past. How would this affect what we currently teach about library use or about any specific subject matter? Should students use such an information appliance while taking tests?

Final Remarks

Information appliances such as the handheld calculator and electronic dictionary have been with us for a long time. The continued rapid progress in chip technology, flat panel display screens, batteries, and connectivity will bring us many more information appliances in the near future. Many of these will be disruptive to our education system.

Think about how you deal with such technologies. Are you taking a proactive approach to acquiring these information appliances and introducing them to your students? Do you work to make these information appliances a routine part of your curriculum, instruction, and assessment? As an IT-knowledgeable teacher, do you enjoy living at the cutting edge?

Though microcomputers will continue to be very important in education, information appliances are emerging as a new cutting edge of IT in education.


Norman, D. (1998). The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Problem Solving: Powerful Ideas Shaping Our Educational System

In L&L vol. 27 no. 1, I listed and briefly discussed 10 powerful ideas of information technology (IT) that are helping shape the present and future of IT in education. Each of these powerful ideas cuts across many disciplines, makes effective use of IT, and has enduring value. This editorial is about problem solving—number 6 on the powerful ideas list. It also focuses on number 3 (effective procedure) and number 7 (modeling and simulation). (Read the complete list online at

What Is a Problem?

Each academic discipline can be defined by the types of problems that it addresses, the methodologies it has developed, and its accomplishments. Clearly, when a math teacher talks about math problems, the story is quite a bit different than when a psychotherapist talks about a patient’s problems or an elementary teacher talks about a student’s learning problems. Thus, the meaning of “problem” differs significantly from discipline to discipline.

However, there is some commonality. You have a problem when you experience a situation in which there is a difference between the way things are and the way that you would like them to be. You can then decide whether to apply your personal resources (e.g., time, knowledge, skills, and money) to achieve the desired goal or accomplish the desired task.

Paramount Idea

When you work to solve a problem or accomplish a task, you are building on your own and others’ previous work. In doing so, you are following the most important idea in problem solving.

Previous work includes humans’ development of reading, writing, and arithmetic. It includes the teaching of your parents and others who helped you learn to speak and listen. It

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