Moursund's IT in Education Home Page


Volume 28 2000-2001 Editorial (with Retrospective Comments)

All eight of these editorials by David Moursund focus on Ways of Improving Our Educational System.

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,, Reprint permission does not constitute an endorsement by ISTE of the product, training, or course.

1. September 2000 Introduction to the Science of Teaching and Learning
2. October 2000 Compelling Applications
3. November 2000 More About Compelling Applications
4. Dec./Jan. 2000/01 Brain and Body Tools
5. February 2001 The Learner and Teacher Sides of the Digital Divide
6. March 2001 Creating Human–Computer Teams
7. April 2001 Highly Interactive Computing in Teaching and Learning
8. May 2001 Educational Innovator's Dilemma

Part 1: Introduction to the Science of Teaching and Learning

Moursund, D.G. (September 2000). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 1: Introduction to the Science of Teaching and Learning. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Our educational system is not nearly as good as people would like it to be. Nor is it as good it can be.

The roots of our current formal educational system go back about 5,000 years, to the time of the invention of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Schools were established to help government and business clerks learn rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Archeology digs have found classrooms with benches for about 30 people organized in rows, and they surmise that the teacher stood at the front of the room and lectured, much like still occurs in many of today's classrooms.

We have a history of 5,000 years of work by teachers and educational researchers to improve our educational system. I enjoy asking students in my classes and participants in my workshops: "What are some good examples of the progress that we have made&emdash;progress that helps students to learn more, better, faster, retain it longer, and learn to transfer their knowledge and skills to settings outside of the classroom?

Most of my students and workshop participants find this to be a challenging activity. They have no trouble identifying the fact that we now educate both boys and girls, that we educate a much higher percentage of youth than in the past, and that we require many more years of formal schooling than in the past. However, these answers completely miss the point of the question. Is one student-hour of schooling significantly more effective now than it was 50 years ago, 500 years ago, or 5,000 years ago? What evidence do we have to back up your assertions?

Science of Teaching and Learning

Here is an alternative way to ask the question: "What progress have we made during the past 5,000 years in developing and implementing a Science of Teaching and Learning? For example, is there a well developed "science" of teaching a typical student how to read and write, and do arithmetic? If a student has a particular type of learning difficulty, do we have research- and practitioner-based methods that are highly likely to succeed in addressing this learning difficulty?

Bransford et al. (1999) provides a comprehensive introduction to the science of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). In brief summary, this book argues that SoTL has made a lot of progress during the past 30 years and is now poised to facilitate significant improvements in our educational system. The book, for example, notes that behavioral learning theory has been supplanted by cognitive learning theories and other types of learning theories that better reflect our current knowledge of the theory of learning.

A SoTL Causality Diagrams

A somewhat overly simplified definition of science is: Science is the development and testing of predictive hypotheses. In science, we observe a possible cause-effect, hypothesize that it is indeed a cause-effect, and then work to develop both a theory and empirical evidence that helps us to have confidence in the hypothesis. For example, for thousands of years, people observed eclipses of the moon. Eventually they came to understand that they were observing the earth's shadow falling on the moon, They developed detailed records that allowed them to predict relatively accurately when an eclipse would occur. Eventually they developed a theory of gravitation, and of celestial objects in orbits around other celestial objects. Now we have both empirical evidence and an underlying theory of eclipses of the moon, and we predict the timing of such eclipses quite accurately, many years in advance.

We do not have such strong "scientific" results in education. But, we do observe patterns, and we do formulate and test hypotheses. Figure 1 is a Causality Diagram that summarizes SoTL. Notice that the third box says that "we expect that students will get a better education." That is, we hypothesize that students will get a better education. In a "science," we generate and test hypotheses.

 Figure 1. A SoTL Causality Diagram.

A SoTL Example

To illustrate SoTL, let me describe some research work done by Benjamin Bloom and his students during the early 1980s (Bloom, 1984). You have probably heard of Bloom's Taxonomy, which is often used when discussing lower-order and higher-order problem-solving skills.

Bloom and his students hypothesized that students are capable of much better learning than they achieve through the convention methods of instruction. Thus, they did research comparing the effectiveness of individual or small group tutoring versus teaching in classes of size 25-30 students. They found that over a wide range of grade levels and course areas, tutoring produced an average gain in test scores of two standard deviations (2 sigmas) versus the control groups. That is, instead of the class average being at the 50th percentile, average for the tutored students was at the 98th percentile.

This is an astonishing result! It says that, on average, students can meet much higher standards than they are currently meeting, and it tells us how to achieve this result. This provides an excellent example of SoTL. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to provide all students with well qualified individual tutors. Thus, a continuing quest in education is for ways to achieve significant gains in student learning without the high cost of individual tutoring.

Computer-Assisted Learning and the 2-Sigma Goal

Many people believe that computer-assisted learning (CAL) has the potential to achieve the 2-sigma learning gains that come from tutoring. To date, however, CAL has not had this level of success. Kulik's meta-metastudy (1994) of CAL reports that over a wide range of instructional areas and student levels, a gain of approximately .35-sigmas is achieved. This means that the average student moves from the 50th percentile to the 64th percentile. Moreover, students achieve this gain in approximately 30-percent less time, as compared to control groups.

These CAL results are significant, and research is continuing on improving CAL. CAL is one component of SoTL.

Moving Beyond the 2-Sigma Goal

IT brings some other dimensions to the 2-sigma discussion. Suppose, for example, that the instructional goal is to have students become skilled at carrying out simple bookkeeping tasks, including doing the necessary arithmetic swiftly and accurately. We know that it takes hundreds of hours of study and practice to develop a reasonable level of skill at doing paper and pencil arithmetic and bookkeeping.

Contrast this with a person learning to use a spreadsheet or a simple bookkeeping software package. The learning time to achieve a high level of results is often significantly reduced. Computational errors are no longer an issue, and computations are completed in much less time.

With a spreadsheet or computerized accounting system it is feasible to pose and answer "What if?" questions. Posing and answering such questions is a higher-order skill&emdash;one of the really important goals in education. Moreover, spreadsheet software makes possible developing spreadsheet models, not only in business, but also in many other disciplines. With appropriate teaching, students learn to transfer their spreadsheet modeling knowledge and skills to many different disciplines. Transfer of learning is one of the important components of SoTL (Mayer & Wittrock, 1996: 47-62)

In Brief Summary

Benjamin Bloom's research shows that our educational system can be a lot better. Students can be educated to much higher standards.

Computer-assisted Learning represents one approach to improving our educational system. In essence, CAL can be thought of as an attempt to computerize some of the research results from SoTL

We used the example of spreadsheet software to illustrate a different way of significantly improving our educational system. There, the focus was on preparing students to function at a higher-order thinking and problem-solving level within a limited domain. The spreadsheet software is so powerful that it has led to major changes in one component of our educational curriculum. It can be thought of as a "Compelling Application"&emdash;software that is so compelling and powerful that it can change and significantly improve a component of our educational system.

In the second articles in this series, I will address additional Compelling Applications. Right now, why don't you spend some time thinking about SoTL. What educational research and practitioner knowledge do you have about ways to "really" improve our educational system? What stands in your way of implementing this knowledge and then helping your fellow teachers learn to implement this knowledge?


Bloom, B.S. (1984). The 2 Sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher. v13, n6, pp4-16.

Bransford, J.D.; A. L. Brown; & R.R. Cocking: editors (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Kulik, J.A. (1994). Meta-analytic studies of findings on computer-based instruction. In E. Baker and H. O'Neil, (Ed.) Technology assessment in education and training. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Mayer, R.E. and Wittrock, M.C. (1996). Problem-solving transfer. In D. Berliner and R. Calfee (Ed.) Handbook of educational psychology. NY: Macmillan.


Moursund, D.G. (October 2000). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 2: Compelling Applications. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Part 2: Compelling Applications

Moursund, D.G. (October 2000). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 2: Compelling Applications. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.
Dave is compiling a list of potential compelling applications in K-12 education. Please forward examples to and tell Dave how their use is changing the curriculum content, instructional process, and assessment in your classroom.
When microcomputers first started to become popular in the late 1970s, most computer-using businesspeople viewed them with disdain. Microcomputers were underpowered and not particularly useful in solving the problems and accomplishing the types of tasks businesspeople faced. Instead, microcomputers were "toys" that might best be used to play games or solve inconsequential problems.

This attitude toward microcomputers was forever changed with the 1979 development of the first spreadsheet software. A spreadsheet running on a "toy" computer was a powerful aid to doing bookkeeping and accounting tasks. Moreover, the software made it relatively easy to incorporate formulas (for example, compound interest and payment schedules) to help solve a particular problem. Thus, the spreadsheet software could handle many of the types of real-world problems faced by businesspeople.

The spreadsheet had an additional feature, one that made it particularly compelling. A spreadsheet can be viewed as a type of mathematical model for a particular aspect of a business (such as payroll or inventory). With this computerized mathematical model, it is easy to ask "what if?" questions and get prompt answers.

Compelling Applications

Spreadsheet. From the point of view of businesspeople, the spreadsheet was the first compelling application of a microcomputer. For this particular group of people, spreadsheet software has the following characteristics:

  1. It is intrinsically motivating. (The user is intrinsically motivated to learn to use the software, because it is such a powerful aid to doing his or her job.) It empowers the user to solve problems and accomplish tasks that the user cannot readily accomplish without use of the software.
  2. It is reasonably priced. Indeed, the worker's increased productivity far overshadowed the cost of both a microcomputer and the software. Thus, it was advantageous to businesses to provide such facilities to their workers who had need for them.
  3. The time and effort needed to learn to use a spreadsheet is reasonable relative to the available time and capabilities of many businesspeople. One does not need to be a "rocket scientist" to learn to use a spreadsheet. In some sense, the compelling application embodies some of the knowledge of a field, so that the user can more rapidly gain a functional level of skill, as compared to a person who is learning how to do bookkeeping and accounting tasks by hand.

It is important to make two points here. First, compelling is in the eyes of the learner/user. Intrinsic motivation makes an application compelling.

Second, a compelling application empowers its user to do things that are not readily done without the computer system. Spreadsheet models, along with formulating and answering "what if?" questions, are very powerful aids to representing and solving business problems.

I suspect that most of us have not thought much about how the spreadsheet and other business software has changed business education. Essentially every high school in the country has replaced its typewriter labs with computer labs. Students now learn keyboarding instead of typing. They learn to represent and solve bookkeeping and accounting problems using spreadsheets and other accounting software. They learn to develop databases, and they do "electronic" filing. The more-modern business programs are now including a focus on e-commerce, preparing their students to work in this rapidly growing aspect of business.

Desktop publishing: The Macintosh computer that first became available in 1984, with its graphic user interface, was woefully underpowered. However, it had a mouse, and it came with both word processing (allowing multiple typefaces and font sizes) and graphics software. With the aid of a relatively inexpensive laser printer, the user of such a system could do professional-level desktop publishing. Take a look back at the three components I used to define a compelling application. Clearly, desktop publishing is a compelling application for many people.

Think about what this compelling application did for mechanical drawing, engineering drawing, and graphic arts curricula at the secondary school level. And, think about the spill over into journalism courses (e.g., the school newspaper and yearbook). Indeed, we are now beginning to expect that all students develop a reasonable level of knowledge and skill in the design and layout work required in desktop publishing, even in elementary school.

Two Key Questions

Now, I want you to think about two important questions.

  1. What evidence do we have that business students in our secondary schools are getting a better education because of IT?
  2. What are some additional examples of compelling applications that have had or have the potential to have a significant effect on our educational system?

The first question is important because it brings a new perspective to saying what constitutes an improvement in education. We no longer consider neat penmanship or speed and accuracy doing simple arithmetic to be major goals in business education. And although being good at spelling is still useful, its importance has decreased because of spelling checkers in word processors.

Nowadays, we want graduates who can think, and who can represent and solve the types of problems that are common to the academic areas they have studied. We want them to effectively use commonly available aids to represent and solve such problems, and we want them to be good at learning new aids as they come along. We want our graduates to have good interpersonal skills so they can work effectively with their fellow employees and with customers.

Our current business education program is much changed from the past. Relative to contemporary needs, our business curriculum from 25 years ago would be classified as "terrible." More than likely, 25 years in the future, our current business education program will be considered terrible. Because IT is such a powerful aid to solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks faced by businesspeople, we are trying to hit a rapidly moving target. (I hope you are saying to yourself: "Hmm. I wonder if there are other components of our educational system that are faced with similar difficulties because IT is changing so rapidly.")

The second question is important because it gets us started thinking about other changes that have already occurred in our educational system because of compelling applications. Moreover, it gets us thinking about whether there might be many compelling applications whose widespread use could lead to significant improvements in our educational system.

In Summary

Compelling applications from business have been integrated into our educational system and have produced significant changes in this system. A person who learns to make effective use of these compelling applications is empowered. This person can solve problems and accomplish tasks that are deemed important in our society and than cannot readily be done without the use of IT.

Perhaps you are detecting a pattern? Consider the hypothesis that compelling applications from business are apt to be powerful change agents in the K-12 curriculum. Remember that the underpinnings of science are generating and testing hypotheses. You can add to your understanding of the science of teaching and learning by testing this hypothesis. Perhaps the hypothesis is not correct. Do you know some good examples of compelling applications in business that have not had an effect on K-12 education?

Now move your thinking outside the business curriculum. Spend some time thinking about the nonbusiness courses you teach or are familiar with. From your point of view, are there compelling applications that should be an integral component of some of these courses? Please send me your ideas about other compelling applications that have, have not, or could affect K-12 education.


Dr. Dave 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 Education (IACE) to form ISTE. He served as Executive Officer for ISTE until the end of June 1998, and then as EO for Research and Development until the end of March 2001.

Retrospective Comments 10/8/00

The terminology "Compelling Application" was suggested by a student in my 1999-2000 graduate seminar on IT in Education. We were discussing "Killer Applications" and noted that this is not appropriate vocabulary for educational software. (There had been recent shootings in schools.)

The general concept of Compelling Applications has proven to be an effective way of telling part of the story of IT in education. Many people resonate with the terminology and can suggest examples of software that they have found compelling.

The general concept was used as a central theme in a Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers to use Technology proposal that I submitted to the US Department of Education in March of 2000. This proposal was funded at the level of approximately $425,000 a year for the three years beginning in June 2000.


Part 3: More About Compelling Applications

Moursund, D.G. (Novemberr 2000). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 3. More About Compelling Applications. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

In last month’s article (Moursund, 2000a), I used spreadsheet and desktop publishing software to il-lustrate the idea of compelling applications of microcomputers in education. You’ll recall that a compelling application has the following characteristics:

  1. It is intrinsically motivating, and it empowers the user.
  2. It is a cost-effective aid to solving certain problems and/or accomplish-ing certain tasks.
  3. It is time- and effort-effective. It embodies knowledge and skills in a manner that helps the user to gain a significant level of functionality in solving certain problems and/or accomplishing certain tasks relatively quickly.

Some More Compelling Applications

It is fun to talk to computer-using educators about some of their favorite and most compelling applications. The following are a few examples of typical candidates. (Find more examples online at no3/index.html.)

Electronic Gradebook. “It doesn’t seem to save me much time. But, it allows me to provide better quality feedback to my students about how they are do-ing and what they need to do. It helps me to quickly answer questions from parents and from the school counselor.”

Desktop Presentation. “I use it all the time. It has replaced my collection of acetate overheads. I can quickly up-date my presentations, I can easily make handouts for students, and it costs nothing to provide copies to my colleagues.”

Spelling and Grammar Checker. “It used to be that when I graded student writing, most of my efforts went into marking spelling errors and rather rou-tine grammar errors. Now I have all of my students using word processors that have spelling checkers and relatively good grammar checkers. If a paper contains the types of spelling and grammar errors the software detects, I merely return it to the student to be redone. I spend much more of my paper-grading time focusing on the higher-order thinking and expression of ideas.”

I am sure that you will have no trouble adding to the list. Roughly speaking, the types of examples teachers provide fall into a few categories:

  • Applications that help the teacher do work related to preparing and pre-senting instruction and handling the grading and reporting aspects of be-ing a teacher.
  • Applications that are integral com-ponents of students’ required coursework. This includes the full range of software in an integrated application package and multimedia software.
  • Applications that fall into the general category of computer-assisted learn-ing (drill and practice, tutorials, and simulations) and distance learning.
  • Applications based on use of the Internet to retrieve information and to communicate.
  • Adaptive technologies to help stu-dents with various types of physical disabilities.
  • Edutainment.

Some of the compelling applications are of particular interest to teachers, some to students, and some to both. The remainder of this article presents a distinctly different type of computer application in education. Most educators I talk to find this example particularly compelling.

An Application of Brain Theory

In the past couple of years, many popular press articles have discussed progress in brain theory. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Develop-ment (ASCD, devoted most of its November 1998 issue of Educational Leadership to this topic.

Brain theory research relies heavily on information technology (IT). Com-puterized instrumentation has been developed that can track neural activity in various parts of a person’s brain as the person receives input from the five senses and works to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Here is a scenario of a significant educational breakthrough that has occurred as a result of this type of research. It is based on information found at (See Toni’s Scenario, this page.)

Toni’s Scenario

Toni was four years old. She had been diagnosed as severely speech delayed due to hearing impairments.Toni had a neuro-logical problem in which her brain was not able to process the sounds of phonemes at the speed in which they are deliv-ered in human speech. It wasn’t that Toni could not hear—it was that her brain could not ad-equately process the sounds it received.The incoming pho-nemes of speech just sort of piled up in her brain, making a jumbled mess that her brain could not decipher.

At best,Toni faced a minimum of four years of intense one-on-one intervention by a highly trained speech therapist. Even with such an intensive educa-tional intervention, the results would be problematic.

However, recent brain research has led to the development of an IT-based intervention that pro-vides a much quicker solution to this educational problem. A four-week intervention developed by cognitive neuroscientists at Scien-tific Learning was used to train Toni’s brain to process the pho-nemes of speech at the speed that most people achieve through “normal” brain develop-ment. (In essence,Toni spent some time each day playing a highly motivational computer game designed to help her brain learn to process phonemes faster.) With the IT solution pro-vided,Toni’s hearing and speech problems were overcome at a cost of about $800.

How is this possible? Toni could hear phonemes, as long as an individual phoneme was presented approximately 20 to 30 times slower than it is in average speech. Fast ForWord® uses words made up of very slow and long, drawn-out phonemes, and the response is to press an appropriate key. The game is designed to be attention grabbing and highly motivational. Toni could succeed at this game. Over time, the length of the phonemes presented was slowly decreased. Over a period of a month, Toni’s brain adjusted to these shorter phonemes. (Remember, the young brain has extreme plasticity.) In essence, Toni’s brain was re-wired through use of edutainment drill-and-practice software!

In the first article in this series (Moursund, 2000b), I talked about Benjamin Bloom and the “2-sigma” gain in learning that can be achieved through individual and small-group tutoring (Bloom, 1984). It is not clear what value to assign to “N” in order to make a statement that Toni and others like her make an “N-sigma” learning gain in the processing of speech. Certainly “N” is a lot larger than 2.

Perhaps you have read about similar IT-based aids to help children with certain types of dyslexia. It may well be that 2% or so of all children have the types of neurological problems that are easily addressed by these IT-based interventions. Roughly speaking, this means that in the United States, approximately 100,000 children are born each year who could substantially benefit by these breakthroughs in brain research.

Editor’s note: This type of compelling application fits well into the up-coming L&L theme issue on Student-Centered Use of Highly Interactive Computer Software. Read more in the editorial calendar at under About L&L.

In Summary

Most computer-using educators have no trouble identifying a number of computer applications that they and/or their students find compelling. There is significant research supporting the educational value of some of these compelling applications. For others, the decision to use the application is made independently of any supportive research. Remember, compelling is in the eyes of the person being compelled. A student may find an edutainment game compelling because of its entertainment value, even though it happens to have some educational value from the point of view of a teacher.

The compelling application of IT combined with brain theory brings a new dimension to education. It is one of the most compelling applications of IT in education that I have ever seen. It is suggestive that for certain students we can do a really lot better than we are currently doing.

In subsequent articles, I will continue to explore roles of IT in the Science of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). I am particularly interested in use of IT to make education a really lot better for the great majority of students.


Fast ForWord is available from Scientific Learning, 1995 University Ave., Suite 400, Berkeley, CA 94704; 888.665.9707; fax: 510.665.1717;;


Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 Sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4–16.

Fast ForWord [Online document]. (2000). Berkeley, CA: Scientific Learning. Available:

Moursund, D. (2000a). Roles of IT in im-proving our educational system, part 2: Com-pelling applications. Learning & Leading with Technology, 28(2), 4–5, 21.

Moursund, D. (2000b). Roles of IT in im-proving our educational system, part 1: The science of teaching and learning. Learning & Leading with Technology, 28(1), 4–5, 13.

Part 4: Brain and Body Tools

Moursund, D.G. (December/January 2000/01). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 4: Brain and Body Tools. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Figure 1 captures the essence of a person or team of people work-ing with brain and body tools to solve problems, answer questions, and accomplish tasks. The brain and body tools are getting steadily better, propelled by continued rapid progress in science, engineering, technology, and all other areas of human intellectual endeavor. IT is playing a major role in the development of new brain and body tools. The compelling applications I have discussed previously (Moursund, 2000a, 2000b) are now important brain tools for hundreds of millions of people. I discuss brain tools more fully in the next section. Body tools include hoes, clubs, bicycles, telescopes, microscopes, cars, and so on.

Figure 1. Problem-solving, question-answering team.

Five Closely Related Brain Tools

Here is a list of five general-purpose brain tools. These tools are important components of the science of teaching and learning (SoTL). You will notice that the last two specifically relate to IT. However, IT also plays a significant role in contemporary use of the first three.

  1. Writing, beginning in approximately 3100 BC—Reading and writing literacy were greatly aided by Gutenberg’s development of moveable type and mass production of printing in about 1450 AD.
  2. Mathematics, beginning in approximately 3100 BC
  3. Science, beginning in approximately 1500 BC
  4. Computers, beginning in approximately 1950 AD—The focus is on use of computers to represent and help solve problems. Many school districts want all of their graduates to be computer literate.
  5. Internet, beginning in approximately 1990 AD—The focus is on the development of a global communications and library system. Internet use has spread rapidly, and it is now a common compo-nent of K–12 schooling.

All five of these brain tools share much in common. They are aids to communicating and to representing and solving problems. We expect our students to develop a reasonable level of expertise, such as can be acquired by the end of the third grade, greatly empowers a person. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, recognized this when he worked to have his home state of Virginia provide three years of free public education to those who could not afford to pay tuition. (This was such a far-out idea, it was handily rejected.) Now, of course, contemporary expertise in at least the first three. Logan (2000) calls each of these tools a language. A person who knows how to make effective use of these languages is empowered—he or she can do many things that cannot be done without the use of these brain tools.

Notice that each language depends on the languages developed before it. Thus, science is heavily dependent on writing and mathematics. Effective use of computers is highly dependent on writing, mathematics, and science. The development of a new brain tool language does not obviate the need for the previous brain tool languages.

This creates a major challenge for a formal educational system. Over a period of approximately 5,000 years, our educational system learned to deal with writing, mathematics, and science. A significant portion of each school day is focused on these three languages. Even then, many critics of our current educational system suggest that students are not acquiring appropriate levels of ex-pertise in the use of these three tools. Now, two new tools have been developed in the past 50 years. These two new languages are quite important. Moreover, it takes a substantial amount of time and effort to develop a reasonable level of expertise in the use of these tools.


For any brain tool or body tool, we can talk about a person’s level of expertise in making use of the tool. Figure 2 suggests that expertise is an open-ended scale. The points marked are intended to suggest that a person learning to use a tool moves from being an absolute novice to having a useful level of expertise, then to meeting contemporary standards that are expected for adults using the tool, and then to higher levels of knowledge and skill.

Figure 2. Expertise scale.

In the Land of the Blind

There is an old saying that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. This has certainly proved to be the case in terms of the five brain tool languages. For example, even a modest level of reading and writing standards for reading and writing literacy are far beyond what most third graders can achieve. [Note added 12/22/04. This is certainly a poorly written sentence. It refers back to Thomas Jefferenson's educational proposal made earlier in the paper. What the sentence is trying to say is that contemporary standards in reading and writing are far higher than what a typical third grader can achieve nowadays.]

Most students now entering college have rudimentary skills in using a word processor, sending and receiving e-mail, and searching the Web. They have a useful level of expertise, but they are far from meeting contemporary standards. Compared with typical adults in our society, they are the one-eyed people in the land of the blind.

The National Educational Tech-nology Standards for Students (NETS•S [ISTE NETS Project, 1998]) provide guidelines for levels of students’ expertise with IT. Many adults look at these standards and dismiss them as completely unreasonable; after all, relatively few adults can meet them. Many students entering college do not meet the fifth-grade standards. Of course, we have good evidence that students can meet these standards if they are given appropri-ate education and experience.

Final Remarks

The model given in Figure 1 suggests one major direction for the future of education: Students need an education that helps them gain a contemporary level of expertise in using brain and body tools. This education needs to prepare them to deal with a steady in-crease in the range of tools available as well as in the power and usefulness of these tools.

This will require major changes in our contemporary educational system. It also creates a major challenge for teachers. What is your current level of expertise in each of the five brain tool languages discussed here? As contemporary standards continue to increase, what are you doing to keep up and/or to stay ahead of the curve? What specific things can you do in your teaching to help both you and your students continue to gain increased expertise in each of these areas?


ISTE NETS Project. (1998). National educa-tional technology standards for students. Eugene, OR: ISTE. Available:—select Standards Projects.

Logan, R. K. (2000). The sixth language: Learning a living in the Internet age. Toronto, ON: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited.

Moursund, D. (2000a). Roles of IT in im-proving our educational system—Part 2: Com-pelling applications. Learning & Leading with Technology, 28(2), 4–5, 21.

Moursund, D. (2000b). Roles of IT in im-proving our educational system—Part 3: More about compelling applications. Learning & Leading with Technology, 28(3), 4–5, 16.


Dr. Dave Moursund ( has been teaching and writing about information technology in education since 1963. In 1979, he founded the International Council for Com-puters in Education (ICCE). In 1989, ICCE merged with the International Association for Computing Education (IACE) to form ISTE. He currently serves as Executive Officer of Research and Evaluation.

Part 5: The Learner and Teacher Sides of the Digital Divide

Moursund, D.G. (February 2001). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 5: The Learner and Teacher Sides of the Digital Divide. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Rather than simply focusing on access as the quick fix for the Digital Divide, we need to concentrate on information technology integration and training.

Broadcast and print media usually represent the Digital Divide as an issue of who has information technology (IT) facilities and who doesn’t. With that type of representation, it is relatively easy to “buy” a solution to the problem. Local, state, and federal monies can be allocated to schools in a manner to produce equity in access to IT facilities. Such efforts can even address inequities of IT access at home.

Addressing access is important, but it will not solve the real Digital Divide problem faced by our educational system. The real problem is a learner and teacher problem that ex-ists in both our formal and informal educational systems.

IT as a “Language”

Robert Logan (2000) makes an important contribution to the science of teaching and learning. He describes writing, mathematics, science, computers, and the Internet as “languages” that humans have developed for communication and as cognitive amplification tools. Notice that the first three of these human-developed languages are part of the basics of education. It takes many years of formal instruction and practice to achieve contemporary standards of fluency in these three languages.

For the purposes of discussion in this article, I combine Logan’s (2000) fourth and fifth languages into one, which I call IT. The languages of writing, math, and science all require various levels of technology (e.g., paper, pencil, and science instrumentation). IT requires a relatively high and more expensive level of technology (e.g., calculators, computers, and telecommunications systems) than writing and mathematics. Some science teaching and learning can be done with inexpensive technology, and some requires quite expensive technology.

Pencils, paper, and books are essential technologies in learning reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. A child who lacks access to these tools—at school and at home—is severely handicapped. On the other hand, access to the tools does not mean that the child will gain fluency in writing, math, and science.

Similarly, access to IT facilities is necessary if a child is to gain fluency in IT. But by itself, access to the facilities is not sufficient. I discuss this from a formal education and an informal educa-tion point of view.

Formal Education

We all know that the fields of computer and information science, communication using computers, desktop publishing, reading and writing interactive multimedia documents, and other aspects of IT are both huge and complex, far transcending what most people can and will learn on their own in an informal (nonschool) educational setting.

Moreover, IT blends with and extends writing, mathematics, and science. The development of a new language such as IT does not obviate the need for students to learn the earlier languages. Rather, it creates the need to blend the new with the old in a manner that extends a student’s overall fluency in communication and thinking using the human-developed languages.

ISTE has developed National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for students (ISTE NETS Project, 2000a) and for teachers (ISTE NETS Project, 2000b). These standards help define the rudiments of IT content areas that are necessary for achieving IT fluency for students and for teachers. At this stage in the development of these standards, ISTE has not yet provided ways of assessing student and teacher IT fluency. Current and future ISTE projects, as well as many school and district projects, are addressing or will address this issue.

The NETS mention the importance of IT in all disciplines. ISTE’s NETS Project (2000a) provides a number of excellent examples of curriculum materials that integrate IT into other disciplines in a manner consistent with the national standards in these other disciplines. This book makes a major contri-bution to blending the IT language with other human-created languages.

It is clear what our formal educational system needs to be doing to help all students achieve IT fluency. The curriculum needs to be revised so that IT is thoroughly integrated into the instruction and practice that is designed to produce fluency in writing, math-ematics, and science. That is, IT needs to be integrated into all curriculum areas at all grade levels as a routine and everyday component of curriculum, in-struction, and assessment.

This means, of course, that all teachers need to develop IT fluency at a level consistent with the need to carry out their job of integrating IT throughout curriculum, instruction, and assessment. We have a huge Digital Divide with respect to IT fluency of teachers. Students who have teachers who are IT fluent have a significant advantage in developing their own IT fluency.

Informal Education

It is clear that many children are gaining an initial level of IT fluency through their home environments and the many hours they spend playing computer games, communicating by e-mail, and browsing the Web. The instruction needed is provided by parents, siblings, peers, and so on. (That is, a wide range of “teachers” exists in our informal educational system.) This informal education is a powerful force in helping children achieve an initial level of IT fluency.

Because of the significant differences in the informal IT-learning environ-ments available to children, we have a significant Digital Divide in informal education. This is not unlike the problem that our education system faces in dealing with children who come from homes with few or no books, and whose parents and other adults in their lives do not read to them or model use of contemporary levels of reading/writing fluency. Research strongly supports the value of parents reading to their children and interacting at a high cog-nitive level with their children when doing this reading.

However, even with a quite good IT home environment, the level of IT fluency that the typical child learns through our informal educational sys-tem is modest compared to contemporary standards of IT fluency. If you doubt this, ask children to explain some of the roles of IT in understanding and applying the content from mathematics, science, social science, or language arts that they are learning in school. These aspects of IT fluency are not things typical children learn on their own!

The Digital Divide problems of informal education will gradually go away as more and more adults achieve IT fluency. However, contemporary standards for IT fluency will continue to rise for many years to come. This means that there will continue to be a large gap between the average IT fluency of parents and the contemporary standards for IT fluency being set by schools. Thus, we face a major and continuing Digital Divide IT problem in our informal educational system. Adult education, often with children and parents learn-ing together, is one way to approach this problem.

Final Remarks

Ultimately, the Digital Divide problem—helping all children achieve contemporary levels of IT fluency— can be solved only by a significant and continuing effort in our formal and informal educational systems. In our formal educational system, this means that IT fluency needs to be a major goal, alongside writing, mathematics, and science fluency. Efforts to achieve this goal must be thoroughly integrated throughout the curriculum, much like reading and writing are integrated throughout the curriculum.

Essentially, all parents have a significant level of fluency in the languages we call writing, mathematics, and science. Thus, they can and do contribute significantly to the development of their children’s fluency in these areas. The same cannot be said for IT fluency. Our educational system has a unique opportunity to make use of the informal education aspects of the Digital Divide issue to improve and expand community education, with the whole community learning together and contributing to the informal education of its children.


ISTE NETS Project. (2000a). National edu-cational technology standards for students— Connecting curriculum and technology [Online document]. Eugene, OR: Author. Available:—select Standards Projects, then NETS.

ISTE NETS Project. (2000b). National educational technology standards for teachers [Online document]. Eugene, OR: Author. Available:—select Standards Projects, then NETS.

Logan, R. K. (2000). The sixth language: Learning a living in the Internet age. Toronto, ON: Stoddard.

Part 6: Creating Human–Computer Teams

Moursund, D.G. (March 2001). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 6: Creating Human–Computer Teams. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

In the past few months, I have been a reviewer for three different agencies that were funding educational improvement projects. All of the proposals I was asked to rate fell in the general area of information technology (IT) in education. For the most part, these proposals were not very good. They tended to suffer from two things:

  1. The authors did not demonstrate that they know the general Science of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) or the specifics of roles of IT in the SoTL. Many of the proposals might best be described as attempts to reinvent the wheel.
  2. The authors presented simplistic and narrow answers to very complex and difficult educational problems. Often these proposed solutions were backward looking (all we need to do is do what we have been doing, but do it better). Few were forward looking (IT can facilitate significant changes and major improvements in the basic nature of an educational system).

This editorial discusses the second problem.

An Example from Chess

Very early in the history of artificial in-telligence (AI) people began to develop computer programs that could play chess. The rules of chess are relatively simple, and it takes a human being many years of study and practice to get good at the game.

In 1958, a chess program beat a human player for the first time. The human player, a secretary of the team of programmers who had never played chess before, was taught how to play just an hour before the game, and was beaten by the chess program. As unremarkable as this feat may seem today, it served to show that knowledge could be embedded into a chess program (about an hour’s training worth of knowledge, to be precise). (López-Ortiz, 1993)

The idea that knowledge can be embedded in a computer program— knowledge that takes a human a significant amount of time to learn—is fundamental to the future of our educational system. Today’s computer chess programs contain an immensely greater amount of knowledge than did the 1958 computer chess program.

As researchers made progress in the theory of computer chess and as computers became more powerful, the capabilities of computer chess programs gradually improved. Still, the better human chess players could easily defeat the best chess programs.

Then people got the idea of having a relatively good chess player team up with a good computer program with the expectation that this team would readily outperform chess players who were equal to the human member of the team. It turned out this was not the case. The difficulty was that humans and computers bring substantially different approaches to playing a good game of chess. It takes a substantial amount of training and experience for a human to learn to take advantage of the computer capabilities when working in a human–computer chess-playing team.

I use this story to make two points. The first is that people and computers bring different areas of expertise to solving a problem or accomplishing a task. It can take a substantial amount of training and experience for a human to learn to be an effective member of a human–computer team.

The second point is that on May 11, 1997, a computer defeated the reigning human world chess champion (IBM, 1997). This indicates that there are some problem areas in which the computer member of a human–computer team can dispense with the human. There are a steadily increasing number of problems for which this is the case.

An Example of Web Use

While writing this article, I used the Google™ search engine ( com) to do a search using keywords Deep Blue. Google™ dutifully reported that its index currently covered more than 1.2 billion Web pages, and that 1,070,000 of them contained a reference to Deep Blue. This took the search engine just .12 seconds. I clicked on the topmost item suggested, and voilà, I had a reference to meet my needs. This was an example of a human–computer team working together to solve an in-formation retrieval problem. I knew that a computer named Deep Blue had defeated the human world chess champion Garry Kasparov a few years ago. A combination of my knowledge (the name Deep Blue) and the computer’s capabilities easily solved the problem.

Suppose I had not remembered Deep Blue? Keying computer chess into Google™ produced approximately 188,000 hits in .08 seconds. None of the titles of the first 20 hits mentioned Kasparov or Deep Blue. I browsed the results. The fourth site provided good coverage of the May 11, 1997, Kasparov vs. Deep Blue chess match. Without my knowledge of the name Deep Blue, it took me considerably more time to find the answer to my question.

Continuing to use simple search strategies, I keyed the four words computer chess world champion into Google™. In 1.15 seconds it produced more than 8,000 hits, the first being Kasparov vs. Deep Blue. Google™ looked for Web pages containing all four of the words I keyed in.

I am proud of how well Google™ and I worked together to quickly solve my information retrieval problem. I am proud that I brought to the task the knowledge and skills to be a valuable member of the team. I formulated the problem. I know how to access the Web and to use a search engine. I know how to read and to keyboard. I am also proud of the fact that I know how to use the Advanced Search features of a variety of search engines.

Educational Implications

People can do many things better than computers. Foremost among them are being a human being, understanding human values and what it is like to be a human being, posing problems that humans want to answer, and interpreting the results that are produced as attempts are made to solve the problems.

On the other hand, computers can do a steadily increasing number of things better than humans. Educators are faced with the problem of how to educate children for adult life in a world in which computer capabilities will continue to grow very rapidly and already exceed humans in many areas.

Moreover, our educational system needs to develop and use authentic assessment methods to measure its success in addressing this problem. A nonauthentic test of my information retrieval skills would be to send me to a conventional, “hard copy” library and ask me to solve my computer chess information retrieval problem. Without a significant amount of training in the use of the various types of indexes available in a library, I might well fail to find the needed information. Of course, even if I succeeded, it would have taken me a huge amount of time relative to what I actually expended while sitting at home using my computer. For me, the educational implications are clear.

  1. Students need an education that prepares them to work in a human– computer team.
  2. Students need an education that helps them understand the capabili-ties and limitations of humans versus those of computers.
  3. Students need to be assessed in an authentic hands-on human– computer team environment rather than in some nonauthentic environment.


IBM Corporation. (1997). Kasparov vs. Deep Blue: The rematch [Online document]. Armonk, NY: Author. Available: deepblue/.

López-Ortiz, A. (1993). Computer chess: Past to present [Online document]. Waterloo, ON: Author. Available: divulge/chimp.html.


Part 7: Highly Interactive Computing in Teaching and Learning

Moursund, D.G. (April 2001). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 7. Highly Interactive Computing in Teaching and Learning. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

This article is about roles of teachers, learners, and computers in highly interactive teaching and learning. When most educators think about highly interactive computing, their first thought is about computer-assisted instruction. But, there are many other situations in which one uses a computer in a highly interactive manner. The development of a spreadsheet model, and the use of it in asking and answering "What if?" questions, provides a good example. The interaction one does in editing a photograph provides another example. This article explores various aspects of highly interactive computing and makes some suggestions about how to improve our educational system.

Computer-Assisted Instruction

We all know that a computer can be a powerful aid to learning. We know about "drill and practice" and tutorial computer-assisted instruction (CAI), and we know about simulations used to train airplane and spaceship pilots. In all of these teaching/learning situations, there is interactivity between the computer system and the learner.

In the pilot training simulations, the learner is involved in a highly interactive simulation of a real world environment. The simulation is attention-grabbing and realistic, and usually there is a high intrinsic motivation to learn. These characteristics contribute significantly to the learning process.

Drill and practice or tutorial CAI tends to lack the real world flavor of pilot-training simulations. A standard attempt to overcome this difficulty is to embed the CAI in a game-like, entertainment environment. The game-like environment may prove both attention-grabbing and intrinsically motivating. On the other hand, it is possible that it contributes little to the desired learning outcomes. This is because there may be little transfer from the learn environment to situations in which the learning is to be applied.

Transfer of Learning

Transfer of learning is closely related to the CAI ideas given above. The computer simulations used in pilot training are so realistic that there is a high level of transfer of learning to real world piloting situations. Flying the training simulator is less expensive and less dangerous than flying a real airplane or spaceship. Moreover, the computer simulation also allows the pilot to gain experience in dealing with dangerous emergency situations that are not apt to occur very frequently in the real world. All things considered, such CAI simulations have many advantages over emerging a trainee in a real world training environment.

On the other hand, the learning that occurs in more traditional CAI environments faces two transfer of learning difficulties. First, there is the transfer from the computer environment to the non-computer environment. Second, there is the transfer from the non-computer environment to the real world. To illustrate, a child may become adept at quickly doing certain mental arithmetic feats in a highly interactive and entertaining game environment. Will the child be able to display the same level of skill in the non-game environment of a traditional classroom or on a traditional pencil and paper test? And, will such traditional classroom knowledge and skill transfer to recognizing and solving somewhat similar problems that the student encounters outside the classroom?

We know how to use computers to make highly interactive simulations that are so real world-like so that there is a high level of transfer of this learning to the real world. This provides us with a target to aim at as we develop other types of CAI for use in our schools. We have not come very far in this endeavor.

Learning and "Attention" in the Human Mind

The body/brain receives input from the five senses: aural, taste, touch, visual, and smell. (For simplicity, in the remainder of this article I will use the term mind in place of the term brain/body.) Learning takes place inside the mind. This learning is influenced by what the mind consciously does to promote learning, as well as what it unconsciously does. Thus, we can think about improving learning by improving the external stimulus (what is provided from outside the mind) and by training the mind to learn better from the stimuli that it receives and from what it has stored in the past.

The mind's various input systems are easily overwhelmed by the amount of input that is or can be available. Thus, the mind is designed to not pay attention to most of the input. That is, there is a continual filtering mechanism being applied. The mind only pays attention to a very small part of the input. It pays special attention to life threatening and other dangerous situations.

The mind can consciously decide to focus its attention on certain internal and external components of its environment. That is, the conscious mind can focus its attention on stored data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, and it can also decide to pay attention to external stimuli.

This selective attention mechanism presents a major challenge to teachers. As a teacher, you want students to pay attention to what is going on in the classroom. But, you are competing against built-in mechanisms that are designed to have the mind only pay attention to really important things. Many students automatically filter out (that is, do not pay attention to) what is going on in the classroom. After all, classrooms are designed to be safe places, so there is little chance of life-threatening events occurring, such as an attack from a tiger or a poisonous snake. In a classroom, a student's mind can safely consider events of past days or possible events in the future. These events may be far more attention-grabbing than the current events within the classroom. The student pays attention to and learns about these past and possible future events, rather than what the teacher would like the student to be learning.

From a teacher point of view, there is a competition going on for the attention of a student's mind. The good teacher is able to create an interactive learning environment that helps to focus student attention on important curriculum topics. A good teacher and a good educational environment can grab the attention of the students in a class. Highly interactive computer environments can add significantly to such a learning environment.

Interactivity in Tutorial Settings

The mind is designed to be able to learn. Consider a situation faced by a very young baby. The baby's mind recognizes some form of discomfort (a belly ache, too cold) and produces the action of crying. The crying is heard by a parent. The parent makes a guess as to the source of the discomfort and takes an action to remedy the situation. This baby-parent interaction leads to learning on the part of both the baby and the parent.

A similar description fits well with a child learning other non-verbal and verbal language. This is a good example of highly interactive one-on-one "tutoring," with both the child and the adult learning from the interaction. There is a very important point to be made here. The nature, extent, and timing of the feedback provided by the tutor (the adult) is determined by the best judgement of the tutor. It is individualized and highly personalized based upon past interaction with the child.

From the type of analysis given in this section, we can identify some of the characteristics of a good tutor. It needs to:

  1. Have a good "understanding" of what is to be learned and how humans learn it.
  2. Have a good understanding of what the learner already knows and learning characteristics of the learner.
  3. Provide feedback and interactivity that is appropriate in nature, extent, and timing.

Over the years, some progress has been made in the development of drill and practice and tutorial CAI that has these features. There has been encouraging progress in the development of Intelligent CAI systems, that make use of progress that has been occurring in the field of artificial intelligence. However, we have a long way to go. Much of the interaction needed to make current CAI into a rich learning environment must come from and through the learner. This means that students needs to learn to make effective use of the types of CAI that we are currently able to produce.

This is not a whole lot different than a student learning to learn from books. The CAI can be thought of as an interactive type of book. Little learning occurs in drill and practice or tutorial CAI unless the student is consciously and actively engaged, and has learned to make effective use of the medium.

Non-CAI Interactivity

I spend a significant fraction of my work time seated at a computer. I mainly use general-purpose computer tools such as word processor, spreadsheet, paint and draw graphics, E-mail, Web browser, and Web authoring software.

Typically, my goal is to solve a problem or accomplish a task. I use all of my computer tools in a highly interactive manner. This type of interaction is much different than one finds in a CAI drill and practice or tutorial environment. Sometimes I do most of the work in the interactions, such as when I am authoring using a word processor or a Web authoring system. Other times the software carries much of the burden, such as when my word processor is checking my spelling and grammar. Sometimes there is a nice balance, as my Web browser and I work together to solve an information retrieval problem.

As I work to solve problems and accomplish tasks, I learn a great deal. The combination of my mind and the computer system provides me with information to be learned and feedback during the learning process. This is consistent with Situated Learning, a learning theory that supports putting the learner into rich, real world problem-solving environments (Moursund; Roschelle). Situated Learning theory helps to explain the success of problem-based learning and project-based learning. Computers can be a valuable component of a situated learning environment.

At one time in my life, I spent a lot of time doing and teaching computer programming. In the early years, the nature of my interaction with the computer was limited by the slow turnaround of using punched cards on a batch processing computer. Then timeshared computing was developed, and this greatly improved the interaction. Microcomputers have further improved the human-machine interaction in computer program. Computer programming is now an example of highly interactive computing. It is also an excellent example of a situated learning environment.

Final Remarks

Learning occurs in one's mind. This article focuses on various types of learning environments in which there is interaction between a computer system and a person's mind. Such interactive learning situations can be improved by:

  1. Improving the computer system. For example, we are making progress in developing Intelligent CAI systems that have some of the characteristics of a good human tutor. There are a number of examples of computer simulations that are excellent aids to learning, but relatively few have been designed for use at the precollege level.
  2. Helping the student learn to make effective use of the various types of interactivity that a computer can provide. Often this takes considerable learning on the part of the student. Situated Learning is a learning theory that fits well with immersing students into computer rich problem solving environments in a manner that will facilitate student learning.
  3. Incorporating ideas from Situated Learning Theory.


Moursund, D. (2000). Communities of IT-Using Educators [Online]. Accessed 11/8/01:

Roschelle, J. What Should Collaborative Technology Be? A Perspective from Dewey and Situated Learning [Online]. Accessed 11/8/01:

Retrospective Comments 11/8/01

There is a huge amount of edutainment software that has a combination of entertainment and educational objectives. For the most part, this software has not been adequately researched. Many students use such software at school and at home for entertainment; relatively few use it with clear content area learning goals in mind. Many teachers facilitate such use--"You can use the computer (to play these games) after you get your assignment done." This approach to IT in education is strongly entrenched. In some sense it is supported by both students and teachers. Thus, it resists change.

The section on Non-CAI Interactivity in the editorial remains central to the future of IT in education. It reflects use of IT in higher-order thinking and problem solving. There is increasing research evidence to support Situated Learning, and IT can be a valuable component of many different Situated Learning environments. I strongly support this approach to use of IT in education.

Situated Learning is one of 50 learning theories that are briefly defined and discussed in Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database [Online]. Accessed 11/8/01: See also:

Brown, John Seely; Collins, Allan; and Duguid, Paul. Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning [Online]. Accessed 11/8/01: [Note added 5/8/02: This site is no longer available. However, Brown and Duguid have a book Balancing Act: How to Capture Knowledge Without Killing It that covers some of the same ideas.] Quoting from this Website:

The breach between learning and use, which is captured by the folk categories ''know what'' and "know how" may well be a product of the structure and practices of our education system. Many methods of didactic education assume a separation between knowing and doing, treating knowledge as an integral, self-sufficient substance. theoretically independent of the situations in which it is learned and used. The primary concern of schools often seems to be the transfer of this substance, which comprises abstract. decontextualized formal concepts. The activity and context in which learning takes place are thus regarded as merely ancillary to learning--pedagogically useful, of course, but fundamentally distinct and even neutral with respect to what is learned.

Recent investigations of learning, however, challenge this separating of what is learned from how it is learned and used.' The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed, it is not argued, is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated.


Part 8: The Innovative Educator's Dilemma

Moursund, D.G. (May 2001). Roles of IT in Improving Our Educational System. Part 8: The Innovative Educator's Dilemma. Editor's Message, Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

The Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen, 2000) is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in the past year. Christensen is a business professor and consultant. His work explores the effects that changing technology has on established businesses.

For example, consider IBM during the time that the microcomputer was being developed. IBM dominated the mainframe computer market and was considered a model of a well-run corporation. IBM had excellent research facilities with many brilliant researchers and developers. It had the technological knowledge and the capital to develop a microcomputer and to immediately control that market.

However, microcomputers were clearly inferior to mainframe computers. Many people considered them to be “toy” computers. These toy computers did not meet the needs of IBM customers. The microcomputer market was tiny, and initial profits were very small.

As the microcomputer market began to grow, IBM faced a serious dilemma. Should it invest its resources in developing and marketing a product that competed with its other products—especially at a time when the other products dominated the worldwide computer market and were highly profitable? Eventually IBM compromised by putting out a “PC” that was inferior to some of the existing microcomputers on the market and used a disk operating system from a fledgling company named Microsoft. IBM, with its superior marketing skills and excellent reputation, felt it would be able to gain a significant market share in microcomputers and not disrupt its existing business.

Most of us know some of the results of that business decision. Microcomputers continued to gain in power and became useful throughout the business world. Microsoft grew to be a world-wide powerhouse in microcomputer operating systems and other microcom-puter software. A consequence of not making a good accommodation to microcomputers is that IBM eventually went through a long period of serious business decline.

Christensen analyzes a number of examples of major companies faced with the dilemma of technological innovation. He shows that time after time, well-managed and successful companies have been severely damaged—indeed, often driven into bankruptcy—by not making good accommodations to changing tech-nology. This is not just a computer technology phenomenon. Consider the steam-shovel types of digging equipment that use cables and winches to move earth. Very little of this type of equipment still exists, because it has been replaced by hydraulic-based earth-moving equipment. Very few of the companies that made this earth-moving equipment survived the transition.

Relevance to Education

A strong parallel exists between the problems innovation brings to business and those it brings to various components of our educational system.

To begin, let’s look at our educational “system” about 5,000 years ago, just before writing and mathematics were invented. Until then, the educational system consisted of a combination of informal learning and apprenticeship-based learning. The agricultural age had existed for about 5,000 years, city-states were growing, and businesses were expanding. The growing city-states and businesses faced information storage and processing problems that could not be solved by training people to be better at memo-rizing and at carrying out computations in their heads.

Writing and mathematics are powerful aids in addressing information problems. In many information pro-cessing tasks, basic literacy and numeracy skills empower a person to far outperform one who lacks such knowledge and skills. Thus, the innovations of writing and mathematics severely damaged the businesses of people who made a living through mental storage and processing of information. The new information technologies were so powerful that formal education—with schools somewhat like we still have today—developed.

Why Are Schools Like They Are?

Our current formal educational system is based on 5,000 years of experience in meeting the needs of its customers. During this time, there have been advantages of having students physically come together in a school and in class-rooms. There has been an economy of scale in having a group of students all learning the same thing at the same time. There has been an economy of scale in having a teacher, supported by a few textbooks and a small library, be the primary source of information.

If we go back about two centuries, we are at the time the industrial age was first emerging in England. The industrial age led to greatly expanding the public school system and schools having a “factory-like” design. The idea was that the school system could mass-produce educated students, somewhat like factories mass-produce physical goods. Such ideas continue to play a major role in standards-based education and in national and state-wide assessments.

The Innovative Educator’s Dilemma

Individual teachers, schools, and school systems are all facing the innovator’s dilemma described by Clayton Christensen. To briefly summarize, we know that IT provides powerful mind tools that are clearly relevant to educators and to our formal education system. Many IT-savvy educators can imagine an educational system that is significantly different from what we have today, one in which IT obviates many of the major design considerations that led to our current educational system.

But, consider an individual school or an individual school system contemplating a significant change to accommodate and build upon IT. The school or school district is faced by the dilemma that any serious attempts to change will:

  1. Divert resources being used to main-tain and incrementally improve what is currently being done.
  2. Create dissatisfaction among some major “customers” (stakeholders) such as political groups, business groups, parents, educators, and students.
  3. Create competition for the current ways of doing things.

As with IBM at the time microcomputers were being developed, many individual schools and school districts have the knowledge, skills, and capacity for the significant changes needed to accommodate the IT innovation. However, the pressures to change cannot overcome the pressures for business as usual, with its modest incremental changes to accommodate the customers.

What to Do?

Christensen provides some interesting insights into a possible solution to the dilemma created by technological innovations in business. In essence, he suggests that a company should create a relatively independent, wholly owned subsidiary. IBM, for example, could have created a “child,” a microcomputer company that was nurtured and encouraged so that it might eventually compete with the parent company. The microcomputer company would be provided with sufficient capital, researchers, developers, leaders, and other staff needed to get started. The goal of the new company would be to be very successful relative to all existing microcomputer companies in the field and to eventually compete successfully with the parent company. Indeed, the new company might eventually surpass its parent. (From a stockholder point of view, because the stockholders own both the parent and the child, this is not a financial disaster.)

What would this approach mean in terms of our public education system? It is easiest to envision it at a district level. School districts can readily create new schools (for example, schools within schools) that have a significant level of independence. Indeed, this is a relatively common occurrence, and these new schools are often called alternative schools or magnet schools.

The new school needs startup capital and other startup resources; it should be expected that its initial costs per student will exceed those of the other schools in the district. The new school needs to be designed so that it can develop its own customer base, compete for market share, and succeed if it is able to effectively compete. The new school needs to be unshackled from the myriad of rules, regulations, and traditional ways of designing an educational system—it must be allowed and encouraged to deviate significantly from the status quo.

A district-created new school is wholly owned by the school district—it is part of it. Some of these new schools will succeed, and others will fail. The approach being described here provides a safety net for students who decide to move into the new schools. It provides a safety net for the parent school district, as student income is not lost to competing educational systems. It allows a school district to change significantly over time, but in an incremental manner.

Contrast with Charter Schools

Over the past few years, a charter school movement has grown significantly in the United States. The federal government has provided a substantial amount of money for aid and encouragement designed to produce 3,000 charter schools. From a business point of view, it is as if the federal government is helping to create 3,000 companies that compete with the existing companies we call “public schools.” The business-oriented thinking is that these new schools will effectively compete with the existing public school system, eventually leading to significant improvements in that system.

Of course, an alternative outcome is that the charter schools will wipe out our current system. This alternative is supported by the many business examples provided in The Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen, 2000). I find it interesting to try to understand why our federal government chose to pursue a policy that could well lead to the destruction of what has been a very successful “company”—our public school system.

Final Remarks

The field of IT use in education is still in its infancy. IT provides tools that can help translate the Science of Teaching and Learning into effective educational practice. Our current public educational system is on a cusp. On one side of the cusp lie significant improvements in the quality of education being received by our children. On the other side lie major disruptions and perhaps the decline of our current public education system.


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

Retrospective Comments Added 3/26/03

Christensen's book is still quite popular. I noticed it in the Business Weekly best seller list a week or so ago.

During the past few years, Christensen was involved in the development of an investment company that followed his general ideas on the selection of stocks to buy. His company has not done well. (Remember, this has been a time of very extensive decline in the stock markets.) Click here to read more about Christensen.

We now have several more years of experience wth Charter Schools, and the Federal Government is cotinuing to fund the startup of new Charter Schools. So far, there is relatively little evidence to suggest that the Charter School Movement is making a significant contribution toward improving our country's educational system.