Technology in Education and the Next Twenty-Five Years

When Thomas Edison invented the motion picture, educators hailed it. They understood that this new technology, by bringing the world to the classroom, would move education a giant step forward. But much earlier, photographs, or "still pictures," were not so well received. In the 1860s there were controversies over the use of photographs and illustrations in textbooks. Many felt the pictures would dilute the meaning of education and would "dumb down" the lessons children needed to learn. It seems that telecommunications services are experiencing a similar mixed reception among educators. Many support it, others are skeptical.

To understand the impetus behind modern telecommunications services, we need to think for a moment about the distinctly human need to communicate.

All forms of communication are simply ways of sending codes -- mutually understood symbols that represent bits of experience. The need to code and share experience may be traced to speech and language, the first code. The development in early mankind of infinitely variable strings of understandable speech distinguished the Homosapien forever from the world of animals. For most of the history of mankind, the oral-aural symbol was the main conduit of communication. People could talk to those with whom they came in direct contact.

Evolution of Human Communication

Five thousand years ago civilization developed a second tier of symbols to represent the phonemic elements of speech: phonetic writing. With the advent of writing, people could interact with more distant groups, the literate few whom written documents could reach by messenger or post. Writing enabled some people to move beyond time and geography and extend their influence to the next generation and across the earth. Just as speech had allowed people to experience vicarious environments and to conjure their own experiences in the imaginations of others, writing permitted this ability at a distance.

In the last century we developed two additional modes of sending codes: broadcasting, which allows the sending of oral, written, and visual messages from one location to many other locations; and, telephonic communication systems, which permit communication back and forth between individual senders and receivers, mimicking spoken dialog.

Modern telecommunications service is a continuation of our human legacy of sharing and conveying precise renderings of experience. It is a natural extension of our inherent social need to deliver, ever more quickly and accurately, our experiences and knowledge. Speech and language are the mediums of expressing private experiences publicly. Indeed, many modern virtual worlds look, feel, and sound like the real thing.

Like the motion picture and the photograph before, telecommunications services will find their natural place in education. Most important, they will make high-quality education available to everyone.

Once upon a time, learning communities consisted of students who would gather in small, elite groups around a scholar for a session of Socratic dialog. In the 18th century this arrangement disappeared, and the classroom took its place, brought about by the invention of the printing press and the availability of books and libraries. A wider cross-section of students could now leave the classroom, study from books, then return to the classroom for dialogue and interactive learning with scholars and teachers. But if geographic distance prevented attendance in a classroom, there was nothing to be done, and outsiders accepted the limitations of their lives. Recent advances in computer technology have changed such fateful scenarios.

Early Applications of Computers

In World War II computers were used as number-crunching machines by research institutions and the military; in the 1960s they were used as word processing machines. In the 1980s they were used for individual instruction. In the 1990s, they debuted as communication devices.

Previously, dumb terminals connected users to mainframe computers that allowed the sending and receiving of messages. These systems allowed both trivial and profound interactions across time and space.

It quickly became evident that computers could change our concept of institutional learning by their ability to broaden the field of possible receivers. Anyone, with the right equipment, could join in the dialog of the community of scholars. The computer, by eliminating the barriers of time and geography, neatly fit our democratic value of quality education for all.

Soon PLATO, TICCIT and CCC educational programs demonstrated the efficacy of computer-based learning. There were initial technical problems and cost concerns, but the essential issue of whether computer-aided instruction was effective was resolved in the positive.

In the late 1970s, ATS-6 offered educational programs for credit through satellite technologies. The forerunner of this program became The Learning Channel on cable. In the fall of 1985, Paul Levinson and Tina Vozick created Connected Education, a program that offered on-line, for-credit graduate courses taught by professors at the New School for Social Research in New York City. To date, more than 4,000 students from around the world have taken these courses.

Paul Levinson identified the uniqueness of online courses: "The answer lies in the intensity of learning that takes place in a course continuously in session on-line -- a course in which students can constantly log on with their thoughts, comments and questions, and read not only what the faculty member has to say, but, in some ways even more valuable, what all other students have to say as well." [1]

Bringing New Life Blood

There was evidence that learning through technology would be popular. David Osborneís article "Laptop U" describes how the computer revived a small dying college, Minnesota-at-Crookston.[2] Located just 100 miles south of the Canadian border, Minnesota-at-Crookston was on the verge of closure, when Chancellor Don Sargent developed a program to make it technologically proficient. He installed computers everywhere. Each student was given a laptop that could be plugged into any desk in every classroom.

When Sargent started the overhaul, only about 20% of the faculty backed him; another 20% were against the idea; and 60% were undecided. Some thought the changes would drive students away and that the costs would bankrupt the school. But that is not what happened. Enrollment increased, and the school prospered and continues to prosper to this day.

Asking the Right Question

But despite these models of success, the question still often posed is whether computers have a proper place in education -- whether they can teach.

Neil Postman and Clifford Stoll have eloquently written the opposing views on these developments. Postman correctly notes that when we introduce new technologies we may gain something, but we also lose something. [3] Plato, after all, was concerned that the use of written materials would interfere with a personís development of memory. Stoll believes that the new technologies take away some of the "pain" involved in learning. [4] He believes that the worn catalog card in a library index gives the learner a feeling for the way that other people have studied an issue.

But given the evidence, it would seem that a more relevant question would be how computers for education can best be used to enhance learning in all children. We have answered that question in the military and in NASA, where high-quality simulation programs are used for training. The airline industry is an example from the private sector, as they use cost-productive cockpit flight simulators to help their pilots master flying new aircraft.

Tailoring Usage to Learners

How can computers best be used in education? Successful approaches vary from hands-on experiments with actual objects to text-based messages, depending on the sophistication of the learner.

For example, to describe a worm to a preschooler may require a trip to the garden to dig up a worm; by school age, however, a good picture of the worm is enough; and, in a high school biology lab, black-and-white lines may easily define the worm for the student. The more sophisticated the learner, the more stylized the symbol can be.

Illustrations, photographs and audio segments need not be online for more sophisticated learners. Thus, rather low-cost computers can provide a wide range of online text-based education for sophisticated learners. The cost of more expensive multimedia programs for early learners may be offset by the forthcoming array of mixed-media technologies coming into the home.

Having these technologies in the home is not a far-fetched fantasy. In the last 20 years we have seen numerous communication and information technologies gradually creep into our homes.

If we were to ask the average ten-year-old to describe her home, she would likely describe TVs, telephones, an answering machine, an intercom, radios, audiotapes, videotapes, and electronic games including video games. She would know what she wanted to watch on TV and how to work the VCR, often more ably than her parents. From the age of two or younger she would have been manipulating these technologies. In more than 50% of our homes she would also describe a computer.

Look of the 21st Century Classroom

We are already beginning to see mixed-media technologies in the home. Many PBS and commercial TV programs now advertise companion World Wide Web sites. PBS MathLine, for example, also offers videotapes and online services. Web-dedicated set-top boxes attached to both a phone line and the TV can now connect the viewer to the corresponding interactive Web site. Digital technologies are rapidly linking TV, computers, and communication networks into a common ribbon of resources. These technologies are at a point where we can envision what the 21st century classroom might be like and the many adjustments that will need to be made.

For example, in the future we may see online courses increase the efficiency of education. The ability of teachers and students to be online for extended periods may mean that content will be covered more deeply and rapidly than ever before. Already, many high school students have enrolled in advanced-placement and college-level courses online. This trend may eventually reduce the cost of higher education while empowering students to guide their own learning agendas. Many colleges and universities advertise quality in their online instructional services parallel to their traditional campus-based courses. Administrators will have to find a reliable way to give credit for online courses.

People who hazard to predict the future are usually wrong because they underestimate the advances that will be made. (In the 1890s people were predicting that there might be a telephone in every village in the United States by the year 2000!) Like our ancestors, we do not have the wisdom to predict the extent of progress, but there is certainly reason for confidence that telecommunications technologies will expand and improve education over the next 25 years. If present trends continue, it seems not unreasonable to expect that digital technologies will have an impact on our classrooms proportionate to that of writing and the printing press.

Raymond Kurzweil estimates that since World War II the power of the computer has doubled 32 times. [5] The story is reminiscent of the king who granted a mathematicianís "modest" request: give the mathematician an amount of rice equal to the doubling of grains one time for every square on a chess board, beginning with a single grain. As you may recall, by the time each squareís worth of rice was doubled, it took the rice production of the entire world to meet the mathematicianís request.

There is no indication that the rate of advancement in the computer world is slowing down. We may well assume that we havenít seen anything yet.

The Public Trust

The nation that invests in its youth and teachers by giving them the tools to search for information, retrieve information, communicate information and make decisions based upon such exchanges will dominate the world. This is the public confidence. The Public Agenda Research organization reports that eight out of ten people believe that computers are "essential elements" for school children. [6]

If the 19th century was the age of machines and the 20th century was the age of global transportation, the 21st century will go down as the age of the mind, the brain and telecommunications.

Those who have the skills and knowledge to navigate cyberspace will participate fully in the global village of the future. It is to them that prosperity will belong. Let there be no place in the United States that, by withholding technology, denies children passage to the farthest edges of their greatest potential.

Frank Withrow is a 14-year member of T.H.E. Journalís Editorial Board. Withrow has been working in technology education for more than 45 years. He initiated in work with language-disabled children, and has been a teacher at all levels of education including graduate school. Withrow pioneered the use of technology in video and single-concept films. He has worked at the private school level, the state level and federal levels of education, and has represented the U.S. in a number of international forums. At the U.S. Department of Education, Withrow was the director of television programming, basic skills and technology, and was the regional program manager for the Star Schools program. He has published widely and has film, video, and computer program credits.

Email: [email protected]


  1. Levinson, Paul, Analog Magazine, March 1997.
  2. Osborne, David, "Laptop U," The Washington Post Magazine, February 2, 1997.
  3. Postman, Neil, The Disappearance of Childhood, New York, NY: Vantage Books, 1994.
  4. Stoll, Clifford, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Super Highway, First Edition, New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996.
  5. Kurzweil, Raymond, Keynote Speaker, ITTE/NSBA Conference, Dallas, Texas, 1994.
  6. Public Agenda Report, editor Deborah Wadsworth, New York, NY: Public Agenda Research, 1996.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.