Across the History Curriculum. Part 8
“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” (John Dewey; American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer; 1859-1952.)
“Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed.” (Seymour Papert; South African/American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator; 1928-2016.)
“The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” (Marshall McLuhan; Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar; 1911-1980.) [Bold added for emphasis.]
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by McLuhan in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. His statement and ideas apply both to current computer technology and to written language developed more than 4,000 years ago. Both are powerful change agents.
I have been fortunate to live during and participate in a significant part of the history of computers in education. In addition, I have been interested in computers as an aid to problem solving, teaching, and learning throughout my professional career. A 1988 article I wrote with my colleague Karen Billings summarizes some of the history of computers in education up to that date (Billings & Moursund, Fall, 1988, link).
This and the following IAE Newsletter provide a brief introduction to Computer Assisted Learning (CAL). The term CAL is used very broadly to include all forms of online teaching and learning, no matter where or for what purpose it occurs. Most people use the term online to refer to using a device connected to/through the Internet. But, of course, one might be using a local area network that is not connected to the Internet. For example, consider a network serving employees in a “top secret, highly secure” building. Through this network they are only able to communicate in their building through the computer (the server) running the local area network.
I carry this definition one step farther. I have a large number of documents and software programs stored on my computer. For example, I have many Microsoft Word and Spreadsheet documents. When I use these for learning or academic writing purposes, I consider this to be online learning, even though I am not using the Internet or a local area network.
I assume you know quite a bit about using CAL in your everyday life. For example, when you deposit or withdraw money using an ATM, you are being instructed by the machine on the steps you must take. Eventually, you probably memorize the steps. If you make a mistake, the machine helps you to correct your error. This is a type of online instruction.
I do a lot of online purchasing. I begin by using the Web to get information about products that may fit my needs. This is a type of online learning. I then interact with a specific company, following the directions they provide. Again, this is an example of online learning combined with feedback if I do something incorrectly.
The current coronavirus pandemic has forced tens of millions of precollege students in the U.S. into a home school, online learning home schooling environment. Thus, if you are currently a teacher, there is a good chance you are making use of CAL materials with your students. This is occurring worldwide (Gonser, 4/8/2020, link). With schools closed in 185 countries, about 9 out of 10 students are out of school worldwide right now.
Using computers as an aid to learning is no longer a new concept. Educators have had more than 60 years of research, development, and use of CAL. In very brief summary, in many different settings we have substantial evidence that CAL is an effective aid to teaching and learning.
Both informal and formal education have very long histories of development and continuing improvement. Here is an amusing way to think about some progress in education that occurred before the development of CAL.
- Hands-on show and tell using grunts and gestures by prehumans who had not yet developed comprehensive oral language. Think about how prehumans about 3.3 million years ago helped others learn to make sharp rocks by flintknapping. It is likely this typically occurred in a one-on-one or very small group tutorial mode.
- Hands-on show and tell using a comprehensive oral language and storytelling. This has been going on for at least 90,000 years. (Historians are not sure when comprehensive oral language first developed.)
- Book assisted learning. Of course, this required the invention of written language, and students first had to learn both reading and writing. The development of mass produced, relatively inexpensive books beginning less than 580 years ago greatly broadened the use of book assisted learning.
- Audio assisted learning, Video assisted learning, and Audiovisual assisted learning. (Think about phonographs, tape recorders, motion pictures, radio, and TV.)
The technologies mentioned in the third and fourth bullets have contributed substantially to improving informal and formal education. However, there is research evidence suggesting weaknesses in our current efforts to improve our schools (Barshay, 6/27/2013, link):
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), test scores for 17 year old’s have not improved since the early 1970s. That is, the average 17 year old in 2012 got about the same score in reading and math (287 and 306, respectively) as a 17 year old in 1971 or 1973 did (285 and 304, respectively). Scores have bobbled up and down a point or two over the years, but, statistically speaking, they’ve been indistinguishable from each other.
I addressed this need to improve our schools in an earlier IAE Newsletter (Moursund, October, 2016:
More than ten years ago I read and later wrote about Robert K. Branson’s [seminal, 1987] article, Why Schools Can’t Improve: The Upper Limit Hypothesis (Branson, 1987). … In brief summary, Branson’s article presents the case that in 1987, schools in the U.S. were about as good as they were going to get without use of the new computer technologies. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Now, nearly 30 years since Branson’s 1987 article, we can look back over a great many years of national data on K-12 education and see that little progress is occurring in the overall quality of student performance in areas such as reading, writing, science, and math. Branson argued that our educational system was performing at approximately the 95% level of possible performance by the mid 1960s. All of our efforts to improve our educational system since then have had little effect on performance in reading, writing, science, and math.
Branson’s 1987 article argues that a paradigm shift—based on computer technology—would propel education to much higher levels of achievement. I developed the diagram in Figure 1 to illustrate the idea of a major paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is like starting anew from the level that has previously been achieved.
Figure 1. Paradigm shift (jump), opening room for more incremental change.
Moving from left to right, consider just the first curve in this diagram. A newly hired clerk begins working at the checkout counter in a store before it is computerized. The clerk gains speed and accuracy through memorizing prices on many items, getting better at using the scales and making change, and so on. Daily changes in some of the prices, such as for special sales, is an ongoing challenge. With practice, the clerk eventually becomes about as good as he or she can be.
There is a considerable change in all of these procedures when computer technology is installed. This technology includes a barcode scanner, automatic weight scale pricing, an automatic change dispenser, and ability of the store to process credit and debit cards. Every item for sale in the store is barcoded, and this leads to faster and more accurate data entry for each item sold. Nothing is to be gained by the clerk memorizing prices of some of the items, and there is no problem in dealing with price changes. The scanner input also leads to better control of inventory.
During the first few days while the clerk is learning to use the new computerized system, the clerk’s productivity is likely less than before. The second curve in Figure 1 shows a drop in productivity as the paradigm shift system is first used. Then the clerk’s productivity moves very quickly to a much higher level than it was before.
Here is an example of a paradigm shift in electronics. Before the invention of the transistor, vacuum tubes were an essential component of electronic equipment. Vacuum tubes (much like incandescent light bulbs) were relatively large, fragile, had a short life, and produced a lot of heat. Such tubes were gradually improved over time since their invention in the early1900s. However, it seemed likely that they were approaching their upper limit in the 1940s, just as electronic digital computers were beginning to be developed.
These early computers were machines that used many thousands of vacuum tubes. In essence, the developing computer industry was stymied by the power consumption and heat of the best tubes that could be produced. You may find it both instructional and amusing to read a little bit about the 18,000 vacuum tube ENIAC computer built in the United States during 1943-45. One interesting article is EINAC: 10 Things You Should Know About the Original Super Computer 65 Years Later (Wink, 2/15/2011, link):
The ENIAC contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, along with 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints. It covered 1,800 square feet (167 square meters) of floor space, weighed 30 tons, and consumed 160 kilowatts of electrical power.
The invention and development of transistors was a major paradigm shift in electronics. Beginning after the invention of the transistor in 1947, vacuum tubes rapidly gave way to transistors. Now, about 70 years later, a smartphone contains more than a billion transistors. Try to imagine your smartphone or computer as a machine containing a billion vacuum tubes, each the size of your thumb and each giving off 25 watts of heat. At ten cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity, the hourly cost of running such a machine would be about $2.5 million! This does not include the cost of the needed air conditioning. If this example makes you chuckle, just think of the size and weight of such a machine, or estimate how many railway freight cars it would take to carry it!
In the 1950s, as possibilities grew of a nuclear war, the United States decided to build a radar and computer-based early warning system. The Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) became operational in 1957. It was a very sophisticated computerized radar and communication system, spanning the northern part of Canada. The system included a type of instructional system whereby simulated threats or attacks could be displayed on the radar screen, and the human operators could interpret the displays and data, and take appropriate actions (Massey, 2018, link).
This was a very important instructional idea: the tool was designed to serve a specific purpose and also designed to help train its users. We now know that every computer tool can potentially be designed with these dual capabilities. For example, think of a computer game as a tool designed to help solve an entertainment problem. Typically, computer games are also designed to teach a user how to play the game.
Here is another example. Consider a computer program designed to teach computer keyboarding. A student keyboards content that is contained in computer memory and is displayed on the computer screen or on a piece of paper. The computer can determine keyboarding speed and accuracy, and provide that information as a report to the student (and, if the system is designed to do so, to a human instructor).
This type of computer as a keyboarding teacher is only a small step forward. But, the computer can also be programmed to keep track of the speed of each finger, each hand, and for each character on the keyboard. It can keep track of the types of errors that occur—for example, are one or two fingers making most of the errors, or are certain combinations of letters producing more than their share of the errors. A “smart” (artificially intelligent) program could then generate a new practice session for the student to keyboard that provided extra practice in these problem areas.
In summary, as computers have become more capable and less expensive over the years, we have developed a wide variety of computerized tools that have built-in tutoring capabilities. There is substantial research on the effectiveness of this combination. As computer tools become more and more effective aids to solving some of the problems addressed in the various academic disciplines, we will continue to see an increasing use of this type of embedded, interactive instruction.
Each discipline area that is taught in our schools addresses some of the problems inherent to that discipline. The value of computers as an aid to solving these problems varies considerably from one discipline to another. For many disciplines, this value has increased considerably over the years, often leading to quite substantial changes in method and/or content.
The new electronic methods of storage, processing, and retrieval of information have strongly affected every discipline of study. Some specific areas that have been substantially changed by ICT include marketing and advertising, graphic arts, writing and publishing, film making, research in all of the sciences and in many other areas, and so on.
For me, this situation suggests a number of important education questions. Here are a few:
- If a computer can solve or greatly help to solve a general category of problems that are currently considered important in a curriculum area, what should students be learning about using computers to solve these problems?
- If a computer can be shown to be an effective and cost effective aid to teaching content that is currently considered important in a curriculum area, how should this be reflected in the content, pedagogy, and assessment in this curriculum area?
- What should the teacher in any particular curriculum area know about and be able to effectively implement in the classroom based on widely agreed on answers to the first two questions?
The coronavirus pandemic with its school closures and home schooling has made it clear that there are extensive education-oriented inequalities in the United States and throughout the world. For many years, people have noted the inequalities of access to books in homes. An internet connected computer is a natural and now common extension of hardcopy books and other print material, and lack of online access has now become another serious inequality for many students.
I now believe that for children living in economically advantaged countries such as the United States, computer and connectivity access at home and in school should be considered an inalienable right (Moursund, 10/21/2018).
The next newsletter will delve more deeply into these questions and issues that are related to Computer Assisted Learning in our schools.
Barshay, J. (6/27/2013). High school test scores haven’t improved for 40 years; Top students stagnating. Education by the Numbers, The Hechinger Report. Retrieved 4/19/2020 from http://educationbythenumbers.org/content/high-school-test-scores-havent-improved-for-40-years-top-students-stagnating_251/.
Benjamin, L.T., Jr. (1988). A history of teaching machines. Free PDF file retrieved 4/25/2020 from https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=2ahUKEwjFyfHj9oTpAhVKpZ4KHVlr
Billings, K., & Moursund, D. (Fall, 1988). Computers in education: An historical perspective. SIGCUE Outlook. Retrieved 4/22/2020 from https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/382236.382854.
Gonser, S. (4/8/2020). What past education emergencies tell us about our future. Edutopia. Retrieved 4/22/2020 from https://www.edutopia.org/article/what-past-education-emergencies-tell-us-about-our-future?utm_source=Edutopia+
Massey, D. (2018). The DEW Line and other military projects. beatriceco.com. Retrieved 4/27/2020 from https://beatriceco.com/bti/porticus/bell/dewline.html.
Wink, C. (2/15/2011). ENIAC: 10 things you should know about the original super computer 65 years later. Technical.ly. Retrieved 4/19/2020 from https://technical.ly/philly/2011/02/15/eniac-10-things-you-should-know-about-the-original-modern-super-computer-65-years-later/.
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner). He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles.