Computing Our Way to Educational Reform

Illustration by J. T. Morrow

The New Media and Learning

With this issue we inaugurate a series
of articles on the new media and
learning, drawn from a conference
sponsored by The
American Prospect

on June 4th at the
MIT Media

The aim of the conference and the
series is to explore whether the new technologies offer
genuine promise for improvements in learning or are
merely a diversion from the real problems of
education, and to ask what approaches to policy and the new technologies hold the most promise. In
addition to the authors of articles in this issue, the
conference featured:

  • Congressman Edward Markey of
    Massachusetts on why the Federal Communications Commission
    should adopt an "e-rate" under the Telecommunications
    Act of 1996 that would make a basic level of internet access free to schools;
  • Mitchell Kapor, who served on the President's National Information Infrastructure
    Advisory Council before resigning in protest, on what went wrong with the NII initiative;
  • Seymour Papert on the use of computers for fundamental change in education;
  • Sherry Turkle on how learning about computers may affect our thinking
    about other things; and
  • Howard Gardner and Shirley Veenema on multimedia
    and new ideas about cognition and learning.

Audiotapes of the conference are available for order
online or by calling 1-800-872-0162.

Support for both the
conference and publication of these
articles comes from the Spencer
Foundation of Chicago.

There is little talk in America these days of bold new public initiatives;
public money is scarce, and faith in public remedy even scarcer. One
notable exception is new technology and education. Bill Clinton's
challenge to connect all of America's schools to digital networks by
the end of the 1990s is the only initiative today that echoes, if only faintly, John
F. Kennedy's call to put an American on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Like the moon shot, linking America's classrooms to computer networks
appeals to a technological nationalism that seems beyond partisan politics:
Everyone—almost everyone—likes the idea of putting the U.S. first in the race
to the future. Thus in the same legislation widely heralded as deregulating
telecommunications, the Republican Congress and President Clinton were able
this year to agree on regulatory requirements for universal service that for the
first time include affordable connections for schools.

Yet past efforts to improve education with better technology have generally
not lived up to the promises made for them. In the eyes of skeptics, the current
enthusiasm for computers is the triumph of hope over experience—or worse, it
reflects a persistent infatuation with technological fixes for deeply rooted social
problems. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the new initiatives on the
basis of such a reading of the past. The new media are different from the
earlier technologies, even from computers as they were introduced into
education, and these differences improve the odds of substantial change. The
computer revolution of earlier decades has now turned into a communications
revolution and opened up important new possibilities for learning. The new
media, moreover, are becoming essential to intellectual and artistic expression
and scientific work. As the entire world of communication and knowledge is
transformed, it becomes inconceivable to leave education out.

Of course, computers are now integral to work of all kinds, and public support
for educational technology reflects an appreciation of that inescapable fact.
Many parents want the schools to use computers for the same reason that
often influences their purchases at home: They believe that computers will help
prepare children for good jobs and careers. In fact, workers with computer
skills do enjoy higher earnings. Instead of deploring the interest in
computers—"I know a false god when I see one," the critic Neil Postman
writes of computers in his recent book, The End of Education—reformers
should regard the popular support for new technology as an opportunity for
positive change.

The question is what form innovation may take. Some critics—such as Lewis
J. Perelman, the author of School's Out, a 1992 book popular in Newt
Gingrich's high-tech, free market circles—believe that the new technology
demands the end of school as we know it. The new media and schooling are
incompatible, they say, and schooling must go. This is a setup for failure;
Americans are not ready to abandon the very idea of school, nor should they.
But there are important changes in schools worth making, some of which have
been on the agenda of reformers ever since progressive educators first
proposed them early in the twentieth century. Ironically, the continued diffusion
and evolution of the new technologies may finally help to bring those reforms


Forecasts of technological change often fail, Anthony Oettinger observes,
because an innovation is not yet "ripe." Failed predictions may convince many
people it will never work, but then it ripens—its costs fall, its limitations are
overcome, it suddenly matches the demands of a market or the needs of an
institution—and everything changes.

The history of education in the twentieth century is littered with mistaken
forecasts of technological revolutions in education. In 1913, Thomas Edison
predicted that books would "soon be obsolete in the schools" because of
motion pictures. Similar predictions of epochal change in education
accompanied the diffusion of radio in the 1920s and '30s and television in the
1950s. In Teachers and Machines, published in 1986, the educational
historian Larry Cuban argues that these expectations were repeatedly
disappointed, despite effort and investment, not for the reasons that advocates
usually cited—poor implementation, insufficient money, resistance by
teachers—but because of a more fundamental obstacle: the logic of the

Every day teachers confront enormous problems in accomplishing their
objectives, including just managing their students. "The tools that teachers have
added to their repertoire over time (e.g., chalkboard and textbooks) have
been simple, durable, flexible, and responsive to teacher-defined problems in
meeting the demands of daily instruction," Cuban observes. In contrast,
movies, radio, and television typically required a lot of setup work and
advance scheduling and did not necessarily mesh with lesson plans.
Administrators and reformers also initiated change from the top down without
engaging teachers as active participants. As a result, except for a few
enthusiasts, teachers have tended to use movies and broadcast media only to
supplement regular classes and break up routines of instruction.

Computers originally seemed destined to go through the same cycle of
enthusiasm and disappointment, eventually to be relegated to the margins of
education. Broadly speaking, educational computing has gone through three
phases. In the first, from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s, the principal
interests were the development of computer-assisted instruction (CAI) and the
teaching of computer programming. Though often ridiculed as mere "electronic
flashcards," CAI had a more sophisticated conception as an approach that
could customize instruction according to individual needs and allow students to
pace themselves. After stirring initial excitement, the approach drew increasing
criticism in the 1960s and '70s and had relatively little impact on the
educational mainstream. As of 1980, according to a review by the Educational
Testing Service, most computer education in secondary schools "consisted
primarily of teaching white middle-class males to write programs in the BASIC

The impetus for CAI originated primarily outside of the schools. As was
generally true of computers and computer science, the military was the chief
sponsor of research, contributing three-fourths of all the research funds for
educational technology up through the early 1980s. Perhaps the most highly
publicized project that grew out of defense research was PLATO
("Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations"), based at the
University of Illinois and owned by the Control Data Corporation, which
hoped to build a business educating students all over the world from its central
computers. By 1981, Control Data had 115 "learning centers" in the United
States, making it the largest computer-based instructional system. Because of
its cost, however, PLATO was rarely used by schools; the orientation was
chiefly toward technical training. Control Data ultimately lost nearly a billion
dollars on PLATO, a failure that became emblematic of dashed hopes in
computer-based education.

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The second phase of development began roughly in the early 1980s with the
spread of personal computers, graphical user interfaces, and general
applications software. Between 1981 and 1991, the proportion of schools
with computers rose from 18 percent to 98 percent, and the number of
students per computer fell from 125 to 18. Instead of just offering specialized
courses in programming, schools incorporated computing into many subjects
and activities. Still, computers were typically located only in special
laboratories (as most still are today), and student time on computers averaged
only slightly more than an hour per week or about 4 percent of instructional
time. At the secondary level, most such instruction took the form of courses in
"computer literacy"; at the primary level, computers were typically used for
"integrated learning systems" that provided drill-and-practice in basic skills.
None of this much affected the core curriculum or general educational
experience. In an article called "Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom
Wins," Cuban could still argue in 1993 that computers were likely to continue
to have limited impact and might be expected to become more significant only
in primary schools because of their greater flexibility in classroom structure.

Illustration by J. T. Morrow

By this second phase, however, computers were already deviating significantly
from the pattern followed by earlier technologies. Much of the interest in
computers was coming bottom-up from teachers and students, not merely
top-down from administrators. PCs and general applications software made
computing more flexible and easily adapted to different subjects and styles of
teaching. Unlike motion pictures, radio, and TV, computers were far more
susceptible to both student-centered and teacher-defined activities. And as
computers began to be used for communication and the development of new
learning communities, they took on an entirely different character from the
earlier technologies.

These possibilities are all being extended in a third phase of development that
has begun in the 1990s with the advent of multimedia, the explosive growth of
the Internet and the World Wide Web, and the transformation of computing
from a segregated activity into a ubiquitous part of the everyday work, school,
and home environment. If, as Cuban argues, teachers adopt tools that are
"simple, durable, flexible, and responsive to teacher-defined problems in
meeting the demands of daily instruction," computers now increasingly meet
those minimum requirements—but, obviously, they can also do much more.


To some critics, the problem with computers has not been the obstacles to
their adoption, but the effects on education if they are adopted.
Computer-based education, critics have worried, would value "calculation"
and "instrumental reason" over the emotional, aesthetic, and critical faculties. It
would mechanize education, reduce its personal character, and lead students
to become engrossed in relations with machines instead of developing relations
with teachers and other students.

The first phase of educational computing with its emphasis on teaching
machines gave some reason for this concern. But alongside the model of the
computer as tutor there grew up another paradigm of educational computing
that emphasized creative, student-centered learning. As the former reflected
the didactic tradition of education, so the latter reflected the approach
advocated by John Dewey and other exponents of progressive education,
which views students as actively shaping their own understanding and teachers
as facilitating that process. During the 1980s, this constructivist approach to
computing, best exemplified in the work of Seymour Papert of MIT, became
more prominent.

In addition, the culture that grew up around Apple's Macintosh computer
offered humanist critics a more comfortable aesthetic that celebrated creativity,
self-expression, and individuality—not calculation. The Mac's graphical user
interface reversed the whole premise of "computer literacy"; instead of making
students sophisticated enough to use computers, it made computers simple
enough for students to use. The predominance of Macs in schools may have
resulted from Apple's corporate strategy, but it also fit with a preference for
dealing with the computer, not as an analytical engine, but as a tool useful for a
variety of tasks, projects, and activities. Feared originally as an educational
straightjacket, the computer turned out in many of its uses to be a new medium
of expression—like writing or painting.

Of course, one virtue of the computer is that it can become, as computing
pioneer Alan Kay writes, "any and all existing media, including books and
musical instruments." And with the advent of multimedia, the computer has
evolved into a distinctive medium that is uniquely capable of juxtaposing text,
images, audio, and video. Multimedia permits an extraordinary flexibility in
conveying concepts—through words, pictures, and sounds, as something that
can be built or played as well as read or watched. The connections change old
genres and make possible new ones. The traditional dictionary had a
cumbersome and inadequate method to describe the pronunciation of words;
the multimedia dictionary pronounces them. New genres, such as simulation
games, are emerging that challenge the user or player to build some complex
creation—a city, species, business, or world—out of some given set of
resources, or that put the student into a simulated environment or through a
scenario to meet a challenge or learn a skill. The computer thereby turns the
passive reader into a participant; it cues the student of a need to do something,
but not necessarily what to do. With multimedia the computer draws on more
of the senses, and more dimensions of intelligence, enlarging the opportunity to
learn for those who have been less able to learn from conventional teaching
materials. And as the tools for creating multimedia become less expensive,
students will make multimedia fully their own by creating work that exploits its
new aesthetic and intellectual possibilities.

Multimedia has such stunning possibilities that it invites a fascination with
technical virtuosity and surface effects that can become a distraction from
learning. New software that combines learning and play has blurred the
boundaries between them in a new hybrid variety, "edutainment." The very
term expresses perfectly both the opportunity to turn education into play and
the danger of learning being lost amid the games and the glitter. It is one thing
to play at something; another to reflect upon it and acquire a discipline.
Software that is good for play may not be good for learning in the full sense.
Much educational software also just renders on a computer screen what is
already available in books and merely adds gimmickry. But some uses of the
new media are genuinely inspired, provocative, and engaging, and these
examples suggest that that we have opened an important new chapter in the
history of the imagination—and of education.

The transformation of computers into a medium of two-way
communication also advances the creative and exploratory uses of
the technology. Access to the Internet and the Web puts students in
reach of resources and people that schools could never before
provide. Even if the Internet consisted only of texts and images, it would be of
immense value as it becomes the world's largest library. But it also increasingly
provides access to audio and video archives, which conventional libraries
generally do not offer. Hypertext links offer pathways that allow the novice to
find connections among different sources, and the growing search capacities
on the Web make it an increasingly powerful instrument of research.

And, of course, the Internet provides not simply published resources, but also
cyberspaces—news groups and other forums for discussion; MUDs for role
playing and simulation; and new learning networks that help connect students,
teachers, and others for a widening variety of purposes. Electronic networks
enable students and teachers to combine resources and communities and to
work with one another in novel ways. Groups of students at different schools,
even in different countries, work together on collaborative projects, comparing
the results of environment studies or cross-cultural surveys and thereby
learning not only the subject at hand but also other skills in social
relationships—just the kind of learning that the early critics of teaching
machines were afraid computers would stifle.

Through distance learning, both students and teachers can take courses in
special subjects not locally available. In a recent article in the American
Journal of Physics
(December 1995), Edwin F. Taylor and Richard C.
Smith—two physicists who since 1986 have been teaching online courses on
relativity to a mix of students and teachers from high schools and
colleges—report that they have equally good results teaching online as in
person. Their first two conclusions contradict the usual expectations:

  1. The computer conference setting can be personal, friendly and inclusive.
    The medium is largely race-neutral, location-neutral, status-neutral,
    age-neutral, income-neutral, disability-neutral, and would be
    gender-neutral except for the clue of first names. Student participation in
    the discussion (in part forced by our course format) is greater than in
    any of our face-to-face classes. Some kinds of personal warmth appear
    to be more freely exchanged in the absence of bodies.
  2. Computer conference classes bring instruction to a range of students for
    whom enrollment in conventional courses is difficult or impossible.
    Participation can occur conveniently at any time in a busy daily
    schedule. Some students blossom when in front of a computer screen
    and accomplish tasks that they otherwise would avoid. . . .

Taylor and Smith also recognize some drawbacks in the online format—for
example, students don't receive visual cues from teachers—and they are not
suggesting that online instruction will replace ordinary teaching. Their online
students are a special, self-selected group. But many students and teachers
have special interests; schools traditionally have just had little way of meeting

Long before computers, progressive educators called for strengthening the
contact between school and the society beyond. Computer communications
make such contacts, at whatever physical distance, easier and less costly. For
example, students now take electronic field trips to enter into discussions with
people in specialized fields of work, to view exhibits, even to use the cameras
and other physical instruments that are now being connected to the Web and
that will increasingly enable students in real time to enter into events at a
distance and to participate in scientific experiments.

The Web is beginning to transform the practice of scientific research as it
becomes a system for publishing not only scientific literature, but also scientific
data. Genetic, meteorological, geographic, and census data are readily
available to be downloaded and analyzed. Some journals are linking articles,
data, and bibliographies, enabling a reader to jump back from the text to the
original data or sources on which they are based. With the benefit of
"applets"—software programs available on the network usable for specific
purposes—readers will increasingly be able to redo the analysis or to extend
it. Thus, an article about supernovas can include a simulation of a supernova
explosion, along with tools that allow the reader to see the simulation run under
different assumptions. In short, the Web is emerging not simply as a digital
library, but also as a digital laboratory—a genuinely revolutionary development
in science.

In the light of these developments, the history of educational
computing takes on a different significance. Evaluations of the
"effects of computers," whether in education or other areas, have
had a short half-life because the very nature of computing has
changed so fundamentally with the development of PCs, the introduction of
graphical user interfaces, the advent of multimedia, and the explosion of
computer communications. Cost-benefit analyses of educational computing
compared to conventional teaching have been particularly prone to
obsolescence because of the declining costs of computing, especially relative
to teaching. And the value of early efforts in educational computing was not
measurable in the short run because the benefits did not only involve what
students learned. They also involved what everyone else learned. The early
efforts helped American software designers and developers as well as schools
and teachers to begin climbing a learning curve far ahead of other societies.
Today educational software is largely an American industry. The Internet and
the Web, while global in scope, also reflect America's distinctive edge.

Some evidence suggests that current technology already offers benefits in the
narrow sense of measured student learning. The "Kickstart Initiative," the final
report by President Clinton's Advisory Council on the National Information
Infrastructure, cites studies showing that "technology supporting instruction
[has] improved student outcomes in language arts, math, social studies and
science"; that "multimedia instruction—compared to more conventional
approaches—[has] produced time savings of 30 percent, improved
achievement and cost savings of 30 to 40 percent" and demonstrated "a direct
positive link between the amount of interactivity provided and instructional
effectiveness"; and that "remedial and low-achieving students" have registered
"gains of 80 percent for reading and 90 percent for math when computers
were used to assist in the learning process." I would not stake my life on these
numbers. But even approximately equal results for computer-based education
would amply justify further investment given the trajectory of costs, and in any
event the more important uses of technology now extend and enliven education
and discovery in ways that such studies do not capture.

The skeptics are surely right, however, that the "learning revolution," as the
magazines call it, still has not had any general influence on schools. The many
high-end uses of the new technology, like online courses in relativity, are
appropriate for advanced secondary and college work but do not address the
general needs of primary and secondary education. The market for educational
software is growing rapidly, but many students, especially from middle-class
families, are more likely to use it at home than at school, while students from
low-income families never use it at all. New educational sites on the Internet
appear daily but don't affect most classrooms. The challenge now is to go from
scattered initiatives to more comprehensive changes. And that is what many
reformers are trying to do by combining new technology with an educational
reform agenda—one that progressives of the 1920s would have no trouble


Reports and commentary on education now often argue that as our current
system of schooling reflects the industrial age, so we need a new approach to
learning in the information age. Thus a report published in 1995 by the
National Academy of Sciences, Reinventing Schools: The Technology Is
, says postindustrial society "calls for a new, postindustrial form of
education" — one that puts students in a more central, active role in their own
learning, helps them learn "to ask many questions and to devise multiple
approaches to a problem" instead of forcing them to come up "with one right
answer," and encourages "critical thinking, teamwork, compromise, and
communication." Similarly, the Clinton administration's "Kickstart Initiative"
foresees innovation that "brings the world to the classroom," "enables students
to learn by doing," and "allows educators to become guides and coaches to
students, rather than be 'the sage on the stage.'" On the right, Lewis J.
Perelman, the author of School's Out, wants to empower students to seek out
instruction individually in the electronic marketplace. While significantly
different, all these proposals call for use of technology to advance
student-centered, project-based approaches to learning.

To anyone familiar with the history of educational reform, such ideas will have
a familiar air. For example, in the opening pages of The Child-Centered
(1928), one of the classics of progressive education, Harold Rugg and
Ann Shumaker decry traditional schooling as a product of the industrial age
and "mass mind." They use two photographs in the book's frontispiece to
represent the contrast between "the new and the old in education." One photo
shows a class of students at their desks ("Eyes front! Arms folded! Sit still!"),
which Rugg and Shumaker call the old "listening" regime. A second photo
shows students in small groups busily working on different projects
("Freedom! Pupil initiative! Activity! A life of happy intimacy . . ."). This was
the image of the future in the 1920s, and though the tools and terminology have
changed, it is still the image of the educational future that many reformers hold
up today.

Perhaps the absence of acknowledgments by today's reformers is
understandable. For those who claim to be anticipating a new era, old
antecedents are embarrassing. Moreover, what progressive education
achieved in the first half of the twentieth century—the expansion of the
curriculum, addition of extracurricular activities, greater flexibility and mobility
in elementary school classrooms, improved teacher training, child study teams,
changes in school architecture to provide for more varied activities, and much
else—is now taken for granted, and the movement is better remembered for
its failings. Progressive education collapsed during the 1950s because it had
lost its way and then ran into a storm of distorted charges. Taken over by
professionals, it became encrusted as an ideology of the teachers colleges.
From one direction, conservatives accused progressivism of subversive
tendencies on the basis of its old entanglements with the left; from another
direction, liberal critics accused it of promoting conformity and
anti-intellectualism. Perhaps progressive education had to die to be shorn of all
the extraneous baggage it had accumulated.

In their concern for active, student-centered learning and communication with
the wider world, today's technological neoprogressives have revived an old
and worthy tradition. And by connecting progressive ideas with computers,
they may have finally found a way not only to present them in an appealing,
updated form, but also to make them work. For the difficulty with the ideal of
active, student-centered education was not simply the opposition it aroused,
but the demands it imposed on teachers and schools. The new technology may
help manage those demands.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the introduction of computers into
classrooms promotes a greater emphasis on projects, with teachers acting as
guides and students taking on a central role in their own learning. Alan Collins,
head of educational technology at BBN Corporation, an internet services
company for businesses, identifies eight major shifts that research suggests
computers bring about in education—all of them moving in the direction of
progressivism. Among these are a "shift from whole-class to small-group
instruction" and "from lecture and recitation to coaching." When computers are
introduced, Collins argues, teachers find it hard to keep students in "lockstep"
and so adopt more "individualized" approaches. A study of the Apple
Classrooms of Tomorrow found that teacher-led activities dropped from 70
percent in classes without computers to less than 10 percent in classes with
computers, and that activities facilitated by teachers, rather than directed by
them, increased from about 20 percent to 50 percent of class time. Other
trends, according to Collins, include shifts "toward more engaged students,"
"from a competitive to a cooperative social structure," "from all students
learning the same things to different students learning different things," and
"from the primacy of verbal thinking to the integration of visual and verbal

The new technology alone does not determine these effects. Schools with
different cultures and philosophies will make use of computers, like other tools,
in different ways. A school wedded to the didactic approach can use
integrated learning systems to reinforce conventional teaching methods. A
constructivist approach isn't easy; it requires a great deal of institutional
support. In a recent study of nine sites pursuing an educational reform agenda
emphasizing "student-centered, curriculum-rich, technology-based projects,"
Barbara Means and her colleagues at SRI, a California research organization,
found that the key factor in determining success was a coherent, schoolwide
instructional vision.

One factor that in the long run may help advance this approach is cost. For the
immediate future, the cost of technology is an obstacle to large-scale plans for
change. The National Academy report says the technology is "now"—but,
alas, the money is not. The fundamental trends, however, are implacable. The
cost of labor only goes up, while the costs of computer power and
telecommunications go down—steadily and sharply. Computers will become
extremely cheap in the next century, and thus student-centered projects based
on computers will be far less expensive than today. The obstacle to more
individualized instruction and smaller classes has always been the cost of
employing additional teachers. But if additional teaching comes inexpensively
from computers, individualized education is more feasible. By occupying some
of the students, computers can reduce the number of students teachers need to
supervise at any given moment. This amounts to a reduction in effective class
size. Moreover, according to Collins, unlike teachers in conventional classes,
who tend to call on stronger students, teachers in classes with computers
spend relatively more of their time with weaker students.

The use of computers can also help address another obstacle to
change—standardized achievement tests. The new technology may encourage
some change in assessment methods, but the present system will likely remain
for such critical purposes as college admissions. To prepare students for those
tests, schools can make use of the more didactic forms of computer-based
education without organizing their whole program on that basis.

As technology may help create effectively smaller classes, so it may also
strengthen the case for smaller schools. Empirical studies indicate that
students in large schools take part in fewer school activities, identify less with
the school, and have lower scores on achievement tests than do students in
modest-sized schools. Deborah Meier, a principal in East Harlem and an
advocate of smaller schools, argues that small size permits closer relations
among administrators, teachers, and students and thereby fosters the kind of
unified educational vision that researchers have repeatedly identified as a key
to successful schools. In a small school, students are less likely to be lost amid
the throng. The creation of little schools within the framework of public
education makes diversity and school choice accessible on an equal and local

Of course, modest-sized schools can be created from big ones without any
help from technology. But the new media may help mitigate some of their
shortcomings and improve the trade-offs. Many parents are concerned that
smaller schools may not be able to offer as great a diversity of courses.
Computer learning networks can provide them. As a small school can create a
strong local learning community, so online communities can help students
widen their contacts and affiliations—offering the best of both worlds. And just
as computers help small businesses by enabling them to perform complex
services that used to require large bureaucracies, so the new technology can
help small schools manage their affairs.

Computers and computer communications may also have particular value for
alleviating some sources of inequality. Computer communications enable
people with disabilities to gain access to resources otherwise unavailable and
to take part in groups without hindrance or stigma. Similarly, computer
networks improve access to educational resources for those in small
communities and rural areas. For the same reason, they may be especially
valuable for those who seek to continue their education while working at a job.
Members of racial and ethnic minorities may learn more through interactive
software or online services because they sense no stigma or disapproval.
Social psychologists Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler have found in experimental
research that lower-status participants in electronic discussions are less
inhibited and more likely to speak up than when communicating face-to-face.
Thus, the very groups that now lag in the use of computers and computer
communications may especially benefit from access to them.

Of course, nothing guarantees that computers will be used for progressive
purposes. Conservatives would like nothing better than to use the
technological limitations of schools as a rationale for privatizing the schools or
substituting a kind of high-tech home schooling. Inevitably, choices about
technology become entangled in larger choices about politics.


The use of computers and the Internet is now expanding rapidly, but with
marked disparities between rich and poor school districts. In 1995, according
to a U.S. Department of Education survey, half of public schools had at least
some internet access, up from 35 percent in 1994; and while only 9 percent of
classrooms were connected, that was up from 3 percent a year earlier. A
student in an affluent community is roughly twice as likely as one in a poor
community to attend a school with internet access.

Students are now using computers differently from in the past. The computer
laboratory, typically set up for computer literacy and programming courses, is
evolving into general-purpose computer work area where students can do
projects of all kinds, including internet work. For most schools, according to
the SRI study, concentrating computers in a laboratory is still the most efficient
way to provide maximum access to a limited number of machines; distributing
computers through classrooms optimally requires at least 6 to 8 computers for
a class of 25 to 35 students. At present rates of growth, the average school in
the United States should approach that roughly one-to-four ratio around the
turn of the century.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act made it a matter of national policy that
schools receive "affordable" access to telecommunications. The legislation sets
a new precedent by linking communications policy and education; the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) will now determine the exact obligations
of the telecommunications industry in the subsidy of school connections. Cost
estimates vary, depending on the assumed level of access and whether the
estimates include the cost of the computers themselves. There is a wide range
of possibilities between providing a school with a dial-up account for one
computer and creating a high-bandwidth network linking computers on every
student's and teacher's desktop. As platforms change, the standard for
universal school service is likely to evolve. In the near term, if every school
were to have a local area network, 60 new computers, a router, and a local
server—with every district, or 4 to 6 schools, having a high-bandwidth (T-1)
connection to the Internet—such a system, according to a 1994 Department
of Education study, would run between $9 billion and $22 billion in onetime
costs (about half of which would pay for the initial purchase of computers) and
$1.75 billion to $4.61 billion annually. Of the annual costs, roughly a quarter
would go for the telecommunications lines and internet service; so if only those
are cross-subsidized, the schools would still be left with very large costs
indeed. The FCC is exploring whether to set aside spectrum to provide
schools wireless connections, which could particularly help to minimize indirect
costs, such as asbestos removal, from retrofitting school buildings.

Schools in affluent districts may be able to raise these costs in local taxes.
Some districts (such as my own in Princeton) have already benefited from
partnerships with universities and businesses in making the transition to
networked schools. But even with the most supportive telecommunications
policies and voluntary support, schools in low-income communities will almost
certainly need additional financing from the states or federal government to
shoulder the required investments. Otherwise there seems little prospect that
inequalities among schools or communities will soon diminish.

In principle, the falling cost of computers and bandwidth should increase
opportunities for lower-income groups and communities. So far, however,
possession of computers (and of network connections) has continued to grow
more rapidly among high-income than among low-income households, thus
widening the disparities, according to a recent RAND analysis of changes in
computer ownership from 1989 to 1993. Eventually, if histories of the
telephone, radio, and television are accurate precedents for the computer, the
diffusion of computer communications will tend toward universality. But the
transition could take a long time—decades. In the meantime, many groups will
be disconnected from a communication network of growing value, and we will
all lose the benefit of "network externalities"—the increased value of a network
to each user as others are connected. For example, the value of computer
communications to schools increases as teachers are able to reach more of the
parents of their students and as more students can use the systems from home.
Hence the rationale for using public policy to accelerate the transition to
universal electronic communication for both community institutions and
households in low-income areas. Schools and libraries seem to be the only
institutions for which such support is now politically obtainable; they may take
on larger significance by opening up access for families as well as the children

The schools need not only cheap connectivity, but also low-cost access to
content. Currently, the Web provides free access to enormous amounts of
information, but many sources are likely to be available only on a fee basis as
commercial transactions become customary. To be sure, governmental
sources, many nonprofit organizations, and schools themselves will continue to
offer publications and other resources for free. So will companies interested in
fostering long-term business. But many journals and other sources will be
available only at a price, and students will lose access to such sources unless
there are affordable site licenses and other arrangements for schools. The
development of online libraries providing free access to work in the public
domain and low-cost access to copyrighted material of educational value
should be a priority for both public and philanthropic support. What Carnegie
did a hundred years ago can now be accomplished more efficiently, for the
entire world.

As the cost of computers declines, schools will likely move from
computer laboratories to desktop computers distributed through
classrooms and then, in a further stage, toward more mobile forms
of computing. Voice activation will often obviate the need to sit
down at a keyboard; wireless will liberate the networked computer from its
place on the desktop. Increasingly, students and teachers may scarcely even
think of computing as a distinctive activity. Drawing an analogy with electricity,
Marc Weiser of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) suggests that a
truly powerful technology "disappears" from awareness and that the computer
of the future will assume diverse forms (tablets, pads, badges, whiteboards)
and be a ubiquitous but taken-for-granted part of the built environment.
Weiser envisions computers becoming so cheap that some would be left
around like scratch pads, the very opposite of the "personal" computer. Thus,
a computerized classroom in the future might not have students sitting at
keyboards and monitors; it could be a classroom where computing was both
ubiquitous and incidental, allowing students freedom to play and work with
one another while using the technology's extraordinary capacities.

But, of course, none of this will answer the truly important questions about
learning. Here Postman and the other skeptics are right. Ultimately, the
qualities of education that we care most about are not technological; they are
matters of educational philosophy and practice and in turn depend on broader
moral and political judgments. In thinking about education, we ought not to be
preoccupied with computers at all, and if the technological transition is
successful, we will not be. Because of all they make possible, we must make
computers part of education. Then they should "disappear."

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