In spite of new means for accessing and sharing information, today’s classrooms still reflect 19th century approaches to teaching and learning. For the most part, with the exception of early childhood education, teachers lecture and write lessons on blackboards while students memorize information and fill in multiple-choice bubbles on tests.
The ascendance of the computer and the appearance of global information networks, however, are likely to bring about educational change in many parts of the world and may even force change in the test-crazed United States. The rise of information economies and concomitant changes in the nature of work call for a different set of skills than was previously acceptable. Just-the-facts educational agendas that stress memorization are no longer viable. Schools need to teach students how to learn, ask good questions and make judgments in complex and often ambiguous cases.
Quality educational software, properly implemented, can help students grasp difficult-to-learn concepts, redefining our expectations of what children can do. Software provides learners of all styles and needs with a virtual toolkit for accessing information with much greater efficacy than predigital resources. For example, secondary school students can readily graph mathematical equations and manipulate variables to observe how they behave. Younger children can play with geometrical figures, rotating and transforming them to discover unexpected patterns that they can then try to describe and explain. With multimedia and hypermedia software, students and teachers can create exciting, interactive presentations that engage a learner through multiple senses.
Textbooks will be supplemented or even replaced by virtual reality and computer simulations that will allow for even more hands-on explorations of concepts. Children will be able to explore ideas and test out hypotheses on anything from plate tectonics and evolutionary theory to the spread of viruses, the fall of markets and the onset of political revolutions. In the future, commerce in ideas—at school, in business and in the professions—will no doubt require such facility with manipulating and conveying information through different forms of representation.
The Internet also promises to redefine the very nature of the classroom. Distance learning already offers sufficiently motivated students flexibility and control in advancing their skills and credentials, breaking the mold of the traditional schoolhouse. In the future, even mainstream classrooms will incorporate large portions of online instruction. In the class “Cognitive Development, Education and the Brain,” which we teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we have replaced our live “talking heads” with several dozen online video lectures that students can access and watch at their leisure. Students pause during lectures to take notes, repeat important or challenging sections, and return for viewing as often as they like. This opportunity is especially valuable for our international students for whom English is a second language, and those with learning problems. These lectures run the gamut: from visiting experts and interviews with noted scholars to introductions to the nervous system, learning pathologies and major theoretical ideas. Future generations will be able to listen to the great thinkers, leaders and creators of our time. Imagine being able to watch Einstein lecture on physics or Socrates discuss philosophy. These electronic archives don’t have to be hoarded by the wealthiest universities but can be shared with even the least affluent institutions in our country and abroad.
Of course, no one is advocating that technology should or can replace the very necessary human component of the learning process. Kids need to work with other kids and learn from real human beings, especially admirable role models. However, rather than isolate students (as many have feared), computers can be used to bring students together. For example, children with physical and emotional disabilities can often work on computers with ease, collaborating with nondisabled peers in mainstream classrooms and accomplishing goals that were previously inaccessible. Software that encourages exploration, inquiry and problem-solving can actually serve as catalysts for social interaction and cooperation: Engaged students talk excitedly as they discuss and build on one another’s ideas. On the other hand, “drill-and-kill” software may only encourage competition and turn-taking. Much will depend on the choice of technology and how it is used. Technology is not a panacea—it is a tool like any other in the classroom.
Another commonly voiced concern about technology in education is that an inequitable distribution will result in a “digital divide” between rich and poor. As technology becomes more affordable and accessible, however, the gap between haves and have-nots will shift to a deeper divide, between those who know how to use a computer more judiciously and pointedly, and those who merely use it to shop and play games. The critical variable is not who has the costliest and most cutting-edge equipment, but rather which schools are better able to apply the equipment they do have around learning agendas that matter.
Technology-driven change in education is unlikely to happen quickly. Excepting limited pockets of experimentation, education is an inherently conservative institution. This tendency is only exacerbated by society’s current focus on standards and high-stakes assessments, which place greater demands on educators and students without necessarily understanding or providing the means to achieve the sought-for ends. Only when the current text-and-test strategies prove both fruitless and costly will the way be open for meaningful reforms—and legislators in some states are already lowering the cutoff marks for passing the new tests rather than meeting with the harsh penalties of failure. New technologies will then exert their influence, once it is demonstrated that they improve performance on things that matter.
To accelerate the promise of educational technology and mitigate potential risks, educators, policy-makers and technologists need to talk. A quick look at countries that seem to educate successfully will reveal that what matters is not the quantity of technology but rather the uses to which technology is put. For example, in Japan, a technology-oriented country, there is little use of computers in the early years. That is because Japanese educators recognize how important the emotional and social aspects of education are in the first years of school.
The real issue is how shrewdly technology is used. Currently, the United States probably uses more technology in education than many other countries. But the often cosmetic application of computers to poorly designed goals and rigid assessments—while it may raise test scores slightly—is only undermining the love of learning and the development of genuine understanding.
Long ago, the invention of written language caused a revolution in education, changing both the way people thought about learning and the tools they had for making learning possible. Today, new information technologies should be doing the same. The future will not belong to those with the largest collections of facts but to those who understand how to use concepts, reasoning and imagination to spark novel insights and generate new knowledge. And honor will be conferred on those teaching entities—both human and electronic—that are most successful in producing lifelong learners and contributors to knowledge.