The Education Challenge
Wm. A. Wulf
President, National Academy of Engineering
When I was first beginning to think about what remarks I would make at this meeting, a message came from Bill Spencer saying that he wanted presentations with ''bite." It just so happened that at the moment that the message arrived, I was re-reading the report of the subcommittee of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), on the use of technology to strengthen K-12 education. I have to admit that that report set my teeth on edge a little bit. So, what I will do is talk about why my teeth were on edge. In doing so I am speaking not as an educator but as a technologist; a computer scientist who has had the good fortune to participate in the development of information technology for many years.
At the surface level, the report says a lot of good things. It says that we should focus on learning with technology, not about technology. It says that we should emphasize content and pedagogy and not just hardware. It says that we should give special attention to professional development of teachers, engage in realistic budgeting, and so on. But as a bottom line, it recommends a massive program of deploying computers to elementary and secondary schools. I am not sure that current personal computer (PC) technology is the right technology to do that. I am not sure that the style in which computers have been used for education is appropriate. I am not sure that the business model of shrink-wrapped software is appropriate for education. I have deep concerns about whether once again we are spending before thinking. Moreover, we are spending as a "patch" to a broken system. Let me try to justify some of those remarks.
First of all, I deeply believe that there is enormous opportunity to improve education through the use of information technology, and that information tech-
nology will profoundly change our concepts of how to educate. I will try to give you an example of what I mean by that later. However, in nearly 40 years of observing the evolution of the use of computers in all fields of human endeavor, one of the things that jumps out at me is that the first use of computers is always to automate what we already do in the way that we already do it. The profound use of computers is always to do something differently—to do something that achieves the original goal, but does it in a different way.
I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in 1961 when there was a project in computer-aided instruction called Plato. Its underlying model was automated drill. Alas, that is still the model of most of the uses of computers in education. It has gotten fancier. We have been able to put some graphics in, and so forth, but automated drill is still, as acknowledged in the PCAST report, the predominant use. I do not mean to say that it does not help; it does. Test scores are improved through the use of automated drill, but we are not anywhere close to exploiting the opportunity that we have. So I worry that the deep thinking about the use of information technology in education has not yet been done. It seems to me that the base question is: ''Should we be using information technology to do what we already do, better? Or is there a better thing to do?" And again I would claim that the history of the use of computers in every other arena suggests the latter—there is a better thing to do!
I would also observe that the PC is a fairly expensive device. I do not think that we need anything like the power or storage capacity of a contemporary PC to do automated drill. Nor do we need the power of a PC to do perhaps what we could and should do. By the way, I am not going to claim that I have answers for what we should do. I simply have questions prompted by my looking at this as a technologist and seeing that the approach does not match my experience.
Let me give you an example. It is taken from higher education, but is suggestive. By way of introduction, about eight years ago, the president of my university asked me to chair a committee to develop a strategic plan for information technology and the university for the next 20 years. This is an absurd idea; no one has that much foresight about a technology that is moving so rapidly. It turns out, however, that the experience had a profound effect on me because on the committee there were a number of folks from the humanities departments who were moderately savvy users of information technology.
Frankly, going into that committee, my assumption was that the only things that humanists would be interested in is using computers as word processors. But I was wrong. In fact, I have come to believe that information technology will have a more profound impact on scholarship in the humanities over the next two decades than it will on science and engineering. What resulted from the chance encounter of savvy humanists and several of us computer scientists was the creation of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, which explores the use of information technology in humanistic scholarship.
Now for the promised example. It is an example from historical scholarship,
and information technology is having a profound impact on education in a way that none of us would have anticipated. One of the humanists on that original committee was Edward Ayers. Ed is a historian and, in particular, a historian of the U.S. Civil War period. Historiography, the methodology of historical research, has been transforming itself over the past several decades away from a focus on the kings and the generals to a focus on individuals, or ordinary people, who lived during interesting historical times. Ed is assembling detailed records on about 10,000 such individuals. It so happens that about half of them lived in Staunton, Virginia, and the other half lived in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Those towns happen to be at the north and south ends of the Shenandoah Valley. In almost every respect, the two communities are identical. They came from the same European roots, the agriculture is virtually identical, there is no difference in industrialization between the two, and so on. However, they did happen to be on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon line. They both happened to field a regiment and the regiments fought each other.
When I said we have detailed records on 10,000 individuals, it is surprising how detailed they are. It turns out that right about the time of the Civil War, there is an explosion in the written record and so there is a huge amount of information. We have newspapers from both communities for about 30 years surrounding the war. We have birth and death records, tax records, which include maps of where each individual lived, military records, letters, and diaries. In fact, we have letters and diaries that we could not have had access to before information technology. Ed took our scanners over to Staunton, put a notice in the paper and asked people to go up in the attic and bring down letters from ancestors who were living at that time and bring them in to be scanned. People were surprisingly willing to do that. They would not give those records away to a library, they were too important to the family, but they were delighted to have them scanned in and become part of this record.
What results from this is an archive of information accessible to historical scholars, to be sure. But it also becomes available as a potent educational tool that is entirely different from the traditional textbook. It turns out that it demands an entirely different pedagogy. It is not linear. The author cannot control the order in which the student progresses through it. The author/teacher cannot control what detours the student wants to follow. What the teacher can do is engage the students in scholarship rather than merely rote learning. What Ed now does, in his course that used to be a lecture course, is guide the students in scholarship. He assigns them, or they pick, admittedly small but scholarly hypotheses, which they can then explore. He has become a mentor and a guide rather than a lecturer. Pedagogy has completely turned on its head. It is no longer linear, and is a lot more fun.
As someone has observed, in the past we have always demanded that students rediscover what is already known. And the audience for what the student rediscovers that is already known is an audience of one, namely the teacher. How
dull! Now, all of a sudden, every one of the students in Ed's class is an original scholar and publisher. She or he publishes, at a minimum, to the rest of class. At a maximum, the audience is anyone in the world who is interested in the Civil War period. I think that is pretty profound, and it is certainly not automated drill!
It does not require a PC to do what most students do now. It is difficult to overstate the rapid pace of this technology. The questions we ought to be asking are:
- "What's the minimum cost that we could get away with to do what students are currently doing?" My guess is probably $50 or $100 of hardware, not $1,000 or $2,000.
- "If you are going to spend $1,000 on a student, then what could you do with $1,000 in 10 years?" By the time they deploy all of these PCs they are talking about, it will be 10 years and the first ones will be obsolete. By that time a $1,000 computer will be 10 to 100 times more capable than those of today and we will be able to use them in fundamentally different ways.
My second observation is that the Internet and World Wide Web are much more important than the computer for education. The material from Ed Ayers' project is all available on the Web, for example. Although it is popular in some circles to decry the amount of junk on the Web, and there is a lot, we need to keep in mind that the Web is only a bit over five years old. In that very short time, a tremendous amount of good educational material has been developed on it, and the rate is accelerating. And, by the way, it doesn't take a $1,000 computer to access everything on the Internet!
Observation number three is this: There are many unstated assumptions about the way we currently educate that are challenged by information technology. The current way that we organize courses is designed to optimize faculty and buildings, not learning, for example. The whole notion of lecture formats is there to optimize the teacher. As I understand it, the data suggest that students only capture one-tenth of what is said in a lecture, so clearly the format was not designed to optimize learning! We make little or no use of student-student interactions as an integral part of the pedagogy, yet one of the things that information technology facilitates is student-to-student interactions. We meet in classes in a fixed time and place. Why? Because it was, in the old world, more efficient to move students to the teacher. That is not true anymore. Why are all courses a semester long? Because that was a way to optimize the scheduling of space. Why is a course the same length of time for every student? In order to optimize faculty time and the scheduling of space. Bruce Alberts will speak about asynchronous learning networks. They make sense to me. We are hanging on to a compartmentalized institutional model of education when the unstated assumptions behind that model are rapidly becoming obsolete.
I saw an interesting statistic the other day. According to a poll, 82 percent of those questioned would be interested in "residential learning," receiving educa-
tion in their homes. Only 84 percent said they would like movies on demand. I thought that was fascinating. It would seem that the public is as interested in education as entertainment if it could be delivered conveniently. But the old model is not convenient; to optimize teachers and space, we choose to inconvenience the student—to make them assemble at specified times and places, for example.
It seems to me that if we are serious about education, and we have to be, we need to step back and take a long view. We need to be willing to make fundamental changes, not just use technology to do what we are already doing a little bit better. I hear Bruce Alberts talk all the time about the fact that we know how to educate better but we do not do it. We need to stop spending now on incremental patches to a broken system and be willing to say that maybe we cannot improve things so much this instant, but could make an enormous change out into the future.
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