Education Wars: The Battle over Information-Age Technology

By Snider, James H. | The Futurist, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Education Wars: The Battle over Information-Age Technology


Snider, James H., The Futurist


New information technologies will transform education, but only after a battle royal with the education establishment.

Most people now recognize that new information technology is radically changing the economics of education. Many also believe that, if only the schools could get the best technology and train teachers how to use it, the wonders of the Information Age will come to K-12 education.

But this belief, held by such prominent individuals as the president of the United States and the U.S. secretary of education, is faulty.

In the shift from Industrial Age to Information Age education, most educators will lose money, status, and power. They cannot be expected to accept this change without a fight. Insofar as public education responds to political and not economic forces, educators have a good chance of preserving, or at least slowing the erosion of, their position.

Until the full dimensions of this problem are understood, the promise of technology in education will never be fulfilled.

The new economics of education include the following trends:

* From labor intensive to capital intensive. Industrial Age education uses little technology. It is low tech and labor intensive. According to the Educational Research Service, more than 95% of a typical public school's budget goes to teachers; less than 5% goes to instructional capital such as books, software, and computers. Since improved technology tends to drive up productivity, the high proportion of education dollars spent on labor is often used to explain why education has the worst productivity record of any major economic sector in the United States.

Information Age education, in contrast, is capital intensive. Education resources, including individualized instruction, are delivered via the information superhighway, high-definition television, multimedia PCs, and so on.

* From local to national. Industrial Age education is transportation intensive - the learner must physically travel to the key educational resources. As a result of the high cost of travel, education is geographically bound. Students attend the neighborhood school, not one that is thousands of miles away.

In contrast, Information Age education is communications intensive: The learner can access educational resources produced and distributed anywhere in the world. The traditional textbook with national reach is now joined by the "virtual course," the "virtual classroom," and the "virtual school."

* From small-scale to large-scale production. Public schools (K-12 level) employ some 6 million individuals, about half of whom are teachers. Tens of thousands of teachers teach similar subjects such as Introductory Spanish, U.S. History, and Biology I. At least one highly skilled professional teacher per classroom is considered necessary for adequate instruction.

Information Age education requires far fewer teachers to achieve the same or better results. A few thousand of the best teachers in the United States could replace many of the other 3 million. For example, today's 40,000 Algebra I teachers could be largely displaced by a handful of star teachers working nationally.

* From small-scale to large-scale evaluation. Industrial Age education requires classroom-by-classroom evaluation. Since each classroom has relatively few students and is a largely private and inaccessible space, comparative course evaluation is an extraordinarily expensive and impractical undertaking.

Information Age education courses may be taken by thousands or even millions of students over many years. This creates a large market for course evaluations; there could be national evaluations for courses, just as there are for cars, mutual funds, and colleges.

* From monopoly to competition. Industrial Age education is a natural monopoly. Students find it impractical to travel long distances to different schools to take different courses, so students often have a choice of only one course and teacher for a given grade and subject matter. …

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