Magazine article The Futurist

Technology Remakes the Schools

Magazine article The Futurist

Technology Remakes the Schools

Article excerpt

Technology has revolutionized the world in which schools operate. Now it's time for educators to catch up to change.

A human being miraculously transported from 1900 to our time would recognize much of what goes on in today's classrooms--the prevalent lecturing, the emphasis on drill, the decontextualized materials and activities ranging from basal readers to weekly spelling tests. With the possible exception of the church, few institutions have changed as little in fundamental ways as those charged with the formal education of the next generation.

Contrast this continuity with children's experiences outside the school walls. In modern society children have access to a range of media that would have seemed miraculous in an earlier era (and that still astonishes members of less industrialized societies): television, cellular phones, personal computers with CD-ROMs, fax machines, videodiscs, personal stereos, and still and video cameras.

The visitor from the past who would readily recognize today's classroom would have trouble relating to the out-of-school world of a 10-year-old today. I confess that I often experience such difficulties myself.

Schools--if not education generally--are inherently conservative institutions. In large measure, I would defend this conservatism. But changes in our world are so rapid and so decisive that it will not be possible for schools to remain as they were or simply to introduce a few superficial adjustments. Indeed, if schools do not change rapidly and radically, they are likely to be replaced by other, more responsive (though perhaps less comfortable and less legitimate) institutions.

The Transforming Power Of Computers

The most important technological event of our time is the ascendancy of the computer. Computers already play a prominent role in many aspects of our lives, from transportation and communication to personal bookkeeping and entertainment. Scarcely oblivious to these trends, many schools now have computers and networking capabilities. To some extent, these technological appurtenances have been absorbed into the life of the school, though often they simply deliver the old lessons in a more convenient and efficient format.

In the future, however, education will be organized largely around the computer. Computers will permit a degree of individualization--personalized coaching or tutoring--which in the past was available only to the rich. All students may receive a curriculum tailored to their needs, learning style, pace and profile of mastery, and record of success with earlier materials and lessons. Indeed, computer technology permits us to realize, for the first time, progressive educational ideas of "personalization" and "active, hands-on learning" for students all over the world.

Computer technology puts all the information in the world at one's fingertips, quite literally. This is both a blessing and a curse. No longer do we have to spend long periods of time hunting down a source or a person--these can be found instantaneously. Soon we will not even have to type in an instruction in order to learn the capital of Montana, the population of Korea, or Ohm's law; we will be able to simply ask a question out loud and the computer will print out or speak the answer. Thus people will achieve instant "cultural literacy."

Less happily, the Internet has no means of quality control; "anyone can play." Information and disinformation commingle comfortably and, as of yet, there are no reliable ways to distinguish sense from distortions and downright nonsense on the Net. Ethnographer Sherry Turkle tells about the young child who insists that "there are always riots when taxes go up" because that is the common wisdom embedded in the widely available game program, Sim City. Identifying the true, the beautiful, and the good--and which of these truths, beauties, or goods are worth knowing--constitutes a formidable challenge. …

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