The Productivity of Learning Technologies: A School and Learning Policy Review; It's Time to Sing the Productivity Praises of Our Educational technologies.(Statistical Data Included)

By Mann, Dale | Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Productivity of Learning Technologies: A School and Learning Policy Review; It's Time to Sing the Productivity Praises of Our Educational technologies.(Statistical Data Included)


Mann, Dale, Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology


Technology has transformed the American economy and penetrated important parts of public schooling, yet educators are curiously silent about the productivity effects of technology and schools. Both the explanation for that and the price paid are political. We slow the progress of learning and diminish support from the public because we do not discuss or celebrate gains in productivity. This article reviews a range of examples and describes the near and intermediate term prospects for productivity.

American Economy, Technology, and Productivity

Think of how the 1990s began--America was regarded as a rust-bucket economy producing too few, low-quality products for high prices. Other countries invaded and then dominated all of the continuous production processes that we had invented. Automobiles, steel, electronic assembly--all went overseas.

But the 1990s ended with America as the world's only super-power, economically as well as politically. Forty percent of the growth in the gross domestic product of the 1990s has been attributed to productivity gains enabled by technology. "Non-farm productivity rose at a healthy 2.5 percent annual rate in the quarter (Q2, 01), as businesses produced roughly the same output using less labor.... The unusual feat offers further evidence that, with the help of technology, the economy has emerged from a 20-year productivity slump ..." And, "If productivity gains ... reflect a country made more efficient by computers and the Internet, the long-term average growth of the economy may be about 3.5 percent" (David Leonhardt, "Productivity Still Gaining Despite Slump," New York Times, Wed., Aug. 8, 2001, p. C1).

How does that happen? Think about the effect of technology on different sectors of the economy.

* Transportation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, transportation meant trains, horses, and "motorcars." But every car built since 1996 has more computing firepower than did the first lunar lander, Apollo 11.

* Finance. Eighty percent of personal banking transactions are done by computer. Rather than wait in line for personal contact with a teller, we use an ATM. ATMs operate in a broadband network and are powered by water-cooled Crays, but learning to use one did not require any of us to go away for a weekend workshop. Banking technology is transparent; school technology is not.

* Communications. When the telegraph first came to Russia, Leo Tolstoy was driving his mother down a country road. She asked what the poles and wires were for, and he replied, "They are used to move words." After watching for a while, she announced that she had not seen any. Today, Norwegian teenagers can use their cell phones to buy a Coca-Cola from a vending machine. Eleven million young adults now use wireless; in three years, the number will quadruple to 43 million (Stephanie Miles, "Wireless Entertainment Attracts Investors," Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2001).

* Agriculture. Farmers were once legend as the most recalcitrant sector of the economy. No more. Tractors are sold with transponders that talk to global positioning satellites and adjust the amount of seed and fertilizer for every meter depending on an on-board computer analysis of the soil composition and moisture.

* Business. First electronic technology and now digital technology have transformed work. Remember "typing pools"? Now we all "word-process" what was once typed by someone else. The smart organization buys its employees laptops, confident that professionalism will promptly blur the lines between company time and personal time, home and work.

American Schooling, Technology, and Productivity

Here are some examples of productivity gains in American schooling and then in education, largely conceived. Schools have made big gains. Twenty years ago, the folklore was that change in schools took 30 years. …

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