10.5 Education and Technology

The purpose of this section is not to examine educational technique in general, interesting though such a discussion would be. Rather, it is to consider the effect upon the learning process of the use of specific products of technology, and to consider in what direction current and projected technologies may influence or drive institutions of learning.

The Purpose of Technology in Learning

It has long been assumed, with some evidence, that if the number of sensory gateways to the learner's mind could be increased, so could the efficiency of the learning process. For example, a lecture on Shakespeare would normally involve verbal and aural skills, but watching his plays as they are acted out would engage the visual as well, and therefore initiate more complex and comprehensive learning. The richest experience would be gained from acting in the play, but this is not an option available to everyone. Perhaps at some point, it may be possible to build an interactive feedback to the Metalibrary that would allow the watcher to become a participant, but this enticing possibility is still very speculative.

Thus, various types of print media and audio-visual materials have been produced for schools over the years in an effort to expand sensory interaction with the lesson being learned, and to reinforce its contents. Administrators often greet such innovations with great enthusiasm, even though in many cases classroom results are inconclusive.

The examples that follow are not to be taken as the sum and substance of the application of technology to the classroom environment, but rather as illustrations of the way in which some of the products of technology have affected it. After all, the object or machine is not itself the learning experience--it is a support for some intended lesson. However, the medium in which the experience is presented does have an important effect, and cannot be completely separated from the motives for using it.

Common Classroom Materials

To meet such ends, charts, maps, posters, and various graphics materials made their way to the walls of the modern elementary school classroom. Such materials become less common as the student moves through the schooling process, and the walls at the higher levels are often rather bare. Various object lessons are also available for "hands-on" experiences in counting, exploring science, social studies, health, life skills, and so on. These can be effective in the hands of a skilled teacher, but care must be taken to ensure that the desired lesson is delivered. Some educational theorists think that unguided exploration can too easily become unfocused play to no particular end. Others hold that unguided exploration is the central method of learning in early childhood and is necessary for most children to learn. In the last three decades, this latter theory has been in vogue twice and gone out of favour both times. It will undoubtedly make another comeback.

Primary classrooms keep counting tokens available as concretions for the abstractions of arithmetic. They also might have students dissect owl pellets to discover rodent skeletons and reinforce lessons on the food chain and life cycle. Secondary schools will have a wide range of scientific and other equipment and universities far more, for they require exacting original research.

There can be little doubt that the wide range of common equipment does make the classroom a more interesting place to be, and that fact alone may justify its purchase, even in the absence of hard data about its effectiveness. In fact, it is possible to show that discovery methods of learning can be more effective than reading about something in a book and then demonstrating what is known. However, it is not practical to allow the student to personally rediscover the entire body of scientific or other knowledge. Neither is it possible for every school to own a piece of equipment to support each item on the curriculum, so there must be some limitations placed on such methods.

Without some centralized control, moreover, teachers may decide to purchase equipment largely to reinforce personal interests, and this becomes surplus when they move to another school. Many are the rooms filled with unused and obsolete or broken equipment, and few are the budgets that can continue such uncoordinated purchases indefinitely.

With pressures on budgets increasing, many schools are having to turn to parental donations and community fund raising for their equipment purchases. This is forcing them to be more accountable to these new sponsors, and is increasing community ties to the school after a long period of separation. Thus, the ordinary day-to-day technical provision for and operation of the schools is no longer the exclusive domain of their professional administrators, but is once more coming under the closer scrutiny and control of their local constituency. What is more, a greater portion of that constituency has more schooling than ever before, and is both qualified and prepared to ask whether a given piece of equipment or a particular technique is appropriate. Again, availability of information, which in this case has nothing to do with computer access, enables wide cooperation among the interested parties and encourages broad control over purchase decisions.

Slides, Filmstrips, and Movies

That which is too expensive to purchase for the classroom can always be photographed and shown on film. Though still lacking in the ultimate experience of personal participation, such media have the potential to bring techniques and ideas to the classroom from effective teachers, and thus to supplement locally available resources. They have the disadvantage of being inflexible, impossible to question, and subject to rigid scheduling constraints as several classrooms compete for the same material at the same point every year. Since such media may remain unused the rest of the time, and since they require an investment of time, training, and inconvenience on the part of the teacher, their cost-effectiveness is difficult to establish. They also take years to justify their purchase, so school audio-visual centres tend to become filled with 30-year-old material of doubtful relevance but which still makes its dutiful circuit about the district once or twice a term--often to the great hilarity of the students who are subjected to ancient material. Likewise, libraries at all levels, including university ones, can easily become filled with obsolete materials that may physically prevent new arrivals, but that no one has the heart to throw out.

Furthermore, if the message of the film is not immediately reinforced by the teacher, say, using supplementary print media or by requiring some feedback from the students, the use of such technology is likely to be regarded by them as a form of entertainment rather than as a part of the instructional process. Since such materials are often of a much lower quality than television and arcade entertainment to which students are accustomed, they have difficulty taking the lesson seriously. In addition parents tend to view frequent use of films with suspicion. They are not, therefore, asked to fund such purchases, nor are these made at the school level, for the cost is too high. Since purchase decisions are made centrally, there is additional resistance by classroom teachers to some of this material, and they often turn to media over which they have more control.

Radio and Television

The high hopes that were initially expressed for radio-assisted instruction were later repeated for television. In both cases, broadcast lessons were supposed to revolutionize learning, as school boards established their own transmitters and developed series of lessons that could be taught to an entire district at once. These expectations were followed in both cases by disillusionment. In the case of radio, the lessons suffered by comparison with those offered by a live teacher, who could be seen and talked to, not just heard. Television added the visual dimension, and was a "hotter" medium, but the participation was still relatively passive, the scheduling inflexible, the costs very high, and the return on investment not able to be measured. Moreover, the school system has always had very high inertia with many of its teachers uninterested in changing their ways. Faced with the extra responsibility for scheduling their classes and lessons to suit what was available on educational radio or television, few such teachers went beyond the experimental stage with either, and eventually both disappeared from most classrooms. Moreover, at the university level, neither was ever used extensively outside the faculties of education, so the broadcast media has had little effect on this level of learning.

and Video Disks

The advent of videotape has revived television as an educational medium to a great extent, for it allows lessons to be given once and recorded, rather than broadcast. Taped lessons can be played at the teacher's convenience and do not require transmission facilities. However, it is not clear that videotape has important advantages over film, except in cost, nor has it been established that students regard it as more important than the home entertainment it so closely resembles. While teachers are already making extensive use of video recordings, it will be some time yet before their impact on learning can be assessed. The potential seems great, but it also did for its two older cousins, so a degree of caution would seem to be in order.

The perils are also great, for videotapes are often made in schools with little regard for copyright law, just as are copies of printed materials. Programs are commonly taped off the air for later classroom showing without asking permission, or copies of commercial products are made and retained in the school for re-use. Those who engage in such practices need to consider carefully what it is they are really teaching their students.

At the university and technical school, the use of television and video is a little different. Lecture scale monitors are now being found useful in classrooms where computing and information retrieval skills are demonstrated, and video also has great potential in the recording and viewing of complex or rare techniques, such as those to which a medical student may need exposure. Such larger institutions also will often have the facilities to make their own materials, and rely far less on those taped from the commercial media.

As the 2000s begin, DVDs are replacing videotape, but their purpose and potential use is similar, and there is no reason to suppose they represent an educational breakthrough, even if they are a technological innovation.

Computers in the Classroom

The latest technological marvel has also been touted, as others before it, as the answer to many learning problems, and judging by the multi-billion dollar sales of hardware and software to schools of all types, there is widespread confidence in the value of this technology to deliver that answer.

At the university level, computers are indispensable to both the research and learning processes. No one who has grown accustomed to the enormous power offered by the simplest word processor would trade it for a stick with graphite on one end and a piece of rubber on the other, or even for a typewriter--if one could be found on a modern campus. Neither would the business faculty want to trade electronic spreadsheets for the paper kind, or go back to the hand-calculated trial balances of pre-computerized accounting courses. Their students will be working in office-like environments after graduation for the most part, so the computer forms an essential component of their training. Programming these machines has also become a discipline of its own, and though not yet very mature as such, has already carved out an important place in the university curriculum. It should be noted, however, that while there is an educational component to some of these activities, for the most part they involve training--somewhat of a departure from the traditional role of the university as repository, transmitter, and generator of ideas. Much of this new business and computing curriculum would once have been thought instead to be the province of the technical school, but such is the power of the new technology to transform society that computing studies has become accepted at the university without its credentials as an academic discipline being questioned.

Similar remarks, to somewhat less effect, could be made of the high school. There also, the computerization of marks gathering, attendance, student records, and timetabling, have all proven important time and money savers in an environment that is severely stressed financially. These schools also all have the advantage of having technically oriented mathematics or science specialists ready to seize upon the machine for the learning of computing or doing computations, and a clientele mature enough to take advantage of such instruction. They usually have appropriate business courses to take advantage of the typical applications packages and train students in their use. On the other hand, teachers in other disciplines have not found them particularly useful as yet, because of a lack of both training and suitable software. Also network access has yet to come into its prime at this level because of the relatively high cost of school infrastructure, and so secondary school computer-use mirrors that at the university, on a reduced scale. In both cases its larger potential for other disciplines is unrealized, and may be for some time.

However, the picture is quite different in the younger grades. There, a variety of uses for the computer have been proposed and tried, but in this context, the computer remains a machine that has not yet found a technique to apply it. There are several reasons for this. The first is that elementary teachers are not always qualified in either mathematics or science and may have little interest in technology that requires technical expertise. The second is that there is little need to study the machine for its own sake at this level, so no programming need be taught. Moreover, computers are not required for computational purposes in elementary school. Programming was for a time advocated by some for use at this level, but it was never clear what usable skills such exercises impart, so this too fell into disfavour. The third is that traditional word processing use is not relevant unless schools consider having primary students learn typing instead of, say, writing--for they would be worse off attempting to apply word processing skills if they could not touch-type. The fourth is that the flood of "educational software" that hit the market in the 1970s and 1980s did not prove to be very useful. As programming for its own sake or as a teaching tool, such material was at first uniformly poor--the result of being written either by teachers with amateur programming skills or by gifted computerists who knew nothing about teaching. The computer language LOGO was once advocated for teaching programming to children, but its implementations were clumsy, and neither teachers nor students were convinced of its value in the instructional process.

Have the billions been wasted? If the testimony of many idle elementary school computers with no one to use them is to be believed, the answer is "yes," at least for many schools.

What went so wrong? The same thing that often does in business, where the computer is also commonly regarded as the solution to a badly run and inefficient operation. Computers cannot, by themselves, solve the problems in an organization; they can only exacerbate them by making them occur faster and by entailing a capital outlay that turns out to have negative return. Schools have been under very heavy criticism of late, and the computer came billed as an easy fix for their difficulties--one that the public and funding agencies were quick to agree to--too quick, for they did not consider whether the solution had the potential to be effective. As in business, it is critically important to have adequately problem-free systems in place before introducing computers, because machines can never by themselves help a badly managed operation. The vague and enthusiastic assumption that computers were the wave of the future, coupled with the usual bandwagon effect, have caused schools to spend enormous sums on these machines with little research done on how they could be used effectively. At this point, few elementary teachers have any clear ideas what to use them for, so unless an elementary school is fortunate enough to have a computer specialist available, the machines may well sit idle. This problem is compounded by the rapid changes in computing technology, which can render a school's entire inventory of such equipment obsolete in one or two years, and make it cost ineffective to replace much of it.

Some recovery may be possible as computer software becomes easier to use and therefore more accessible to young children. A limited set of word processing skills, some art and music, and certain information searching may yet prove to be valuable; but these applications may arrive too late to avoid having many of the existing computers join other little-used machines from past years on the educational technology scrap heap--at least as far as elementary schools are concerned.

On the other hand, what could be right about a decision to use computers in elementary schools? In a word--the Metalibrary. If a school can afford the infrastructure, the opportunity to perform and present research using a world wide data store is an educational key to unlock the techniques of the future for today's students. Used in this way, networked computers have enormous potential to enable even very young students to obtain the very life skills that will be required in the information society. It may be some time before the actual data available on the system is complete, reliable, and easily accessible, but the Internet of the late 1990s is at least a primitive beginning, and a well-educated teacher can assist the students to sift it for relevance.

Teaching Machines

Various audio-visual and print media have been combined in a number of attempts over the years to build machines that could automate some portion of the learning process. These have included hand-held wands touched to metal studs through holes in question cards that lighted or rang a bell when the stud for the correct answer was touched. Later, there were slide sets keyed to experiments or post-tests, high school and university language labs, and in more recent years, various "drill-until-it-kills" software packages, often in the form of computer games. Recent attempts involve multimedia integration of computers with videotape or optical disk (CD-ROMs and DVDs) to provide both textual and graphical lessons based on a very large database and with multiple paths through the material depending on the student's responses. While this technology is not widely available as yet, it probably will be in the near future. If it is used, it apparently has the potential to reduce labour costs somewhat, but also to increase capital ones dramatically. Like all other such technologies, it will have to prove its worth, and this may not be easy; thus far machinery has not done well in the classroom. Moreover, there are few meta-techniques of proven worth for evaluating the process of learning, and in the absence of convincing evidence of their worth, complex machines are unlikely to receive a warm welcome from many teachers, particularly at the lower grades. Rather than struggle with such devices in their own classrooms, they might prefer to wait for the day when interactive multimedia lessons are available prepackaged from the Metalibrary.

School jurisdictions that welcome these machines so enthusiastically that they replace human teachers on a large scale--as a few have attempted--may soon realize that it is untried and unproven technology. Heavy commitments to the unknown will be hailed as visionary if they succeed, and exorciated as foolishly shortsighted if they do not. Unfortunately, it is real human beings who are being experimented with, not just techniques, and this raises the stakes uncomfortably high for such commitments. If the earlier experiences are any guide, the new teaching machines ought to provoke a reaction of extreme caution. History would suggest they might instead be met instead with wild enthusiasm and high levels of spending.


The effect of these products of technologies used in modern schools and universities has been mixed. It is difficult to discover whether it has improved the efficiency of the learning process, or whether the continuing problems of learning institutions would be worse without it. Clearly, a better technique for measuring the effects is needed, and so are more carefully defined goals for their use. Methods will also have to be found to ensure that the use of such hardware in the classroom does not exacerbate socioeconomic differences, for some schools can afford it, and some cannot.

As observed at the beginning of the section, these are only examples of the use of equipment, and this discussion does not encompass all of the term "technology." Indeed, if the extension to "technique" suggested in Chapter 2 is used, one must include methods of administration, classroom management, school organization, and all the quantifiable methods employed directly or indirectly in specific schooling or general learning activities. While new technologies and paradigms of the information age affect all these things, there is insufficient space here to consider them in detail. Interested readers are encouraged to research further such specific topics. It is also important to ask whether young people ought to be taught by machines or by role-model adults, and the answer to that question may determine whether much more, if any, of the learning process will be experienced through machines.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises