Researcher Seeks To Assess How the Revolution
By 1990, general-purpose microcomputers in the home will be as common as stereo systems are today; and in the schools their ubiquity will be matched only by the numberless piles of no-longer-needed chalk erasers they leave behind.
That, at least, is what a growing number of educators seem to believe. But one expert in technology is not so sure that the latter claim will prove true. Even if microcomputers become as common as stereos, he says, they may not be that common in the nation's schools.
Marc S. Tucker, a former National Institute of Education (nie) policy director, argues that the "revolution" anticipated from such technology as microcomputers, videodiscs, and satellite telecommunications systems may occur outside the schools.
New Technologies Assessed
Mr. Tucker recently began a 20-month project, funded with $220,000 from the Carnegie Corporation, to assess the potential of the new technologies in the education of elementary- and secondary-school students.
"I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that the schools will look very different five or even 10 years from now," he says.
And in his proposal to the Carnegie Corporation, he wrote that "a combination of factors makes effective and widespread use of these technologies very unlikely under current conditons."
Among those factors, he added, are the basic structure of school management, including the fragmentation of responsibility for purchasing; the high risks that investors in computer software face in the education market; the sagging economy; and a political climate that is not favorable to educational spending.
"Microcomputers won't make their way into the schools by chance," Mr. Tucker says. "And it won't happen without significant outside investment. And this investment won't occur unless it's apparent to manufacturers and publishers that we are going to make a national effort to integrate this technology into the schools."
In a field that changes from day to day, coordination among what he calls "the growing array of actors"--the researchers, inventors, publishers, manufacturers, educators, and politicians who are directly and indirectly involved in the computer boom--is crucial, Mr. Tucker believes.
In the first year of the Project on Information Technology and Education, which is intended to promote such coordination, Mr. Tucker and his staff will survey and analyze as much of the growing educational microcomputer field as they can. The result, he hopes, will be a "state of the art" compilation--the first of its kind--of information sources, people, companies, products, and services. It will be either a book or a series of resource articles.
In the second year, Mr. Tucker will take this information and "spread it among the actors," especially policymakers at the federal and state levels and in the schools.
Realization of a Promise
"I want to get as clear a fix as possible on what the nature of the promise of these new technologies is," he said. "And I want to make the best estimate of what it would take to realize that promise, in terms of money, energy, people, and commitment."
Working with Mr. Tucker on the project are Susan Traiman, formerly an educational policy fellow at nie, who is responsible for monitoring computer innovations in the schools, and Joel Winston, a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania, who is analyzing related issues in telecommunications policy.
Mr. Tucker is highly optimistic about the promise of the new technologies, although he admits that there is as yet no research that proves or disproves their potential for enhancing learning.
Some related research is in progress, he says, but adds that "it's still too early to say" what it will disclose.
One scenario for the future, he suggests, includes a student sitting in front of a console that contains a personal computer, a videodisc player controlled by the computer, a television set display screen, and a device for connecting the console to a variety of telecommunications systems.
Creative Learning Techniques
"Each videodisc can store 54,000 frames of information," he notes. "A frame might be a slide or a frame of a motion picture. Each side of a digitally encoded disc could store 400 500-page textbooks."
With such a console, Mr. Tucker says, students would have opportunities to utilize more creative learning techniques than have ever before been available.
But between that imagined future and what is now being done with microcomputers in the schools lies a gap that a colleague of Mr. Tucker has compared to the challenge Moses faced in crossing the Red Sea.
"The people I've talked to who have come back from schools that have programs or that are using computers to some extent have generally been quite disappointed," Mr. Tucker notes. "They see one or two teachers, a handful of computers, and uninteresting software. The equipment is not being integrated into the life of the school."
It is very difficult to write good educational programming, he continues. "Often the hype has outrun the reality. But conversely, you can't conclude that nothing is going to happen, although it's entirely possible that a system such as I described will not be in use in our lifetime."
The lack of good educational software is, in fact, the predominant problem in the field, according to the researcher. "Up to this point," he says, "the new technologies have been used in the main to push facts into students--what Mao Tse Tung called 'stuffing the duck'."
What is needed to produce truly creative software for students, in his view, is coordination of the technicians who have the expertise and educators who have the ideas. But, he adds, the two groups at the moment "understand very little about each others' worlds."
He warns against relying on computer vendors and educational publishers to develop good software in response to market demands and competition. The former group has no established role in education, he says, and both are still wary of schools as markets for the new technology.
Suppliers as 'Villains'
He adds, however: "It's easy to cast the suppliers as 'villains,' but when you talk to those guys you start to learn something about the economics of the world they live in. They operate on a high-borrowing basis and it takes a long time before they can bring a product to market."
The producers, according to Mr. Tucker, take "enormous risks," because their products, which often take years to develop, can be overtaken by market changes that render them obsolete overnight.
"People forget that most large educational publishers who are developing computer software are running in the red in that part of their business," he says.
Another formidable problem with schools as a market, he says, are financial realities that may be impossible to change.
Labor costs, mostly for teachers, constitute 85 percent of the average district budget, he points out, and the new technologies will be a net additional cost at a time when school districts all over the country are cutting existing programs in a climate of stringency.
And, he says, educational systems are "loosely coupled," in a way that will make genuine coordination of the new technologies very difficult.
For example, the hypothetical technical system he describes would require coordinated activity among those in a school system responsible for curriculum policy, library services, classroom instruction, purchasing of common carrier services, terminal equipment purchases, and audio-visual services.
And, he says, some teachers will be understandably reluctant to embrace the new technologies.
"Teachers have very weak incentives to use new technology," he says. "They are compensated for time-in-service and earned professional education credits, rather than output," so they may not be interested in the increased educational efficiency that Mr. Tucker thinks the technology could bring.
But Mr. Tucker does not place all the blame on teachers for this situtation. ''You have to look at this from their viewpoint," he says. "To really integrate computers into the curriculum, you'll have to vastly change it, and that's not easily done," he explains. "And then think of the day-to-day use of the computer. Suppose it fails. Suppose someone pours something on it. If you get really dependent on it, it's like building a class on a film that never arrives. Teachers have seen highly-touted educational 'advances' come and go before."
Although the capital for computers must come from somewhere, "that doesn't necessarily mean firing teachers," Mr. Tucker argues. "A good deal of the computer-aided instruction will require more, not less, attention."
Many districts are getting their first computers from private sources, the researcher points out, among them parents who do not want their child's district to fall behind, even though funding is tight.
But while such local initiatives are a positive step, they also create problems, he believes. Computer innovations will be adopted most quickly in affluent school districts, for example, creating further inequities between rich and poor school systems.
"This is where the issue of equity comes up," he says. "Although it's not clear yet that using the new technologies will confer an enormous advantage in learning, it is clear that they definitely will do so with respect to learning how to use a computer."
An alternative to having schools or private sources finance the new technologies, Mr. Tucker says, would be "a major national commitment" to that educational future. "But I don't think that's automatic either," he adds.
"When this Administration looks at education as a thing that may pay off, they tend to see education as a consumer good, as a net drain on the economy," Mr. Tucker argues. "But a growing number of economists are saying that we owe our economic strength since [World War II] to the educational level in this country. So it may be the most crucial investment in our future."
Mr. Tucker believes most people agree with that statement. But at the same time they feel that "education is in trouble" and wonder whether the new technology will make a difference.
"That's a question I have to take a really hard look at," he says. "I would say that if we were to make a significant investment right now to equip schools at the current state of the art, we would get a substantial increase in computer literacy. My best guess at the moment is that they can make an enormous contribution, but that's without proof. We have to make a very large research and development investment."