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New Technology Seen as Charting 2 U.S. 'Futures'

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WASHINGTON--The impact education policy will have on determining the quality of life for American workers may be far greater than its overall contribution to economic growth, a massive new federal study concludes.

Though the two outcomes are related, the report says, how much trust U.S. businesses put in the capabilities of the workforce will affect what direction economic development takes during decades of rapid technological change.

And the choice, it says, could produce fundamentally different futures.

On the one hand, pressures to improve efficiency and flexibility could result in the use of the emerging technologies in ways that tap the creative capacities of a well-trained--and suitably compensated--workforce.

But on the other hand, the report envisions "a system where a well-educated elite enjoys a majority of the benefits, while the costs of flexibility are paid by workers forced to take temporary jobs with narrowly defined tasks monitored by electronic surveillance.''

The two scenarios are contained in the most ambitious undertaking to date by the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan research agency established by the Congress in 1973 to help lawmakers grapple with the increasingly complex issues raised by new technologies.

In Technology and the American Transition, the OTA has for the first time stepped back from its usual detailed analyses of specific issues and taken a broad look at the combined impact of these developments on American society.

The 501-page report, which was scheduled to be released May 15, makes no predictions about the likely outcomes of current trends, but instead "attempts to provide the clearest possible description of the available choices and their implications.''

Using a complex model of the economy, the report examines how current trends and policy choices ripple in various ways throughout each sector of the economy, including food, housing, health, transportation, clothing, communications, and recreation.

But unlike similar reports by economic-forecasting firms, the O.T.A. report also considers nonquantifiable factors, such as consumer tastes and preferences and the quality of lifestyles that economic changes could produce.

New technologies could reinforce the trend towards mass-produced goods and services, the report says, or they could help build an economy based on the tailoring of products to specialized consumer tastes.

"The issue is whether the flexibility and dynamism essential to progress in the emerging economy will come at the expense of individuals, or whether individuals themselves will become more flexible because of continuous opportunity for learning and growth,'' it contends.

Forces At Work

The report describes four major forces working to reshape the U.S. economy:

  • The capabilities gained through new technologies, particularly those used to process information.

The alterations in the structure and performance of the economy being wrought by technology have "proven to be exasperating'' to measure, according to the study.

"Some evidence of the astonishing impact of the new technology, however, can be seen in the fact that over 40 percent of all new investments in plant and equipment are now in a category called 'information technology'--computers, copying machines, and the like,'' the report states. "That is double its share in 1978.''

The loss of American pre-eminence in international markets.

The gap separating the productivity levels in the United States and in the countries that are its major international competitors has been cut in half during the past 100 years, according to the report, a development that has caused "a convergence in living standards, incomes, and labor costs.''

  • Changes in the relationship between resources and productivity.

The limited supply of natural resources has caused American industries to "learn to make more with less,'' according to the report, with the result that "far fewer firms are constrained by lack of resources.''

The report adds, however, that two natural-resource issues will continue to have a major impact on economic prosperity: the availability of petroleum and the limits of the environment's ability to absorb wastes.

  • The evolution of American values and tastes.

Changes in these spheres have had "dramatic and sometimes complex patterns of consumer expenditure and in labor markets,'' says the report.

"There has clearly been a change in the behaviors that Americans find acceptable, and a consequent increase in the range of choices available for individuals,'' it says. "These changes come on top of an underlying pattern of demographic changes of no small consequence.''

'Strong Backs' Not Needed

These changes, the reports says, have led to the formation of "elaborate production networks'' that tie such diverse sectors of the economy as communications, transportation, marketing, and sales in ever more complex ways to the actual production of goods.

These new networks "are not only changing the relationships between businesses, they are also changing the relationship between the market economy and the unpaid work done by family members,'' the report states.

"People most likely to prosper in these networks are protean,'' it says. "The talents needed are not clever hands or a strong back but rather the ability to understand instructions and poorly written manuals, ask questions, assimilate unfamiliar information, and work with unfamiliar teams.''

The availability of such broadly educated workers will be a major factor in determining how businesses respond to the changing economic conditions, the study predicts.

"Will businesses change and grow under the assumption that workers will be well educated and intellectually flexible, or will they plan with the assumption that workers will be ignorant, untrainable, and unreliable?'' it asks.

"Another way of asking this question is whether people will be able to find a variety of attractive opportunities for work, or whether only the credentialed elite will enjoy such opportunities.''

Given the unemployment patterns of the past 20 years, the report says, the evidence is that the least-educated members of society will be forced to bear the largest portion of the costs of uncertainty and change.

"We have waited too long'' to reform education to meet the changing needs of business and society, said Henry Keller, the director of the OTA project, at a press briefing last week.

But, he added, "it's certainly not too late'' to make the adjustments that would enable a much larger segment of society to reap the benefits of technological change.

The report notes that "earlier economic transformations were associated with a major public investment in infrastructure: canals, railroads, electric lines, and highways.''

"The transformation taking place today,'' it says, "seems to require an entirely different kind of public involvement. An educated population is the most critical infrastructure of the emerging economy.''

But at the same time that new technologies are fueling the demand for better-educated workers, the report notes, they are also "mak[ing] it possible to consider real improvements in the productivity of both teaching and learning.''

Productivity in Learning

Only corporations and the military have moved rapidly to exploit the advantages of new instructional technologies such as microcomputers, videodiscs, and sophisticated training simulators, the report says.

"This is due in part to a different style of management,'' it maintains, "and in part to the fact that since these organizations pay the salaries of both students and teachers, they are as interested in the productivity of a student's time as the productivity of the teacher's time.''

Technology will not have a major impact on the nation's public schools, the report warns, until educators and policymakers exhibit "a willingness to reshape what is taught, where it is taught, how it is taught, the point in a person's career when it is taught, and the range of talents needed by the teaching staff.''

Two Alternatives

The ways in which technology might contribute to this reshaping will depend heavily on public-policy choices, the report says, outlining two stark alternatives:

"The system could change in a way that makes learning more productive and fun while allowing teachers more time to spend with individuals as coaches or tutors. It could put more power in the hands of the learner, tailor instruction to each person's level of understanding and learning speed and technique, and make it easier for an individual to learn when instruction is most needed.''

Or, "The system could create rigid centralization of course design, mechanical and impersonal instruction, national regulations, and a contraction of choice for both students and instructors. Adult training programs could widen the gap between those with good training skills and those lacking them.''

While existing computer-based instruction systems "are often disappointing,'' the report says, still, "there is reason for considerable optimism.''

Breakthroughs in artificial-intelligence technology that allow for the creation of simulations using images, sounds, and text, for example, "can lend realism, and can remove the barriers of abstraction that so often impose themselves between formal education and practical mastery of a subject.''

Seeking the 'Unmeasurable'

The report also points to the unusual difficulties policymakers face when trying to gauge or direct improvements in the efficiency of the education system.

"The perpetual problem of management in education is that the system tends towards results that can be measured, while the most important products may go unmeasured,'' the report states.

Such products include, it says, "an ability to translate complex problems into solvable ones, an ability to find out what needs to be learned and to learn it, and an ability to absorb complex and often inconsistent information quickly.''

Thus, the development of new measurement techniques "becomes a critical priority for making progress in an educational system,'' according to the report.

Research directed at solving the real problems of learning is underfunded and uncoordinated, it says, recommending the creation of a federal agency similar to the now-defunct National Institute of Education.

"If the fraction of gross expenditures invested in research were the same for education as for the average privately owned business in the United States, about $9 billion a year would be spent for education research,'' the study contends. "This is 60 to 90 times more than the present allocation.''

Investment in buildings and equipment for education also lags far behind similar efforts in other industries, the report notes.

Measures to address these shortcomings in the education infrastructure, it says, "are critical for both the economic health of the nation as a whole, and the success of individuals acting as either consumers or employees.''

A major challenge facing the nation, the report concludes, "is to encourage supplies of people empowered by their education and experience to assume more attractive positions in the workforce, and to encourage employers to build productive systems that create attractive jobs.''

Copies of the report (stock number 052-003-01096-8) are $20 each and can be ordered from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325.

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