David J. Irvine is coordinator of gifted education for the New York State Education Department.
On the other hand, many reform plans speak vaguely of applying “technology’’ to education--meaning, usually, the various electronic devices that have been developed over the last half century or so. In the thinking of most reformers these include such things as educational television, personal computers complete with “turtles,’' floppy disks, ãŸäŸ's, satellite transmissions, and video games.
Remarkable for its absence in most reform plans is the one teaching machine that--more than any of these most frequently mentioned forms of technology--could revolutionize education. It doesn’t have a clever name, and it is not found in arcades.
For want of a better designation, the machine can be described as the Heuristic Ubiquitous Mentally Animated Neithpod:
Heuristic--because it has the potential to stimulate inquiry on the part of learners.
Ubiquitous--because it is found in more places than any other machine.
Mentally animated--because of the intellectual processes of which it is capable.
Neithpod--after Neith, the Theban goddess of wisdom (and, incidentally, of the arts of peace and war); pod--to indicate that it has feet.
With our penchant for abbreviating technological devices, there is little doubt that quite soon the machine will be known by its acronym, HUMAN.
Even though this èõíáî machine is widely used, it is not producing the revolution in education that it might. Perhaps by analyzing its capabilities and shortcomings, we may learn how to use it most effectively.
A number of characteristics of the HUMAN machine lend themselves admirably to the instructional process. These include the following:
- The HUMAN machine is capable of processing complex bits of information.
- It receives data through multiple modes.
- It is capable of recombining information to produce unique products not originally entered into the system.
- It is able to decide when to plug into other media to allow them to assume functions it is incapable of performing or performs inefficiently.
- It is self-programming.
- It can operate in an interactive relationship with learners.
- It can accept an unanticipated response from a learner and branch in a completely new direction.
- It transmits data through multiple media.
On the other hand, certain characteristics limit its usefulness in instruction. Among these limiting characteristics are the following:
- The HUMAN machine is able to accept only limited amounts of data in a given period.
- Memory for discrete data elements is limited.
- Retrieval of information is erratic, both in speed and in locating information in memory.
- Output is relatively slow.
- The HUMAN machine is not equipped to make multiple copies.
- Procedures for detecting and correcting defects in the machine are imperfect and expensive.
- The components of the machine are highly interdependent; relatively few of the components can be replaced without interfering with the capacity of the machine to function.
- It is relatively expensive to maintain.
If the potential of the HUMAN machine for instructional purposes is to be realized, the first set of characteristics must be used to the maximum and the limiting characteristics must be minimized. Until now, this has not been done consistently. The machine has often been used in ways that emphasize its limitations and underemphasize its strengths. Several examples will illustrate.
Transmitting information. The HUMAN machine is most frequently used in instruction to transmit information. Because of its slow output, this is an inefficient use of the machine. Other means of transmitting information should be used when they are available, freeing the HUMAN machine to perform those functions that it does so well--such as processing information or branching in new directions in response to learners’ input.
Retrieving information. The HUMAN machine is often called upon to retrieve information despite limited memory and inefficient retrieval capabilities. A better use of the machine is in organizing information and leaving the mechanics of retrieval to other devices.
Processing complex information. This is what the HUMAN machine does best. Yet we often use it on tasks that require it to operate only on the simplest data. We do not often take advantage of its ability to relate one set of data to other bodies of knowledge, to society’s concerns, or to learners’ needs.
Responding to individual learners. Many technological media can receive individual learners’ unique responses to objective data and branch accordingly. The HUMAN machine can respond not only to objective data but also to the subtle subjective nuances of emotions and attitudes that determine to a great degree what and how a learner responds.
Using other media. Although the HUMAN machine has the capacity to transfer some of its functions to other types of equipment--a capability almost unique among teaching machines--it is not often asked to do so.
Programming other HUMAN machines. Many reform plans call for increased staff development to improve the capability of the educational system to offer appropriate learning experiences to students. Technology is often used in staff development efforts. The HUMAN machine is uniquely equipped to share competencies with other HUMAN machines in order to raise the effectiveness of all.
Motivating learners. The HUMAN machine must frequently operate within a motivational system based primarily on extrinsic rewards, such as grades. However, it has the capacity to help learners find the intrinsic rewards of learning, to develop a love of learning. For students to become lifelong learners, such intrinsic rewards are essential.
Reacting flexibly. In spite of the HUMAN machine’s great flexibility, we often use it in a stereotyped role. At most, we change the size of the group, the length of time learners use the machine, the shape and size of the room, or the slant of the floor. Worst of all, we tell it what to teach and how to teach it. In short, we put this wonderfully adaptable machine into fixed surroundings and expect it to teach people how to change, how to explore, and how to adapt to an unpredictable future.
There is widespread agreement that schools need to change to meet the demands of the 21st century. But changes on the periphery--in governance, in assessment, in graduation requirements--are unlikely to produce substantial improvement unless we change what happens in the teaching-learning process. Let us hope that by calling attention to these characteristics of the HUMAN machine we will encourage its more effective use.
But perhaps more is needed. Maybe it needs a snappy title. How about “Teacher 2000'’?
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1992 edition of Education Week as Teacher 2000