Information Age Education
   Issue Number 47
August, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

Education and Health Care Part 3:
Research and Development

"One striking fact is that the complex world of education—unlike defense, health care, or industrial production—does not rest on a strong research base." (National Research Council, 1999.)

“Drug companies are abandoning the antibacterial business, citing high development costs, low return on investment and, increasingly, a nearly decade-long stalemate with the Food and Drug Administration over how to bring new antibiotics to market.”  (Chicago Tribune, 8/12/2010.)

In the two previous issues of this newsletter, we have discussed apples and oranges types of arguments and explorations of Education and Health Care. What can procedural and policy strengths and weaknesses in our health care system tell us about possible ways to improve our educational system?

This issue compares research in Education versus Health Care. Precise definitions and data seem to be hard to come by on the research expenditures. However, here are some educated estimates.

As a percentage of GDP, we are currently spending perhaps ten or more times as much on health research than we are on education research. Because total spending in the US in health care is well over twice what it in education, total dollars being spent on health care research are probably more than 25 times what is being spent on education research.

Thus, one might argue that we are spending too much on health care research or too little on educational research. However, the raw data means little, since we are comparing apples to oranges.


A Health Care and an Education Example

To a large extent, improvements in health care are driven by research and technological development. Consider the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. It was developed by Maurice Hillman while working for Merck Corporation in the late 1960s.

Before development of a measles vaccine, in the United States each year millions of people got measles. Fewer than 200 cases a year have been reported each year since 1997.

Measles can lead to blindness or death. Quoting from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14998696:

Measles remains a major problem in developing countries, where it affects an estimated 30 million children a year and causes up to one million deaths annually. Measles blindness is the single leading cause of blindness among children in low income countries, accounting for an estimated 15,000 to 60,000 cases of blindness per year.

Think about these figures in terms of medical research and wide scale implementation of this research. In terms of costs, there are the:
  • cost of the research
  • cost of manufacturing and storing the vaccine
  • cost of distributing the vaccine, and vaccinating people.
There is a huge economy of scale in each of these three cost areas.

Now, think about research and development in education. Can you think of anything that might be comparable to the development of vaccines?

One thing that comes to mind was the invention of reading and writing (Dehaene, 2009). This research eventually lead to the need for formal schooling and to great improvements in education. While it cost little to develop (invent) reading and writing, the costs of educating students to read and write and of providing them with books has always been high. However, invention of the printing press greatly reduced the cost of books and helped some in reducing the cost of instruction. Still, the cost of helping students become literate remains very high—and it uses up a great deal of students’ time.

For a long time, people have been doing educational research that would help students become literate more quickly and at less cost. Some of the research results are implemented in the school curriculum, in books that children learn from, and in teacher education programs.

Nowadays, people keep hoping that computers and other Information and Communication Technology will lead to huge improvements in education. So far, that has not happened. However, there is a steadily increasing amount of good free material available on the Web (http://iae-pedia.org/Open_Content_Libraries).
 

Magic Vaccines and Pills in Health Care

A human’s body is a very complex system. However, it has turned out that with a relatively modest understanding of medical aspects of a human being, we have been able to discover and/or invent a wide variety of drugs, vaccines, and medical procedures that are quite effective. People developed a cow pox-based vaccine for small pox well over 200 years ago. Aspirin has been available for well over a hundred years. Researchers developed antibacterial sulfa drugs during the 1930s. It did not take expensive and sophisticated medical research equipment for penicillin discoverer Arthur Fleming to note that something was killing the bacteria growing in a Petri dish!

Gradually, medical researchers have come to understand how these vaccines and drugs work, and have used their expanding knowledge in research to develop still better vaccines and drugs. State of the art research in medicine now tends to require huge expenditures in sophisticated equipment, facilities, and researchers. One  “carrot” driving our large expenditures in medical research is the possibility of still more huge leaps forward. Note, however, the second of the two quotations given at the beginning of this article.

Contrast this situation with our understanding of the human brain and how to “treat or overcome” some of its limitations. In an earlier newsletter, we used the term “cure ignorance.” But this as a naïve way of looking at education and the human brain.

Consider, for example, the educational goal in the United States of having children complete the third grade with a level of reading skills that is useful in learning by reading. It takes a very large amount of time and effort for an average child to learn to read that well, and many don’t make it.

The types of treatments that we use include more and better education of people who will become parents, Head Start Programs, Kindergartens, better prepared teachers, more school time devoted to reading, better teaching methodologies and books, reading specialists and so on. All of these are helpful to varying degrees, but none are magic pills or magic vaccines.

It is only recently that we have developed research tools and methodologies that allow us to begin to understand how a brain works.

Brain Science and Education

Brain science is a quite old discipline. We have long had psychotropic drugs, and their use can be thought of as forerunners of a beginning of a science of the brain.

About 2,400 years ago Plato said:

When you spoke of a nature gifted or not gifted in any respect, did you mean to say that one man may acquire a thing easily, another with difficulty; a little learning will lead the one to discover a great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application no sooner learns then he forgets…

In more recent times we have had phrenology and then the development of IQ tests. Now, with electron microscopes, brain scanning equipment and computer modeling of the brain,  brain science has blossomed as a vibrant and very important area of study.

Much of this progress is due to the development of computerized instrumentation such as electron microscopes and a variety of brain imaging equipment. We are beginning to know enough about the human brain so that we can develop educational interventions that have broad-reaching potentials. See http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science and http://brainconnection.positscience.com/library/?main=talkhome/columnists for some insights from your authors.

This brain science research has already produced some amazing results, For example, Scientific Learning Corporation produced interactive software deliverable via the Web that effects a “cure” for many children who are severe speech delayed due to the phoneme processors in their brains running too slowly. Somewhat similar computer-based approaches are a significant help in dealing with dyslexia and various attention deficit problems.

On a broader scale, we are gradually developing quite effective highly interactive, intelligent computer-assisted learning (HIICAL) systems that have some of the characteristics of a good one-on-one human tutor. See http://iae-pedia.org/Staff_Development_via_Distance_Education. Long before the development of such “modern” computer-assisted learning systems, we had meta studies and even a 1994 meta meta study showing substantial gains in both learning and speed of learning (Kulik, 2003).

HIICAL systems make use of artificial intelligence, computer models of what a student knows, and computer models of effective teaching and learning. Computer brains and computerized robots are getting smarter. In many situations, they far exceed the capabilities of a human brain (Moursund, n.d.; http://iae-pedia.org/Artificial_Intelligence). One can draw an analogy between use of such auxiliary brains and the use of artificial joint replacements, pacemakers, cochlear implants, hearing aids, and eye glasses.

The combination of steadily improving HIICAL and artificial intelligence will eventually lead to profound changes in our educational system.


References

Dehaene, S. (2009) Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention  New York: Viking. Some of his publications are available free online at http://www.unicog.org/biblio/Author/DEHAENE-S.html.

Kaiser Family Foundation (2008). U.S. health care costs. Retrieved 8/2/2010 from http://www.kaiseredu.org/topics_im.asp?imID=1&parentID=61&id=358.

Kulik, James A. (May 2003). Effects of Using Instructional Technology in Elementary and Secondary Schools: What Controlled Evaluation Studies Say. SRI International. Retrieved 8/3/2010 from http://www.sri.com/policy/csted/reports/sandt/it/Kulik_ITinK-12_Main_Report.pdf.

Moursund, David (n.d.). Two brains are better than one. Retrieved 8/3/2010 from http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.

National Research Council (1999.) Improving Student Learning. Retrieved 8/2/2010 from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=6488&page=1

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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