This free Information Age Education Newsletter
is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online.
In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are
available: Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
This is the fifth in a series of IAE
Newsletters focusing on possible
futures of education. The unifying theme is the exploration of changes
to our current system that have a good chance of
substantially improving the education that our students are obtaining.
Education for Students’ Futures
Part 5: The First Machine Age
University of Oregon
“In medicine, law, finance, retailing,
manufacturing, and even scientific discovery, the key to winning the
race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines.”
(Brynjolfsson and McAfee, January, 2012.)
Our informal and formal educational systems help to prepare
students for their possible futures. The design and implementation of
curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment in our
schools build on our knowledge of what has worked well and what has not
worked well in the past. We teach reading, writing, and arithmetic
(math) to all students because of their enduring value over the
centuries and our guesses and predictions that these will continue to be important in the future.
Guesses and predictions, “Aye, there’s the rub.” When the people and
societies in our world were changing quite slowly, the future was much
like the past. So, there was little need to make significant
educational changes from generation to generation.
But now we live in a time when our educational system is faced by major
technological changes that are occurring during relatively short
periods of time. For example, during the early part of my career a good
desktop calculator cost several thousand dollars and was not very
portable. Now, a much better calculator is very portable and much less
expensive. While fifty years ago it made no sense to integrate
calculators into the precollege math curriculum, now it is commonplace
to do so. Educators now argue about when to introduce calculators into
the math curriculum, and whether doing so damages the overall math
education of students.
Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have recently published The Second Machine Age
(2014). Their book is about the Information Age (the Computer Age), how
it is changing the world, and what we can do about it. See the videos
McAfee (June, 2013) and McAfee (September, 2012) for a summary of the
key ideas covered in the book.
In this IAE Newsletter, I
briefly summarize some of the authors’ insights into how technology has
changed the world in the past and how it is changing the world much
more rapidly now. Their book contains a careful analysis of where we
are now, and how we got here. It then goes on to make guesses and
predictions about future developments. I think the information in
this book should be integrated into the general education that all
students receive. It will help them to understand the world as it is
now, and how it will change substantially during their lifetimes.
I believe that Brynjolfsson and McAfee have provided us with a number
of quite good (accurate) guesses and predictions, and I discuss several
of them in this newsletter. In the next IAE Newsletter I will focus on some educational challenges and choices based on their guesses and predictions.
A Question to Ponder
Brynjolfsson and McAfee ask, “What have been the most important
developments in human history?” This is a challenging question, and the
authors briefly explore many different answers.
What do you think? Perhaps it was the development farming a little over
10,000 years ago—moving us from the Hunter-Gatherer Age into the
Agricultural Age. How did the development of farming change the average
quality of life? As you ponder this question, include the fact that
horses and oxen were domesticated about 8,000 years ago. Farming is a
very physically demanding life style, and it took 2,000 years before
horses and oxen took on some of the physical labor. Farming changed
very slowly over thousands of years.
You might want to focus on the plow, a very important technological
development in farming. The history of the plow provides interesting
evidence of how slowly change occurred during the Agricultural Age.
Quoting from History of the Plow:
The farmers of George Washington's day had no better tools than had the
farmers of Julius Caesar's day; in fact, early Roman plows were
superior to those in general use in America eighteen centuries later.
The first real inventor of a practical plow was Charles Newbold, of
Burlington County, New Jersey, who received a patent for a cast-iron
plow in June, 1797. However, early American farmers mistrusted the
plow. They said it "poisoned the soil" and fostered the growth of weeds.
Perhaps you believe that the most important development was the
invention of reading and writing about 5,000 years ago. During most of
the past 5,000 years, few people learned to read and write. It is only
in relatively recent times that our educational system has decided that
universal literacy is highly desirable—that all children should go to
school and learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Other ideas that might occur to you include the development of various
religions or the development of various forms of government. For
example, Democracy as a form of government, and its empowerment of the
people, certainly was a “game changer.” Think about how long it has
taken to give voting rights to the broad masses of citizens.
In their book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee provide brief discussions of
these types of historical events that have had long-lasting impacts.
They then devote the remainder of their book to discussing changes in
technology and the impact of these changes on people today.
The First Machine Age
The steam engine was developed about 300 years ago. This
eventually led to the start of the First Machine Age (usually called
the Industrial Age). Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the steam
engine was the most important technological development in human
history up until that time. Quoting from the Wikipedia:
The first commercial true steam engine using a
piston was developed by Thomas Newcomen and was used in 1712 for
pumping in a mine.
In 1781 James Watt patented a steam engine that produced continuous
rotative motion. Watt's ten-horsepower engines enabled a wide range of
manufacturing machinery to be powered.
Notice that during the time span 1712-1781 the steam engine had
only a modest impact on the people of the world. It can take a new
technology a very long time to become widely adopted and to produce
major worldwide changes.
Watt’s steam engine was a major breakthrough. Ten-horsepower is
approximately the equivalent of 50 “human-power.” To be more precise, a
healthy human can produce about .1 horsepower for a sustained period of
time, and a trained athlete can produce about .3 horsepower over a
sustained period of time. The average of these two rates of human
physical productivity is .2 horsepower, and corresponds to a
10-horsepower engine doing the physical work of 50 humans. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Horsepower.) It is easy to understand that this was a huge breakthrough. The Industrial Age had truly begun.
Over the next two centuries of the Industrial Age, the steam engine was
followed by many other technological developments that have greatly
enhanced the average human quality of life in the world. Examples of
these developments include: the telegraph, telephone, audio and video
recording and playback devices; radio and television; electrification,
electric lights, electric motors; trains, cars, airplanes, and rocket
ships; huge advances in our medical system; huge advances in the
production, storage, and distribution of food; and so on.
Roughly speaking, these Industrial Age developments were aids to our
physical capabilities. This is obvious in transportation and factory
production. Audio and video communication over great distances added a
new dimension to the repertoire of human physical communication
The First Machine Age also brought us wide scale education. Sugata Mitra’s Thoughts on the Future of Learning
(Part 3 of this current IAE Newsletter series) provides an
interesting view of the development of schools in England and
throughout the British Empire. Required school attendance and labor
laws were developed to keep young children out of the factories and to
meet the need for literate factory workers and clerks throughout the
British Empire. The system of education that emphasized reading,
writing, and arithmetic worked well for 200 years. The Second Machine Age (the Information Age)
We are now about 60 years into the Second Machine Age (often called the
Information Age). In 1956 in the United States, some researchers
noticed that the number of people holding white-collar jobs had just
exceeded the number of people holding blue-collar jobs. Aha, they said.
This is a big change. We are no longer in the Industrial Age. Let's
call this new situation the Information Age (Naisbitt, 1982).
While the Industrial Age focused on aids to human physical
capabilities, the Information Age focuses on aids to human mental
capabilities. These two general categories of aids to human
capabilities are now being combined in robots.
Some people find the term robot
frightening. So, let’s begin with a simple example. An electronic
digital calculator can do arithmetic, solve equations, perform
statistical calculations, and draw graphs. Probably you do not find
this to be very frightening. When a human using such a calculator tells
the machine what task to perform, the calculator is robotic in its fast
and accurate actions of carrying out the operations to complete the
A modern equation solving and graphing calculator increases the
productivity of humans in a relatively limited area. In solving certain
types of equations or graphing functions, a human and calculator
working together may be a great many times as fast—and more
accurate—than a human using only pencil and paper. Moreover, a modern
calculator is so inexpensive and portable that a person can carry one
in a pocket and use it occasionally throughout the day as needed.
Now, think about what happened as connectivity and personal computers
became available. Smart phones, laptop computers, tablet computers, and
other digital devices connected to the Internet can be thought of as
types of robots. This technology greatly expands the number of problems
that can be addressed by a human and machine working together.
As a simple example, while writing this newsletter I can access the
world’s largest library. In a few minutes I can accomplish an
information retrieval task that may previously have required many hours
in physical libraries. In addition, this information is available 24/7
and can be especially valuable in the many geographic areas without
access to large research libraries. In accessing the accumulated
knowledge of the human race, my productivity might be increased by a
factor of many thousands.
In a few short years we have gone from having no smart phones to a
worldwide production of a billion such devices per year. The use of
computer technology and robots in our manufacturing and distribution
systems means that, if we wanted to, we could provide nearly every
student in the world with a tablet computer that incorporates the
features of a smart phone and a laptop computer. Our educational system
is just beginning to come to grips with how such technology can
facilitate major changes in curriculum content, instructional
processes, and assessment. These and some related topics will be
addressed in the next IAE Newsletter.
Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: W.W. Norton.
Naisbitt, J. (1982). Megatrends: Ten new directions transforming our lives. NY: Warner.
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University
of Oregon. His professional career includes founding the International
Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s
executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship
publication, Learning and Leading
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iae-pedia.org/David_Moursund_Books.
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