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Education for Students' Futures Part 15:
The Teaching Machine Is Both Tool and Teacher
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The medium is the message. (Herbert Marshall
McLuhan; Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public
intellectual; July 21, 1911–December 31, 1980.)
"If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying
to teach them. Instead give them a tool, the use of which will lead to
new ways of thinking." (Richard Buckminster Fuller; American engineer,
author, designer, inventor, and futurist; 1895–1983.)
This IAE Newsletter explores some far out ideas about the future of
teaching machines. My view of the future of teaching machines is
summarized by the statement: The Tool
is the Teacher. This newsletter examines a paradigm shift that
is beginning to occur in education.
The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan is well known for his statement that “The medium is
the message.” Like most people, I thought I understood what he meant by
this statement. However, Mark Friedman’s 2004 article, What is the
Meaning of The Medium is the Message?, pointed out how wrong I was.
Quoting from (Friedman, 2004):
McLuhan tells us that a "message" is, "the change
of scale or pace or
pattern" that a new invention or innovation "introduces into human
affairs." Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but
the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with
it.… A McLuhan message always tells us to look beyond the obvious and
seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced,
accelerated or extended by the new thing.
But McLuhan always thought of a medium in the sense of a growing
medium, like the fertile potting soil into which a seed is planted, or
the agar in a Petri dish. In other words, a medium—this extension of
our body or senses or mind —is anything from which a change emerges.
[Quoting McLuhan:] "This is merely to say that the personal and social
consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of
ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs
by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."
Computer as Medium
You are probably familiar with the stories of Bill Gates and Paul Allen
who dropped out of college and stated Microsoft, and Steve Jobs who dropped out of
college to work with his friend Steve Wozniak to start Apple. The
microcomputer was a new medium, and here is my view of the message:
The new medium made it possible for relatively
novice users of the medium to quickly become “world class” and help
facilitate a huge change in the world.
Now, let me share three stories about examples of continuing changes
being wrought by the computer-as-medium.
Story About a 17-Year-Old
The December, 2013 issue of Scientific American includes a story about
Eric Chen, who was a 17 year old high school senior from San Diego
California when he won the 2013 Google Science Fair (Kuchment,
I live in San Diego, where some of the first cases of 2009 H1N1 swine
flu took place in the U.S. It was then that I made a realization that
flue can kill a lot of people. I thought, "Why can’t we use the new
computer power at our fingertips to speed up drug discovery and find
new flu medicine?" I came across Dr. Rommie Amaro of the University of
California, San Diego, and she was willing to let me work in her
Chen then goes on to describe his activities of using the computer to
screen a half million chemical compound, separating out 237 likely
candidates, and testing each of them in a “wet” lab (that is, a
“traditional biology lab) to identify six that are worthy of animal
With his good brain, some tutoring from a professor, and the help of
computer technology, a high school student was able to do cutting edge
research in medicine. What a marvelous learning experience!
Genetic engineering (GE), also called genetic
modification, is the
direct manipulation of an organism's genome using biotechnology. New
DNA may be inserted in the host genome by first isolating and copying
the genetic material of interest using molecular cloning methods to
generate a DNA sequence, or by synthesizing the DNA, and then inserting
this construct into the host organism.
Genetic engineering equipment has now reached the stage that
international and national student contests are held. Paraphrasing a
story about a Genetic Engineering completion for college
students in the The Seattle Times
One project created enzymes that could convert sugar into diesel
The other engineered bacteria that could help people digest
Both projects constitute cutting-edge science. They
came from a team of
undergraduate students at the University of Washington. The projects
garnered the team—and the university—a world-championship prize at an annual
competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In brief summary, computer technology has reached a stage in which
“mere” undergraduate college students can do such projects as “building
two enzymes that could be put into bacteria to convert sugar into
diesel fuel.” What a marvelous learning experience!
Research in Materials Science
A Scientific American by Gerbrand Ceder and Kristin Persson describe
how the computer has changes the entire field of materials science
(Ceder & Persson, 11/19/22013).
Quoting from the article:
In 1878 Thomas Edison set out to reinvent electric
lighting. To develop
small bulbs suitable for indoor use, he had to find a long-lasting,
low-heat, low-power lighting element. Guided
largely by intuition, he set about testing thousands of carbonaceous
materials—boxwood, coconut shell, hairs cut from his laboratory
assistant's beard. After 14 months, he patented a bulb using a filament
made of carbonized cotton thread. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Here is a short summary of the article:
Engineered materials such as chip-grade silicon and fiber-optic
glass underpin the modern world. Yet [as illustrated in by Thomas
Edison’s work] designing new materials has historically involved a
frustrating and inefficient amount of guesswork.
Streamlined versions of the equations of
with supercomputers that, using those equations, virtually test
thousands of materials at a time—are eliminating much of that
Researchers are now using this method, called high-throughput
computational materials design, to develop new batteries, solar cells,
fuel cells, computer chips, and other technologies.
The Tool is the Teacher
The message that I take from the three examples in the previous section
is that the computer being used in tool mode helps creates powerful
learning and research experiences that in some sense circumvent and/or
greatly speed up many years of conventional education and time spent
I find this to be an interesting way to think about teaching machines.
We know, of course, that a teaching machine can be designed to help
students better solve the problem of learning certain content. I have
always wondered about the fact that for a teaching machine to be
effective, it has to in some sense “know” the content it is teaching.
This idea is obvious in the traditional drill and practice in math
facts programs that generate random problems, present the problems to a
student, and check the student’s answers against answers generated by
But, today’s computers can solve a steadily increasing range of
problems—and many of these are beyond the capabilities of a human
being. So, what should students be learning? Let me repeat a quote from
the previous section:
Streamlined versions of the equations
of quantum mechanics—along with
supercomputers that, using those equations, virtually test thousands of
materials at a time—are eliminating much of that guesswork.
Quantum mechanics is a very challenging field of study. The development
of streamlined versions of the equations of quantum mechanics and of
computers that could solve these equations produced a new “medium” that
could be mass-produced and widely distributed. Students can use these
new types of teaching machines to do cutting edge research. This
provides an excellent example of a tool being a teacher.
Here are some more examples that I like to use in illustrating “the
tool is the teacher.” I have numbered these examples as a continuation
of the seven examples of my previous IAE
As mentioned in my previous IAE Newsletter about teaching
the Web and
the large amount of artificial intelligence incorporated in modern
search engines is a powerful aid to learning. Through using this tool,
one learns to use the tool. One’s personal Web-searching skills
improve. And, over the years, both the amount of content in the Web
increases and the quality of search engines improve.
How can a person who does not know how to play a musical
learn to compose for that instrument? (And, consider the challenge an
orchestral composer faces.) We now have powerful computer programs and
music generation equipment that can perform the music a person is
composing. The tool plays an important role in the teaching. Moreover,
the tool can perform the final music that is composed. What a marvelous
Recently I have been reading Michio Kaku’s 2014 book, The Future of
the Mind. His focus is on human consciousness and many of the
edge technologies that are now available or are soon likely to be. He
discusses “mind reading”—input and output connectivity
computer brain and a human brain. Here is a Kaku quote about the idea:
Stephen Hawking, my colleague, is
totally paralyzed, and he has a chip in his right [eye] glass. Next
time you see him on television, look in his right frame, and you see a
brain sensor that picks up radio from his brain and allows him to type
predicts that such
technology will come into widespread use
in about ten years. This technology requires both that the tool teach
its user and that the user teaches its tool.
We have long had computer-aided design and computer-aided
manufacturing equipment. A skilled operator of CAD-CAM
equipment both designs a component of a product and produces
instructions that control
a computerized machine to produce the component. An automated loom
provides an excellent example.
As one example of CAD-CAM equipment, we now have relatively inexpensive
robot-like printing machines that function much like a laser printer.
The printers use “ink” that consists of various types of plastics and
metals that can be used to build physically solid products by
“printing” one very thin layer at a time. These three-dimensional
printers provide sculptor artists to both design are produce their
sculptures. A recent article in Campus Technology suggests that
widespread use of this technology in schools and higher education is
still a decade away (Nagel, 8/19/2014).
There are many discipline of study in which a computer and/or
computerized robot is an important aid to representing and solving the
problems. Nowadays, the frontiers of computer use in the various
disciplines focus on a human accurately specifying a problem to be
solved or a task to be accomplished. That is, a human poses a clearly
stated problem or asks a carefully stated question. Given such a
specification or question, the computer or computerized robot takes
over the detailed task of figuring out to solve the problem or
accomplish the task. A dialogue between the human and the computer
system will likely occur. The human has to learn the types of questions
the computer system can answer and how to state questions in a format
that the computerized robot is designed to handle. The programmers work
to improve the human-machine communication system. The Watson computer
system that performed so well in a 2011 Jeopardy contest illustrates
progress that is occurring in the types of questions a computer system
can “understand” and answer.
Every academic field of study and research is developing computer tools
that are specifically designed to aid students and researchers. These
tool have built-in knowledge and skills that are part of the
fundamentals of the discipline. As these tools become more powerful and
essentially indispensible to a specific discipline of study, they lay
the groundwork for the tool becoming the teacher. This trend is now
well started. I believe over the next few decades it will become a
dominant force in education. Much in the manner that we now expect all
students to learn to use computer search engines, in the future we will
expect students to learn to use the specialized computerized tools that
are being developed in the various disciplines the students study.
David Moursund earned his doctorate in mathematics from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few highlights of his professional
career include founding the International Society for Technology in
Education (ISTE), serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and
establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was a major professor or co-major professor of 82 doctoral students.
He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds
of articles. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
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