Information Age Education Blog

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8 minutes reading time (1614 words)

Very Long-range Strategic Planning

 I have long been interested in long-range planning (Moursund, June, 1987; Moursund, April, 1987). I think about designing and implementing a K-12 educational system for children who currently have an average life expectancy of about 80 years. When they finish (or drop out of) high school, on average they can look forward to at least 60 more years of life. What constitutes a good education for these children?

A recent issue of the MIT Technology Review included a report on The Future of Work by the very successful venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson (November-December, 2015). Successful venture capitalists are good at predicting the future of a company that is just getting started and/or is still very young. Here is a quote from Jurvetson’s predictions:

In the long run, 500 years from now, everyone is going to be involved in some kind of information or entertainment. Nobody on the planet in 500 years will do physical repetitive work for a living. There will be no farmers, there will be no people working in manufacturing.… Five hundred years from now I don’t know if even 10 percent of people on the planet [will] have a job in the sense of being paid to do something.

If you go back a few hundred years, everyone was either a slave or a serf, or living off slave or serf labor to pursue science or philosophy or art. [In the future] we’ll live off the production of robots, free to be the next Aristotle or Plato or Newton.

It boggles my mind to try to think about a 500 year forecast. But, even now we are seeing some signs of what Jurvetson is predicting. A steadily increasing number of jobs in the “developed” nations are being filled by computerized machinery and/or robots, and for many other jobs such equipment is substantially increasing the output of a human worker. Clearly there is more to life than spending a great deal of one’s time and energy just trying to earn enough to maintain a rather minimal standard of living.

Jurvetson goes on to talk about the fact that neither our government nor our business leaders seem to be giving much thought to—and planning for—such change:

I don’t think anyone in Washington is going to get their head around this and make meaningful change. No politician has a 50-years horizon. I see zero chance that [their] long-term thinking will govern policy.

I do lament how many investors focus on the short-term sugar buzz of some marginal improvements in something—nothing history books are ever going to be writing about.

Improving Education

The last sentence quoted from Jurvetson made me think about current efforts to improve our educational system. To me, most of these efforts seem to fit his statement of a “short-term sugar buzz of some marginal improvements in something.” Ask yourself: What are we doing that might improve our educational system by a factor of ten? That would be a mind boggling achievement!

In wrestling with this question, my first thoughts were that I couldn’t even imagine what it would mean to improve our educational system by a factor of ten. So I tried to find a single example, and of course I started thinking about computer technology. Since I first wrote about long-range planning for computers in schools nearly 30 years ago, the cost effectiveness of computer technology has improved by a factor of many millions. A Smartphone contains more compute power than did the supercomputers of those times.

Consider the part of education that has to do with accessing the collected knowledge of the human race. I believe that this part of our educational system has improved by a substantial factor. Students learn to access a virtual online library that is much larger than the largest physical libraries, and they can do searches in minutes that previously took hours. That certainly satisfies my search for an example of an improvement by a factor of 10 or more.

It also raises the question of how we might measure an improvement in our educational system. As a result of schooling, we want students to learn to solve certain types of problems and accomplish certain types of tasks. To retrieve information, a student learns to read, formulate a question, formulate a Web search, refine the search as needed, and then read and understand the results. In library-based information retrieval, a student and a computer system working together can far outperform students from earlier years. Nowadays, one can even use voice input to such a retrieval system and receive voice output, and this may decrease the burden being placed on a student’s reading and writing skills.

With this one example in mind, we can begin to think of other examples. We can measure how much better we are at achieving some of our educational goals than others. So, as you search for current and potential major improvements in the results of our schooling system, look for examples in which a student and a computer working together can each take advantage of their innate capabilities, and together can outperform either working alone.

Here are a few examples that occur to me:

• Editing a paper that I have written, and retyping a nicely formatted version of the final paper. I do the thinking and writing. The computer helps me a great deal as I retrieve information for use in my paper. It helps me with spelling, grammar, and typos. It helps me with editing that involves moving paragraphs or whole pages around. And it retypes the paper for me. My overall writing productivity is not increased by a factor of ten, but in certain parts of the process my productivity is increased by a factor of ten or more.

• Collecting and analyzing data. Here, think about the use of computer aids in gathering data, analyzing data using a statistical program, and graphing/charting data. Think of the power of modern spreadsheet technology.

• Solving math problems. Think about the current and improving capabilities of Computer Algebra Systems (CAS) that can solve a very wide range of math problems. (Think of a CAS as a simple calculator on steroids.) See, for example, Wolfram Alpha http://www.wolframalpha.com/.

I would like to be able to include examples from progress in brain science research, but it is probably too early to do so. My recent IAE Blog entry, Brain Science Research on Nature Versus Nurture (Moursund, 1/23/2016), summarizes some important findings such as:

• Brain scans and longitudinal studies have revealed that neglect, abuse, and early chronic stress damages the developing brain and primes people for addiction, disease, and premature death.

• Lack of love shrinks the brain's hippocampus. Neuroplasticity allows for some neural growth and rewiring, but the damage from early severe neglect and abuse may be permanent.

• Practicing sensitive and responsive communication, mindfulness, and compassion (including self-compassion) can change the nervous system, our chemistry, and our circuitry from an anxious, vigilant mode to a calmer, more connected state.

These are not “factor of ten” results, but they certainly point to a way of significantly improving informal and formal education.

Also, of course, we have the predictions in science fiction stories and books. There, for example, a person learns a new language in a modest number of hours through a direct computer-to-brain connection. Science fiction nonsense, you might say.

But consider an alternative. We have relatively good (and still improving) computer programs that convert voice input to text. We have relatively good (and still improving) computer programs that translate text from one language to another. (For example, Google Translate is a free service for translating among languages. See https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Google+translate.) And, we have relatively good (and still improving) computer programs that convert text to speech. In essence, we have created a computer-based “work around” that allows two people who speak different languages to carry on a face-to-face conversation, and the quality of this computer work around is improving. This satisfies my definition of improvement by a factor of ten or more!

Final Remarks

I applaud the work of people who have developed and are attempting to implement the Common Core State Standards in Math and in English Language Arts. Similar efforts are going on in other disciplines. To a large extent, however, I believe these people are misguided. I believe that such efforts can, at best, produce only modest improvements in human student capabilities unless they are closely intertwined with making appropriate use of computer technology as an aid to representing and solving problems. So far, I am disappointed by efforts to integrate computer technology into what it means to “know and do” a discipline of study.

What You Can Do

Consider your personal efforts at long-range planning in your life. How good are you at doing such planning, how good are you at implementing your plans, and how good are you at modifying your plans as you and the world change? What are you doing to improve your success levels?

After you do this self-examination, think about how well parents and our schools are preparing our students to make personal long-range strategic plans. Remember that, for a young student, “long-range” might be a modest number of minutes or a few hours.

References and Resources

Jurvetson, S. (November-December, 2015). The future of work. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 2/6/2016 from https://www.technologyreview.com/business-report/the-future-of-work-2015/free/.

Moursund, D. (2016). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/6/2016 from http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us.

Moursund, D. (1/23/2016). Brain science research on nature versus nurture. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/7/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/brain-science-research-on-nature-and-nurture.html.

Moursund, D. (June, 1987). More on long-range planning. The Computing Teacher. Retrieved 2/6/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/moursund-s-iste-editorials/62-june-1986-87/file.html.

Moursund, D. (April, 1987). Long-range planning. The Computing Teacher. Retrieved 2/6/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/moursund-s-iste-editorials/60-april-1986-87/file.html.

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Comments

David Moursund on Monday, 08 February 2016 20:30
Where would government get the money to pay for all of this?

This question came up when I was discussing this blog entry with a friend. It seems to me that a major part of an answer is that every person would have a debit card which they can use to make "purchases" and "money" would be placed in their bank account by a computer system. No actual money is required for this.
However, this seems to me to be a deep question. What is "government" and who/what pays for its operations? Who/what pays for the manufacturing and maintenance of the robots and computerized factories?

I have enjoyed reading "utopia" science fiction stories in which these details are worked out.

Back when I was taking math classes, the book and/or the professor would sometimes say, "The details of completing this proof are left to the reader." 8-)

Dave Moursund

This question came up when I was discussing this blog entry with a friend. It seems to me that a major part of an answer is that every person would have a debit card which they can use to make "purchases" and "money" would be placed in their bank account by a computer system. No actual money is required for this. However, this seems to me to be a deep question. What is "government" and who/what pays for its operations? Who/what pays for the manufacturing and maintenance of the robots and computerized factories? I have enjoyed reading "utopia" science fiction stories in which these details are worked out. Back when I was taking math classes, the book and/or the professor would sometimes say, "The details of completing this proof are left to the reader." 8-) Dave Moursund
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