Information Age Education
   Issue Number 42
May, 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 and the end of this newsletter.

Tutor, Tool, Tutee, and Toy

“In brief summary, I tend to think the the main goals of education are to learn to communicate effectively, learn some of humankind’s accumulated knowledge and where/how to “look it up,” learn to think and solve problems, and learn to be an effective learner.” (David Moursund, American educator.)

The authors of this newsletter were born before the development of electronic digital computers. During our professional careers we have watched as computers came into common use in business, government, and education. One of us (Moursund) wrote a Foreword for Robert Taylor’s 1980 book, The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. This book provided a framework for analyzing how computer technology could be (should be) used in schools. Tutor refers to computer-assisted instruction; tool refers to making use of a library of application programs, such as word processor, spreadsheet, and so on; tutee refers to computer programming and other aspects of telling a computer what to do.

By 1980, microcomputers were coming onto the scene, and computer games were well entrenched. Robert Taylor considered including “Toy”  (Entertainment) as a fourth category of usage, but decided this would detract from the scholarly-academic nature of the book. (Remember, higher education faculty members thought abut promotion and tenure even back then.)

Computer Literacy

The concepts of computer literacy and computing literacy were first published by Arthur Luehrmann (1972) and Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (1972). These two seminal publications (now 38 years old) defined computer literacy and pushed for having all precollege students gain some fundamental knowledge and skills in using computers.
During the past 38 years, computers have indeed come into the K-12 curriculum. The Tutor, Tool, Tutee model developed by Robert Taylor provided a framework as many millions of students learned to use computers. Instruction in programming in the languages BASIC and Logo became widespread as microcomputers became available. The 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, recommended:

The teaching of computer science in high school should equip graduates to: (a) understand the computer as an information, computation, and communication device; (b) use the computer in the study of the other basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and (c) understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies.(National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).

However, computer programming has nearly disappeared from the elementary and middle school curriculum, and only a modest percentage of high school students take a computer science course that includes computer programming.

What has happened is that steady improvements in microcomputer tools eventually overwhelmed the computer-programming component of computer literacy in the schools. In addition, the computer became a “black box” that one could use effectively without knowing much about its insides.

The tools are useful! Nowadays, we take it for granted that secondary school students can use a variety of tools such as a word processor, e-mail, and a Web browser. We are not surprised to hear about students developing Websites and Blogs. Students engage in such activities with very little understanding of the underlying computer science and computer programming.

We all are well aware that students of all ages have learned to play a variety of computer games and also make use of multimedia technology for a wide variety of other forms of entertainment. Indeed, recent research indicates that on average, students spend well over twice as many hours per year using various entertainment forms of computer technology (including television) as they do in school (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010). It is now commonplace for students to have a high level of skill in texting, making use of social networking computer sites, and gaming.

The New Computer Literacy

If Robert Taylor had included Toy (entertainment) in his discussion of computers in education, then one could claim that our current informal and formal educations is doing quite well in incorporating computers into education. Indeed, many people seem to believe that the computer-related entertainment prowess of students constitutes a high level of computer literacy.

However, most of this gaming-oriented and communication-oriented computer knowledge and skills is far removed from basic goals of education, such as given in the quote from David Moursund at the beginning of this newsletter. Students are not learning to use computer-related technology to represent and help solve problems that require higher-order, critical thinking. They are not learning how computational thinking is now important in every academic discipline and that two brains—human plus computer—are better than one. See and

Reasons for this are many and varied. Your authors’ best guess is that it is a combination of curriculum content and the assessment system. The curriculum content in a discipline rarely reflects the capabilities of computers as an aid to representing and helping to solve the problems that help define the discipline.  Our assessment system is not “open computer.” It does not reflect the fact that if a computer can help a person to represent and solve problems outside of a school setting, then this outside of school use is perfectly acceptable and commonplace to use computers. That is, as computer technology continues to improve what we teach and how we assess it is steadily growing less authentic.

The open computer—including open connectivity—concept is simple enough. Give students an education that prepares them to be responsible, productive adults in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Give them an education that includes a strong emphasis on recognizing, posing, representing, and solving challenging, novel problems. Help them learn to learn and to take an increasing level of responsibility for their own learning. Immerse them in learning and problem-solving challenges that stretch their minds. Give them routine practice in just-in-time learning that draws heavily on resources such as computer-assisted learning, distance learning, and other Internet resources.

The Flynn Effect

The previous issue of this newsletter mentioned the Flynn Effect—IQ increasing over the past 70 or 80 years in all countries that have long-term data. This increase has mainly been in the components of IQ measured by use of use of non-verbal tests such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices test of general intelligence (Spearman’s g). See Thus, you would expect that from generation to generation, students would be much better at higher-order thinking and problem solving. When this topic was discussed at a recent meeting attended by one of your authors, a participant remarked: “Perhaps this lack of progress reflects a major flaw in our educational system.” Our current curriculum and instruction has considerable room for improvement in helping students get better at higher-order thinking and problem solving.

Educational Implications

Each discipline taught in our schools is being influenced by the steadily increasing capabilities of Information and Communication Technology. Our current K-12 curriculum content and assessment system do not adequately reflect what is going on in the world outside of formal schooling. Efforts in school improvement and educational reform need to include a major focus on computational thinking and learning to make effective use of the combination of one’s human brain and the brainpower of computers. We need to provide more focus on preparing students to think and solve problems in an open computer, open connectivity environment.


Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (April 1972). Recommendations regarding computers in high school education. Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences Committee on Computer Education. Retrieved 10/5/09:

Kaiser Family Foundation (January 2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year olds. Retrieved 5/22/2010 from

Luehrmann, Arthur (1972). Should the computer teach the student, or vice versa? Retrieved 5/16/2010 from

National Commission on Excellence in Education (April, 1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Retrieved 5/22/2010 from

Taylor, Robert (Ed) (1980). The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. New York: Teachers College Press.

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, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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