Issue Number 294 November 30, 2020

Some Information and Communication
Technology Challenges
to Our Current Educational Systems


David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) and Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. A number of the newsletters are available in Spanish on the AGATE website mentioned above.

My newest free book is titled Computer Cultural Literacy for Educators. The following English language sites for this book have had a combined total of more than 5,000 page views.
The Spanish language version of Computer Cultural Literacy for Educators, Alfabetización Informática Cultural para Educadores, has recently been published.
My most recent previous book, The Fourth R (Second Edition), is available free in both English and Spanish (Moursund, 2018a, link; Moursund, 2018b, link). The unifying theme of the book is that the 4th R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking is fundamental to empowering today’s students and their teachers throughout the K-12 curriculum. These books have now had a combined total of more than 120,000 page-views. Over 27,500 of these are the Spanish edition.

Introduction

The previous IAE Newsletter explored some possible futures of education, with a focus on our PreK-12 schools. The unifying theme is that schools are not keeping up with the changes going on in our world. We now are more than 60 years into the Information Age, and we have computers, computerized machines, and robots that can solve many of the cognitive and physical problems and tasks that people routinely encounter in their adult lives. Year by year, we are making astonishing progress in improving the capabilities of this technology.

Today’s students are certainly learning to make use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). But, most of their knowledge and skills is self-taught, learned from friends, and so on. The number of students graduating from high school with more than the equivalent of a one year-length course in ICT is quite small. A similar statement holds for the post high school education of our PreK-12 teachers.

ICT has greatly changed our world. It has had some impact on the content, pedagogy, and assessment in our schools, and it certainly has had a strong impact on our children in their lives outside of school.

Schools have many goals. One general goal is to help students to understand and deal with the problems and tasks that help to define the various disciplines that are covered by the curriculum. As noted in the previous newsletter, our schools need to make much more effective use of ICT in helping students learn to solve the problems and accomplish the tasks that we are teaching them, and also in the overall instruction of these students.

Thus, I think of computer uses in education in terms of both of the following:

  1. Content, pedagogy, and assessment.
  2. An aid to solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

In my opinion, the most effective uses of computers in education simultaneously address both of the above. I am particularly interested in situations in which the computer is simultaneously both a teacher and a tool. My analysis of the research literature on Computer-assisted Learning (CAL) suggests to me that the best implementation of CAL is both as an aid to learning specific instructional content, and as a tool to help students learn to make use of (apply) that content.

The previous newsletter included my rather grandiose proposal that the U.S. Federal Government should provide ten billion dollars a year to fund a very long-term project of developing high quality computer-assisted learning materials covering the entire PreK-12 curriculum (Moursund, 15/11/2020, link.) This funding also would make these materials available free to students, parents, schools, and others who might want to make use of them.

Over the years, the National Science Foundation has funded quite a few curriculum development projects, but none on the scale that I am proposing. Commercial publishing companies continue to dominate in the development and distribution of PreK-12 curriculum content, pedagogy, and assessment materials. Individual teachers carry out the implementation. How well they succeed in this task varies considerably from teacher to teacher.

What Can Parents and Teacher Do Right Now?

My proposal to the Federal Government is a “what they should do in the future” type of response to ICT in precollege education. This current newsletter addresses some of the things that you, personally, and also many other individuals, can do right now.

In coping with this year’s covid19 pandemic, the economically-developed countries of the world have demonstrated that it is now possible to provide all of their students with a computer and Internet access for use both at home and at school. The success level that has been achieved varies from one country to another, and also from one part of a country to another part. It is clear to me that the United States and many other countries should be designing and implementing new curriculum and instruction to make effective use of this technology. The world of business has done well in this endeavor.

The progress of our educational systems in dealing with ICT has been spotty. In my opinion, it leaves much to be desired.

Learning to Read and Reading to Learn

This section addresses reading and writing, certainly one of the most important and universally accepted parts of the curriculum. Our students are taught how to read, and also taught how to learn through use of their reading skills.

 Every discipline of study can be defined by the types of problems and tasks it addresses, the methodologies it uses, its successes and failures, and so on. In every discipline of study, the development of reading and writing, and later the invention of the printing press, have been game changers. We humans have understood the importance of reading and writing since the first schools to teach these cognitive skills were established some 5,000 years ago. Even today, one measure of the success of schools is how well students learn to read and write, and the percentage of the world’s people who have gained these crucially important skills.

Reading is a very important aid to learning. In the U.S., a student making normal progress in reading is expected to be able to make significant use of reading as an aid to learning by the end of the third grade. By the seventh grade, reading is a major aid to learning in the various standard subjects taught at that grade level.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” (Frederick Douglass; American freed slave who became an ardent abolitionist, orator, and writer; 1818–1895.)

Reading also is one of the most important components of our schooling curricula. As Douglass makes clear, reading empowers the reader. Moreover, reading is a skill that leaners can use immediately, both in making further gains in reading skills and as an aid to learning and solving problems in every other discipline of study. Reading also provides a form of entertainment, and using this form of entertainment continues to improve one’s reading skills.

Reading involves transferring marks on a page into words in one’s head. This challenge varies from language to language, with strongly phonetic alphabet-based languages being much easier for a native speaker to learn to read than are picture-based languages such as Chinese and Japanese.

Moreover, turning marks on a page into mental sounds of words is just one aspect of learning to read. Making sense of the words (understanding what one is reading) is also a major challenge. This is one reason why reading instruction in our schools includes a focus on reading across the curriculum and learning to read with understanding in each of the various disciplines one is studying.

Hard Copy Print Materials Versus Interactive Multimedia
on a Computer

Think of the similarities and differences between reading text printed on a page and reading interactive multimedia on a computer. Multimedia includes audio and video. In an interactive mode of computer assisted instruction (CAL), the reader may be able to communicate with the computer via keyboard, mouse, touch pad or touch screen, and voice. The CAL being used will have the capability of adjusting whatever information is being presented based on an ability to analyze data being collected from the reader that includes the speed in moving through the materials, responses to questions from the CAL, and so on. All of this data also can be analyzed in ongoing research projects designed to improve the CAL to make it better fit the specific instructional needs of the wide variety of students using the system.

Suppose that a modern version of such a CAL system is being used to help a student learn to read. Clicking on a word causes the system to speak the word. A message to the computer (perhaps double clicking a word) may produce a short oral definition, a picture, and/or a short animation helping to define the word, and so on. The system might well be designed to listen to the student reading aloud, correct the student’s pronunciation, gather information about progress the student is making in reading, and then select more advanced material suitable to the student.

Carrying this example one step farther, such a system could assess a student’s understanding via an oral or screen display of questions, then accepting and analyzing student oral or keyboard answers. If a text or learning task is too easy or too difficult for the student, the computer could switch to easier or more difficult reading tasks.

This is not science fiction. With current technology, and based on current research on teaching reading and learning to read, such a system can be created. It will have some capabilities that exceed those of the typical classroom teacher who has not specialized in teaching reading, and will certainly be valuable to a very broad range of students, including students being home-schooled. Moreover, a similar system could be used to help a student to learn a foreign language.

A Message to Parents and Teachers

Contrast the CAL described above with the teaching and learning situation of a child sitting on the lap of a parent or other caring adult, and being read to from a children’s picture storybook. The adult knows the child, loves the child, and is both trusted and loved by the child. Here, the human teacher can easily be better in many ways than the computer system described above in serving as a personal tutor to the child. The person does not need to be a trained professional teacher to be more successful than the computer system for a very broad range of very young students. Of course, students with various types of learning challenges often will benefit by having a trained specialist working with and providing assistance to the parent or other caring adult.

Thus, for the easily foreseeable future, I believe that very young children should receive an introduction to reading in such a home environment, and only later spend time in the CAL environment I have described. This type of analysis is part of the overall thinking behind providing a new parent with three (or even more) years of paid leave as part of the overall goal of improving children’s informal and formal learning.

A similar analysis carries over to actual formal schooling. The overall learning environment with children interacting with other children, adult teachers, teacher’s aids, and parent volunteers is an exceedingly important aspect of education. To cite a single example, consider the learning that occurs as two or more children (perhaps even the whole class) discuss with each other some content they have just read, tying this content in with their own personal opinions, life experiences, and learning.

The type of CAL that I am describing will free up teachers so they can spend more time interacting with students in the ways described above. This human factor is absolutely essential in our educational systems. It always is in short supply, even in exclusive private schools that can afford to have smaller class sizes than the public schools.

Staff and Parent Development

The futurist picture that I present above is beset with two difficulties as children begin to face the challenges of reading in an interactive multimedia learning environment. Presumably, most of today’s parents and teachers are familiar with communicating in such an interactive multimedia environment. They are self-taught, learning by trial and error, from their friends, and so on. They use their adult judgement of when to make use of links that may be helpful. But, how does one teach children in such an environment?

Personally, I have no idea of the age or cognitive development level when a child learning to read will benefit by making use of features such as the computer being able to pronounce a word, or show a picture or video clip that illustrates a word. When should a beginning reader make use of such aids? How does a parent or teacher teach the use of such computer capabilities? At what reading level should students be turned loose to access the Web independently for purposes of looking up more information on a topic they encounter in their reading or other lessons?

Teachers at the elementary school level already have to deal with students who vary considerably in their rate of progress in learning to read. One way this is handled is by dividing a class into three or more reading groups. Each group is working on a different set of reading materials, but they tend to be lock-stepped within their group’s materials. This is a necessary part of teachers wanting to be able to interact with a whole group who all have recently read the same content. On one hand, we want students to take the initiative in reading on their own, with content that interests them. On the other hand, there is considerable benefit in students and their teacher interacting with content that all of the students have read recently.

The computer access creates another challenge to teachers. Teachers always have had to deal with students who knew more about certain topics than did the teacher. An elementary school student might have learned much more about dinosaurs that the typical elementary school teacher. This usually is only a modest problem for teachers, one addressed in the next section of this newsletter.

A Further Challenge to Teachers and Our Schools

Remember that a major goal of education is for students to gain increased knowledge and ability in solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks that are specific to the discipline areas they are studying. What do we want schools to be doing about the increasing capabilities of computers in helping to solve, or actually in solving completely, these types of problems and accomplishing these types of tasks?

I like to explore an analogy with desktop and pocket calculators. They provide an example of ICT aids that are very affordable. (I still smile when I see a six-function solar-powered calculator available for a dollar.) Many years ago this technology raised questions in math education that are now being raised across all curriculum areas.

Starting in 1960, desktop calculators based on vacuum tubes were introduced to replace the mechanical and electromechanical calculators that had been widely used in business, engineering and science. Electronic calculators were more durable, faster, and silent. In the mid-1960s vacuum tubes were replaced by discrete transistors to provide more functionality and greater durability. By the mid-1970s, small battery-powered pocket calculators, implemented with integrated circuits, had replaced desktop calculators and were rapidly replacing the previously indispensable engineering slide rules (Swartzlander, 9/1/2015, link).

A calculator is only a moderately complex device, one that has quite limited problem-solving capabilities. Our schools, however, are still struggling with this challenge. Students are now allowed to use certain (somewhat limited) calculators on certain parts of the Math SAT test.

According to The College Board’s SAT Calculator Policy, there are 3 types of calculators allowed on the SAT:

  • Graphing calculators (most models)
  • Scientific calculators
  • Four-function calculators

These calculators must be battery operated and no power cords are allowed (Thorndyke, K., 8/1/2018, link). [And, of course, they must not be able to access the Web.]

This means that students preparing for college must become versed in solving math problems, both with and without the aid of calculators. The educational problem is more complex when we teach students to use computers as an aid to solving math problems. This is one reason why there needs to be an agreement throughout the country on what math students should learn about the use of calculators and computers in solving math problems. In addition, it is important that math teachers gain the math-related calculator and computer knowledge and skills needed to teach such a curriculum.

Now expand this difficulty to the full range of problems and tasks that the average student is able to understand, one who might be studying any of the many courses offered in middle and secondary school. The calculator problem in math education is very modest when compared with this overall challenge that teachers face as computer-assisted problem solving is integrated into the CAL being used in all courses.

We also need to think about how parents who have widely varying opinions about what children should be learning will deal with such a major change in curriculum content. We can see a little piece of this problem in modern math education. Many schools now work to have students actually understand math, rather than just memorizing how to carry out the arithmetic computations and other operations. This leads to students learning processes that are different from those that their parents know how to do, and trying to solve problems that their parents did not encounter in their school math studies. Quite a few parents believe, “If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for my children. I don’t approve of this new math stuff.”

For a personal story, as my children were growing up they could use the calculators I had purchased. One day I came home from work and found one of my sons busily using a calculator to do some fourth or fifth grade arithmetic homework. I asked what he was doing. He replied that he was using the calculator to figure out the “goes-intos” in the long division problems. That is, he was doing a pencil-and-paper long division assignment in which he had to show all of the work, but was using a calculator to determine the digits to use in the trial divisors. This avoided having the messiness of dealing with an incorrect estimate. Hmmm. Very innovative!

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Our educational system faces the dual challenge of dealing with a steady increase in the amount of high quality CAL that will become available to students, and also with major content changes in the curriculum content. The curriculum changes will be a major challenge because of the vertical structure of many curriculum areas. Still another challenge is that teachers at each grade level and in each specific subject area will be working with students who come into their classes with steadily increasing ICT knowledge and skills, and with an expectation of using this knowledge and skill in most if not all of their lessons.

Final Remarks

I believe that today’s teachers will not have any great difficulty in adjusting to their students making use of CAL as a supplement to, and perhaps as a substitute for, the more traditional instruction that teachers are accustomed to providing. However, they will need substantial help in learning and teaching the various subject areas in which computers have become an essential and routine aid to solving the types of problems and accomplishing the types of tasks specific to that discipline area. This challenge is exacerbated by the continuing steady increases in the capabilities of computers, and their uses in solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks in all academic disciplines. It is a challenge that exists relatively independently of progress occurring in the development of CAL.

References and Resources

Moursund, D. (2020). Alfabetización informática cultural para educadores. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 11/27/2020 from http://iae-pedia.org/Alfabetizaci%C3%B3n_Inform%C3%A1tica_Cultural_para_Educadores.

Moursund, D. (2020). Computer cultural literacy for educators. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 11/27/2020 from http://iae-pedia.org/Cultural_Computer_Literacy_for_Educators.

Moursund, d. (2020). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/27/2020 from http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us.

Moursund, D. (11/16/2020). Thinking about the future of education. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 11/22/2020 from https://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2020-293.html.

Moursund, D. (2018). La cuarta R (Segunda edición). Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 11/25/2020 from http://iae-pedia.org/La_Cuarta_R_(Segunda_Edici%C3%B3n).

Moursund, D. (2018). The fourth R (Second edition). Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 11/24/2020 from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/307-the-fourth-r-second-edition.html.

Moursund, D. (2017). History of computers in education. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/27/2020 from http://iae-pedia.org/History_of_Computers_in_Education.

Moursund, D. (2016). Transfer of learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/27/2020 from http://iae-pedia.org/Transfer_of_Learning.

Swartzlander, E.E, Jr. (9/1/2015) . Electronic calculators: Desktop to Pocket. Retrieved 11/25/2020 from https://ethw.org/Electronic_Calculators:_Desktop_to_Pocket.

Thorndyke, K. (8/1/2018.) The 5 best calculators for the SAT. testprepnerds.com. Retrieved 11/27/2020 from https://testprepnerds.com/sat/best-calculators-sat/#:~:text=%20Benefits%20of%20Using%20a%20Graphing%20Calculator%20on,
two%20graphs%2C%20you%20can%20find%20the...%20More%20.

Author

David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. 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 with Technology (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner). 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 (IAE Books, 2020, link.)

Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE) in 2007. IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and IAE books.  Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executive Officer of IAE and AGATE (IAE, 2020, link; AGATE, 2020, link.)

Email: moursund@uoregon.edu

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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. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.