“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Charles Darwin; English scientist and naturalist; 1809-1882.)
“Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone's knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier.” (John Dewey; American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer; 1859-1952.)
“The aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, can see in the service to the community their highest life achievement.” (Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner; 1879-1955.)
My goal in this and many of my previous newsletters is to help to improve the lives of people and other life on earth. The quotations given above reflect some of my beliefs.
This is the eighth of a sequence of IAE Newsletters discussing possible roles of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in improving our schools (Moursund, 2021, link). It is clear that AI is a powerful change agent, one that already has produced a number of changes in our schools. Each of us has our own opinions as to which of these and other proposed AI-related changes may prove to be desirable, and which may prove to be undesirable.
Our schools have made some progress in making effective use of AI, but for the most part our schools might best be described as same-o same-o. The computer-based changes and more specific AI-based changes in our K-12 schools pale to insignificance when compared with changes in the business world. Amazon, for example was based on emerging capabilities of computers and is now a HUGELY large and successful business, quite different from what large retail businesses were like before Amazon was established. A similar statement holds for Google.
In my previous writings, I have compared the development of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as being a change agent that is perhaps second only to the development of reading and writing some 5,500 years ago. ICT presents us with new opportunities in both informal and formal education. This newsletter explores some of my ideas of what I think K-12 education can and should be doing.
This section is for people who have not read my seven previous newsletters, and for those who need a little refreshment on key ideas in them. We Homo Sapiens have a combination of physical and cognitive abilities that set us apart from all other creatures on earth. Using these capabilities, we have developed superior abilities to preserve and pass on information from one generation to the next.
Initially, this was via helpful tools, and we used “show and tell” to communicate how to construct (or find) and use these tools. Many other animals have this ability to use tools and to teach their offspring to use them.
Eventually our human brains evolved to made it possible to develop our current levels of oral fluency. This was a huge step forward.
We don’t know precisely when oral fluency developed. But, estimates are that this was likely more than 200,000 years before we developed written language. It was only about 5,500 ago that we invented reading and writing, together with arithmetic based on using reading and writing. We developed books and printing presses to allow us to make still more effective use of our reading and writing skills.
Every tool inherently contains a certain level of intelligence. Computers now bring us AI, the most powerful aid to intelligence we have ever developed. We do not yet know the likely limits of AI or what changes it will lead to in our lives and world. A number of people have written about achieving a Singularity, a time when computer-based AI exceeds human intelligence across the full range of human cognitive capabilities. Current predictions as to when this might occur range from ten years to hundreds of years, or more. But, we certainly can be designing our schools to help prepare students for an adult life in which computer AI exceeds human intelligence in a number of areas. We can provide students with an understanding that such computer capabilities will continue to increase steadily during their lifetimes.
I assume that all of my readers are interested in improving education. I have been working on this task for the past fifty years or so. It is a formidable challenge.
AI has the potential to help to improve education—both education through our schools and education outside of our formal schools. Two questions we all need to address are:
As I was browsing through possibly relevant literature, I encountered a recent article by Amy Nordrum in the MIT Technology Review, What Does Progress Mean to You? It contains brief responses from ten activists, entrepreneurs, historians, and economists who were asked to define the deceptively simple term progress and to respond to the question, “What does it mean to make progress?” I found the responses interesting and enlightening. The article begins with this statement from Nordrum:
What do we mean when we talk about progress? In general terms, to make progress means to move toward something and away from something else. But where we’re headed and what we’re leaving behind are key questions that drive political movements, shape international treaties, and define our own sense of personal growth (Nordrum, 2/24/2021, link).
The definitions provided by the interviewees gave me some insights into the challenge of achieving widespread agreement on defining what might constitute progress in improving education. Here are short quotations from six of the people interviewed for the article by Amy Nordrum. Each person is from a different country.
“The bottom line: progress isn’t about closing a gap. It’s about opening a door.” (Shivani Siroya, Founder and CEO, Tala.)
“Progress, to me, is not found in the growth of companies or even the development of new technologies, but in justice and equality and human rights.” (Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation.)
“Meaningful progress is about using our abilities and resources to create a world where anyone can thrive.” (Bárbara Paes, Activist and cofounder, Minas Programam.)
“Progress means actively fostering innovation.” (Yariv Bash, Cofounder, SpaceIL and Flytrex.)
“Progress is often measured as economic growth only. But real progress would involve growth that doesn’t externalize social or environmental costs.” (Farhana Sultana, Associate Professor of Geography, Syracuse University, U.S.)
“Progress for me is about what actually matters most in life: health, job satisfaction, housing quality, living standards, and real education.” (Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.)
For me, this range of definitions highlights the challenges that educational leaders face as they work to improve education. We need to think broadly as we help to prepare the future adult citizens of the world.
You might want to reread the previous sentence. I believe that every person on earth is a citizen of the world, and that we need an educational system that fosters and supports this belief. This global perspective has been strengthened greatly by the current availability of about one smart phone for every two people on earth, together with global connectivity that allows them to communicate with each other. This ability to communicate is helped by AI-based developments in language translation, including voice input in one language being translated quickly into voice output in another language.
Over the past century, leaders throughout the world gradually have come to believe in and support the idea that schooling at least through the sixth grade, and much further in many countries, is an inalienable right of all children in the world. Considerable progress has occurred in implementing this idea, and global literacy of current 15 year-olds is now approaching 90% (Wikipedia, 2021b, link).
In essence, there is global agreement that a goal of education is to help all children to become reading and writing literate. We have thousands of years of experience in how schools can accomplish this task. We have made considerable progress in improving both our teaching and the related instructional materials that help us to move toward universal reading and writing literacy. We also have achieved relatively good worldwide agreement on what constitutes reading and writing literacy, an agreement that can help us to measure progress both in individual countries and in the whole world.
Personally, I would like for our schools also to include a focus on having all students gain a useful level of understanding of the concept of quality of life. What is it, how does one measure it, and how does one measure progress in improving the quality of life of all people, people in a specific country, and each individual person? Notice the parallel with the goal of achieving global reading and writing literacy.
Is it an alienable right for all people to have an adequate quality of life? The United Nations addressed some basic quality of life issues in its December 10, 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The U.S is a signator and a strong supporter of this document. Quoting from this document (United Nations, 1948, link):
Everyone has the right to a standard of
living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his
family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and
necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of
unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack
of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
Notice #1 above. That seems to me to need updating. At a minimum, should elementary and middle school education through the eighth grade be made compulsory? And, we need some general worldwide agreement about what constitutes an education to this level. Education through the eighth grade would appear to be a very conservative goal for our current world. I would modify #3 so that it clearly fits with a modified version of #1. There are many ways to achieve a given level of education, and parental choice is an important idea to uphold. But, every person is a citizen of the world and needs to learn to function both locally and in a much larger world.
AI can and is making contributions to the overall quality of life of people in our country and in the rest of the world. My vision of the future of schooling in the U.S. is that it will include a substantially increased emphasis on helping all students to understand what constitutes an adequate quality of life.
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights stresses the need for a basic education as one part of an adequate quality of life. Educators throughout the world agree that reading and writing are essential components of the early grades. I believe that a modern basic education includes learning about the capabilities and limitations of the aids to our physical and cognitive abilities that now are a routine part of the current world, together with insights into what is likely to become available in the next decade or so. AI lies at the heart of many of the changes that are occurring and will occur.
In this and the next section I describe a relatively near future that I believe should and likely will occur in the United States. We now are in the process of providing every student in the U.S. with home and school access to computers that have good connectivity, and also have access to a wide range of computer-assisted learning (CAL) materials. Our schools support the use of such materials as part of their students’ home and school education.
These materials will be improving steadily as AI-based Highly Interactive Intelligent Computer-assisted Learning (HIICAL) becomes the standard that developers of CAL materials strive to achieve. The Covid-19 crisis has shown us that it is not easy for students to learn to learn in a CAL or HIICAL environment. Thus, I believe that one of the goals of education should be helping all students to become comfortable and competent in learning in this environment. This is a very important idea. We want students to learn to read in order to be able to read to learn. Part of reading to learn is reading interactive multimedia designed to help people learn.
HIICAL materials gradually will become available to cover the entire K-12 academic curriculum and a large number of content areas that are not (yet) part of the regular curriculum. Thus, if a student becomes interested in a subject area not being covered in a school’s regular course offerings, that student will be able to access HIICAL materials designed to meet those individual needs. All of this is possible with current technology—no new technological breakthroughs are needed.
An important aspect of HIICAL is the fact that we can integrate instruction on the use of computer tools within this framework of learning. Students can learn to learn in such an environment, and also learn to use the computer tools that now are routinely available to people who make use of the knowledge and skills they are learning in a course. This integration of the routine use of computer-based tools is a major step forward in education.
If you are a teacher or have other involvements in our schooling system, pause for a minute and think about the necessary changes to preservice and inservice teacher education that will be an important ongoing need amid the many other challenges to our current schooling system. Think about helping students learn to be effective users of this new HIICAL school environment, and what parents will need to learn in order to provide effective help.
In summary, my glimpse into the near future forecasts that all students will have rapidly expanding access to HIICAL that covers a very wide range of areas of study, both areas in the required school curriculum and other areas that a student might want to study. The motivation to make routine use of HIICAL outside of the required school curriculum might come from a student, from a teacher, from a parent or guardian, or from other sources. I personally believe that this will be an improvement in our schools. In addition, it will open up an opportunity for other very major changes in our schools.
Here is an overly simplistic description of the content of a typical school’s curriculum. It consists of some content that is strongly vertically structured and some content that has little or only modest vertical structure. We tend to group students in grade school based on their age. To a certain extent this continues in middle and high school. This grouping is considered to be important in the social education and development of students.
This is an aside: The education of infants and children up until they start in a preschool or kindergarten program is highly individualized. A certain amount of intervention by our social welfare systems provides instruction to some parents and guardians designed to benefit very young needy children. This is a type of educational individualization for the adults and their children.
Math education provides an excellent example of a vertical structure. If a student earns a grade of D in third grade math, and the student is then moved on into traditional fourth grade math, the chances are that the student will do very poorly because the fourth grade math builds heavily on the math knowledge and skills taught in the third grade. The student will likely continue to fall even further behind throughout the coming grade levels, and will stop taking math coursework as early as the school system allows. Indeed, some students fail to graduate from high school just because they have had major difficulties in learning the required math. I have a doctorate in math, and I certainly believe it to be an important academic area. But, I cannot believe that we should use an inability or unwillingness to learn math above the level of basic arithmetic to be a reason for preventing a student from graduating from high school.
Contrast this vertically-structured math curriculum with a school decision that every student should have a half-year or a year-long course in touch typing, a stand-alone skill rather than one that is structured vertically in successive years. Some students will perform much better than others, but all will gain in having learned a useful skill that will serve them year after year in the future.
For another example of a course not structured vertically, many states in the U.S. provide fourth grade students with a year of instruction about their own state. This course contains considerable content about the history of one’s state, and also some instruction about learning about history. The latter knowledge and skill can be used by students in their subsequent studies of history. However, substantial differences in how well the students learn their state’s history likely will have little impact of their future years of pre-college education.
AI-based HIICAL provides schools the opportunity for each student to move at his or her own pace in a course. We know that some students will be able to progress at two or more times the pace of average students in a particular subject area, and some will progress at half or less the rate of average students. This is important in any course area, but I believe it to be particularly important in the vertically structured courses.
This is an aside: This situation reminds me of a time when I had an office in the Computer Center at Michigan State University. As a university faculty member, I generally kept my office door open. When I heard two young students talking while sitting outside my door, I went out and talked with them. It turned out that both were twelve years old. One was the son of a janitor at the university, and one was the son of two Ph.D. research mathematicians who were on the faculty. Both of these young students were being allowed to audit Advanced Calculus—a course for juniors and seniors who were majoring in mathematics at the university. Both students had been provided with this opportunity to proceed in their math studies at a rate that suited their interests and abilities, and both were succeeding. Essentially, from perhaps age four or five, both had learned math at about twice the rate of the average student. So, by age 12 they were seven or more years ahead of their age group in math.
Our schools certainly understand that students vary considerably in how fast and how well they can learn the various subjects the school offers. At the elementary school level, for example, it is common to divide students into reading groups that progress at different paces. In secondary school, we now offer different sequences of math courses, e.g., a calculus course or at least a course that is designed to prepare students to take a calculus course.
This is an aside: My father was chair of the Mathematics Department at the University of Oregon. When was a young child, calculus was a second year course for university math majors. By the time I started at the university, it had become the second and third quarters of a freshman course for math majors. Today, some students take a year of calculus in high school. This change over the years reflects our increased understanding of the math-learning capabilities of students who are interested in and also gifted in mathematics. In essence, our precollege math education system has implemented a type of grouping system. This is not a complete individualization system, but is a step in that direction.
AI-based HIICAL presents schools with an opportunity to individualize vertically structured coursework in all of K-12 education. This individualization of education can be helpful in most if not all content areas, but will be especially helpful in vertically structured curriculum areas where students currently move upward in lock step year after year.
In this section, I will gaze further into the future. The future I envision here can be achieved with only modest improvements in the technologies that already have been developed. It will, however, require that we develop and then mass produce some quite sophisticated ICT hardware. It also will require a major change in the way we currently implement the results from very high quality refereed educational research. Right now, we do a poor job of making effective use of much of this research.
To begin, I want to mention a very difficult issue. As we raise and educate our children, we attempt to prepare them with knowledge and skills that will serve them well, both at the time they receive the education and throughout their lives. At the same time, we also attempt to shelter them from harm. Decisions about each of these general types of goals are made by people with varying insights into what is important and also what is correct information. For one example, I imagine that it may be confusing to students who learn differing stories about evolution at home and at school. The at school version will come both from what is taught there and what the student will access on the Web.
Providing students access to the Web and with connectivity to other people near and far opens up learning opportunities and experiences different from those they currently formerly received from their home, community, and school experiences. It also exposes them to fake and/or heavily biased content in their schoolwork (Farmer, 5/31/2018, link).
This is not a new problem. The new problem is one of carefully crafted fake and/or heavily biased information being presented to students at a time when they are developing knowledge, skills, and access to reliable information that often may be contradictory to what they have previously learned and/or are being taught. It is difficult enough to challenge statements in one’s school materials and content presented by a teacher. For many, it is even more difficult to challenge information that is coming from one’s parents and other authority figures outside the school.
Now, for a glimpse into the relatively near future. Imagine providing every student with an easily portable personal digital assistant (PDA) that has the following types of capabilities.
Here is analogy that just occurred to me. Parents decide that they do not want their children to get the vaccinations a school district requires of all of its students. The school district might respond by providing home schooling via free HIICAL, one free hour of a human teacher’s online help per week, and whatever other help the parents want to pay for. If a child gains the knowledge and skills that the district is expecting for its school-attending students, then the child should receive a diploma. This child might not get the same student-to-student social upbringing as do the students who attend school, but that is a different issue to consider.
The technology to implement all of the above can be mass produced and mass distributed. In the wealthy nations such as the U.S., it will be economically feasible to develop and to provide such facilities and content to all students at the K-12 level. In the U.S., our Federal government will help to pay for some of this, but it mainly will be up to the individual states to decide the extent to which this set of possibilities will be implemented and to pay for them over the long term.
The second item in my list above is particularly important. We have long known that providing a student with an individual human tutor makes a huge difference in that student’s education. Benjamin Bloom’s work in that area has been seminal. In essence, his research indicates that, with the aid of a human tutor, an average “C” student in a course can earn an “A” in the course (Wikipedia, 2021a, link). We are making significant progress in developing computer-based tutors that have many of the capabilities of a good human tutor.
Progress in educational research and in AI will lead to the development of much better versions of the currently available computer tutors. Increasingly, we will have HIICAL that is more successful in many different aspects of teaching than is a human teacher who is working today with a classroom of 20 to 30 students. And, as noted earlier in this newsletter, this HIICAL will facilitate a much higher level of individualization of instruction. Such courseware will be valuable to many students, and eventually will facilitate a major change in how teachers spend their time in working with students.
AI-based computer technology is being widely and relatively rapidly implemented throughout the business world. The successes and failures of these business-world endeavors are much easier to measure than are measures of success in using AI-based HIICAL to improve our schools. However, it is clear to me that AI-based HIICAL will have a steadily increasing positive impact on K-12 education.
You may have noticed that I have made no mention here of the rapid progress now occurring in the implantation of devices into a human brain to facilitate direct computer connectivity (Kay, 2/2/21, link). That is further into the future that this current newsletter has been discussing. If the way out science fiction writers prove to be correct about the capabilities of this type of brain implant technology, then we eventually will be able to teach a student to read a new language during a night’s sleep!
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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.)
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