Learning in the Age of Knowledge

August 6, 2001

Knowledge is power and permits the wise to conquer without bloodshed and to accomplish deeds surpassing all others.

–Sun Tzu (Chou Dynasty philosopher and military strategist), The Art of War, fourth century B.C.

Originally published November 1991. Published on KurzweilAI.net August 6, 2001.

Some of our trading partners have indeed been accomplishing deeds surpassing all others and doing so without bloodshed. As I discussed in my previous two columns, we are entering an age in which the knowledge component of wealth and the requisite skills to create and convey knowledge are approaching dominance in our increasingly interdependent world. So how are we doing in providing our emerging generations with the necessary competence and expertise? And what role can technology itself play in enhancing the learning process?

In assessing our educational resources, there is good news and bad. We have the finest university system in the world, which provides the education for many of the world’s leaders (in all fields). We have the ability to recognize talent and provide a relatively optimal education for our best and brightest, or at least those fortunate enough to live in affluent neighborhoods. On the other hand, we are failing the rest of the population.

In international tests ranking American students with their counterparts in Europe and Japan, our students generally come out last or close to last in math and science. Japanese students almost always rank first. Ninety percent of Japanese students graduate high school, which includes the equivalent of two years of American college studies (including one year of calculus). Only 70 percent of our students graduate high school, and a disturbingly high fraction of these graduates lack basic reading and technical skills.

Copying the Japanese system (or any of the European systems) here is not the answer. We need to reflect the different strengths of our respective societies. Japan benefits from the homogeneity of its culture with a common tradition going back thousands of years. In sharp contrast, we benefit from the diverse roots of our people. We are the only society in the world purposely formed from every other society. What works well for Japan and many European countries–enforced national standards–is not the answer for our uniquely diverse society.

We could, however, do worse than to follow Japan in certain other ways. On several recent trips to the Far East, I was struck by the central role of learning and education in Japanese society. I was taken on a tour of leading Japanese libraries and was impressed with the deeply respectful, almost reverent attitude toward books as gateways to wisdom. At the same time, I was shown plans for a massive government-led initiative to develop and subsequently distribute a new generation of educational technology to provide Japanese students with advanced workstations, access to comprehensive knowledge bases, and advanced computer-assisted instruction. Japan is a fascinating blend of the old and the new, and we could take a lesson in both.

Eight benefits of technology

With respect to the new, we have no national policy or program of any substantive nature to use powerful emerging technologies that can play a key role in transforming the effectiveness of education. These technologies are not intended to replace teachers or books, but nonetheless provide a range of critical benefits that are not widely understood. To share my perspective, the following describes what I regard as the eight benefits of technology to the education process.

Computer technology can provide students with power over the process of learning. In working with a computer-assisted reading instruction system that I was involved in creating, students were able to have printed passages read to them (while they visually studied the words) ten, 20, even 30 times without having to deal with an intimidating teacher who might get irritated after three or four requests for repetition.

Technology can broaden the dynamic between challenge and skill. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss educational technology with Alan Kay, the noted computer scientist who originated the concept of the “desktop metaphor,” the paradigm for a computer operating system using a mouse and icons that has made the Apple Macintosh so popular (first implemented by Kay and his associates in the Xerox Altos, an early prototype of a “personal computer,” a term that Kay originated).

Kay, who describes himself as a “Luddite who creates technology,” described to me the dynamic relationship between challenge and skill in education. If challenge exceeds skill at any point, the result is anxiety. If skill exceeds challenge, the result is boredom. Both emotions are detrimental to the learning process. Riding between these two opposing forces is a thin channel or flow of useful learning. The tricky part of this dynamic is that the student’s skill is constantly changing (hopefully improving), so maintaining the optimal tension between challenge and skill for each individual student becomes very difficult and is rarely achieved.

Kay points out two essential ways in which computer-based technology can improve this process by broadening this thin channel. We can broaden the channel (of effective learning) on the anxiety side (toward greater challenge) by providing the student with greater safety. By allowing him or her to fail privately, he or she is emboldened to attempt greater challenges. In my own view, great achievements in life are attained by a willingness to fail, an attitude that failure is not what counts. that ten failures and one achievement is better than never having tried. I have watched children tread fearlessly, and surprisingly successfully, into domains one would have thought exceeded their abilities given the privacy and safety net of computerized learning technology.

Conversely, we can broaden the channel on the boredom side (toward greater skill) by providing the student with greater awareness of his/her own learning process. Computerized systems can provide webs of knowledge that allow the exploration of topics along intuitive networks that increase awareness and leave little opportunity for boredom.

Technology can provide students with early experiences of success. Educational music software, for example, can provide students with the thrill of creating music in the first few sessions. In traditional approaches to learning the piano, in contrast, students typically do not gain sufficient keyboard skills to obtain a musically rewarding experience for several years, during which time most students drop out.

Technology draws students’ attention. Consider the knowledge attained by the nation’s nine-year-olds on the legend of Zelda (a popular Nintendo game). Most can recite the properties of each magic shield and have developed an intimate familiarity with every hidden forest. Imagine if instead of the usual array of swords and sorcerers these games allowed children to explore the battle of Gettysburg, the structure of the atom, or the intricacies of the human body.

Many observers have criticized the paucity of educational content for the ubiquitous Nintendo platform. I spoke recently with Doug Carlston, the founder and CEO of Broderbund, a leading developer and producer of educational software, who lamented Nintendo’s restrictive licensing policies that make it economically prohibitive to provide third-party educational applications. Nintendo itself has emphasized action games and the few educational titles it has provided have not been of the same quality. An industry of d educational software has emerged, however, on other platforms (particularly personal computers) that allow users of all ages to learn through exploration. For example, the popular series of Sim City, Sim Earth, and now Sim Ant provide the opportunity to probe richly detailed simulations of social, ecological, and biological systems.

Technology can be a mediun for enhanced human communication. Japan has committed to installing a high bandwidth (ten billion bit per second) fiber optic-based communication superhighway into every home and office by early in the next century. With such a system, a class in Kyoto will be able to actively participate in a lesson complete with questions and answers given by a Nobel Prize winner in Tokyo. It has been estimated that 30 to 40 percent of Japan’s GNP will be derived from this vital electronic infrastructure. I recently participated in a Hudson Institute conference on communications technology that cited the profound educational and economic implications of such a communications network and called for the creation of a comparable American system.

Even today’s relatively crude copper-based communication already provides a fascinating forum for an exchange of views and expertise that cuts across all lines of age and status. Teenagers tying into electronic bulletin boards from their bedrooms can interact with eminent scientists, business and academic leaders, not to mention other teenagers. When not engaging in electronic conversations with other persons, they can tie into extensive knowledge bases through both telecommunications and CD-ROM drives.

On many American campuses today, students are required to obtain laptop or notebook computers. At MIT, students can plug their laptops into the omnipresent information outlets around campus and access extensive libraries of scientific literature; communicate with other students and professors; tie into a national computer network that links leading colleges around the country; and even submit their term papers electronically. Now a new generation of notebook computers is emerging that communicates without wires using cellular communication.

Technology requires students to be actively rather than passively engaged. Television, another powerful medium for communication, has been criticized as encouraging viewers to put heir brains in a passive mode as the torrent of images and sounds wash over them. In contrast, books require a certain amount of reflection and interpretation. Even with a book, however, it is certainly possible for a student to remain passive and indifferent to assigned readings. Properly designed educational software, by providing immediate feedback and interaction, can leave little room for detachment.

Technology can provide equal access to information for individuals with sensory disabilities. Print-to-speech reading machines have made mainstreaming feasible for the visually impaired. Speech recognition devices are enabling the hands-impaired to use word processors, interact with computers, and control their environments. In a few years, we will see the first generation of listening machines for the deaf that will provide a text display of what people are saying.

Finally, technology broadens the scope of the teacher by reducing the need for specific knowledge and expertise. The traditional model of education presents the teacher as the repository of knowledge who imparts his or her erudition. This limits the students (not to mention the teacher) to a narrow body of subject matter. With appropriate learning technology, the teacher plays a different role, that of a sociable adult who provides a cultural and social context for the experience. The teacher does not need to be an expert in every topic, but is rather a mature guide who learns along with his students.

If you visit today’s elementary and secondary schools, you will see a motley collection-of old trailing-edge computers. Seymour Papert, developer of LOGO, the principal educational computer language, compares the specter of an entire classroom of children sharing one computer to that of one classroom sharing one pencil. One pencil, according to Papert, is probably better than none, but it is not likely to lead to a “pencil revolution.”

With a presidential campaign year ahead, we are likely to hear a lot about the importance of education. But rhetoric won’t improve our schools. Our international competitors really do take learning seriously. They invest more than we do, in both the old and the new, and the results show it. By the time it is fully apparent that our kids have emerged unprepared onto the world scene, it will be too late.

Reprinted with permission from Library Journal, November 1991. Copyright © 1991, Reed Elsevier, USA

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