Educational Technology & Society 2(1) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

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Education and the future

Fred Bennett
P.O. Box 3133
Sarasota, FL 34230 USA

Many of the of the ideas in the following article are treated at greater length in the book Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education (by Fred Bennett). The full text can be found at A slightly revised version will be published in print in early 1999.

It is a well worn platitude that computers will change the world more than any other invention in history. Anyone can easily repeat this cliche without considering what it will mean in real life - how computers will dramatically upend virtually all of society as we know it. Education will not be spared during this gigantic upheaval, and because of its dominant position in everyone's life it may be among those that see the greatest alteration.

To prepare for the future, it helps to venture out of our accustomed ways of thinking. It is easier to visualize changes that do not affect us personally. Take, for example, assembly line workers. It is obvious to most academics that the unskilled employee who has thrived for about a century performing repetitive tasks will be replaced by computerized automation. It is not as easy for these same academics to look boldly at the future when visualizing changes in education with its 2000 year history of a teacher imparting knowledge to a class of students. To suggest that this teacher may be as easily replaced by a computer can create disbelieving or even infuriated reactions.

Educators have seen the wide acceptance and powerful force of computers elsewhere in society, and they would like to embrace these machines. Nonetheless, they usually avoid any drastic innovations. They simply try to overlay computers on procedures that teachers have always carried on. As a consequence, administrators have been able to relax while apparently embracing change because their schools remain basically the same. Teachers have also been able to relax because their schools and their teaching remain basically the same. The sad result of this approach is apparent in the United States where millions of computers have been added to schools with no fundamental improvement as evidenced by lack of advancement in test scores. This fact was underscored by the complaint of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment when it said: "A number of information technologists point out that if business organizations today evolved at the same rate as the schools, they would still be using quill pens instead of electronic word processors."

This thwarted and limited usage of computers in education will change for two dominant reasons. The first is that computers can teach better than most human teachers through a built in capability that needs only to be activated by proper software. The second is the need throughout the world for improved education. This need stems from weaknesses in the world's education that allows widespread illiteracy, and from the requirement that children leaving school must enter a society where technology will eliminate not only the assembly line jobs but almost all other less skilled tasks. As for illiteracy, in earlier times, no one ever considered the possibility of wiping out this widespread difficulty. Now it can be done everywhere in even the most backward nations through computers. The need for seriously upgrading the education of children about to enter a technological world is becoming apparent in developed nations where the mainstay of the industrial revolution, production of manufactured items, is being shifted to third world countries. Computerized innovation will rapidly spill over into these less developed nations that now depend so heavily upon human labor for their products. In a very short time, all workers in every nation will have to be educated far more completely than is now the case. This will be a virtual impossibility without a new approach to education which. at present, computers alone can supply.

Evidence abounds that computers can teach very well and that children are fascinated by this type of learning. The answer to present educational woes is simple - use computers as private tutors by allowing them to instruct children without a teacher interposed between the machine and the child. With computers as tutors, schools will be able to advance the learning of pupils to standards that present educators can only fantasize about - to a level undreamed of before the computer age. This change will help both ordinary and slow students make gigantic advances while allowing brighter students to make unimagined gains. School will be living and vibrant. Students will be energized while learning rapidly, well and enjoyably. Education will mutate from an art unchanged for eons into a science that is constantly advancing.

On the K-12 level where many of the dramatic alterations in education will begin, many other peripheral but monumental benefits will follow. Each child will have a private tutor - the computer. Poor teaching will be an event of the past because the machine's ability to instruct will constantly improve. Education will be individualized so that each child will advance at a pace that is dependent solely on the child's ability rather than upon the average needs of twenty-five children in the same class. Moreover, upgrades to teaching will be continuous since one computer program can be changed instantaneously throughout the world.

Some people, while acknowledging the power of computerized education, worry that it's full implementation will lessen human relationships of youth during that precise time of their lives when they should be learning to interact with others. If children can learn from computers, why won't they stay home and plug into their computers and learn without the hassle of going to school and without the cost to the community of schools? Although the machines could theoretically teach each child at home, this will not happen because interaction with peers and human teachers is an equally important aspect of education. Teachers will not vanish simply because certain of their present functions will be done better by a machine. Some of their activities in education are vital and must be retained, albeit in another form. Consequently, when computers are allowed to teach children, humans pedagogues will become even more valuable as they will have time to do what they can do best. Machines will teach but humans will educate. I visualize K-12 teachers of the future having two basic roles: first, they will be "Leader Teachers" - personal guides for all the students as the children receive their teaching from a computer, and secondly, they will also conduct seminars, workshops and other cooperative learning activities where they will assist, direct and encourage children as they work together on educational projects.

This paper thus far has talked only about the K-12 system, but the same principles apply at the level of higher education. Here again, the machines are better at relaying information to pupils than most teachers. There is, however, another consideration - the consequences of the alteration of K-12 education. Students after twelve years of computerized instruction will not accept going back to the level of being lectured at or even having professors relay canned information to them over the Internet, unless there is an interactive aspect that will hold their attention. In addition, all youths entering advanced education will have a basic store of learning that will be far advanced over that of today's entrants. This will result from the inherent teaching prowess of the machines but also because this type of education will capitalize on the desire to learn that appears immediately after birth and is innate in mankind. Fulfillment of innate desires is necessarily pleasurable unless outside conditions interfere (otherwise the desire would not be fulfilled.) Consequently, when education rids itself of the many hindrances that invariably accompany today's schooling, children will not only enjoy learning but will delight in adding to their knowledge. In addition, children interacting with a computer and unable to day dream will waste far less time than is customary today. The material that the computer can teach will be limited only by the capacity of the pupil. If we assume that children will continue to spend twelve years in pre-college classes, many or perhaps most of the basic courses that are now taken up through the first four years of the university can be covered in K-12.

The need for seminars and workshops will increase in the computerized universities. In addition, just as teachers in K-12 will have the responsibility to direct and lead their pupils while they function as Leader Teachers, this requirement will be increased in the universities. There is a precedent for this directed type of learning. That is the role of the professor as the student today develops and writes his or her dissertation. I believe this will become a much more vital element in all advanced learning, not merely for the students who will advance to the doctoral level.

Some will say that such a forecast of a radical upheaval in education at either of the levels is nonsense. It just can't happen.

Going back one hundred years there was another innovation, the automobile, that seemed to have some remote but ill defined potential. There were, however, many naysayers - buggy whip manufacturers, horse dealers, blacksmiths and others who were intimately connected with the horse age and had many seemingly valid reasons why the automobile could never bring a major upset to society because the necessary changes were too great. For example, an impossibly immense system of roads would have to be created virtually from nothing and then maintained, the machines were not reliable and would require that a whole new breed of mechanic be trained and made universally available but no trainers existed, gas stations and refineries were essential but obviously could not be set up everywhere they would be needed, and on and on. Since changes of this magnitude could never happen, buggy whip manufacturers were safe.

As we look back today, we can see that buggy whip manufacturers were doomed when the auto made its appearance. There will come a time when people will be aware that the old educational system was doomed when the computer made its appearance.