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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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Where Will Computers Be Used for Learning?

by John Graves

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


In the Spring 1994 issue of The CPSR Newsletter, on Computers and Education, Judith Stern wrote, "we've had to limit our focus to the learning that happens in schools, ignoring less formal educational settings." Today, it might be more appropriate to ignore the schools. We know that people learn from the entire community, not merely from teachers. And we also know that the use of computers for learning is at least an order of magnitude more important outside the classroom than inside. However, Vint Cerf, points out that "We have an enormous amount of work ahead of us to make effective use of the technology in the school environment. If you don't have continuous access to these computing resources they're damn near useless. Imagine that you'd just invented pencils and paper and there aren't very many of them around so you have paper-and-pencil training 15 minutes a week. Just imagine how useless that would be compared to being able to write down things whenever you needed to, 24 hours a day.

"We have this stupid situation now where people don't have enough comput-ing equipment in the school environment. Kids can't take the machines home and they can't really learn to use these things as daily tools where they have access to them whenever they need them"(1). According to a 1996 U.S. Department of Education Report, "Only 4 percent of schools have a computer for every five students - a ratio sufficient to allow regular use"(2)

In the fall of 1996, 51.7 million students enrolled in public and private K through 12 schools in the United States (3). Four percent of 51.7 million is about 2 million students with regular access to a computer at school. In contrast, approximately 40 percent of all U.S. households own a personal computer (4). That means upwards of 20 million students have access to a computer at home, ten times more than in the schools.

Home computers may not always be used for education, of course, but the Software Publishers Association reported sales of $359.8 million for home education software in North America in the first half of 1996 while entertainment titles amounted to only $298.4 million (5). So home PCs are not just game machines.

Using computers, people can and will learn at home or on the job. It may have been convenient to ignore these trends a few years ago, but it is a mistake to do so now. John Humphrey, founder and chairman of The Forum Corporation, an executive education firm with $65 million in annual revenues, suggests businesses may already have surpassed the schools in providing the education needed for today's jobs. In historical perspective, we might think of the present day as a transition from a time when the government was responsible, because so much training and education that has quantitative value happens after you graduate from college or high school. A study here about six or seven years ago, ascertained that about 75 percent of the value delivered on the job derives from training and education received after they left the traditional school setting. Moreover, an article in the November 1996 Boston Business Journal asserts that five years ago the yearly cost of training in public institutions-from Kingsley Montessori to Bunker Hill Community College to Harvard Divinity School - approximately equaled the amount of money that companies spend annually in training their employees (6). Regardless of the accuracy of these figures, the potential for such a paradigm shift - facilitated by computer-based instruction - should be taken seriously (7). Many businesses are, in effect, becoming "learning organizations."

The pace of the global knowledge economy continues to increase. Change is rapid and relentless. Time is becoming industry's fiercest competitor. Access to timely institutional knowledge is critical. Organizations across industries are focus-ing on cost- and time-effective ways to rapidly and easily enable employees, cus-tomers, suppliers, and strategic stake-holders to obtain knowledge the moment they need it, anywhere, anytime (8). The economic pressures to remove the barriers of space and time in the business world may ultimately have dramatic effects on public education as we know it. Learning at the moment of need is a different model from the educate-then-graduate model on which schools are based. If computer-based education is taking place predominantly in homes and businesses, we need to recognize the opportunities and dangers of this reality.

An Opportunity: Universal Access in the Home Lifelong learning requires that information and training be accessible continuously, not merely during school hours during a person's school years. We may soon see knowledge distributed through entirely new channels.

For example, some of the 30 million video game consoles in the United States. may begin delivering significant educational content in 1997. Sega began offering an internet adapter on October 31, and one million copies of the powerful new Nintendo 64 unit were sold in its first ten weeks. Educational titles for the game consoles are under development at companies such as The Lightspan Partnership which uses the 32-bit Sony Playstation (11).

Another likely channel is CD-ROM. I recently self-published a CD-ROM titled "PC Tours: Your Guide to the Land of Computers" and donated 64 copies to the San Diego Public Library. This disc contains five hours of multimedia instruction on computer basics. I am taking orders for it on my Web site and via email (12). Such a product is made possible by the economics of CD-ROM manufacturing (13). It cost me $1,440 to have 2,000 copies made, or 72 cents per disc. In 1996, 54.5 million CD-ROM drives were sold so the installed base is there, just waiting for products and consumer behavior to catch up (14). Over 3,500 new hybrid CD-ROM/online titles are expected in 1997 (15).

A Danger: Advertiser-Supported Education
What schools have to offer may not change fast enough to keep up with commercial educational products. Let's consider this extreme possibility. A grade school teacher teaches about 950 hours in a year. If that teaching were put on 5-hour-long interactive CD-ROMs like mine, it would all fit on 200 discs - with a manufacturing cost of $144. DVD-ROM, a successor to CD-ROM, is due on the market in the next 12 months; it could hold a full year of teaching on 30 discs -the manufacturing cost: about $30. This scenario may seem ridiculous today considering the high development costs and low quality of most educational soft-ware products, but companies just keep coming out with more, better, faster and cheaper products. It may be that schools cannot change fast enough to keep up.

If education becomes a consumer product, it will fall under the control of private, rather than public, interests. In his article "Internet Television: Net Makeover?", Dan Schiller writes: "When advertisers foot an appreciable proportion of overall media costs, they come to dominate that medium's workaday self-consciousness, which in turn places new pressures and limits upon that medium's relationship with its audience. It is not only a matter of "censorship" to suit the idiosyncrasies of particular sponsors (though neither should censorship of this kind be gainsaid). It's also, and more substantively, a question of emphasis on particular program forms, and the priorities that they express - particular creative practices rather than others. The practices that saturate our culture, and that are now being transferred wholesale to the net, are market-driven in intent and in effect. That doesn't mean they cannot sometimes eventuate in true artistry, but rather that emerging forms of art on the net are themselves being placed in harness to a narrow and exclusionary social purpose: selling"(16).

Computers are now used for learning throughout much of society, not just in the "educational" community. While public attention is riveted on wiring classrooms, dramatic changes are taking place in homes and workplaces where the wires and CD-ROM drives are already installed. Businesses, including my own, are competing to distribute knowledge as never before. We cannot ignore these developments. They may offer tremendous opportunities. But they may also have unintended consequences, such as the corporatization of education, that can only be avoided through criticism and informed public participation.

1. "Father of the Internet" 1/1/97
2. "Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge." A Report to the Nation on Technology & Education. U.S. Department of Education, June 1996.
3. "A Back To School Special Report: The Baby Boom Echo" August 1996.
4. Computer Intelligence Infocorp. reported 38.5 percent of U.S. homes had computers by year-end 1995. This overall percentage masks a very wide range related to family income. "82 percent of high school students from the most affluent homes have access to computers at home, compared to 14 percent of poorer high school students." The Learning Connection: Will the Information Highway Transform Schools and Prepare Students for the Twenty-First Century? Benton Foundation Communications Policy Project.
5. "North American PC Software Sales" Sept. 25, 1996 Software Publishers Association. 6. "Forum Corp. chairman sees time when training, work will coincide - Boston Business Journal - 11/25/96"
7. In the 1995-96 school year, 7.3 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product was spent on education, an estimated $529 billion dollars. Employee-provided education is around $50 billion annually, and economists suggest that an additional $200-300 billion goes for on-the-job training. Lewis J. Perelman, School's Out, 1992, p. 97.
8. "Winning the Race Against Time" Ivy Millman, Whizdom, Performance Support '96: Session Handout Book, September 1996, p. 190.
9. Information Week, Nov. 4, 1996, p. 32.
10. Computer, October 1995.
11. The Lightspan Partnership,
12. The PC Tours CD-ROM is free while supplies last. I ask US$6.00 to cover worldwide shipping and handling, payable on receipt.
13. Extremely low cost duplication and distribution of knowledge was predicted by Dr. Vannevar Bush in his article "As We May Think." See "To The Editor," Interactions, July-August 1996, p. 7.
14. Disk/Trend (415) 961-6209. Cited in Interactive Multimedia News, Nov.-Dec. 1996, p. 21.
15. InfoTech (802) 763-2097. Cited in Interactive Multimedia News, Nov.-Dec. 1996, p. 21. 16. "Internet Television: Net Makeover?" Dan Schiller, 12/11/96.

John Graves is a member of CPSR and is Webmaster for the San Diego chapter. He can be reached at;; or 619-283-0277. ----------

Return to Table of Contents, Winter 1997 CPSR Newsletter

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