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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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Education Technology

by Steven E. Miller

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


Before World War II, just a small minority of young people attended high school in the United States. The ideal of universal primary education had arisen nearly a century earlier, during the rise of industrialization. But most young people left school as soon as possible to help support their families by taking a job, few of which required academic skills. The post-War democratization of high school strained the traditional education system to the breaking point, and there have been repeated waves of outrage and reform. Despite the dedicated efforts of many teachers to find better ways to deal with the challenges of universal education, the core learning process has remained remarkably consistent in most classrooms - the teacher in front of an ordered series of desks presenting the material that the students are supposed to learn individually. As with industrial production, students were seen as raw material needing to be shaped, or even as empty vessels needing to be filled with memorized facts. Successful students could memorize quickly, recite back accurately, and analyze logically.

One reason for the mono-curricular approach was that, in addition to a content of basic literacy and numerancy skills, the lessons most important to our economy were transmitted by undergoing the educational process itself. In The Third Wave, Alan Toffler describes this training as a "covert curriculum . . . of three courses: one in punctuality, one in obedience, and one in rote, repetitive work."

Not surprisingly, despite the nostalgia sometimes expressed by today's critics, at no time did the schools fully met the needs of its diverse clientele. However, some of the failure to serve the needs of every student was hidden by high dropout rates, racial segregation, differential treatment of boys and girls, and tracking (supposedly by ability but more usually by surrogate indicators of class and race).

Other Problems Facing Schools
Academics weren't the only issue. Americans have traditionally seen the schools both as a vehicle for upward mobility and as the institution responsible for socializing young people and other newcomers. Schools are expected to keep the kids off the streets and teach them to behave. Schools are supposed to address all the social problems that families and communities can no longer handle. Schools are also supposed to give students the skills to eventually support themselves while respecting the community from which they came. But our economy appears increasingly insecure. Our streets feel increasingly unsafe. And our culture seems increasingly shallow.

The persistence of old teaching methods despite problematic results, the institutional inability to deal with new demands, and the rising cost of the educational system have left the schools vulnerable to criticism. Blaming the schools is made easier because, in many communities, the vast majority of households - and taxpayers - do not have anyone actually attending a public school. Public support for schools has also been reduced as a result of the powerful conservative attack on public sector institutions in general and public education in particular, denouncing what they see as the schools' complicity in the decline of civility, or even of civilization.

Setting the stage for these attacks are the complaints of business leaders. At the high end of the labor market, business wants future executives (and the children of current executives) trained in team leadership, higher-level problem-solving, and analytic and communication skills. The bottom end of the labor market, requires workers who can read, write, count, consistently show up on time, dress properly, and obey orders. The business community has been vocal about its belief that it's getting neither.

Computers as a Tool for Reform
The current push for "education reform" to restructure the learning process should come as no surprise. What is surprising is the degree to which educators have used the attack as an opportunity to revive their own push for educational rejuvenation.

During the early part of this century, a powerful alternative to the vision of schools as publicly funded pre-employment training centers came from the Progressive Education movement. Progressive educators felt that schools had to care for "the whole child" and for every child. As Diane Ravitch illustrates in The Great School Wars, while early Progressives tried using schools to attack the brutality of unregulated industrial capitalism, the movement increasingly focused on helping children fully develop their individual capabilities and creativity.

Progressives called for hands-on learning, team projects, connection to the wider world outside the building, and more. But though Progressive words and concepts were eventually adopted by the educational mainstream, this was a hollow victory. The visionary aspects of Progressive movement had run out of steam by the 1950s - its larger social reform agenda clipped off by the Cold War, its insights turned into pedagogical dogma, and the implementation of its agenda restricted to the experimental fringe of the educational system.

However, as Paul Starr states in The American Prospect ("Computing Our Way To Educational Reform," July/Aug. '96), in the past decade computers provided a concrete basis for the revival of Progressive ideals. As MIT's Seymour Pappert points out, unlike language labs or TV, computers are the first technology that is primarily a learning tool rather than a teaching tool. Computers - particularly networked computers - can foster individualized learning while facilitating group interaction. They can offer many types and levels of interaction, from visual to verbal, easy to hard, repetitive to random. Computers can enable simulations and other methods of confronting meaningful problems. They can allow access to resources and people beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Computers can be programmed - by the student! Computers can provide the high-intensity, multi-media environment that will capture Nintendo-trained students' attention. Finally computers can facilitate the reorganization of the learning process to allow for guided, but independent, activity that effectively breaks up a large class into more teachable small groups.

Once again we hear calls for active learning, for real-world inquiry-based problem-solving, for collaborative efforts and cross disciplinary curricula, for individualized "coaching" by a teacher who is a participant in the learning process rather than an oracle on a podium, for longer instructional blocks instead of the lock-step 45-minute period. Many teachers have latched on to the (increasingly networked) computer as the enabling tool that will let it all happen. Today, this general vision is called "constructivist" rather than Progressive, but the fundamental approach is the same. And support for this vision is no longer confined to the fringe of the profession. Educational reform, often accompanied by a push for computers and networks, has become a national campaign.

Tensions in the Pro-Technology Coalition
The focus on technology raises worrisome issues. High-tech industry has obvious self-interest in expanding its market, even if doing so diverts funds from more valuable educational activities. There are corporate leaders who support the incorporation of technology into the classroom simply for its value as publicly subsidized vocational training regardless of its impact on student learning. Buying hardware and software is the least expensive part of putting technology to good use, and unless there is massive intervention by federal and state governments the already huge gap between the haves and have nots will inevitably widen.

Still, for educators, the chance to break out of their isolation and join a broad coalition that at least appears to take education seriously is a historic opportunity that many welcome. The reformers know they need allies. Schools are extremely hard to change. Once the classroom door closes, teachers are mainly on their own. Every day, they face the infinite challenge of not only managing two dozen or more people who are not on their payroll, but also stimulating those sometimes unwilling recruits to become fully engaged in the assigned task of turning themselves into the kind of people adult society wants them to become.

Although schools are supposed to teach a set of intellectual and social skills, the most fundamental goal of the educational process is student self-realization. It is the job of the school (and family and society) to create an environment that supports and fosters self-growth. But it is the student who must grapple with, internalize, and then build on what the school presents. The end result will vary with each individual since the process is as much inside-out as outside-in.

Faced with this emotionally and physically exhausting daily task, it is not surprising that schools find it hard to break out of the web of teacher training, student expectations, school culture, professional assumptions, and other supports of the status quo. While individual teachers in schools across the nation have found ways to pioneer new approaches to education, it is a very rare school that has been able to expand the process from the classroom to the building and institutionalize the changes as a permanent part of the curriculum.

It is precisely the complexity of the classroom environment that both preserves traditional forms of instruction and makes teachers desperate for change. Accordingly, computer technology, which is viewed as capable of helping manage that complexity, is enthusiastically embraced by many educators.

Mass Netday
NetDay was invented by John Gage, from Sun Microsystems, and John Kaufman, from KQED. First tried in California in March, 1996, NetDay was initially described as an "electronic barnraising" in which the high-tech business community would mobilize its employees to come to schools and install wiring for Local Area Networks.

In Massachusetts, activists viewed NetDay as an opportunity to bring together two previously separate campaigns - a generally top-down effort to set high standards through the adoption of new "curriculum frameworks" and a generally bottom-up effort to restructure classroom practice - often through the use of education technology. In addition, MassNetDay organizers saw it as a way to help schools break out of their isolation, to use the network-building effort as a lever for community-building. A broad coalition of business, labor, educators, and government was formed. A central technical assistance operation was created that produced training materials and organized training classes, helped recruit volunteers and business partnerships, and conducted a media campaign to generate a positive public perception of the school's efforts. A Board of Directors, composed of corporate CEOs, Union Presidents, and leading educators provided high-level institutional endorsement and contributions. This activity was all focused on supporting the grassroots efforts of several hundred local NetDay Committees whose members did the real work.

A new nonprofit, Mass Networks Education Partnership, was created with the three-part mission of supporting educational reform through the effective use of network technology, laying the foundation for future economic growth, and preparing our children to use the electronic tools of 21st century citizenship. This vision was broad enough for nearly everyone to find something of value in it. But it was also tied to a very simple and do-able set of immediate actions - building a school network, training teachers, connecting to the larger community.

The first MassNetDay, on October 26, 1996, involved nearly 400 schools, attracted over 4,000 volunteers, and gained the support of several hundred businesses. The location of participating schools ranged from inner cities to high-tech suburbs to rural towns. The second NetDay, scheduled for April 5, 1997, is expected to include over 1,000 schools- nearly half the state's total.

Not Yet a Solution
Neither NetDay nor the technology it is spreading can solve the problems of our schools, much less of the larger society. But they are a useful focus for mobilizing broad coalitions, for supporting the pioneering educators who have been trying to reform their institutions from within, and for raising important issues about the type of educational system we want our children to experience.

Near the conclusion of Twilight, the one-woman play written and performed by Anna Devere Smith about the Los Angeles riots, one character comments that most people want things to get better and are willing to help. But people need to be given something concrete and manageable to do, and helped to see the connection between their little actions and progress toward the larger goal. Those of us who are parents and teachers often feel the same way about education.

Steven E. Miller is the author of Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway (Addison-Wesley, 1996); the Executive Director of Mass Networks Education Partnership; and on the national Board of CPSR. He can be reached at


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