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The Hidden Fears of High-Tech Learning

IN THE 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge declared, “The business of America is business.” In the 1990s it might be at least as true to say that the business of America is learning. Constant adjustment to change – coping with new facts and ways of doing things – has become the norm in commerce as computer hardware and software is introduced, adapted and, later, replaced. Now the high-tech revolution is coming to education.
You might think that everyone would be thrilled. The high-tech motto of “better, cheaper, faster” sounds like an admirable aim for general school reform. But talking to many educators, business people, high-tech manufacturers, government officials and even parents, one soon realizes that below the surface many of them are as anxious as they are hopeful.

It is not that they think new hardware services like the Internet and new software products cannot help transform learning – and, therefore, education. Rather, most people sense that they can. What scares them is the prospect that the new technology might work all too well – for other people.

A CD-ROM software product for language instruction enabled the daughter of a friend of mine to master two years of Spanish in two months of spare time last summer. The product uses a microphone and sound system to correct pronunciation and builds vocabulary orally and visually, all at an individualized pace. It is so engaging that my friend’s daughter had to be ordered to stop studying and get some sleep.

In time, a virtual reality product will allow the foreign language learner to transport himself, say, to a simulated shoe store in Mexico and perform the assignment of shopping as if he were doing it in person, gaining correction and assistance at each step. Short of studying abroad, it will be hard to beat.

There are new software products that recognize what kind of learning style works best for a student and adjusts accordingly. Some, for example, can help kids get over very specialized reading problems. On the other hand, for the established scholar and writer there is the entire three-volume Oxford English Dictionary on disc for a third of the cost of a hard-cover copy, and the manufacturer throws in several other reference works for good measure. Dozens of new products like these are appearing monthly, many of them produced in the Seattle area.

Then there are all the information, learning and research services already found on the Internet, and all those that will soon crowd on. Add in the new information services pioneered by newspapers such as The Seattle Times, plus the “distance learning” systems often connected with public television networks and schools that presently allow students in one location to interact with a teacher in another.

Within the decade we are likely to experience the “teleputer” foreseen by George Gilder in “Life After Television.” It will combine the computer and the television to bring unlimited forms of instruction, as well as other forms of interactive communication, into any home.

No one knows for sure where this is all heading. Will we eventually get rid of schools altogether, as Lewis Perelman predicts in “School’s Out,” or will learning machines simply become one more tool in the traditional classroom, like today’s Channel One television?

These are the kinds of questions that somehow spark as much worry as anticipation. “Am I going to be left behind?” is the great anxiety-raiser.

A local college president planning soon to build a new library confides, “What are we going to build, the last old-fashioned library in the country? Or if not, will we be investing in the wrong experimental technology, like the people who made steam-driven autos in 1900?”

A teacher who is skeptical of the new technology wonders if it isn’t part of a plot to get rid of teachers altogether, while a teacher who is enthusiastic still fears that the teachers coming out of graduate schools – let alone, present teachers – are not going to receive adequate computer training.

Some school reformers see in the technology dream a fantasy that threatens to detour other change down an expensive cul de sac, while some business people see the growing demands for new technology leading to higher overall levels of government spending and taxes.

In the high-tech field itself, some manufacturers mutter that many folks in schools seem to think that new learning products and services should be sold to them at near cost, or, as the language of federal legislation before Congress puts it in regard to telecommunications services, at the “incremental cost.” Since that would not allow for recovery of research, manufacturing or overhead expenses, let alone a profit, it would mean that very few learning products would be developed for any market outside the home or office.

If the new technologies are provided at a regular commercial price, other citizens protest, what will keep wealthy families and districts from gaining another leg up on the poor? In other words, what about “equity”?

Most of these fears can be answered – along with the old-timer’s understandable, but unreasonable fear that books are going to disappear before he does. But what we face in these fears are political problems, not just economic or educational ones, because they raise broad public policy concerns. To resolve them sensibly will take some informed public interest.

Washington state already leads in putting technology into its long-range curriculum-reform planning. Individual school districts are proposing, and often passing, high-tech special levies. But few legislators, let alone members of the public, are paying attention to the issues involved. Meanwhile, the numbers of Internet connections are growing by a million a month nationally and the number of home-schoolers, according to Pat Lines of the U.S. Education Department, is up to 500,000 – and many of them are using computer-aided instruction and testing.

One thing is clear: neither government, schools, nor the private sector can assuage people’s hidden fears of high-technology learning by ignoring them. It is time for some creative public policy to match the emerging creative technology.

Bruce Chapman is president of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.