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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Overview / Future Shock Is Here

      Can you remember when you first heard about the Internet? For me it was three or four years ago, when someone sent a manuscript about it. This computer network originally set up for military purposes, the author wrote, was rapidly becoming a primary means of communication in higher education and had great potential for elementary and secondary schools as well. Because I had never heard of such a thing, I asked for advice from my technologically literate colleagues, who assured me that yes, there was an Internet, and yes, it did have potential.
      Since that time we have published several articles about the Internet, but they have quickly gone out of date. For example, our last theme issue on technology, published just 18 months ago, made no mention of the World Wide Web, a section of the Internet that, because it has graphics and sound, is displacing the text-only part for many of the most exciting applications. It wasn't mentioned in the April 1994 issue because it didn't exist at that time. Now thousands of people take it for granted, and entities large and small have their own “home page.”
      Twenty-five years ago Alvin Toffler predicted in Future Shock (1970) that we could expect waves of change to come faster and faster. Human beings, he told us, accustomed to gradual change over thousands of years, had now refined their use of technology to the point that they no longer felt in control. In recent decades we have seen that Toffler was right. We have the capability to devastate entire cities with immensely powerful bombs, despoil beaches with millions of gallons of oil, fly comfortably to anywhere in the world, and transplant vital organs from one person to another.
      Perhaps the most fundamental technology, and the most powerful, is digital technology, which is revolutionizing the way people produce, store, retrieve, and use information. I read recently that scientists have devised a method for storing the equivalent of 12,000 computer diskettes, or 180 CD-ROMS, on an inch-long pin of stainless steel. But such reports no longer impress us; we know that tomorrow someone will come up with a way to store even more in even less space. Those of us contending with overstuffed filing cabinets or trying to keep track of bare-bones data on what students are learning feel hopelessly divorced from the world where such advances are being made.
      Of course, the information educators use includes much more than student records, important as they are. In fact, information is our prime resource. We currently store content information in textbooks, lecture notes, audio cassettes, reference books, videos, and curriculum guides. Teachers and students retrieve information from these sources and process it in various ways. Digital technology now makes it possible for us to keep all such sources continuously up-to-date as well as more interactive and linked directly to other sources. The question is how our cash-strapped, hide-bound profession can possibly make extensive use of these new tools, which become obsolete almost as fast as they can be produced.
      A recent report from the Office of Technology Assessment (p. 8) portrays the situation in U.S. education. According to the report, a few teachers in a relatively small number of schools possess the equipment and knowledge to have their students do the sorts of things described in this issue: send e-mail to people in other countries, consult CD-ROMs for information, and prepare multimedia reports. The vast majority do not have access to the newest technologies—and even those who do tend to use them in conventional ways.
      Chris Dede (p. 4), futurist and technology expert, warns that this tendency may be our biggest challenge. “If technology is used simply to automate traditional models of teaching and learning,” he says, “then it'll have very little impact.” Dede is experimenting with such esoteric applications as “immersive distributed virtual environments,” using technology far beyond anything most of us have experienced.
      We have arrived, then, in the world Toffler foretold. Overwhelmed by change, we glimpse a vision of education that fulfills our most ambitious professional fantasies—but that will be very difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary schools to achieve. Welcome to the future.

      Toffler, A. (1970). Future Shock. New York: Random House.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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