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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Mad Rushes Into the Future: The Overselling of Educational Technology

Getting schools to leap onto the Information Highway is just the latest in a series of corporate forays marked by ignorance, self-interest, and marketing madness.

School technology is big business again, given a shot in the arm recently by government and corporate leaders. President Bill Clinton, appearing with the heads of media giants Disney, Time Warner, and Turner Communications, announced a major federal initiative of public-private partnerships to equip the nation's classrooms with computers and to link every school to the "information highway" (West 1995b). The nation's governors, meeting with business leaders at IBM headquarters for their Education Summit, have requested hundreds of millions of dollars for new school computers and telecommunications (West 1996).
This "technology fever" sweeping the nation's executive suites and board rooms is not the result of new insights or widespread success in school technology use. Most observers agree that, despite promising experiments, the billions already spent on technology have not had a significant impact on school effectiveness. Research results remain ambiguous, with thoughtful experts calling for cautious planning and extensive teacher training, not necessarily additional or more advanced technology (Office of Technology Assessment 1995).
So how, then, do we explain this most recent explosion of interest in state-of-the-art educational technology displayed by the moguls of newly merged corporate giants in computers, media, and communications? Can we really trust the improvement of education to them and their expensive new technology, as government officials (and some educators) seem so ready to do?
I suggest instead that we learn from some sobering experiences of the past. For several years I have been researching the political history of computer-based education, including its military roots (Noble 1991), its early commercialization, and its widespread adoption. I have been especially interested in recurring corporate high-tech ventures into schools, usually at government invitation and expense. The information I've gathered can be distilled into three lessons about the educational technology market.

Business Leaders' Illusions

Lesson 1. Business leaders often do not know what they are doing. Market fantasies and intense competition, rather than good business sense or a concern for education, typically drive corporate decisions in educational technology.
What I have found above all is that big business often has not known what it was doing in school technology. Again and again, major firms with little knowledge of education have exploited political opportunities to break into the schools, marketing their technology according to the latest education fashion, trying to make the killing they had mistakenly convinced themselves was there for the taking.
Repeatedly, leaders of major firms have blindly believed their own illusions and followed the predictions of information age fortune-tellers, despite the skepticism of their own lieutenants. The hubris of these corporate leaders in their self-appointed role to "save" education, to pursue the holy grail of electronic teaching, and to come up with the "killer application" for their gadgetry has sometimes driven their firms to destruction. At the same time, this high-tech sideshow has created an appalling distraction for educators, who have been taken for an expensive ride on the roller coaster of computer development and marketing madness.
In the 1960s, federal education officials solicited private defense contractors to enter into a partnership to revolutionize education with warmed-over military hardware and systems. Massive federal expenditures created a new, "unnatural" educational technology market, one that was producer-driven rather than consumer-driven (Gandy 1976). Francis Keppel (1967), who as U.S. Education Commissioner first opened the federal coffers to business enterprise and eventually headed the General Learning Corporation, a joint venture of General Electric and Time Warner, explained later that "a billion dollars looking for a good, new way to be spent does not ordinarily turn the American businessman into a shrinking violet." Also, once some major firms entered the market, others felt compelled to enter as well; they couldn't afford to "remain aloof in the midst of a technological revolution . . ." (Ellis 1964). Lyle Spencer (1967), who led the first charge into school technology with his firm, SRA, linked to giant IBM, marveled at the parade of Fortune 500 firms soon entering the market and exclaimed, "They probably assumed we knew what we were doing."
Eventually all the major technology and media firms dove headlong into the school technology market, long before they had any viable educational technology and with wildly exaggerated estimates of market size. Their leaders eagerly believed futuristic rhetoric about a "knowledge industry" explosion and invested millions in "resoundingly premature ventures" (Solberg 1984), trying to market rudimentary technology that was "somewhere between bland and downright insulting" (Bowen 1965). In a 1983 interview, Keppel explained that "in the middle 1960s, . . . there was then as there is now again, an enthusiasm, a euphoria for what modern information technology, computers, etc., could do for education. . . . This was going to be the great system of changing education. It flopped. All the companies flopped." Their efforts had been "put together out of idealistic dreaming and very little hard business sense" (Reichek 1970), instances of "those mad rushes into the future that big corporations do now and then" (Prendergast 1986)—taking schools, teachers, and students along for the ride.
In the 1970s, William Norris, head of computer giant Control Data Corporation (CDC), fantasized about revolutionizing education with his PLATO system, "the biggest thing since the beginning" (Pantages 1976). After a decade and more than a billion dollars invested in increasingly desperate strategies to market PLATO in the public schools, so much of CDC had become wrapped up in PLATO that the company disintegrated. In 1986 Norris was forced to step down, but it was too late to save the company. The lesson here is this: Don't count on high-profile corporate leaders to know where they're going, much less where education should go.
One recent example of a company being taken to the brink of disaster by its leader's "mad rush into the future" is the sell-off in 1993 of Jostens Learning Corporation, the largest educational software firm in the country. H. William Lurton, chairman of Jostens, Inc., vendor of school graduation products such as class rings, yearbooks, and school photographs, decided to diversify into multimedia education. Although Lurton knew nothing about interactive educational software, he rationalized that Jostens was already in the educational market, so it would not be too great a stretch. Besides, Lurton saw a huge potential K–12 market for Jostens Learning products.
Lurton rushed into a hot business he knew nothing about, "a cropper chasing a fad," according to an account in Forbes (Schifrin 1994). In 1988, he purchased a 25 percent stake in Broderbund Software. Then he bought Education Systems Corporation, an interactive software company, and hired its entrepreneurial chairman to become chief executive of the new subsidiary, Jostens Learning. From 1986 to 1991, Jostens Learning grew merrily, and in 1992 Lurton bought Wicat Systems, Inc., its biggest educational software competitor. This gave Jostens Learning more than 60 percent of the market in "integrated learning systems," focused on sophisticated multimedia presentation with sound, animation, and video. Lurton and Jostens Learning seemed exceptionally well placed within the education business.
But Jostens was actually heading for disaster. Jostens software could run only on its own expensive computer systems, and educators were starting to choose software that could run on different computers, preferably those already in their schools. Jostens did not know enough about such trends, and its market share began to erode. By mid-1993, Lurton was unceremoniously ousted after 22 years as head of Jostens, and Jostens sold Jostens Learning to an investment group with its own illusions about the educational technology market.

Marketing's Supremacy

Lesson 2. Schools are typically sold a bill of goods, not the goods themselves. Penetration of the education market with computer-based technology has depended more on effective conditioning of the market through a barrage of advertising and ideology than on the effectiveness of the technologies themselves.
Marketing is the name of the game in the educational technology business. One Control Data vice president lamented that "potential customers do not share our sense of urgency for the implementation and use of computer-based education" (Morris 1977). A General Learning executive insisted that ". . . we must act with agonizing care in picking not only the right materials to present but also the moment and method of presentation, so that . . . the whole American community feels that the materials we produce are what the community wants, badly needs, and must have" (Bowen 1964). Participants in early ventures typically blamed their failure on the fact that the education market was not yet "ready" for their technology. This is partly true, but not because the technology itself was ahead of its time; rather, the ideological leavening of the education market had not yet set. Although the glamor of technology captivated some, the rhetoric of the Information Age had not yet fully conditioned the schools to welcome the gadgetry into classrooms.
The first real inroads came with the campaign for computer literacy and thinking skills ("mindstorms") and Apple's tax-deductible donations of microcomputers to schools (an effort labeled "Kids Can't Wait"). By 1984, with the computer as Time magazine's "Man of the Year" and the Nation at Risk report calling for computer literacy—even programming—as a "new basic skill," the Information Age had seemingly arrived, and the schools opened up to a flood of computers. States invested heavily to bring computer literacy to their students and to prepare them for the Information Age.
The term "computer literacy" had been coined with just that scenario in mind. Andrew Molnar, director of the Office of Computing Activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF), later recounted that educational technophiles at the foundation were deeply concerned about the scattered, uncoordinated programs in computer-based instruction that a skeptical NSF was reluctantly funding. They wanted a coordinated effort to bring computer-based education into the schools. "We spent . . . something like a half a billion dollars on technology in education, but they were so uncoordinated that you either had to be a liar, a thief, or corrupt in order to pull all of these things together to do a program that would involve technology in any significant way" (Aspray 1991).
Molnar and his colleagues took just such a route. "We started computer literacy in '72," Molnar recollected. "We coined that phrase. It's sort of ironic. Nobody knows what computer literacy is. Nobody can define it. And the reason we selected [it] was because nobody could define it, and . . . it was a broad enough term that you could get all of these programs together under one roof" (Aspray 1991). Molnar and others held prestigious national conferences on computer literacy, and eventually, in the early 1980s, the term took on a life of its own, resulting in millions of computers in schools.
Hundreds of thousands of computers also entered the schools amidst the exaggerated claims by Seymour Papert and Bolt, Beranek, and Newman that their LOGO software would bring thinking skills and "powerful ideas" into the classroom through child-centered computer programming. In fact, LOGO was conceived as a means to teach grammar and then elementary mathematics. The idea that LOGO would teach generalized thinking came later, as an extremely marketable afterthought (Lawler 1987), one that has never been demonstrated. Still, the image of a child at a computer came to symbolize intense intellectual inquiry akin to that depicted by Rodin's famous statue.
The LOGO-inspired movement to enable children to think and have powerful ideas using computers inundated the schools with new hardware and software, which now remain in some classrooms even though their exaggerated rationale has long since been abandoned. At a recent retrospective on LOGO, its apologists and proselytizers, now reduced to an insular cadre at MIT's Media Lab, conceded that they had been "naive" and that once "realism . . . set in," they realized that the "LOGO culture" was drastically—and prematurely—oversold to the nation's schools. Only a handful of schools still use LOGO, typically as a vehicle for science and mathematics exploration. Talk of "enhanced thinking" or "powerful ideas" has disappeared.
The recent term "Information Highway" also serves to saturate schools with computer technology, this time bringing in fiber-optic cable and online services at an estimated eventual cost of $10 billion. A recent comprehensive report on the Information Highway notes that no two educators, technologists, or telecommunications experts define the term the same way or "agree on exactly how [its] development will affect education" (West 1995a). This information "hypeway" is but the latest, and potentially the most costly, bill of goods sold to the schools in the name of a computer-based educational revolution.
Corporate strategies for the marketing of computer-based education are chameleonlike, changing colors to meet the needs of every educational fad or government invitation or technological innovation that comes along. A report on educational technology released in April 1995 by the Office of Technology Assessment recounts how "the advice of experts in education technology has changed dramatically over the past decade."
In 1983 teachers were told to use computers to teach students to program in BASIC, because "it's the language that comes with your computer." In 1984 they were told to teach students to program in LOGO in order to "teach students to think, not just to program." In 1986 they were told to teach with integrated drill-and-practice systems in computer labs to "individualize instruction and increase test scores." In 1988 they were told to teach word processing because children should "use computer tools as adults do." In 1990 they were told to teach with curriculum-specific tools, such as science simulations, history databases, and data probes, to "integrate the computers into the existing curriculum." In 1992 they were told to teach hypertext multimedia programming because "students learn best by creating products for an audience." In 1994 they were told to teach with Internet telecommunications to "let students be part of the real world."
These rapid-fire changes in the prevailing wisdom of educational technology experts indicate that still, after 30 years, the implementation of computer-based technology in schools is highly experimental, despite the billions spent annually. More important, they reflect powerful, unrelenting pressure from corporate marketers and their government ideologues to get computers into the schools, one way or another. Even most research on educational technology, such as Apple's high-minded "Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow," is really long-term marketing and product development masquerading as education reform.

Education as Technology's Servant

Lesson 3. Computer-based education is more about using the education market in the service of technological product development than it is about using technology in the service of education.
Much of the experimentation with computers in schools in the 1950s and 1960s was only —ally about education. The defense industries were aggressively pursuing new, diversified markets for developing and implementing their military technology, and federal education funds filled the bill. "The entertainment industry is now the driving force for new technology, as defense used to be," said a Business Week article (Mandel et al. 1994). So in the 1990s, with the expansion of the Information Highway into the schools, educational technology arguably serves the interests of the entertainment/telecommunications industry rather than the interests of education.
Corporate America now views educational material as a category of "software" or "content" on the Information Highway, alongside computer games, electronic mail and bulletin boards, news, books, magazines, movies, pornography, television shows, interactive TV, consumer advertising, and gambling and home shopping capabilities. "What's clear," notes one Bell Atlantic executive, "is [that] this is not so much an info highway, but an entertainment highway" (Scwartz 1995). Education is simply a variation of consumer entertainment services, and educators are "at best, peripheral players in the game" (West 1995a). According to the leading marketer of educational videodisks, "For companies that don't recognize that education and entertainment are coming together, there's not going to be a future" (Hill 1993).
The merger frenzy now dominating the mad dash to the Information Highway is surprisingly reminiscent of the mid-1960s' flurry of mergers between hardware and software companies. "There seems to be no end in sight to the coupling of the entertainment and communications giants. The cable and phone companies are the infrastructure guys; and the entertainment companies have the content needed to fill those pipelines" (Clarkin 1995). The difference this time is that education is just one lucrative niche in the coming interactive media deluge: "Somebody's big wire' is going to be in every school," notes one executive, "and that presents a [huge] opportunity" (West 1995a). Once again, corporate moguls are betting their companies on mad rushes into the future. The competitive jockeying for position to build and fill the Information Highway, whose ultimate shape or marketability no one can yet predict, lies behind the latest push for educational technology.
One recent example is the promotion of CD-ROM multimedia technology that began in the late 1980s. Competition among computer hardware makers and software publishers drove firm after firm to leap into a consumer and school CD-ROM market that was, in fact, "mainly wishful thinking" rather than a real market based on consumer demand (Losee 1994). Corporate marketers have thrust CD-ROM capabilities, built into personal computers, on school and home consumers because companies have seen the CD-ROM market as a competitive strategy; not because an abundance of quality CD-ROM-based multimedia software exists or because CD-ROM technology is the wave of the future. One executive identifies it as "a low-risk way to practice making content for interactive television (ITV)."
Corporate executives admit that CD-ROM is merely a "bridge technology," a stopgap on the way to the Information Highway: "CD-ROMs are the Quonset hut of media—temporary structures that have a way of becoming permanent," explains one executive. "You're not going to get to participate in ITV unless you get in early . . . It's a warm-up." One industry observer says that "Companies view CD-ROM as a competitive advantage," and this competition to position firms for the Information Highway has resulted in untold quantities of CD-ROM drives and "a proliferation of ill-conceived and sloppily executed CD-ROM [software]" being discounted or given away to schools in the wake of "seller-fed hysteria" (Losee 1994). Competitive advantage, not educational benefit or consumer demand or even careful business sense, is what is driving the technology into an already bewildered school market.

Skewed Predictions

Educators need to understand that high-tech corporate moguls and marketers, despite their government supporters, are scrambling to predict the future, are seduced by their own high-tech fantasies, and are locked in treacherous, high-stakes gambles. Education for them has typically been a sideshow, a proving ground, or a long-shot investment. Their state-of-the-art technologies have not in the past been products with direct or immediate applications for education, nor will they be in the future. Further, their skewed predictions about education and technology are no better than our own.
Educators, therefore, need not keep abreast of every innovation for fear of losing ground or falling behind. Leave the experiments to the technophiles. The rest of us, unashamedly and with renewed integrity, should follow our own sense of sound educational practice, using proven technologies when applicable. There is no need to join the mad rush into the future or to gamble with our students' education.

Aspray, W. (September 25, 1991). "Interview with Andrew Molnar," OH 234. Center for the History of Information Processing, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota.

Bowen, E. (January 9, 1964). Memo to Norm Ross and J. Handy on Education R&D. Carl Solberg Papers, Box 1. Special Collections, Millbank Memorial Library, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Bowen, E. (February 1, 1965). "Proposal to Task Force." Carl Solberg Papers, Box 1. Special Collections, Millbank Memorial Library, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Clarkin, G. (May 11, 1995). "Giants' Mad Dash to Find Partners." New York Post, Business Section, 29.

Ellis, R. (December 9, 1964). "Position Paper: Time Inc.—General Electric Talks." Carl Solberg Papers, Box 1. Special Collections, Millbank Memorial Library, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Gandy, O. H. (1976). "Instructional Technology: The Reselling of the Pentagon." Unpublished doctoral diss., Stanford University.

Hill, M. (May/June 1993). "Textbook, Technology Publishers Meet on Common Ground." Electronic Learning 12: 12.

Keppel, F. (January 1967). "The Business Interest in Education." Phi Delta Kappan, 48. Keppel, F. (1983). Interview. Spencer Foundation Oral History Project. Oral History Research Office, Columbia University.

Keppel, F. (1983). Interview. Spencer Foundation Oral History Project. Oral History Research Office, Columbia University.

Lawler, R. W. (1987). "Learning Environments: Now, Then, and Someday." In Artificial Intelligence and Education, Vol. 1, edited by R. W. Lawler and M. Yazdani. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Losee, S. (September 19, 1994). "Watch Out for the CD-ROM Hype." Fortune, 127.

Mandel, M. J., M. Landler, and R. Grover. (March 14, 1994). "The Entertainment Economy." Business Week, 60.

Morris, R. (May 10, 1977). Memo to J. R. Morris. Control Data Corporation Archives, Box 149752. Center for the History of Information Processing, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota.

Noble, D. D. (1991). The Classroom Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology and Public Education. London: Falmer Press.

Office of Technology Assessment. (April 1995). Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection. Superintendent of Documents Stock #S/N 052-003-01409-2. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Pantages, A. (May 1976). "Control Data's Education Offering." Datamation, 183.

Prendergast, C. (1986). The World of Time, Inc., Vol. 3. New York: Atheneum.

Reichek, M. A. (May 2, 1970). "High Marks in the Teaching Business." Business Week, 32.

Schifrin, M. (July 18, 1994). "Look Before You Leap." Forbes, 80-81.

Scwartz, E. (February 1995). "Ray Smith: The I-Way, My Way." Wired, 114.

Solberg, C. (May 30, 1984). Cover letter to David Ment, Archivist. Carl Solberg Papers. Special Collections, Millbank Memorial Library, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Spencer, L. (June 27, 1967). Speech to IBM Board of Directors. Lyle M. Spencer Papers, Box 1, University of Chicago Archives.

West, P. (January 11, 1995a). "Logged On for Learning." Education Week, 1-28.

West, P. (October 18, 1995b). "Clinton Pushes School-Technology Campaign." Education Week, 18, 23.

West, P. (March 13, 1996). "Many Governors Touting Technology as a Magic Bullet." Education Week, 1, 22, 23.

End Notes

1 "Rethinking the LOGO Culture: What Lessons Have Been Learned?" (April 18, 1995). Symposium at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Douglas D. Noble has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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