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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

On Technology and Schools: A Conversation with Chris Dede

    Will the information superhighway revolutionize education? Chris Dede says that new technologies can help transform schools—but only if they are used to support new models of teaching and learning.

      Will the information superhighway revolutionize education? Chris Dede says that new technologies can help transform schools—but only if they are used to support new models of teaching and learning.
      The graveyard of school reform is littered with technological innovations that failed to live up to their advance billing. Chris Dede, futurist and expert on educational technology, thinks he knows why. Too often, we've attempted to graft technological solutions onto antiquated structures and traditional approaches to learning. Dede says that emerging technologies can provide sustained support to teachers as they experiment with new ways of teaching and learning
      Some experts predict that technology will have an enormous impact on K–12 education. Do you agree?
      It depends on what models of teaching and learning we use. If technology is simply used to automate traditional models of teaching and learning, then it'll have very little impact on schools. If it's used to enable new models of teaching and learning, models that can't be implemented without technology, then I think it'll have a major impact on schools. And if it's used to enable models of teaching and learning that extend beyond the walls of the school into the community, into the workplace, into the family, then it will also have an enormous impact on education and learning.
      Technology hasn't had a widespread, transformative impact on schools yet. Why not?
      Schools are like other organizations. Our first instinct is to use technology to do the same things faster. I remember when my university first got word processors, we set up a dedicated area with special secretaries who did nothing but word processing. It was used as a faster kind of typewriter. Only later did people begin to realize that the computer and word processing enabled everyone to compose more effectively, and that having specialists who did nothing but keyboard wasn't the right approach. In schools, we've gone through this preliminary period, and now we're at a point where technology could really take off for us.
      Some educators seem tired of the hype about new technologies. They wish they could get their hands on some old technologies—like a copier or a phone.
      That's understandable. Teachers are often expected to do something different, but they don't have the resources or the training to do it very well. One of the mistakes that we made in implementing educational technology was focusing first on students rather than teachers, because when the computers on students' desks are mysterious devices to teachers, it's unreasonable to expect effective integration into the curriculum. Politically, however, it's easy to see why: school boards and parents don't want to be told that teachers will be using technology first and students will use it eventually.
      People begin to use a technology when it is readily accessible and also when important information becomes available only through that technology. For example, businesses can encourage the integration of technology by not sending around paper announcements anymore, relying instead on e-mail. That forces people to get into the e-mail world. In and of itself, that doesn't do anything, because reading paper announcements on the screen doesn't enhance value. But once employees are in the e-mail world, even if they're not there for the right reasons, then there's a much greater possibility of luring them into more productive parts of the technology.
      We're being inundated with news stories about the information superhighway, the suggestion being that it's going to change our lives. What is the information superhighway, and does it really hold transformative potential for schools?
      I prefer the term information infrastructure—a synthesis of high-performance computing and high-performance communications. The high-performance computing gives us the power of super computers on the desktop—but at personal computer prices. And high-performance communications let us link that power to other people's machines and to send across these channels not just data but video and voice.
      At least three different groups are competing to become the backbone of the country's information infrastructures.
      The phone companies prefer their phone lines, the cable television providers would like their wires used, and the computer companies want to see the Internet as the dominant medium. Then you have secondary players, like the wireless technologies. In practice, I think all of them will play some role. In any particular local area, one or another group may dominate, but everything will interconnect. Eventually, we'll have devices that sometimes act like a telephone system, in the sense that you can do teleconferencing and video conferencing. Some of the time they'll act like a cable television system, in that you get digital video delivered to you on demand. And sometimes these tools will act like the Internet, which offers knowledge webs and different sorts of synthetic environments and discussion groups; things that begin to become virtual communities.
      Some critics are calling it the “information hypeway,” saying the benefits are being wildly oversold.
      The vendors talk about things like video dialtone, which would allow you to order movies at home. That, to me, is absolutely uncompelling. I get much more excited about some of the innovations that we're seeing with the World Wide Web. Here, people are using “netcrawlers” like Netscape or Mosaic not only to reach data that wasn't at their fingertips before, but to reach interlinked information. In other words, when they find one piece, they're linked to other things they might want to know. I get excited about telepresence and virtual communities, where people who are not physically near one another can share ideas. And I'm excited about synthetic environments that allow people to step outside of the real world and into a virtual universe for a while, as a way of getting some insights on the real world. If we use information infrastructures for that kind of thing, we'll see where the true power is. If we just use it as a bigger pipe to shovel more data through—which is what the superhighway concept conveys—we won't see very much value added.
      Access to information seems to be one of the big selling points of the information superhighway idea. You have some doubts about how useful this is to schools, though.
      Classrooms right now are not information-poor environments. Many teachers feel overwhelmed by how much information they're already supposed to convey. If anything, the curriculum is too crowded now. We teach a wide array of things very superficially through presentation, which we then have to reteach a couple of years later because students don't remember it. If the purpose of the Internet is seen as adding more information, it will make current educational problems worse rather than better.
      Again, the question of whether this access to information that technology affords us is a good thing depends on what model of teaching and learning we're striving for. One way of looking at it is to distinguish between inert knowledge—which is something that you know, but that doesn't make any difference in your life—and generative knowledge, which changes your mental model, your whole perspective on how you view the world.
      How do people translate access to vast archives of information into personal knowledge in a generative way? We've found that learner investigation and collaboration and construction of knowledge are vital, and these things don't follow from teaching by telling and learning by listening. It isn't that assimilation of knowledge isn't a good place to start, because it's hard to investigate something unless you know a bit about it. But assimilation is a terrible place to stop. The excitement about the access to information is that it is the first step in access to expertise, to investigations, to knowledge construction. Only if access to data is seen as a first step—rather than an end in itself—will it be useful.
      High-powered computing and access to all these resources within the classroom could create major challenges for teachers. Students might want to take more ownership of the curriculum and have more choice in what they study. And some of those topics might be things about which the teacher knows very little. What will this mean for teachers, who traditionally have planned the curriculum in advance, based on the content and skills they thought most important for students to learn?
      To me the purpose of education is to make you more effective in life, and life doesn't come packaged in disciplines. In real life, you're not always in the same room with an expert who knows the right answer. The best way to educate is to start where people are. If a learner is interested in baseball, you start with baseball; if a learner is interested in rap music, you start with rap music. What we know about real-world situations, authentic phenomena, is that they contain all the disciplines swirled around within them. An effective teacher can involve students from many different disciplinary perspectives by beginning with something that learner is interested in, rather than some artificial problem.
      What you're describing sounds like an incredible challenge for teachers.
      Certainly, it's a more difficult kind of teaching, and it means that even an expert teacher will be in situations where the right answer is, “I don't know, but I know how to find out.” And that answer is very valuable, because it models that not knowing is not a failure, that not knowing is a typical condition. The important thing is having the skills to find out.
      Look at how the world of work has changed. A lot of blue-collar and white-collar employees are not solving problems as they did a generation ago, when they would look at a problem, reflect on it until they understood it completely, and then apply some problem-solving technique they'd learned. In today's workplace, by the time you fully understand something, conditions have already changed. So what people are mastering in work is the ability to make decisions given incomplete information, inconsistent objectives, and uncertain consequences. And that's what we need to be teaching in education—not so much what we know and how we know it, but what to do when you don't know something, and how to act when you don't know exactly how to get to where you want to be.
      And how can technology support this?
      Many of the things that we've been talking about—collaborative learning, constructive learning, and apprenticeships—are not new concepts in learning. But they've never been sustainable. Teachers who try them usually burn out. Why? Because they didn't have an infrastructure that supported them. Technology can help establish a supportive infrastructure that makes it possible to use those powerful models without burning out.
      If students were learning effectively from lectures and were excited about it, I would be the last person to say: “Stop! Wait a minute! You've got to do this using technology.” But what we see too often is that many students aren't getting much from the current curriculum, and teachers don't have anything in their repertoire that's sustainable to involve those learners. So if beginning an e-mail relationship with a student in Japan is the right thing to use with a student, do it. If simulating being on the starship Enterprise gets kids involved, do it. Whatever works. And technology can expand the repertoire of what works.
      We're experiencing two important trends right now. One is that many students, especially those in wealthier families, have access to computers at home. Many students may even have greater access at home than they do at school. The other trend is that the home market for educational software is exploding. What do these trends mean for the future of schools?
      The issue is complex, in part because schools have three different functions: they are learning environments, they are socialization institutions, and they are custodial settings. Because of the custodial and socialization aspects, in particular, I don't think that schools will ever disappear. We may not call them schools, but there will be some place that students go to keep them safe and to enhance their socialization into our nation.
      Some of the growth in home infrastructure is very positive, because during the last generation a lot of families have dumped all their educational responsibilities onto the school. We know that the biggest single impact that we could make in the lives of many children would be to involve their parents more deeply in their learning. So if technology creates the partnership between school and home, whether through homework hotlines or whatever, that's very exciting.
      But this also creates an equity challenge. Anytime a new medium comes along, initially it widens the gap between the haves and the have nots. Early in the development of the telephone, people who had telephones had a large advantage over people who didn't. Because it was new and expensive, gaps widened. However, when a medium is mature, it narrows gaps. From a policy point of view, the challenge is how do we minimize that early period and quickly move to the more mature stage?
      What complicates the situation is that many people now are dissatisfied with public education. Along with the explosion in home computers and home software, we're seeing an explosion in independent schooling, pressure for vouchers and home schooling. These trends are interrelated. People who are going outside of the public schools are finding that these new infrastructures are an efficient and effective way of delivering services—curriculum across the wires, supervision across the wires, and certification across the wires. If public educators don't effectively use the technologies to enhance their services, a decade from now we could be in a situation where public schools are responsible for a smaller group of students who are, on balance, harder to educate—and the more privileged students would be served through other means. And a smaller proportion of taxpayers would care about whether public education succeeds or not. That would be a very grim situation.
      You're doing some exciting research on new forms of technology. What's that about?
      A lot of my own research right now is in the area of immersive distributed virtual environments.
      That's a mouthful.
      Here's a simpler way to describe it. Some of it is like virtual reality, where people are wearing computerized clothing, and their nervous systems are placed inside an artificial universe. Through their visual sense, through their auditory sense, through their haptic sense—touch and pressure—they experience something that's not possible to experience in the real world. A colleague of mine and I are building virtual “universes,” where you can personally experience what it would be like to be a charge in an electromagnetic field, or a ball in a world without friction and gravity, or a molecule that's about to bond on the quantum level. We call these immersive environments.
      How can this enhance learning?
      Take science as an example. There are lots of things in science that we don't personally experience in the real world in a conscious way, like relativity or quantum mechanics, even though they're there. By putting ourselves into an immersive environment, we can experience such things, and we think these experiences will help people understand those concepts more fully.
      And what are “distributed virtual environments”?
      These allow people separated by distance and time to occupy a shared synthetic world, where they can collaborate to evolve common virtual experiences. One scenario I use frequently is learners tuning into a Star Trek channel. Their “avatar,” their computer graphics figure in the virtual world, appears on the deck of the starship Enterprise with the avatars of everyone else who signed in at that time. This is a very compelling setting in which kids in Germany and kids in America can practice each other's language and work on their skills in math, science, or communication. The motivation comes from trying to help the starship move forward or deal with a new galactic entity.
      Are there examples of this in practice?
      The military has had success with nonimmersive distributed simulation in dial-a-war systems for virtual battlefields. It's easy to see analogies to some of the same types of training-related things that schools do. Also, the text-based virtual worlds emerging on the Internet (MUSEs, MUDs, MOOs) are primitive types of distributed simulation.
      How far along is your research?
      We're a year into a project, funded by the National Science Foundation, which is designed to evaluate the potential of immersion through science education. We're seeing if there's something there that's worth exploring. The equipment that we're working with now is in the half-million dollar range, so there would be no point today in trying to build a curriculum out of what we've found.
      But we believe that, because of advances that the entertainment industry is going to make, that same level of power will be under the Christmas tree within eight years. So if there is learning power in immersion, we think there should be alternatives to Super Mario in 3D or Mortal Kombat 45, or whatever will be the entertainment at that time. In the long run, depending on what we find in the research, we should be able to have an influence. In the short run, there won't be any direct impact.
      Clifford Stoll is getting a lot of attention because of his book, Silicon Snake Oil. He argues these virtual worlds have a dark side. People become immersed in virtual communities and ignore their real communities. Since educators today are so interested in creating classrooms as communities, do you think new technologies might be a threat to this goal?
      Technology is a double-edged sword. Even when a family watches television together in the same room, they can be isolated spectators rather than people who are sharing a common experience. The information infrastructures will have a somewhat better record, because at least they're interactive. But educators should be wary of placing too much emphasis on these virtual worlds. After all, the whole purpose of learning is to help you function more effectively in reality. It will require very careful design. The commercial incentive, with movies and television and so on, is to lure people into the virtual world. That's how they make money.
      In education, we have to set up the incentive system the opposite way: by using these virtual worlds to teach, but always helping students apply what they're learning in a real-world context. The best role for technology is to make community-centered constructivist classrooms sustainable for the teacher.

      John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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