Ten Dollar Computers and the Future of Learning in the Web Era

lebow80By David G. Lebow
Guest Author

I was in the eighth grade sitting in a first-year French class. As Mr. Woodward passed back our quizzes from the previous day, he announced that the results were uniformly abysmal. Although he was not recording any grades, he emphasized that he had made many corrections to our work. When Mr. Woodward handed me my quiz, which was covered in red marks and marginalia, I glanced at it briefly, crumbled it up, and tossed it from my second row seat into the waste basket. As I vividly recall, Mr. Woodward was outraged at my behavior and demanded that I fetch my crumbled quiz from the trash. The next time the class met, Mr. Woodward told me that he had discussed the incident at the faculty meeting the previous afternoon, and the story had created quite a stir. Looking back with the benefit of 50 years of research in the learning sciences, I see my behavior as an unconscious act of defiance. I was a product of the system, and according to the rules that “they” had set, school was about earning good david_feb13grades (i.e., a performance rather than learning orientation). In my preconditioned mind, if the quiz didn’t count toward my grade, it was irrelevant.

What has this anecdote to do with a discussion about $10 computers for everyone? When someone proposes a solution to a problem, my colleague at FSU, Roger Kaufman (needs assessment and planning are his domains), likes to ask, “For what problem is this the solution?” If teaching and learning activities do not reflect knowledge and best practices from the learning sciences (e.g., establish a classroom culture that promotes a learning orientation), putting a computer into the hands of every child on the planet is not likely to have the desired effect of establishing universal opportunity for learning and self-actualization.

In an essay entitled “The Next Information Revolution” (1997), Peter Drucker suggested that the current information revolution will have a transformational effect on society only when new technology realizes its potential impact on the meaning of information. In the context of education, computer technology is one element in the formula for triggering a transformational impact on education. Ultimately, the future of learning in the web era will not only include computers and related technology but also access to the digital storehouse of human knowledge, social software for collaborative knowledge-building activities, cognitive tools powered by a combination of human and machine intelligence, and, perhaps most critically, teaching, learning, and assessment practices consistent with the learning sciences. For example, this includes applying what we know about the role of emotional and social context in learning, characteristics of proficient learners, differences between novices and superior performers, milestones along the trajectory from novice to expert, and authentic assessment for both measuring and supporting learning.

tascpl3Internet “juggernauts” Google and Microsoft see the future of information technology in an ever-expanding digital storehouse of human artifacts linked together in one searchable information universe. In this vision, sprawling server farms will provide anytime, anyplace access to virtually everything ever written or recorded. As this vision moves toward becoming a reality, individuals and entities who learn to leverage this information storehouse will be the big winners. From this perspective, innovations in social software, cognitive tools, and teaching, learning, and assessment  practices will change the cognitive architecture (i.e., how information is organized inside the mind) of people who engage in these practices and accelerate the journey along the trajectory from novice to expert. In sum, the future of learning in the web era must engage participants in computer-enhanced practices that harness the cognitive and social-interaction potential of knowledge-based social networks and accelerate learning, creativity, and improvements in performance of members. Stated more succinctly as a “general theory of learning in the web era,” to borrow a phrase from Jim Shimabukuro, computer technology (e.g., $10 computers) + access to the digital storehouse of human knowledge + social computing + cognitive tools + teaching and learning practices consistent with the learning sciences + leadership to catalyze change = transformation of education.

12 Responses

  1. If my first “French as foreign language” students had been as candid as you, it would have saved them and me a lot of time. But I started teaching as a “lectrice” at university, and moved only later to more challenging secondary and middle schools. University students are more polite: they file away the test with all the teachers’ annotations, but the result is the same: zero.

    When I realized it, I changed tack:I reviewed the test with each student separately while the others were working on another task. OK with high school and university students, more problematic with middle-school ones who tend to get restless when left to work on their own for more than 15 minutes.

    Anyway, even these person-to-person discussions were no guarantee of learning. You learn by doing – also doing things about your mistakes. Even in pre-PC times, you could set work during these discussions. But versioning in traditional PC-based digital texts, and wikis, have made this way easier.


    However, about “Internet “juggernauts” Google and Microsoft see the future of information technology in an ever-expanding digital storehouse of human artifacts linked together in one searchable information universe. In this vision, sprawling server farms will provide anytime, anyplace access to virtually everything ever written or recorded.”:

    Let’s hope never entirely. For the time being, even Google and Microsoft web apps allow people to keep their content private or to share it just with a group or chosen contacts. This is very important in education: some students might not wish to have their still imperfect work in progress exposed to all and sundry. Moreover, in general, knowing who to share information with and how is something crucial in general, and hence has to be acquired at school too.

    Finally, about your definition of change, Sakshat aims at covering all the criteriums you list, according to their portal, even though the “Interact” part is still rather weak for the time being.

  2. Are we connected or socially disconnected…I personally believe that technology has reduced our social capital—the relationships that bind people together and create a sense of community. Consequences include decreased civility, loss of behavioural boundaries and increased crime. We must find ways to deal with our profound loss of social connectedness.Even though technological advances have contributed significantly to the problem of isolation, the emphasis on individualism in today’s society has compounded it.

  3. I am old enough to remember how TV was said to reduce our social capital, how people stayed at home instead of going to the cinema and then for a meal, with the same alleged consequences of loss of behavioural boundaries and social connectedness. Sure, communication technology can lead to aberrations, like preferring virtual to real connectedness – like any technology.

    However, communication technology can also reinforce social connectedness and ethics: for instance when Musharraf proclaimed the State of Emergency in Pakistan on Nov. 3, 2007, one of his first measures was to block private televisions, to prevent people from having independant information. Within a couple of hours, alternative broadcasting via the internet was set up. See also the use of twitter by human rights activists to coordinate actions and to keep other informed when they get arrested and/or beaten up. Now such virtual social networks work because for their members, they are a tool and not a replacement of reality.

    So perhaps the emphasis on individualism is the real issue, which can at times get compounded by improper use and perception of communication technology, and not vice-versa. The paradox is that schools, where proper use and perception of this technology could be learned, often block them rather than having to grapple with the issues they raise.

  4. Currently, we see a major disconnect between what we know about learning from the learning sciences and predominant teaching and learning practices. Emerging technology (e.g., social software and cognitive tools) have the potential to engage people in practices that accelerate the journey from novice to superior performer and strengthen the knowledge-building capacity of teams and communities.

  5. True, David – yet if teachers don’t already have the wish to engage in social practices and to explore new cognitive means with their students and colleagues, then they will hardly be interested in tech tools facilitating these activities.

    There repeatedly are discussions started by some school IT officer asking how to get teachers interested in these tools, for instance on the Instructional Technology Forum of the University of Georgia, with other folks invariably answering that the tools must answer a need, so that one should start by building a collaborative and exploratory culture among teachers,

    In that “Egg or Chicken” situation, I really enjoyed your presentation of the Hylighter-Edu tool, with the reference to medieval manuscripts as collaborative learning tools.

  6. Our leader Jim wants to have a shootout on the “Tyranny of the Internet.”

    I fancy myself a man of peace but I’d like to fire my guns at what I’ll call the “Tyranny of Presence.”

    “Presence” is face-to-face. “Presence” is speech. And the “metaphysics of presence” has us believe, as Claude says casually , that there is a difference between “virtual ” and “real connectedness.” And of course “real” connected is face-to-face connectedness, with speech as the medium of relating.

    And Didier echoes the early Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: the new technologies isolate us, we bowl alone…we have lost “social capital.” And the villain, we presume, are the communication technologies which have us doing this kind of communicating rather than being in each other’s “presence.”

    David Lebow, in his thoughtful and well-reasoned support of the new technologies, talks of “establishing a classroom culture.” The students remain in the classroom, and the new tools are added to the environment, presumably adding their strengths to the powers of “presence.” Perhaps.

    I’d like to propose that the greatest drag on the movement to harness the powers of the new technologies for education is the belief in “blending,” the belief that somehow we can make the new technologies and the old technologies of “presence” compatible and reinforcing.

    My work now is in sub-Saharan African. Perhaps I might use as a lead to an anti-blending argument an article in the February 20 issue of “The Chronicle of Higher Education:: “Africa’s New Crisis: a Dearth of Professors.” It begins this way:

    “Rafiki Yohana’s transition from student to lecturer was difficult and abrupt. After graduating from the Unive4rsity of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with a degree in linguistics, she was quickly hired as a teaching assistant and soon found herself standing in front of hundreds of students in introductory courses.

    “Her classes were so large that some of her students had to crowd outsied the classroom door to hear her lectures..”

    “You may be a competent teacher, but when you look at your students, and the rooms are so full and they don’t even have chairs, you feel this is not worthy,” says Ms. Yohana…”

    And this increasingly will be the story in the richer nations as the financial crisis continues.

    All in the belief, long unexamined, that the process of learning begins with “presence,” with speech as the technology—even if the speech is in a lecture hall with the teacher a remote figure and the students listeners, if they can hear him at all.

    The “Tyranny of the Classroom”?

  7. Isn’t the theme proposed by Jim Internet and Tyranny? I’d better check that before I do my post.

    Aside from that detail, I fully agree with you. The first online course I took was Development and the Internet, organised by the Harvard Berkman Center, started March 31, 2003 (checking, I noticed you were on it too, Steve).

    Back then, though blogs and other RSS-based things were already out, O’Reilly had not yet coined “Web 2.0”. However, the Berkman Center had already developped H2O and its Rotisserie, a very clever device to incite exchanges among participants in “e-learning” projects. And one very fascinating Rotisserie discussion was about the Indian “Hole in the Wall” project: putting a computer with a fast connection in a “hole in a wall” in a New Delhi slum and observe what kids did with it: while they did not know the words computer or mouse or internet, they soon found out how those things worked.

    In 2003, the phrases “Digital Native” and “Digital Migrant” had not been coined either, but the “Hole in the Wall” experiment gave an interesting light on these issues. The expression “blended learning” made me queasy both because it reminded me of the jarred foods discriminating babies contemptuously spit out when parents attempt to wean them on these products, and because conferences about it were filled with vendors of very proprietary products. But back then, I still thought that some form of face to face training was needed, at least to introduce people to the technological tools to be used at distance: a bit like the UK Open University courses, which also organised “in presence seminars”.

    Yet the “Hole in the Wall” experience opened new perspectives. Maybe face-to-face was necessary for teachers and elder adults – I had recently spent 2 hours on the phone explaining to a colleague in another part of Switzerland how to create her log in for an online group we had decided to use for our classes – but things were going to be much simpler with students….

  8. Asking “For what problem is this the solution” about universally available inexpensive computers may be like asking the same question of the inventor of paper. At the time of its invention, the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword” had not been said and was irrelevant.

    First, stuff had to be written and printing invented. Today, books are the mainstay of education, although that may not last.

    I am certain that computers will allow us to provide education that was previously only available to students in small classes with master teachers. Perhaps, Alfred Bork’s vision of computer as tutor will come to pass. Possibly, virtual worlds such as Second Life will show the way. Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games may produce engines of learning heretofore unimagined.

    Computers as tools of learning form a new frontier still. The early explorers made many mistakes from which we all learned. The process continues.

    The problems in education also continue. Overly large classes with inadequate equipment and facilities face untrained teachers and unprepared students. These problems challenge our entire education system.

    I assert we need not seek problems to solve; they’re staring us in our collective faces. I also assert that computer technology will play a major role in solving these problems. After all, in my own science specialty, decades of effort and billions of dollars spent in traditional approaches have not solved the problems. We must break out of this box!

    Just as paper had to have something of value written on it so must computers and the Internet have content and tools (software) before the value of the medium can be realized.

    We’re still pioneers exploring the possibilities. Despite many dead ends, I am optimistic that we will find the ways to overcome the problems we face. Of course, we’ll then have a whole new set to address. That’s fine with me because without new challenges, we’ll stagnate.

  9. A belated response to Harry Keller’s comment: When I asked the question, “For what problem is this the solution,” I was not suggesting that computers are not critically important for improving teaching and learning and opening opportunity to realize human potential around the world. My point is that we will not realize the potential of computers and related technology to transform society until teachers and learners have adopted practices that are consistent with the learning sciences.

    For example, through 30-40 years of studying expert peformance, we now know a great deal about the differences between novices and superior performers within a variety fields, and we have some knowledge about the important milestones along the trajectory from novice to expert within those fields. Yet, little of this research base has made its way into school learning or, even, corporate training.

    Yes, the world would benefit from $10 computers, but realizing the potential of those millions of computers for learning will require adoption of practices that are consistent with what we know (and will learn) about learning itself.

  10. David Lebow: Yes, the world would benefit from $10 computers, but realizing the potential of those millions of computers for learning will require adoption of practices that are consistent with what we know (and will learn) about learning itself.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    David, a potential problem with this view is the assumption that pedagogy is independent of medium. If we assume the opposite, that the medium is the message (McLuhan), then we must at least consider the possibility that pedagogy suitable for the traditional classroom may be the old medium embedded in the new (Web 2.0) and that the new, for example, a global network of cheap, universally accessible laptops, may be an unexpected or unanticipated outcome that calls for a wholly new pedagogy. Like talking heads, classroom-based approaches to teaching and learning may not be suitable for a virtual medium such as the internet, which is evolving at an exponential rate. I guess what I’m suggesting is that we’re at an exciting point in the evolution of education. The next step in learning theory or models for teaching will probably need to consider the opportunities inherent in the new medium, Web 2.0, and a critical variable in this medium is a cheap laptop in the hands of every student on this planet that will allow him/her to access nearly all the information that the world has to offer. In this emerging scenario, models of best practices in teaching based on traditional classroom strategies could be irrelevant or, worse, stifling. -Jim Shimabukuro

  11. Actually, I agree with David Lebow regarding how people learn — with some caveats.

    Lecturing at students was never a great learning mechanism. You could learn quite well without attending lectures in many cases.

    Computers and the Internet will transform the way people learn but not the fundamentals that require people to do in order to learn. After all, what is learning? You can do quite well in many classes by memorizing. Is that learning? Sometimes, when dealing with information underlying a discipline, it is. I never felt that memorizing multiplication tables was wasted time.

    The next stage is critical. You must learn to use your knowledge.

    I recently had a student tell me that my explanation of a chemistry question solution was “tricky.” Her alternate was a plug-and-chug use of a preformed tabular approach. My “tricky” solution required much less math and was simpler than the student’s. However, it was not the way she had learned to solve problems, a very mechanist approach that left out the science!

    Computers will eventually provide a means to do stuff engagingly and will even be able to tutor students reasonably well. Such capabilities will move education to a new level.

    However, in science we must provide one more dimension. I suspect that other disciplines have parallel requirements. In science, students must learn scientific reasoning skills and must develop an understanding of the nature of science. Doing so really requires them to collect their own data from the real world. Simulations simply don’t make the grade on these particular issues.

    Ordinarily, science laboratory experiences are supposed to provide this student experience. Many such labs are so poorly done that they don’t provide the necessary experience.

    That’s why I created the Smart Science® system.

    It’s really an exciting time in education!

  12. […] Earlier this week a friend who works at another university here in New Zealand linked me to this article. Taken at face value it’s a perfect example of the “computer as panacea” […]

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