Moursund's IT in Education Home Page

To Improve Education. (Computers and Education.)

Moursund, D.G. (November 1984). To improve education. (Computers and education.) Creative Computing Vol. 10, No. 11, p 180.

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My personal involvement in education goes back to 1936 when I was born of parents who were both faculty members in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Oregon. I was raised in a family that believed in education and set high educational goals. Thus, it is not surprising that I stayed in school until I completed a doctorate in mathematics and became a research-oriented professor in that field.

What is perhaps surprising, however, is that I am now a computer educator, a person who spends full time in teacher education, writing, planning, and working to improve precollege education. I have not taught a mathematics course for many years, and my knowledge of that field is gradually fading.

My transition from research mathematician to computer educator began in the summer of 1965 when I volunteered to teach a numerical analysis course to secondary school math teachers in a summer institute. The course was not very successful (which is a polite way to say that I didn't do very well) but it started me working on the problem of trying to integrate computers into precollege education. It also made me aware of how difficult it is to be a successful teacher of teachers.

In the summer of 1966 I was director of a National Science Foundation Summer Institute for teachers, and I have maintained a high level of involvement in teacher education ever since. I believe that I have learned a lot about education during the past 20 years, and in this short essay I would like to share a few key ideas.

Education is a Massive System

Most people who write or talk about improving precollege education seem unaware of the massiveness of this system. In the United States there are about 45 million precollege students enrolled in approximately one hundred thousand public or private schools. More than 2 million educators are involved in this system that spends well over $100 billion per year. There are more than 15,000 public school districts; issues of local, regional, state, and federal control are all important in the functioning of each school district.

It is often said that it takes 50 years to make a significant change in our educational system. While the time line for a significant change can be argued, it is easy to see why change takes time and substantial effort. Our educational system is massive, and it has a momentum born of many years of tradition. It resists change. Give our educational system a push and it gradually returns to its initial position. A huge new federal aid-to-education program might spend a billion dollars a year for several years. But a billion dollars is less than one percent of the yearly school budget, and after a few years the federal program ends. As likely as not, after a few more years the effect of those billions of federal dollars is barely discernible.

Interestingly, I estimate the total cost of computer equipment now being used in precollege education at well under a billion dollars. Is this enough to have a significant impact?

Teacher as Change Agent

My main approach to educational change has been through working with teachers. If I can change a teacher, that teacher can change the education of hundreds of students. The multiplier effect is appealing.

In my earliest days of running summer institutes for teachers I helped many teachers to understand how computers can change the basic nature of mathematics education. I assumed that as soon as teachers gained insight into the capabilities of computers they would completely reorganize the courses they taught. What a naive assumption! Of course no appreciable change occurred! How could it, when there were no computers in the schools, no appropriate textbooks, no time for teachers to rewrite the curriculum, and no encouragement from school administrators, school boards, and parents to make such changes?

I still believe that teachers are an essential part of any change process in education. But teacher education by itself has limited potential. An individual teacher is locked in by tradition, standardized testing, a huge work load, and many other barriers to change. Imagine a fifth grade teacher deciding to omit paper and pencil long division from the math curriculum, replacing it with calculator use. An individual teacher cannot make such a change, even when backed by recommendations from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics.

Computer as Change Agent

Another of my early, naive assumptions was that the mere existence of computers in higher education and throughout business, government, and industry would cause massive changes in precollege education. How could a computer-knowledgeable teacher continue to teach the same old things in the same old way?

A more recent, still naive assumption was that if the computer-knowledgeable teachers had reasonable microcomputer access in schools, significant curricular changes would certainly occur. Students could see the machines and could learn to use them. Then the curriculum would change.

Over the past five years we have seen a very rapid growth in computer availability. In schools in the United States we are rapidly approaching a level of one microcomputer or computer terminal per 100 students. Many secondary schools have 30 or more micros--a classroom set as well as miscellaneous machines scattered throughout the building. Certainly many schools now have enough computer access to support significant changes in the traditional curriculum.

But where is the change? Has the geometry course changed? How about science labs? Maybe we can find changes in business classes, art classes, music classes, English classes, or history classes? To some of these you might respond "yes" and point to a specific small change. But the basic nature of precollege education in all of these disciplines remains unchanged.

Computer-related changes are occurring, and the actual change can be divided into three parts.

  1. A very large number of students are taking computer literacy, computer programming, or computer science courses. Such instruction is even reaching into the grade schools.
  2. Some computer use has been integrated into some parts of some schools' curriculum. Certainly we can see substantial use of computer-assisted learning in many schools.
  3. Computers (more generally, micro-electronics), as one of the dominant underlying factors in high technology, are forcing a reexamination of the curriculum.

It is the third point, computer as change agent, that is critical. The now-apparent ready availability of computers and the general recognition of the importance of high technology are forcing our educational system and individual schools to reexamine what it is they are doing. This reexamination is healthy; it is fundamental to any significant change in the system.

As a consequence of this reexamination many states and individual school systems are requiring students to take more solid courses in math, science, and English. They are beefing up graduation requirements and encouraging teachers to assign more homework. While some states and school districts are beginning to require that their students become computer literate, the changes that are occurring go far beyond computers. The changes are attempts to require that the overall quality of student education be improved.

The Student is the Key

An educational system is an environment designed to facilitate learning. But what he learns and how well he learns it is ultimately up to the student. Surprisingly, we often lose sight of this fact.

All of us have seen students of approximately equal academic abilities make far different types of progress in school. All of us have seen that some students work harder, take harder courses, and set higher personal goals than others. An educational system makes opportunities available--it is not a panacea.

Ultimately the individual student is the key. Thus, perhaps, we are led to a philosphical discussion of what motivates a student. I certainly can't cover all possible bases in this short essay. We can look at external rewards such as high grades, praise of parents, scholarships and the possibility of entrance into the best college or university. We can look at an inherent desire to learn, to grow, to achieve, and to increase one's potential. We can work on all of these, and more. And, of course, we can be aware that computers have strong motivational powers for many students.

I believe that the greatest potential for improved education in this country lies in helping students learn to take responsibility for themselves. This should begin at the very earliest grades (and, of course, even before children start school). "What is it that I am expected to learn? How does it tie in with what I already know? Why should I want to learn this? How can I tell if I have learned this new material?" Questions such as these should be ingrained in all students. The goal is to have every student become a self-reliant and independent learner.

Computers, of course, can play a helpful role in an educational system of self-reliant independent learners. Over the next 20 years computers will significantly supplement books as a source of information. Computers will supplement teachers as a source of instruction, testing, and feedback. Computers will become individual tools, as pencil and paper are today, to aid in the learning and problem solving process. But the student as self-reliant and as an independent learner is not dependent on computers, and progress towards such goals can occur in the absence of computers.

Thus, each reader of this essay can help to improve education. If you are a parent, interact with your children to help them become more self-reliant and independent learners. If you are an educator, stress this idea when working with students and other educators. And don't forget to do the same thing for yourself. If you feel the need to learn more about computers or some other topic, decide for yourself what you want to learn, why and how. Set your own standards for measuring whether you have gained the skills and knowledge you seek.

For me a clear picture emerges from the type of analysis given above. The educational environment can be improved, and educational goals and requirements can be changed. Computers will play an increasing role as change agent as well as within the curriculum. But far bigger improvements are possible if we can help students to take increased responsibility for their own education. The key to improved education is students, not computers.

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