To Improve Education. (Computers and
Moursund, D.G. (November 1984). To improve education.
(Computers and education.) Creative Computing Vol. 10, No.
11, p 180.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- A very large number of students are taking computer
literacy, computer programming, or computer science
courses. Such instruction is even reaching into the grade
- 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
- 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
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
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.