The Benefits of Technology
The schools we described above, one in Oklahoma and two in Ohio, are unknown to most Americans. And as innovations, they barely make a ripple in the vast sea that is the nation's public school system. But they are harbingers of things to come.
Like so many other novelties that surround us these days, from iPods to YouTube to Wikipedia, they are expressions of a profound social force—the revolution in information technology—that while still in process, is fast generating one of the most important transformations in all of human history. Because we are all enmeshed in this revolution every day, most of us are naturally inclined to take it for granted as a normal part of our lives, and to have a difficult time appreciating the enormity of its longer-term implications. But the fact is, it is radically changing our world.
The information revolution has globalized the international economy, made communication and social networking—among anyone, anywhere—virtually instantaneous and costless, put vast storehouses of information and research within reach of everyone on the planet, dramatically boosted the prospects of cooperation and collective action, internationalized the cultures of previously insulated nations, and in countless other ways transformed the fundamentals of human society. The new schools in Oklahoma and Ohio are an integral part of all this. They are among the first stirrings of a revolution in how children can learn and be educated.
The possibilities are exciting—and astounding. Even today, with educational technology in its earliest stages:
- Curricula can be customized to meet the learning styles and life situations of individual students, giving them productive alternatives to the boring standardization of traditional schooling.
- Education can be freed from geographic constraint: students and teachers do not have to meet in a building within a school within a district, but can be anywhere, doing their work at any time.
- Students can have more interaction with their teachers and with one another, including teachers and students who may be thousands of miles away or from different nations or cultures.
- Parents can readily be included in the communications loop and involved more actively in the education of their kids.
- Teachers can be freed from their tradition-bound classroom roles, employed in more differentiated and productive ways, and offered new career paths.
- Sophisticated data systems can put the spotlight on performance, make progress (or the lack of it) transparent to all concerned, and sharpen accountability.
- Schools can be operated at lower cost, relying more on technology (which is relatively cheap) and less on labor (which is relatively expensive).
These advantages only begin to describe the educational promise of technology, and it is guaranteed to continue generating innovations at a breathtaking pace in the years ahead. The great power of technology is that no one really knows what it will produce or make possible in the future. Who would have thought, not so long ago, that such a thing as the Internet could even exist? Or that any child could use a laptop computer to gain access to massive compendiums of information on virtually any topic of interest? These are mind-blowing developments.
Although the advance of educational technology is still in its early stages, there can be little doubt that the information revolution has the capacity to revolutionize education. It could hardly be otherwise. Information and knowledge are absolutely fundamental to what education is all about—to what it means, in fact, for people to become educated—and it would be impossible for the information revolution to unfold and not have transformative implications for how children can be educated and how schools and teachers can more productively do their jobs.
But to say that technology is hugely beneficial and that it has the capacity to revolutionize American education does not mean that this revolution is actually going to happen.11 That is the question at hand, the question this book is written to address. Will the promise of technology be realized in practice—and transform and improve the nation's public schools?