ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Let's join the digital economy

By Kay Howell / October 2006

Print Email
Comments Instapaper
Despite large investments of universities and schools towards information and communications technologies, most formal teaching and learning still takes place using 19th century methods: reading texts, listening to lectures, and participating in infrequent (and often highly scripted) laboratory experiences. This is particularly frustrating given that the vast majority of today's students truly are "digital natives." They have grown up immersed in technology. Today's students are not only comfortable with technology—they know how to use it effectively to solve problems, find resources, and build networks of people with shared interests. So why do we send them to places of learning and ask them to leave their technology tools at home? Why do the cookies on my ten-year old daughter's computer know more about what she likes to read and how she likes to locate information than does her teacher?

The answer, unfortunately, is fairly simple: As a nation we've been unwilling to make the investments necessary to give our kids and their teachers the same productivity tools used in the computer, pharmaceutical, energy, and other industries. The federal government funds substantial research and development (R&D) initiatives that translate into advancements in key US industries—and those investments pay off handsomely. Federally funded R&D, performed mostly in US colleges and universities, leads to improved productivity through better processes, products, and services, and the graduate students that participate in the R&D eventually end up as workers in the related industries. It's a great model that has served our country well.

Unfortunately, there is no such R&D model for the education sector. US taxpayers invest nearly $1 trillion per year on K through 12 and higher-ed, yet the Department of Education invests relatively little on exploring the application of technology for learning. As a nation, there's a high cost to pay for this lack of investment. Studies have demonstrated a strong positive relationship between industry investments in information technology and productivity growth. This is evidenced by the state of education today—low IT-intensity yields low productivity. A recent Commerce Department study of 55 industries found that the education-services industry (elementary, secondary, post-secondary, adult, and work education and training) had the lowest IT-intensity of the industries studied, even though education is arguably one of the most knowledge intensive industries.

When I talk about technology for learning, I'm talking about much more than using email to communicate with students, Google for doing homework research, and PowerPoint slides to support distance learning. I'm talking about sophisticated information technologies tightly integrated into daily learning activities. We know that such software tools are possible because of the way information technology has been used in other service-sector industries: Powerful simulations and visualization tools are used in computer games and movies; sophisticated help systems provide accurate answers to questions using a combination of artificial intelligence and live operators; and Web sites undertake continuous evaluations of the people who use them, often tailoring offerings to interests and preferences revealed by the user ("Buyers who purchased this book also liked…").

These technologies can be adapted to education and will make it practical to adopt approaches that learning scientists have advocated for many years. Computer simulations could let learners tinker with chemical reactions in living cells, practice operating and repairing expensive equipment, or practice marketing techniques, thus making it easier to grasp complex concepts and transfer this understanding quickly to practical problems. New communication tools could enable learners to collaborate in complex projects and ask for help from teachers and experts from around the world. Learning systems could adapt to differences in student interests, backgrounds, learning styles, and aptitudes. They could provide continuous measures of competence—integral to the learning process—that can help teachers work more effectively with individuals and leave a record of achievement that is compelling to students and to employers. And new tools could allow continuous evaluation and improvement of the learning systems themselves.

This potential cannot be fully exploited without significant, sustained basic and applied research in learning science and technology. The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT) Initiative (H.R. 2512 and S. 1023) would fund the needed research and provide innovative management of the R&D efforts. DO IT research and development would be guided by a research plan: the Learning Science & Technology R&D Roadmap developed with advice by panels of experts from companies, universities, government research facilities, educators, and others with unique expertise. The Roadmap is actually a series of technology research roadmaps developed over a three-year period by the Federation of American Scientists and the Learning Federation, a partnership among industry, academia, and private foundations to stimulate research and development in learning science and technology.

The roadmaps provide an assessment of the R&D needs, identify key research questions and technical requirements, and detail a chronology of the R&D activities over the next five to ten years. Each roadmap also articulates long-term goals and shorter-term benchmarks. The research plan is crafted to ensure that supported research will generate a continuous flow of carefully evaluated instructional components, instructional strategies, and tools adaptable to multiple contexts, including university and corporate learning. The tools developed will enable increases in scale that will make these capabilities readily affordable to all. In turn, affordability will permit the routine use of new tools in schools, colleges, workplaces, and homes.

Every successful industry in the US economy has transformed itself using technology—it's long past time for the education sector to join the digital economy.


  • There are no comments at this time.