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The Computer Isn't the Medium, It's the Message

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As long as there have been computers there have been people touting their value in education. But, the software produced for education has invariably been a dull approximation of the existing school system. Educational software meant drill and practice software for much of the early years in computing. Now it means taking dull educational materials and putting them on a Web page. Interactivity has meant clicking to see what you want presented to you at a particular time.

Computers won't begin to have a real impact on education until they are seen as the message rather than the medium. Computers ought not be a new means of producing a slide show. They have the power to alter the very nature of education, to transform what is taught and how it is taught.

Today, most university courses are lecture courses. Lectures are evidence of the inertia that exists in education that still reflects ancient educational considerations. When the ancient Jews wanted to educate the masses, they read to them every Saturday from the sacred scrolls. This made sense because most people couldn't read and there were very few scrolls. Today everyone can read and there are a lot of scrolls. Why hasn't the method of instruction changed? Because we somehow have gotten it into our heads that the means of instruction available in 1500 B.C. was right. It isn't and we need to get over it.

In the next years, computers will have their real effect on education. My company, Cognitive Arts, has made an arrangement with Columbia University to build online courses for them in their School of Arts and Sciences. The interesting part of this deal is not that Cognitive Arts is going to build online courses, everyone and his brother is doing that. The agreement with Columbia allows Cognitive Arts to build learn-by-doing courses that will change the very nature of what is taught. One can learn to run a business by running it rather than by reading or hearing about how to do it. One can learn psychology by practicing it rather than by writing a paper about what one has read.

The difference here is a difference based on what Alan Perlis used to call looking at the world from inside the computer as opposed to looking at the computer from the outside. Computer scientists understand that computers can do things differently and that replication of the old means by use of a new medium makes no sense. This view was effectively used in creating the air flight simulator as the best way to teach flying.

The coming years will see the creation of educational technologies by those few people who understand both computer science and education. Instead of reading and listening, students will be doing. They will run the economy, run political campaigns, run businesses, investigate cures for diseases, practice being a doctor, and go back in time to remake historic decisions. The computer will make people understand that the mark of an educated person is not the ability to spout little-known facts, but to have had a variety of experiences in simulated worlds that prepare one for decision-making in the real world.

To make this happen, computer scientists need to envision environments they can create in which the skills one needs in life can be practiced. They need to find ways to build such environments in cost-effective ways while still allowing them to be realistic. They need to redirect the energy they spend on designing video games and work with cognitive scientists to create meaningful virtual experiences.

The coming years will see the creation of educational technologies by those few people who understand both computer science and education.

So, what does the future portend? Eventually school as we know it will wither away. Initially, people will learn all the traditional subjects on the computer but in new ways that involve learning by doing. Eventually the traditional subjects will be combined since the idea of one professor/one course will go away. Students will work in complex simulated environments that teach many different kinds of things at the same time. The rest of school will be replaced by the winter equivalent of summer camp, where children learn to get along with one another, work as a team, accomplish projects of their own interest and generally deal with human side of education, which is so often forgotten in school. The computer can and will provide the rest. There will be no standard curriculum and no standardized tests. When the student lands the simulated plane under various conditions he is certified to fly that plane. So it will be with the rest of education. The computer will certify those who have accomplished what they set out to accomplish in a simulation. Students will choose what they want to accomplish and will work hard to be capable in the areas that intrigue them. We will all be much better off for the change.

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Roger Schank ( is a professor of Computer Science, Psychology, and Education at Northwestern University and Chairman of Cognitive Arts Corporation.

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UF1Figure. The Science Access Project Group at Oregon State University is developing methods for making science, math, and engineering information accessible to people with print disabilities. The TIGER Advantage is a PC printer that embosses tactile graphics and braille on braille paper.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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