A Digital World in the School

Access, Collaborate, Communicate, and Experience

Dominant types of use since 1980

An Update to

The Computer in the School:

Tutor, Tool, Tutee


Robert P. Taylor

Teachers College, Columbia University


The introduction written for The Computer in the School in 1980 was conceived to provide a sense of order and meaning for an area that seemed all too chaotic. By then, computer use in schools in the U.S. had been going on about a decade, and seemed to be characterized by a startling degree of diversity. Indeed, to some, every computer project in schools at that time could all too easily be seen as going in a different direction and being driven by different goals from every other project. The typology tutor, tool, tutee was designed to provide the uninitiated or confused with a framework for understanding the dominant types of computer usage already developing for schools at that time, and to suggest that these many projects were not as unrelated or disparate as they might seem. It was not meant to be the only possible framework nor to be appropriate indefinitely, merely to be helpful at that time, for the reasons just stated. Subsequent comments of reviewers and readers clearly demonstrated that the framework was helpful and accomplished its purpose for that time. Since then, the sheer number and degree of geographical distribution of computers in the world has expanded unbelievably. Inevitably the ways computers are now being used, twenty years after The Computer in the School, have changed, too. This brief essay is an attempt to explore that use and to reflect upon how it differs from that in 1980.

The new title reflects the broadening of the scope of what the students now using the computer in school are most likely to experience. In fact, what we see today is what we could only imagine in 1980. Thanks to further development of the computer itself and to the development of digital communication, it is now possible for educators to bring into the classroom what would previous to the computer have been an unimaginably broad and diverse representation of the world outside. Of course, this is not the physical world itself - only what has been digitized. Nevertheless, compared to what the traditional print-based approach alone could bring, it is revolutionary. It has radically changed what teachers can now incorporate in the school, if they so choose and, if they have appropriate technical support and have had training.

As the subtitle suggests, I have tried to categorize these new uses of digital technology succinctly, much as I did in the 1980 book. These new uses do not outdate or eliminate the earlier ones; they compliment or supplement them. This time, as the subtitle Access, Collaborate, Communicate, and Experience suggests, students and teachers using the additional technology can engage in four types of action that can significantly enhance their educational experiences together. First, over networks, they can access directly a broad and extensive body of information around the world, far beyond the limits of their own books and libraries. Second, students and teachers can collaborate not only with each other, but also, as appropriate, with those outside their school, even across the world, to develop and refine ideas, as they construct and refine projects realizable only through collaboration. Third, they can communicate with peers and with experts of all sorts, again, anywhere in the world, through a global language, English, or one of a number of broadly used regional languages like Spanish, thus potentially broadening their own understanding of life through reference to those with different relevant experiences. And fourth, they can experience things about the world not just through these first three possibilities but also through radically improved and network resident simulations of all kinds. We will briefly examine each of these four manifestations of the digital world, consider some implications of its inclusion in the classroom, and suggest some conclusions.


Manifestations of the digital world in the classroom


Accessing a world of information previously beyond classroom reach.

Through using the digital world's internet, students and teachers can directly access a broad and extensive body of information around the world, gaining instant access to information far beyond their own books and the libraries to which geography would formerly have limited them. Moreover, this information is not limited to the printed form that traditionally has been the extent of what they could access through their own books and in local libraries. Now common place but unknown even a century ago, video and audio will increasingly be available over the internet for a range of uses, again to anyone in the world with access. Moreover, computer supported searching capabilities that expand the useful access to information world-wide will become more powerful and more widely available.

For example, students and teachers can search for information on any topic in a range of libraries or, as appropriate and available, in the growing number of data banks world wide that are created and maintained by specialized research and government agencies. And other students, for different purposes, can download the performances of aspiring or expert musicians, in any of a range of musical forms, from a growing number of increasingly high quality databases of audio. Webconcerthall.com is a website which demonstrate many of these possibilities already realized.

Collaborating with others in new ways to enhance classroom experience.

Students and teachers will be increasingly able to collaborate with peers, experts and other individuals, and with classes and other groups, where ever they may be geographically, if appropriate to develop and refine ideas and to develop and carry out projects realizable only through collaboration. For example, scientific data can be collected and analyzed by students in widely separated geographical locations, and combined, discussed, and cooperatively analyzed over the internet, in new, more realistic forms. Artistic activities like the sharing of approaches to performing theater or music or the representation of subjects in artistic visual images, can be shared over the internet very productively, as the site Oklahoma! suggests. And a host of other things can be the subject of fruitful, digitally supported, collaborative work, where the mass of a single school or community alone would be too small to allow students of that school to even have considered such activity before the internet's arrival.

An example of collaboration on scientific data collection and analysis that has been underway for some time now illustrates the possibilities nicely. Administered collaboratively by Indiana, Princeton, and other university partners, this project links a number of high schools across the United States and beyond in the collection and joint analysis of seismic data. The seismometers are located at the participating schools and real data is constantly collected in each location and pooled via the internet, then both experts and the students examine the pool for trends and patterns of the data, and attempt to draw conclusions about a range of possible meanings. Thanks to the internet, this all can be done rapidly enough for all the participating schools to share in the excitement not only of helping to collect real data, but also in attempting to formulate theories to explain it. Together, they can experience the real science search for overarching patterns that simply would be impossible without collaboration with others, including peers and experts, well outside their geographical location.

Communicating with peers and experts beyond the classroom to refine opinion and broaden understanding

Through the digital world, students and teachers can communicate with peers and with experts of all sorts, anywhere in the world, and through globally used English, or a broadly used regional languages like Spanish, thus potentially broadening their own understanding of life through interactions with those whose view points have been shaped by widely different geographical, cultural and other factors. And of course, the collaboration discussed in the preceding section would not be possible without the communication facility offered by the internet and world wide web. The types of communication vehicles vary enough to support a range of student types, too. Email, chat spaces, bulletin boards, and so forth all facilitate the interaction of students and teachers with a diversity of opinion far beyond what has traditionally been available within a class room or even a community or geographic locale. Kidsnet, IEARN, Enlaces and many other instances of formalizing such communication already are functioning, around the world.

Experiencing important insights beyond the walls and time span of classroom life through powerful simulations.

Finally, through the digital world, students and teachers can experience things about the real world through radically improved and network resident simulations of all kinds. This is very important and will become increasingly so because of accelerating change in the world environment. What humans once had centuries or decades to learn to cope with or remedy, they will increasingly have only years or months for, in the future. It thus becomes increasingly important that children and young people learn how to predict and identify trends or other signs of impending problems and their implications more quickly and earlier than people ever had to previously, before the actual problems become irremediable. Unfortunately, in the actual world, there is neither time nor opportunity for students to study many of the phenomena they ought to. Worse yet, though there is insufficient time and opportunity, we must still prepare students to deal with the problems which arise from such phenomena. Fortunately, through simulation, the digital world can provide environments that facilitate learning about the world in a compressed time-span.

For example, much of our industrial activity pollutes the land. The pollution seems tolerable, often for years, because we are immediately getting desirable products from the activity and its undesirable side effects takes years to become evident. When people finally become ill in a pattern that can only be attributed to the pollution from the activity, or when bridges or other structures begin to collapse from the erosion clearly attributable to the pollution, it may be far too late to undo the damage already caused. Simulation can train students to learn to think ahead of time about such things, about the broader picture of what their own or society's actions may indirectly or directly cause. Simulation can thus help us avoid some of our potential mistakes without generating the devastating effects of the real situation.

The Brownfield Action simulation developed for environmental science courses at Columbia University in New York is a good example of this, and a harbinger of what will increasingly become available to the classroom. Students using this simulation examine all sorts of scientific data about a given town and the land beneath it, trying to determine which, if any portions of that land have become polluted by previous industrial and commercial activity. The simulation allows them to actually test the data to see which kinds of pollution may be there and to determine exactly where pollutants are, if they exist.


Implications good, bad, and mixed

There are a number of implications or side-effects which must be noted in considering how education and life in the classroom will be affected by the digital world and these four additional uses of technology it introduces to the classroom. Some are positive, some negative, and at least one is both. They must be considered in evaluating the overall impact of incorporating these new uses in classroom life. There are other implications, too, but these seem particularly worthy of identification and comment here.

Three Positive Implications

On the positive side, three important effects of the digital world in the classroom are likely to be some version of the following: (1) a transformation of the teacher's role from that of being a Wizard of Oz or font of all knowledge to that of being a coach, (2) an increase in multimedia representation of all kinds, forever reducing text's role in shaping the curricula and dominating access to its content, and (3) a reduction in the role of sequence in arranging not only information, but education itself, with a corresponding rise in the role of direct access to, and hierarchical arrangement of, specific items or sections of information instead.

Transformation of the teacher from font of all knowledge to coach. For too long, the teacher has had to act as though he or she were a font of all knowledge to which the students should defer to learn anything important. This is both false and destructive, reducing the students' efforts both to learn from a range of sources and to rely upon themselves. It also has severely limits the kind of collaboration students engage in. Because the digital world bring so much information and ways of analyzing that information into the classroom, the teacher is freed from maintaining the false facade of knowing all. Instead, the teacher can productively coach his or her students to learn to formulate ideas, to find information on their own, and to collaborate, using the information resources at their disposal to formulate their own solutions. No coach ever produced a winning team by personally outplaying her or his players. And no teacher will ever produce thoughtful, insightful graduates by maintaining himself or herself as the principal source of information and knowledge.

Increase in multimedia representation of all kinds, forever reducing text's role. As the discussion above has already indicated, the digital world in the classroom can only broaden the use of alternatives to textual representation of information. Ideas and procedures that are better understood if presented through sound or visual images (still or moving), can, should, and will be presented that way, to the benefit of all students. The websites Oklahoma, Convery, Webconcerthall, and SeeANew all illustrate this quite directly. The way dancers dance, singers sing, and artists draw are all better explained by visual and auditory example support than by text alone. No matter how much is written about how to sing, or how to draw, or how to conduct an experiment, such things remain mysterious until the learner can hear and see appropriate examples of the activity taking place or participate in a representative example of the process involved. The digital world now makes it possible to introduce more opportunities for such experience into the classroom.

Reduction in sequential access and corresponding increase in direct access to information and to education. One of the major sources of delay in learning is the excessive reliance we put upon always following a given sequence in everything. While sequential arrangement is very good and very appropriate for some of what we must learn, it is not appropriate for everything, all the time. The digital world in the classroom makes possible alternatives. Through direct access devices such as hyperlinks in websites or direct access in search engines, the learner is able to move directly to what he or she is most interested in learning, or what she or he needs to use in some collaborative project.


Three Negative Implications

Negative or troubling side-effects of the digital world's presence in the classroom are certain to include the following: (1) a feeling of exhaustion caused by accelerating instability and change in content and procedures, throughout education, especially but not exclusively as they involve technical support, (2) a feeling of drowning in an overwhelming sea of knowledge, both because of the increasing volume of information being created and because of increasingly effective and broad access to all of it, and (3) a feeling of individual or local cultural loss as the world seems to move toward increasing homogeneity through its increasing use of technologies of all kinds, including those related to information handling.

Being exhausted by the endlessly accelerating change in how to access information and appropriately deal with it. One of the characteristics anyone working with technology quickly learns to recognize, is the exhausting effect of having to cope with endless change in all the hardware and software one must use to capitalize on the technology. Unfortunately, the speed with which change is occurring seems only to be increasing. As the digital world becomes more prominent in the classroom, what one must learn to do oneself and help the students learn to do, is cope with constant change. This may involve not making changes where they are not essential, but it also probably involves something more radical. It probably requires learning to change one's view of life and developing an ability to relax, even in the face of frustration with unexpected failure, to assume that if one could learn enough about the technology involved in the particular problem, or find someone else who had, the cause of the failure would become intelligible, but then, to decide whether to actual try to solve the specific problem, or to bypass it by finding another route through the layers of software involved..

Drowning in an overwhelming sea of knowledge. As more and more information is added to the world and as greater and greater access to it from more and more angles becomes available, the digital world in the classroom can increasingly induce the feeling in many that they are about to drown in a sea of knowledge, drown without ever perceiving which of the many things they might learn or retrieve are the ones they should. This sea of knowledge problem will require the development of new attitudes toward information. These attitudes must help us continue to value it, but at the same time help us learn how to discriminate more quickly among information sources, forms, and details, to arrive at the most appropriate and the least inaccurate subset, as quickly as possible.

Being deculturized and depersonalized by the apparent, technologically spurred world move toward increasing homogeneity. Finally, a problem the digital world in the classroom will increasingly have to deal with is deculturization and consequent homogenization. As biologists have made clear, diversity is a crucial component of successful evolution and survival. What they can not make clear, at least not yet, is what degree of diversity is crucial. Clearly because of technology and the digital world, the number of separate cultures in the world will shrink to a smaller number. Clearly too, common, and therefore homogenizing elements like widely shared languages such as English and Spanish will continue to rise in use and importance. But how much homogenization should we expect or tolerate, and what degree of cultural diversity should we seek to maintain? And what should we teach of these matters in our classrooms around the world? These are difficult questions for which we must seek answers.

One Enormous Mixed Implication

Educators must be trained and technically supported. This is a crucial implication that must be addressed if educators are to take full advantage of any digital in its classrooms. Twenty years ago, we argued in many articles and at many national and international meetings that teachers had to be trained to use computers. In all too many cases, this declaration was ignored. Schools, school districts, regions, and even countries found it far easier to do almost anything, including buying hardware, than to actually allocate the time and effort to train educators. There was no real precedent in 1980 for the level and extent of training needed by teachers and administrators if they were to incorporate the computer effectively in schools. Nevertheless, it proved nearly impossible to persuade educational and political organizations to prepare for and implement such a level of training. Little was done.

If anything, incorporating a digital world into classrooms today requires even more training of teachers and more technical support than would incorporating the 1980's computers into classrooms two decades ago. Though the digital world is now so pervasive in life outside the classrooms that it is impossible to ignore it, the provision of ongoing training and periodic retraining of teachers that it requires runs against the current in educational circles. Though they may verbally acknowledge the need lifelong education, most people still believe education is something one completes at a given point and need never pursue again, whether that point is: the end of secondary school, the end of undergraduate studies, the professional degree, or some other well-defined bound. Ironically, such a presupposition is particularly inappropriate where the digital world is concerned because it never ceases to change and the rate of that change seems to be increasing. So trying to incorporate that world in the classroom has very mixed implications in this area. On the good side, the potential benefits for teachers and children are great. On the bad, the degree of training and support required are so contrary to every tradition in education that realistic plans for instituting them are resisted - in the ministries, the departments, the local funding agencies, and even the schools. The challenge is obvious but daunting. We must transform the view of education, helping all to understand that in today's digital world, everyone needs continuing education and training, and that providing it requires more societal and personal resources than the old education.


Clearly the digital world in our classrooms will bring us an exciting but difficult period in the decade ahead. How will we cope? Certainly we will have to use the facilities of that digital world to keep in constant communication and to collaborate as we work to reshape education. Perhaps in the process of trying to cope and of mastering the digital world, we may learn to appreciate each other more. Certainly we must learn to depend upon and support each other if we are to survive and prosper.




Below are the websites mentioned. Three have to do with music and the fourth has to do with art. Together they demonstrate quite concisely both the global reach of the digital world and its multi-media facility. Although one can not use it fully unless enrolled in the course which it serves, BrownfieldAction has some public access via the URL listed.




The following references are meant only to suggest the scope of the issues involved. The Atlas gives a good sense of how much the world has changed in the last few millenia and how much this change is accelerating. The Flight book, gives a good overview of one type of techonolgy that is only 100 years old and has transformed the world, again at an increasing rate. We can only expect more from digital technology, a far more pervasive technology than the airplane. Frames of Reference is included because its formative view of multiple intelligences suggests how, with its multi-media facilities, digital technology will provide a richer set of materials and ideas in classrooms than has print alone. The Kapp book is a eye-opener about the problems of global change a la pollution, resource waste, and so on - first written about 50 years ago, it's startlingly predictive of today's global problems, and the role of technology of all kinds in causing and controlling them. Marty's Harvard lecture is a wonderful consideration of the need for global communication and understanding, a need we must understand and address as the digital world enters the classroom. My Ishmael is another book on the global problems, as we become more homogenized and as we use technology to control resources. It suggests how much we need to change our thinking about who we are as humans and what we can do with the planet. The computer in the school gave rise to this article so it should be looked at to understand where we were 20 years ago. Java for Dummies is included because it illustrates just how fast things are changing, and because its title is a bit ironic. First, the label dummies reflects for me how we all too often feel about digital technology - we just can't keep up with the changes that keep appearing demanding to be learned and it makes us feel stupid. Second if the edition is more than 6 months old, anyone who buys it is a dummy because the details will aready be out of date.