How does information technology improve the efficiency of social operation?
The most promising field in which information technology promises to improve efficiency is not the news media, nor scientific publications, nor our everyday search, but education.More than 40 years after the birth of affordable computers for education, education remains a labor-intensive industry.In 2013, there were more than 5 million teachers at all levels in the United States.Starting around 1900, the student-teacher ratio nationally continued to decline, as it did in the early 1970s and 1980s, with the advent of computers.While the student-teacher ratio has since risen slightly, it was still around 16:1 in 2012, less than J.P.Half of the time Morgan lived.Most laymen and educators agree that a lower student-teacher ratio is progress, not a waste of productivity.By comparison, farmers once made up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, and now make up 2 percent.Despite the efforts of some of the best minds in education, psychology and computing, education remains relatively inefficient compared with the rise of machine learning and self-driving cars.Nor have students’ scores on most tests improved significantly since the advent of computers.This does not mean that information technology is useless in education, on the contrary, it can improve the effectiveness of experienced teachers.But in the context of poorly qualified teachers and a shortage of hardware and software resources, there is evidence that some computer abilities may be more distracting and induce excessive video game play than computers as an aid to learning.Since the early days of the electric age, entrepreneurs have made the edTECH revolution their top priority, and it’s not just a trend from the 1970s.In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the favorite projects of Thomas Edison, one of America’s leading technologists, was the promotion of machine teaching as an application of film patents.Edison claimed in 1922 that textbooks were only 2% efficient.”I think the future of education will be through the medium of film, which is an intuitive form of education, and it should be 100 percent efficient that way,” he continued.(He never made clear what achieving 100% efficiency would mean for education.He speculates that with the best audio-visual materials, the same knowledge could be learned in one-fiftieth of the time.)He predicted again in 1925 that by 1935, “the textbook as the principal medium of instruction will be as obsolete as the horse and carriage is now…The possibilities are endless.According to his biographer Paul Israel, Edison believed strongly in this future and invested heavily in it, but ultimately failed.Edison himself was a self-taught telegraph operator, a member of the primitive geek culture of mechanical and electrical repair.He valued scientific education in universities and recruited well-trained university graduates as assistants.Edison was optimistic about the future, retaining the enthusiasm of the Victorian middle-class Protestants for moral uplifting, even as exhibitors of the time offered a mass of cheap, sensationalist productions to the general audience.Edison even invented a new system of film projection, the home projector, introduced in 1912, to bypass exhibitors and attract audiences from within the country, churches and, above all, schools.In order to prevent high temperature spontaneous combustion, the device uses a new non-flammable film as the shell, the seal and film are cleverly designed, only 77 feet of film can be projected on a standard 1,000 feet of film, film at the end of the film will be restarted.Edison planned to sell 10,000 of these projectors through his company, and he was so confident in the new educational medium that he personally funded the educational content.Like other educational efficiency experiments in the decades that followed, early news coverage of Edison’s experiment was enthusiastic, in part because of his status as a standard-bearer of American industry and his ability to deliver memorable press releases to impatient reporters.(One article said: “Thomas Edison fulfilled his mission to light up the world.Now he is working on an invention to brighten people’s minds.”) Despite Edison’s wizarding authority, teachers and educational administrators were cautious, denying that new technology could replace their roles and established methods of teaching.They noted that the films, created by Edison lab professionals, did not meet the needs of teachers when it came to explaining scientific and engineering principles.Edison sent catalogs to 16,000 school administrators, but no one picked them up and the project ended.With hindsight, the problem is obvious.Rather than working with teachers and solving their classroom challenges, Edison apparently thought his popularity would prompt educators to revise their curricula.Edison had a deeper problem, a persistent obsession with efficiency.In thinking about education, he refuses to acknowledge that it often takes inefficiency and waste to create something efficient in the end.Edison himself, after all, was famous for his talk of genius, inspiration and sweat, not least for his relentless work on detail to create a cheap and functional electric light.Thomas Edison boasted that “I can teach geography to a class of students in half an hour by moving pictures more accurately than educators can teach in a month…In terms of spreading knowledge, films will largely complement printed textbooks.”Although Edison did not take geography lessons himself, he was not prepared to spend months or even years working with geography teachers, but making films that were more effective than traditional lectures and textbooks.He vastly underestimated the time and money it would take to create a successful product.It was not just that he was unfamiliar with teaching; as a film-maker, he had made similar mistakes in imposing efficiency.During World War I, when the film’s overseas earnings dropped, Edison retained an “efficiency specialist” and instituted a 4:3 shooting ratio — using three-quarters of all shots — a policy that required most shots to be shot successfully at one time.In the 1990s, at the end of the celluloid  era, the ratio in Hollywood was 15:1.Other producers were well aware that creativity often required more investment, balancing the star system with what Edison considered extravagant salaries.Educational films became more widely used in the 1930s with the spread of sound films and 16mm projectors.Studies show that while movies do inspire students as Edison predicted, it doesn’t make economic sense.And there is not much that can be done with the films themselves, and teachers must be well prepared to use them.Films can make education more efficient, but producing and using them requires equal or more resources, a lesson that has been repeated with every subsequent generation of computer technology.It was the end of World War II and the rise of stored program computers that ushered in the real future of technology-enhanced educational efficiency.This basic concept predates even Edison’s home projector.In an article published in 1912, the groundbreaking psychologist Edward L.Thorndijk developed the concept of allowing students to turn a new page only after they had understood the previous one.As entrepreneur and computer education historian Brian Diehl observes, it was through the Internet and its ability to link to web pages that the concept was finally realized.After Thorndike and Edison, the development of instructional computers went in two directions.Dartmouth’s John Kemeny, the great pioneer of teaching programming to undergraduates, didn’t mention productive thinking at all.He sees computers as a way to enhance education, not a substitute for it.Like Norbert Wiener of THE Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kemeny, an American with a Central European background, saw computers as the latest and most promising academic resource.There was another, more pragmatic change that rekindled Edison’s dream: psychologist B.F.Skinner believes careful planning and personal feedback can speed up learning.In contrast to the free-spirit emphasis on teaching technology, Seymour Papet and Marvin Minsky tried to enhance children’s creativity with new computer languages.Skinner, an ardent admirer of industrialisation, deliberately chose the phrase “teaching machine” with blue-collar connotations and did not hesitate to set productivity demands in a way that Edison and Henry Ford would have approved.But his project failed.His electromechanical thinking was at odds with the personal computer, which was already booming.Disappointed as he was, he couldn’t help returning to his original idea.In 1984, the year Apple’s Super Bowl AD for the Macintosh promised to free individuals from authoritarianism, Skinner published an article in The American Psychologist titled “The Shame of American Education.”He boldly preached his educational efficiency, believing that it would make learning twice as productive with half the effort.This approach is to program learning, progressively provide information, and determine progress based on the answers to test questions in real time.Students learn systematically at their own pace and are rewarded immediately after mastering each basic concept.The National Museum of American History has preserved one of Skinner’s prototype teaching machines, a wooden box the size of a large briefcase with slots for rotating paper tray questions and machine tapes on which students could write their answers.After the student has answered and pushed through the tape, the correct answer appears in the slot.Over the decades, other educational psychologists have developed more sophisticated electromechanical and electronic teaching devices.Skinner and his followers believed that it was a waste of energy to teach one class at a time, or even just to listen.The same is true of math and other subjects that children are expected to discover for themselves.One of the most effective ways to acquire this ability as soon as possible is through personalized instruction, which is a precursor to “adaptive learning” currently at the forefront of educational technology research.