Paper for the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the 80s

By Seymour Papert

This paper was written in June, 1980.


1. How we think about the educational trends and problems of the 1980s is deeply vitiated by the failure of the education world to appreciate the sharp discontinuity between the modes of use of computers that are now creeping into the schools and certain very different modes that are already technologically feasible and will undoubtedly eventually be widely used. The failure of educational planners to recognize the real trends of potentialities of the computer presence has many socially serious consequences. Among these I think it is appropriate to emphasize here the effect of the computer on inequalities in education. I believe that the computer could be used as a powerful weapon to break down barriers related to gender, ethnic culture, class origin, and even genetic differences. But this will not happen automatically. On the contrary, the "path of least resistance" that will be followed in the absence of sound research and long-term planning on a national scale will exacerbate rather than diminish these inequalities.

2. In order to develop this thesis in a short paper I must use a somewhat oversimplified model of reality. In particular when I talk about mode of use of computers now being adopted in schools I'm referring to a variety of uses that are seen by their advocates as quite different from one another. But they all have this in common: the computer is used as an auxiliary device, an aid to an otherwise unchanged educational process. I shall refer to them all as auxiliary uses of the computer. In contrast, I shall use the phrase fundamental use of the computer in education to refer to an even more diverse set of usages which share the characteristic of changing rather than merely aiding the existing educational process.

3. The fundamental uses of the computer could call into question various taken for granted features of the existing educational system. These features are many kinds: the content of the material learned, the assumptions one can make about what can be learned before coming to school, or what will be learned after leaving school, economic structure of the education system, and even the prevailing theories of psychology of education. It is therefore not surprising that educators whose attention is naturally focused on how to make the schools as they are work better with the least possible structural change in the system turn a blind eye to these modes of uses of the computer. A secondary reason for the prevailing myopia is the fact that many of the fundamental uses draw on theoretical ideas and ways of thinking for which educators have not been prepared.

I believe that one of the most urgent national needs for the 1980s is to find ways to increase the technological sophistication of the education community, to create contexts in which educators can probe the potential effects of fundamental uses of computers.

4. In choosing examples of fundamental uses of the computer, I am severely restricted by the limitations of space. Since they are fundamental, some of them need a book rather than a paragraph. Thus, the reader is warned that the examples I shall mention here are not either exhaustive or even representative of the kinds of effects the computer may have. They are chosen because they can be described briefly.

4.1 I shall concentrate on the example that challenges mainly the institutional and economic structure of the education system. For this purpose, imagine a scenario in which every child is given a personal computer at the time of entry into the school. The computer is sufficiently portable to be taken home, used in school and at home for a large variety of purposes. One of these is the mode of use of the computer that is now becoming prevalent in the schools under the name of "computer-aided instruction." A very different one is similar to what is called "word-processing" in the business community, where the computer is rapidly replacing the typewriter as an everyday instrument for the secretary, for the journalist, and everyone else whose job involves using and manipulating text. In my own research I've demonstrated that most children who have access to such computers will learn to program them as well, thus acquiring intellectual skills that go beyond what is now being taught in schools. But here I want to concentrate on learning the traditional school material. In fact, I shall confine attention to just one issue: the effect of owning the personal computer, on the total time needed to learn this material and on the kind of attention needed to teach this material.

Although relevant experimentation is in its infancy, one can already affirm with confidence that the time for learning would be substantially reduced, and the autonomy of the student dramatically increased. There can be no doubt that giving every child a personal computer would be educationally effective according to the usual measures. Though, as I shall mention below, there may be certain negative consequences. The question that comes to the mind of the practical educator is, of course, whether it is cost effective. How can we pay for such a strategy?

This is where fundamental rethinking is needed. If we are confined to the assumption that everything else will remain the same, there is little hope of producing big changes at small cost. We have to consider scenarios such as the following: the time needed to achieve the purposes of formal schooling can be reduced from 13 years to 10, 11 or 12; that the school day can be reduced to half; that the amount of time the student can work autonomously can be increased by 50 percent. Any of these changes would effect savings that could very greatly exceed the cost of supplying each child a computer and updating and maintaining the computer throughout the period of schooling.

To put these scenarios in perspective, let me do some crude arithmetic. The cost of 13 years of schooling, from kindergarten through 12th grade, is already close to thirty thousand dollars and is rising fast. The cost of making computers is falling rapidly. Today a very good educational computer could be manufactured for a thousand dollars. By the end of this decade a very very much more powerful computer will cost only a few hundred dollars. Thus the cost of supplying each child with a personal computer would be a relatively small percentage of the total cost of education. I'm sure that it is quite plausible that by the end of the decade it would be as little as two or three percent of what it would cost to carry out today's traditional education. Thus the effectiveness factor does not have to be very large in order for the strategy of a computer per child to be cost effective.

4.2 The fact that the strategy is cost effective in this purely economic sense is not a sufficient reason for adopting it. Many other considerations must be taken into account. For example, very little is known about the effects on emotional and personality development of close contact with computers. And social problems connected with retraining the population of teachers would have to be carefully considered as part of such a total national strategy. But what does follow from my arithmetic is that the strategy of giving each child a computer cannot be excluded on economic grounds and demands investigation. It must at least be taken into account in national thinking about strategies for the future. Yet, as incredible as it may seem, there is no federal program of research funding to which one can turn for support of the kind of research such investigations would demand. Let me repeat: I am not saying that this strategy is the one to be adopted; my thesis is that this strategy illustrates the very wide range of plausible strategies that are not being considered by national education planners.

4.3 While one can be skeptical about whether the public school systems will even consider such radical strategies in the near future, there's already a trend in this direction for a minority of students: those whose parents have the kind of income and the kind of world view that favors buying "home computers". Computers that can be bought in stores today are far from being ideal instruments to aid learning. But there's little doubt that the present trend of the home computer industry will create a situation within a few years that will give these children, who are already privileged in their access to education and to power, a substantial additional advantage. I suggest, moreover, that it would be myopic for public planners not to consider the possibility that these children will be increasingly withdrawn from the public schools thereby further depressing the intellectual standards of the schools and their educational value for the rest of the population.

4.4 One might ask: if the use of computers as learning aids for the owners of home computers is likely to proceed on its own momentum, why should public funds be devoted to developing educational material for computers? Why not leave the job to industry and let the schools pick it up when it is ready? I believe that this line of thinking is based on a deeply fallacious concept of technology, and of learning strategies as culturally neutral -- as if what is good for anyone is good for everyone. The computer is not a culturally neutral object. Any given computer system embodies a culture. This shows itself in two relevant ways: the computer system will appeal to members of some sub-cultures and alienate members of other sub-cultures, and it will foster the development of certain ways of thinking at the expense of others. The computer systems being developed by the computer industry quite naturally reflect the cultural biases of the people who make them: white, upper middle class, technically inclined people. Thus the educational vantages brought to children of this class are determined by more than the fact that their parents are more likely to buy home computers. In addition, the computers they buy are designed (albeit unconsciously) to appeal to the tastes and intellectual values of this class. If the computer is to become a universal instrument for learning, the means must be found to draw people of other sub-cultures into the process of developing multi-form computer cultures.

4.5 In concentrating on the single factor of the role of personal computers I might be risking drawing attention away from other important issues. For example, I've argued in my book Mindstorms: Children, Computers an Powerful Ideas that the relationship between mathematics and the general culture could be very different in a world in which computers are present in the lives of very young children in the role of mathematics speaking entity. In such a "Mathland" children could learn quite advanced mathematical ideas in the same informal way in which they learn to speak their own native language. It is impossible to develop this idea in this small space. But one point can be stated quite categorically: in order to achieve a Mathland, it is necessary to mobilize some very creative mathematical talent and much more expensive mathematical knowledge than is commonly possessed by members of the mathematics education community. Once more we are brought back to the fundamental needs of the 80s: to create the conditions which will create people with the breadth of outlook and the combination of competencies that will enable them to think sensitively about new technology, about child psychology, about the process of education and about specific disciplines. There are very few such people. And there are even fewer places where such people are being trained.

5. It seems to me quite clear that the role of the federal government in the appropriation of the computer for the process of education must be focused on the task of creating a cadre of professionals with a special combination of competencies and sensitivities. I think the way to do this is to set up a number (perhaps 3 initially) of academic centers of excellence endowed with the resources necessary to bring together a critical mass of expertise from several areas (for example, computer science, human sciences, subject matters, school organization) that can carry out creative, fundamental future oriented research projects on the scale necessary to touch on the fundamental uses of computers. Graduates of such centers would have not only the necessary expertise to be imaginative and creative, but would also have experience working with computers in many different forms. Unless we do this, tomorrow will continue to be the prisoner of the primitivity of yesterday.