Title: Education wars: the battle over information-age technology

Authors: Snider, James H.

Source: The Futurist. May-June, 1996, Vol. 30 Issue 3, p24, 5 p. photograph

Publisher Information: World Future Society

Publication Year: 1996

Subject Terms: Education — Effect of technological innovations on Information technology — Social aspects

Description: Education is certain to benefit from the advent of innovative information technologies. However, educators will lose much of their power and prestige, as well as their income, if these new technologies are used for educational purposes. This factor is delaying the use of these technologies in education.

ISSN: 0016-3317

Accession Number:edsgcl.18334162

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The Battle over Information-Age Technology

New information technologies will transform education, but only after a battle royal with the education establishment.

Most people now recognize that new information technology is radically changing the economics of education. Many also believe that, if only the schools could get the best technology and train teachers how to use it, the wonders of the Information Age will come to K-12 education.

But this belief, held by such prominent individuals as the president of the United States and the U.S. secretary of education, is faulty.

In the shift from Industrial Age to Information Age education, most educators will lose money, status, and power. They cannot be expected to accept this change without a fight. Insofar as public education responds to political and not economic forces, educators have a good chance of preserving, or at least slowing the erosion of, their position.

Until the full dimensions of this problem are understood, the promise of technology in education will never be fulfilled.

The new economics of education include the following trends:

  • From labor intensive to capital intensive. Industrial Age education uses little technology. It is low tech and labor intensive. According to the Educational Research Service, more than 95% of a typical public school’s budget goes to teachers; less than 5% goes to instructional capital such as books, software, and computers. Since improved technology tends to drive up productivity, the high proportion of education dollars spent on labor is often used to explain why education has the worst productivity record of any major economic sector in the United States.

Information Age education, in contrast, is capital intensive. Education resources, including individualized instruction, are delivered via the information superhighway, high-definition television, multimedia PCs, and so on.

  • From local to national. Industrial Age education is transportation intensive–the learner must physically travel to the key educational resources. As a result of the high cost of travel, education is geographically bound. Students attend the neighborhood school, not one that is thousands of miles away.

In contrast, Information Age education is communications intensive: The learner can access educational resources produced and distributed anywhere in the world. The traditional textbook with national reach is now joined by the “virtual course,” the “virtual classroom,” and the “virtual school.”

  • From small-scale to large-scale production. Public schools (K-12 level) employ some 6 million individuals, about half of whom are teachers. Tens of thousands of teachers teach. similar subjects such as Introductory Spanish, U.S. History, and Biology I. At least one highly skilled professional teacher per classroom is considered necessary for adequate instruction.

Information Age education requires far fewer teachers to achieve the same or better results. A few thousand of the best teachers in the United States could replace many of the other 3 million. For example, today’s 40,000 Algebra I teachers could be largely displaced by a handful of star teachers working nationally.

  • From small-scale to large-scale evaluation. Industrial Age education requires classroom-by-classroom evaluation. Since each classroom has relatively few students and is a largely private and inaccessible space, comparative course evaluation is an extraordinarily expensive and impractical undertaking.

Information Age education courses may be taken by thousands or even millions of students over many years. This creates a large market for course evaluations; there could be national evaluations for courses, just as there are for cars, mutual funds, and colleges.

  • From monopoly to competition. Industrial Age education is a natural monopoly. Students find it impractical to travel long distances to different schools to take different courses, so students often have a choice of only one course and teacher for a given grade and subject matter.

By eliminating geographic barriers, Information Age education makes it possible for students to choose among many courses and classmates, thus creating natural competition.

In summary, the new education economics suggest a shift in power away from regional educators to national educators and to students. National educators gain power because the key education resources are increasingly being produced and distributed on a national basis. Students gain power because they now have choice; they are less dependent on what their regional (e.g., neighborhood) educator provides. Regional educators lose power because their monopoly over education resources is broken.

The vital question for the future, then, is the extent to which the politics and economics of education are coming into conflict. To the extent that regional educators are successful in using political influence to preserve their power, children and parents will have amateurish, expensive, and unnecessarily restricted education services to choose from.

The Politics of Educational Technology

One of the classic tales of capitalism is the propensity of new technologies to put people out of work. Witness the decline in the agricultural sector from more than 90% of the work force in 1800 to less than 3% today. Or consider the loss of tens of thousands of bank-teller jobs with the introduction of the automatic teller machine over the last few decades.

Public education differs from these other industries in that it primarily responds to political, not economic, forces. Laws, not supply and demand, dictate the working conditions, pay, skills, and education requirements of educators. Just think of the many school districts with 500 to 1,000 applications for a teaching position that nevertheless are unable to fire an incompetent teacher. Previous economic conditions may have been embedded in law, but the political process, often most responsive to entrenched interests, may take decades to catch up with new economic conditions. Accordingly, an extraordinary web of laws has been designed to protect and enhance the monopoly power of regional educators. And these educators have a conflict of interest in implementing Information Age technology.

In the nineteenth century, the Luddites sought to prevent the introduction of new technologies by literally smashing the job-destroying machines. Today, educators can hinder the introduction of new technologies with far more subtle mechanisms, such as:

  • Public-school unions. Public schools have about 6 million unionized employees, including teachers, administrators, and maintenance workers. These unions are extremely influential in setting local education policy and budgets. Since every dollar spent on capital is a dollar taken away from labor, unions favor more spending on labor. In New York City, out of a total spending of about $8,000 per pupil in 1994, only $44 was budgeted for classroom materials. Much of the money spent on technology in the classroom comes from the federal government, grants from companies in the information industry, PTA fund raising, and special technology bonds. Money subject to union wage demands rarely stays allocated to technology for long.

Unions also oppose efforts to introduce competition among educators by granting parents vouchers to choose their own educator. Unions oppose choice even when parents are restricted to choosing among public schools. The National Education Association has already launched a campaign to restrict technology-based choice in higher education. Across the United States, candidates for political office who support educational choice are consistently and vigorously opposed by the local unions.

  • Teachers in the classroom. Technology can be a direct threat to the teacher’s authority in a classroom. Students can already access long-distance and video-based foreign language instruction superior to that in most U.S. secondary schools. When a mediocre teacher must compete with an outstanding teacher in the same classroom, the mediocre teacher feels threatened. The teacher has little incentive to beg the administration and school board for this type of instructional resource. And if the resource is nevertheless provided, the incentive to use it properly is weak.

An important exception to this argument is that certain applications of computers in the classroom are nonthreatening. These include using technology to teach productivity skills such as keyboarding and using a computer, to mark grades and take attendance, to communicate with peers, and to access impersonal reference works.

  • Education schools. Education schools in the United States employ close to 18,000 professors and annually enroll hundreds of thousands of students. Almost every professional position in a public school, including superintendent, principal, and classroom teacher, requires a special and expensive license only offered by these schools. Moreover, education schools and educator unions have formed a close alliance. The time-consuming licensing program keeps down the supply of educators and thus bolsters wages. Any time supply decreases, price increases. If education schools act in their self-interest, then they will be a formidable opponent of change.
  • Other laws and regulations. Thousands of laws, regulations, and contractual agreements serve to preserve the monopoly power of regional educators, including: (1) state licensing laws that prevent people from teaching who haven’t spent thousands of dollars and countless hours earning an obsolete education degree; (2) state licensing laws that prevent teachers from teaching across state lines (e.g., via telecommunications) where they don’t hold licenses; (3) state licensing laws that prevent people with general management skills, but without extensive training in an education school, from attaining positions such as school superintendent; (4) collective bargaining contracts that dictate working conditions, such as limits on virtual or real class sizes; (5) collective bargaining contracts that require all teachers to be paid the same amount, regardless of the demand and supply for their particular positions and level of job performance; and (6) labor laws that make it hard to replace employees ill-suited to using technology in education.

The Battle to Come

A policy battle between the advocates of Industrial Age and Information Age education is brewing. Here are some of the battle lines likely to arise:

  • History. Advocates of Industrial Age education will point to the failed promises of educational technology enthusiasts; the well-documented discrepancies between technology hype and reality are an embarrassment.

Advocates of Information Age education will point to the printing press as a technology that fundamentally transformed and improved education. Many technologies (e.g., the airplane, telephone, and fax) take decades to mature and become widely available, but eventually have a major impact. Much of the new educational technology is now at that take-off point.

  • Equity and public schools. Industrial Age advocates will point to the historic role of public schools in providing equal opportunity for all. They will see anything that weakens public schools as fostering inequality.

Information Age advocates see today’s public schools as a great bastion of inequity and racism in American society, as a result of an education system that is too geographically based: As long as schools are so heavily based on geography, they will represent the geographic distribution of wealth in America.

  • Equity and technology. Advocates of Industrial Age education will emphasize the tendency of technology to create information haves and have-nots. Technology, they will also claim, replaces labor to cut costs, and so results in impersonal and inferior instruction.

Advocates of Information Age education will again point to the precedent of the printing press and the great democratization of education that followed. Just as the printing press brought high quality and affordable education to the masses, new educational technologies should do the same. By reducing the cost of access to the best instruction in the world, these new technologies, if properly implemented, should decrease the discrepancy between the information haves and have-nots.

  • Choice and parental competence. Industrial Age advocates will argue that education consumers are not competent enough to make decisions and therefore should not be given choice. They will point out how difficult it would be for the average parent to comparison shop for education. Choice will create a huck-sterish and highly inefficient education market.

Information Age advocates have more faith in the responsibility and competence of parents. They will argue that new technologies will greatly facilitate comparison shopping for education. The emergence of reliable education assessment systems will mean that educational success will be more closely tied to a student’s eventual economic success and that this in turn will lead students and parents to take education more seriously than they do now.

  • Diversity. Industrial Age advocates will compare public and private schools, suggesting that public schools offer more student and intellectual diversity. Information Age advocates will compare geographic to non-geographic schools, arguing that the latter offer far more intellectual and geographic diversity. Looking at the tiny course and teacher offerings of regional schools, as well as their narrow and homogeneous distribution of students, they cannot conceive of how any regional school is intrinsically more diverse.
  • Educators’ motives. Advocates of Industrial Age education will argue the dangers of putting for-profit companies in control of education. Such companies will be out for the fast buck, hurting kids and wasting taxpayers’ money in the process.

Information Age advocates will point out that schools are not currently run by altruists. Today’s educators are not fundamentally different from other human beings. What counts is not the motives of educators, but whether those motives can be harnessed to serve the public interest. If parents are given multiple options and good information on those options, they will not choose exploitive and incompetent educators.

  • Individualized instruction. Industrial Age advocates will argue that labor-intensive instruction is the same as individualized instruction. Technology in education fosters passive learning, much as television does.

Information Age advocates will counter that one-on-one instruction has been prohibitively expensive for traditional schools. Schools have had to put 20 or more students in a single classroom, often forcing teachers to “teach to the middle.” Moreover, the limited choice of teachers, courses, and fellow students means that instruction may not be appropriate to the individual learner’s needs. They see labor-intensive public schools as fostering a one-size-fits-all system regardless of a student’s individual differences in motivation, knowledge, learning style, and ability.

  • Socialization. Industrial Age advocates will argue that technology-intensive education is anathema to the development of social skills.

Information Age advocates will maintain that social relations can take place over an interactive, multimedia network just as they can take place in a classroom. Moreover, these are the type of social relations that people will likely have at work in the future. Today’s concepts of socialization in the schools reflect an outmoded concept of the world and the workplace, for which schools have traditionally prepared children. Many athletic, cultural, and academic activities will continue to offer opportunities for traditional socialization. But the new balance of social relations, including different modes of interaction and increased contact with people of different ages and locales, will be more reflective of the real world that today’s children will live and work in tomorrow.

The New Education Leaders

Although many regional educators are enthusiastic about new educational technology, they are unlikely to lead us into Information Age education because it is not in their self-interest to do so. It is telling that, when technology is introduced into schools, it comes in the guise of resources provided by some outside donor such as a Parent-Teacher Association, telephone company, supermarket coupon program, wealthy individual, or special tax increase.

The people who lead us into information Age education are likely to be those who benefit from new technologies, not regional educators. These new leaders include parents. According to the Software Publishers Association, American families spent more than $500 million on educational software in 1994, almost double the $277 million spent the previous year. Leading this growth were parents buying computers to provide some degree of “home schooling.”

Hard-core home schoolers, despite their reputation for anachronistic values, may be the only ones motivated enough to lead U.S. education into the Information Age. These home schoolers, who seek to completely bypass regional educators, have grown from 10,000 to over 500,000 in the last 20 years. They are already the leading users of educational technology in the United States.

Other parents do not take their children out of public schools but supplement the school curriculum with home education. These parents are also likely to be a constituency for meaningful change in education. In general, new technologies make it easier for ambitious and affluent parents to bypass the public schools. As public school budgets for extra-curricular and after-school activities shrink, parents turn to other providers to make up the difference. The dollars spent by these home schoolers on educational technology provide national educators with the research and development funds necessary to develop the next generation of educational technology.

Other advocates for the new technology will likely include such beneficiaries as star administrators and teachers who will have the potential to develop national followings, textbook and software publishers, computer and telecommunications companies, and rural and inner-city homeowners whose property values have been depressed by the comparatively inferior quality of local schools.

Industrial Age educators will fight Information Age education tooth and nail. This opposition will be hard to overcome. However, in the long run they will probably do no more than slow the implementation of an emerging and vastly improved educational system. Not only is the encroachment of information technology into children’s lives inevitable, but it is critical to their future–and ours.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): James H. Snider

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): “Star teacher” Linwood C. Thompson dresses like a Viking for a history lesson offered on videotape. A national faculty of the best teachers could replace less-competent local educators, according to Snider.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Algebra I teacher Debra K. Pizzuto conducts class via videotape. Today’s 40,000 algebra teachers could be replaced by a smaller group of star teachers working nationally, suggests author James Snider.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Children learn to use a computer. Computer-related technology can offer students and parents alternatives to traditional schools.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Personalizing education via Sky Trip America. This multimedia program lets students record video clips and write their own stories, making them feel more connected to the learning process and minimizing the need for teachers to “teach to the middle.”

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A scene from The Cartoon History of the Universe. Interactive, multimedia educational software allows students to peruse the past.


By James H. Snider

James H. Snider, co-author of Future Shop (St. Martin’s, 1992) and a former school board member, is a university fellow at Northwestern University. His address is Northwestern University, Department of Political Science, Scott Hall, 601 University Place, Evanston, Illinois 60208. Telephone 847/256-0884; e-mail jhs235@nwu.edu

His last article for THE FUTURIST was “The Information Superhighway as Environmental Menace” in the March-April 1995 issue.


Source: Snider, J.H., Education wars: the battle over information-age technology, The Futurist, May-June, 1996, Vol. 30 Issue 3, pp. 24-28.

Cited by National Academy of Sciences. “The Information Revolution Will Transform Education.” Opposing Viewpoints: The Information Revolution. Ed. Paul A. Winters. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Apollo Library. 7 Dec. 2008