Memorandum to P. Michael Timpane, Dean

by Robbie McClintock

Teachers College, Columbia University, February 14, 1984

Length: 3,250 words

Dear Mike:

The chance last Wednesday to explore intersecting interests with Mr. Roberts of IBM was a welcome experience. I want to develop a bit further how I would see the goals of the Laboratory for Liberal Education conducing to the interests of IBM, and the College as well, and then I will propose a concrete, limited request that we might make to IBM on behalf of the College that, if filled, would greatly facilitate the projects I am conducting through the Laboratory. I realize, of course, that the College's response to Mr. Roberts cannot simply reflect the needs of the Laboratory, but I think the needs of the Laboratory are for facilities that the College as a whole also needs and I hope these will be considered in following up Wednesday's meeting.

Assuming of course that we do not blow up everything on the way, we are rapidly creating, with IBM in the vanguard, a human environment in which means of immense sophistication for cultural creation and enjoyment will become available at remarkably low costs to those who can use them . Further, this environment will be one in which most people will have a remarkable independence from constrained work through much of life. Relative to valuations formed under an aegis of material scarcity, such a world will seem in prospect like a promised land, but it will, in the experience of it, be one beset by sufficient plights and predicaments. Imagine a mass society in which millions enjoy the prerogatives of the nobility of the ancien régime—what will be the distribution in human sensibility along the spectrum bounded, say, by the Marquis de Condorcet and the Marquis de Sade?

We all share, IBM very much with the rest of us, two fundamental, long-range educational interests. First, we have an interest in raising, by significant orders of magnitude, the level of intellectual achievement attainable by each, across all walks of the world arid in all domains of achievement, so that the accelerating move from manufacture to mentefacture can be sustained and equilibrated. Second, we have a stake in re-empowering, by significant orders of magnitude, the qualitative, humanizing capacities of educators, so that the activities of mentefacture, which will be directed by desire, not need, will best be a fulfillment of genuinely human potentials and not a craven perversion of them. Those are my educational interests; they are interests consistent, I think, with those of the College; they are, I would assert, the basic, enduring educational interests of IBM, along with who knows who else; and they are, finally, interests that IBM can help us pursue in tangible, limited, yet significant ways.

We cannot develop the environment of mentefacture simply by doing a little bit better what we have traditionally done in education—empower a few to think for themselves and initiate the rest to perform one or another function. Somehow, we have arrived at a juncture at which educators are called upon to discover how to do precisely that which we could not do up to now in the double sense of inability—in the sense first that up to now we have been simply unable to do it and then in the second sense that even had we been able to do it we still could not have done it for fear of excessively destabilizing the socioeconomic order of things . Now, however, we are called to discover how to universalize an education that empowers people to think for themselves, to judge of questions for themselves, whatever the substance of those questions might be, to generate their purposes from within their own resources without authoritative direction from priests, pedagogues, pundits, or patrons. The way to universalize such an education should be sought, intelligently and intentionally, just as much as ways to achieve ever greater densities of circuitry in silicon should be sought, intelligently and intentionally. Towards a strategy of sound and purposeful search for pedagogical transformation, I offer a few further thoughts.

Repeatedly in the history of technology, sequences of innovation have first appeared to have created certain bottlenecks that threatened to impede the process of change, but then they have proved to have generated simultaneously the very resources with which the bottlenecks could be broken in ways unpredictable from past patterns. I think a strategy for achieving the educational transformation that looms so important in the shift to mentefacture may be found by seeking such a relationship with respect to the new technologies of computing and communications. The bottleneck they create is an increase in relative ignorance, as mentefacture supplants manufacture, a relative ignorance that will entail more than incremental improvements in existing educational arrangements if it is to be surmounted. This relative ignorance consists in the excess demand for informed intelligence that mentefacture places on us relative to the supply and the way the bottleneck will be broken will at bottom use the high level of demand as a way to force an accelerated provision of the supply.

Mentefacture is possible because the new technologies greatly increase the range of information and the quality of reflective stimulus that can be effectively mobilized in intelligent activity. When deployed outside educative environments on people educated without such stimulus, relative ignorance results, but the same stimuli, deployed within educative environments, will greatly increase the effective power of those surroundings, for there relative ignorance sets the potentiality of the pedagogical relationship. Relative ignorance in the marketplace portends incompetence; relative ignorance in the educational place is the occasion for study and learning. Hence the basic strategy: use the new technologies to maximize the cultural pressure pushing in upon students for that is the basic force, the one making for relative ignorance in the world and the one that can make for order of magnitude changes in the effectiveness of education.

Up and down the educational levels, the presentational power of the instructional environment has traditionally been rather weak and remarkably fixed. Since time immemorial the size of satchels that children can carry has varied little, and since about 1500 the quantity of information and the quality of reflection per book-pound that might be carried in those satchels has scarcely been more flexible. Consider a comparison. For a time, large-scale steel production and the bigger applications of steam power were limited by an analogous problem of presentational scale when the only feasible way to feed the furnaces was by stokers shovelling coal into the fires. The textbook has been to education what the shovel was to industrial furnaces, with the concomitant that the curriculum has consisted, up and down the levels, in a sharply narrowing, exclusionary choice, sized for the tyrannous text, which has controlled the work of both student and teacher alike.

In such ways, the scope and intensity of educating environments has long been limited and it has become especially limited when it is measured relative to the total stock of learning. Let us form the hypothesis implicit in the above comparison: the curriculum, the components of the educational program and their sequences, has held its seemingly necessary position in instruction, not owing to its intellectual or pedagogical necessity, but rather to its mere physical necessity. The curriculum has represented the maximal cultural selection that could be physically deployed, given the constraints embodied in children, teachers, school buildings, textbooks, and the means of movement.

Constrained to using usable books, educators have packed into the curriculum about as much cultural stimulus as could be packed into it. By thinking of it in this way we can see that the curriculum has been a very long-lived historical accident. It is now becoming possible to pack far more educative stimulus into a unit of pedagogic time: that is mentefacture and the key to an order-of-magnitude transformation of education. Following this thought, a basic strategy for integrating computing and education emerges.

Host applications so far seek more efficient ways to impart the given curriculum—drill and practice programs are the most obvious example, but the range of such applications really goes much further than drill and practice. Such applications, when good, are highly desirable, and I do not speak against them, but aggregated together their effects will still be marginal and incremental, so we need to speak, in addition, for a further strategy aimed at creating a real alternative to the given curriculum. Instantaneous retrieval, unlimited reproducibility, vast sorting power, untiring interactivity, all these are capacities that can utterly transform the range and quality of cultural stimuli that can be brought to bear day in, day out, on all those engaged in education, whatever the level. The basic strategy should be, not to increase the efficiency with which the given curriculum can be learned, but to develop ways in which an ever widening range of information and ideas can be made effectively accessible at each step along the educative path.

During the next decade or two a great deal of experimentation will be going on in places such as Teachers College, the upshot of which will be to disclose the ways in which the new technologies can expand the range and quality of cultural stimuli effectively deployable in education. The work I am pursuing through the Laboratory for Liberal Education will attempt to follow out such a strategy, and I am particularly concerned to explore the ways two basic activities of learning can be further empowered through computing—lecturing and reading. I will say a little about the former of these concerns, using computers to transform the limits of lecturing, as it is in that area, for now, that I hope we might make an important, but limited request to IBN for help with needed resources. Such help, however, would also be useful for the reading project, to which I have alluded without discussing, for the technology and programing requisite for both overlap considerably. For now, however, as an example of a developmental initiative aimed to break the limits of established pedagogic form, I will concentrate on lecturing with computers.

What a lecturer might do with a well developed computerized setup illustrates the order of magnitude changes in the presentational power that are setting in with the new technologies. With a computer, the lecturer does not necessarily know more than before or can think with more acumen, but rather more of what he or she knows can be deployed in the lecture performance, eventually with less drain on conscious attention than the deployment of knowledge now takes, freeing time and energy for thinking aloud about the matters at hand. I think that a developed facility for lecturing with computers will consist of two large, good-resolution projection monitors, one for presenting graphics and stills from a laser disk and the other for presenting textual information from a data-base, both controlled by the speaker through a personal computer of high power and extensive storage capacity. Through the graphics and stills, the lecturer would show things; through the data-base the lecturer would state things; and through the spoken voice, the lecturer would reflect on things. Such showing, stating, and reflecting can now go on in lectures without computers, but a vast enhancement becomes possible—instantaneous selection from thousands of pictures and a change in referencing from "see Plato's Republic, book 9 if I remember correctly" to "here's a relevant passage from Plato and you will see the full citation in the heading." With a fully developed computerized system, an adept lecturer should find it feasible to show, state, and reflect on any aspect of the field at any moment in a vivid, highly apprehendable manner, and alert students, who would no longer quite properly be called •auditors•, would take in significant stimuli on many levels of awareness and attention.

For such a system to become operational, a lot of developmental work is necessary, however. Through the Laboratory for Liberal Education, using largely my own funds, I have made a very meager beginning towards what would be a worthwhile demonstration system. Thus this Spring I have started lecturing with a computer, using a very buggy prototype program, one small projection monitor of inadequate resolution, and a database that I have not had time to fill out with more than a minimal set of entries. From this very preliminary experience, two things seem to me clear—first, using computers in this way promises to be & very powerful enhancement of the lecture form, yet second, much developmental work will have to go on before many are likely to try teaching in such a way. It certainly does not promise to make such teaching or study easier; it does promise to make it more powerful and expansive. Should it be developed, l do not think lecturing with computers will prove merely to be an incremental extension of overhead projectors or the use of slides at an outrageous comparative cost, but rather an much more basic transformation of the medium. For now, however, the pros and cons of that claim are moot—my concern here (finally) is more mundane. Without some outside help, it will be difficult to progress further.

Presently, the aggregate cost of the equipment I am using is about $6,000. It works adequately as a simple single-monitor, black-and-white system with some forty students or fewer, although there are problems with the monitor resolution that make it more difficult for viewers in even small numbers to adapt easily to the experience. A second monitor of similar quality with a videodisk player could be added with the investment of about $3,000 or so, and this I shall probably do at some time in the future failing any more significant improvements. What I have provided through the Laboratory is equivalent, or perhaps marginally better since it uses a high-gain screen, to analogous equipment available in the College. The problem with both sets of equipment, however, is one of quality and scale. The quality is too marginal to try some of the more sophisticated possibilities and the scale is such that applications get accidentally limited, an untoward situation now happening to me—I must put a cap on enrollment in my courses, or desist from the effort to use computers in them, or get equipment that will work with a larger group. Such a step upward in the quality of equipment, however, puts things in a range where I can no longer ensure my own access to the necessary equipment, it would require monitors that cost some $6,000 and that really need fixed installation rather than ones that are semi-portable and about $2,000.

Hence, the proposal I would like to see put to IBM, namely that they fund the equipping of one of our mid-sized lecture halls with a good setup for lecturing with a computer—two ceiling mounted high-resolution RGB projection monitors with a minimum of six and a half foot screens, an industrial grade videodisk player, and an IBM XT to control both the videodisk and the display of specially designed data-base materials on the other. Such equipment would cost about $20,000, and it should be complemented by a parallel program development system, which would consist of a second IBM XT and a second videodisk player, linked to regular color monitors, which would amount to another $10,000 to $12,000. With such a system, I think the College could become a center for initiatives to expand the limits of one ubiquitous teaching form, and I think the real order-of-magnitude transformations in the effectiveness of education will emerge as such concrete initiatives actually do expand the limits of basic forms of instruction.

For such reasons, I hope that the College can quickly install good equipment, by next Fall at the latest, from whatever source it may be funded. I would specially hope, however, that such funding might be closely associated with the Laboratory for Liberal Education as it is integral to the line of applied developmental work going on through the Laboratory. Were such equipment provided I would be eager to oversee the development of high-quality software to optimize its use and to provide others with help in getting started at using the system in their courses, should they be interested in doing so. With such help, the capacities that I have been discussing are ones that can be brought to practical fruition through the Laboratory within Teachers College over the coming decade.

I began this discussion by suggesting very broad educational interests, indicating that they are ones we have very much in common with IBM. In keeping with these general interests, efforts to expand the presentational capacity of established educative forms should not be confined within a single institution. To some degree—that institution being Teachers College—it is itself an opening to the wider world. But in addition to working on these goals through courses in the College, both existing courses and courses to be developed, I anticipate being able to link the work of the Laboratory with that of other institutions.

As instances, I have discussed such developments at length with Dr. Frank Moretti, Assistant Headmaster for Curriculum at the Dalton School, and we will be jointly developing a course on using classical culture as an educative resource within a high-technology teaching milieu and we plan to develop demonstration projects on the secondary and primary levels of ways in which computing and communications technologies can significantly shift the presentational limits that have traditionally constrained the school curriculum. In addition, I have long been associated with the effort by David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation to develop more effective agenda for the education of the public, particularly as it might engender wider and deeper public participation in those subtle dilemmas of the civic weal that unfold slowly over time. With respect to these concrete considerations of informal education, I have begun discussions with him about developing ways to use computing to make the broad base of concern and network of people that he has built up over the years more effective as an educative influence. The effort outlined above to expand the presentational possibilities of traditional means of education, and the related concern to improve the ways that computing can be used as an effective tool in reading, will be essential resources in implementing these efforts.

In sum then, I propose that we request from IBM modest funding on the order of $40,000 to provide a quality prototype for lecturing with computers and a related development facility to ease creation of the requisite software and appropriate databases. Although the proposal itself is small and specific, I have indicated that it promises to be strategic with respect to the basic interests IBM shared with us in the fundamental improvement of educational achievement, particularly with respect to re-empowering humanistic tradition as it prepares the average person to achieve fulfillment in a life increasingly characterized by •constrained leisure•, however paradoxical that term may appear.

Finally, I have indicated reason to expect that such small, specific initiatives pursued through TC/s Laboratory for Liberal Education can nevertheless have effects of wide, rippling significance.

Thanks for the opportunity to meet with Mr. Roberts and the chance to draw these thoughts together.