4.23: Outside-In Visions

It is simple-minded because it simply slots the computer into the traditional "outside-in" framework of education. Let us look, in turn, at a number of metaphors of the computer by way of suggesting how this has, typically, been the fate of the computer as used in education to date. We try to understand the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar (or, to use Piaget's terms, we assimilate new information by accommodating it to old information). New technology X is viewed as the same as old technology Y with difference Z. New technologies are, thus, poured into old structures.

Film, for example, was first viewed (and therefore used) as theatre in front of a camera, so that it can be preserved and represented later. Television was, in turn, viewed as movies in a box, so that they can be viewed in one's own home. The fuller unique potential of each new medium began to be realized only when it had escaped this limited "rear-mirror" view.

The computer is now going through this initial stage. It is being viewed as Y (familiar thing) with difference Z. Because it is such a versatile machine (it is a generalist rather than a specialist), there are a number of rival Ys. Let us look a three of the major metaphors.

My vision of Fast Eddy falls within the metaphor of computer-as-source. The computer is seen as a source of information. It is an electronic substitute for printed sources - a bibliographical source book (as in the case of electronic data bases where one can search on-line the Psychological Abstracts, ERIC, and so on), a telephone directory (as in the Minitel Videotex terminals in France), or a newspaper (as in the various uses of teletext to scroll headlines, weather, sport scores, and so on, on cable television channels).

As such, the computer is a valuable tool. It can provide access, in a few minutes, to information which would previously have taken many days to collect from libraries. This will improve our information-collecting capacity considerably. There will be qualitative changes as well as quantitative. That is, we will not only have access to more information but will be able to process that information in ways which were previously not practically possible.7

However, this metaphor suggests a business-as-usual scenario for the future. The computer simply provides more of the same thing. Some would argue that we do not need more information. We are already inundated with information. To use the computer like this is like throwing water to a drowning man. We need not so much more information as means of assessing information. We should be supplying students with better "crap-detectors" rather than providing teachers with bigger shovels.8

A second metaphor which underlies many presentations of the use of the computer in education is that of computer-as-tutor.9 Again and again, we read descriptions of the perfect teacher - infinitely patient, tremendously well-informed, very accessible (24 hours a day 7 days a week), and so on - only to find that the teacher is a computer.

However, the computer-tutor turns out to be an outside-in teacher. Programs tend to simulate outside-in functions of the teacher. Thus, they tend to consist of electronic flash-cards to drill the student (albeit at his/her own rate), or programs written in the tell-em-and-test-em tradition (albeit in a one-to-one individualized tutorial situation).

This use of the computer does indeed help remove some of the mechanical aspects of teaching. If all the teaching is mechanical, it could help remove the mechanical teacher. Any teacher who could be replaced by a machine should be replaced by a machine. A machine can only do mechanical things. People should not be doing mechanical things. This does not mean that teachers should try to emulate the machines. Am I "user friendly"? Do I have a convivial "interface" with my class? The computer could help free the teacher to focus on the human aspects of teaching. Needless to say, I view outside-in teaching as "mechanical" and inside-out teaching as "human".

A third metaphor is that of the computer as prosthetic. That is, as mechanical replacement for some organic system. There have been a number of stories in the press recently about the release of "trapped intelligence" by the use of computers in simulating certain sensory or motor functions so that handicapped people are able to express themselves.10 This is an important contribution. However, the emphasis tends to be on ensuring that the handicapped person can be stuffed full of facts just like everyone else.

There is some discussion too of "positive prosthetics", in which computers are used to expand the capacities of undamaged nervous systems.11 Implanted electronic "satellite memories", futuristic as they may sound, are still within the outside-in tradition. They are used simply to store more and more of that information which is poured in from the outside. There is some merit, indeed, in removing the clutter of content from the brain so that the context can be clear. Perhaps it should, however, be left in the computer until it is required.

All of those metaphors are within the same outside-in framework of traditional teaching. Computer-as-source is simply a device for pouring yet more information into the student; computer-as-tutor is a mechanical simulation of outside-in teaching which is mechanical enough already; computer-as-prosthetic allows people with sensory-motor problems to be taught from the outside in.

If the computer is assimilated to this tradition, it will simply continue to do what has been done before. It will do it more efficiently. However, some would argue that much of what has been done before, in the name of education, is not worth doing. If it is not worth doing, then it is not worth doing - no matter how efficiently. If you are going down the wrong road, it does not matter how briskly you are trotting along it. There is a need for something completely different. This brings us to a second vision of computers in the school.

7   For example, the exercise described in Section 4.1, in which the literature on office automation is organized according to index terms, and the database search for information about a friend described in Section 8.21.

8   "Crap-detectors" is a quotation from Ernest Hemingway during his interview with the Paris Review, in response to the question "What is the single most important attribute of a young writer today?" [Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1977]

9   Arthur C. Clarke, Electronic tutors. Omni, June 1980, Pages 76-78, 96.

10   For example, Dorothy Lipovenko, Disabled see world with computer. Globe & Mail, 23 October 1980, Page 15.
MacLean's, Extending the body to free the mind. MacLean's, 17 November 1980, Page 58.
Toronto Star, Nola's wish - a voice for her birthday. Toronto Star, 19 March 1982, Page A7.

11   Glenn Cartright, And now for something completely different - symbionic minds. Technology Review, October 1980, Pages 68, 70.