Lawrence A. Cremin, Mara Mayor

High Tech and Our ‘Education President’

VTR Date: January 22, 1989

Guests: Cremin, Lawrence A.; Mayor, Mara


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mara Mayor and Lawrence Cremin
Title: “High Tech and Our ‘Education President’”
VTR: 1/22/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, George Bush says he is to be an “education President”. Yet it’s clear that even in an “Education Administration” wit may have to substitute for wealth. For as the President pointed out in his Inaugural Address, “Our funds are low…we have a deficit to bring down. We have more will than wallet”. And it remains to be seen whether that will embraces technology as importantly part of the educational solution rather than the problem.

Fifty to sixty years ago many people were so impressed with what they fervently believed was the teaching potential of film – thought of as that era’s revolutionary pedagogical technology – that ever classroom, it was assumed, would soon have a projector and a screen. But it didn’t happen quite that way, and even when the hardware was there –even the software, too – most frequently teachers wouldn’t use it, perhaps seeing it, as one of my guests today has written about modern educational technology, as a threat to their jobs or to their self-esteem. Teaching, to put it simply, was for them…for teachers…not for machines!

Later, too – 20 to 40 years ago – the same Aesopian claims were made for a still newer technology: television. It would solve all our educational problems of dollars and numbers and quality: a set in every classroom; master teaching on big screens. Once more technology was to triumph, making up for dollars and teacher shortages, substituting great teachers for poorer ones, bringing us – kicking and screaming, perhaps – right into the electronic miracles of the 20th century.

But that didn’t happen either. Television sets were to be found in many classrooms, like film projectors earlier. But educational technology again proved to be neither bonanza nor panacea. Not until now, at any rate, when, for good or for bad, the serpent appears in the garden again, and all around us the enthusiasts of educational technology urge us up or down the path to teaching enhanced by television, and film, and teaching machines, and computers, and videocassettes, and laser discs, and spreadsheets, and facsimiles, and computer conferencing and seminaring, and interactive this and that…and everything but dancing girls. Maybe they, too. So, today we must talk and think seriously about education and technology, particularly with guests so skilled as: Dr. Mara Mayor, the Director of the Annenberg/CPB Project, funded by Ambassador Walter Annenberg precisely to stimulate educational pioneering on the new frontier of telecommunications technologies.

And Dr. Lawrence Cremin, former President of Teachers College of Columbia University, a teacher’s teacher and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the second volume of his monumental History of American Education.

Thank you both for joining me today, and let me ask whether you two feel as positively about the new approach to technology as some of the greatest enthusiasts for solving our educational problems with the serpent in the garden. Dr. Mayor, what do you react?

Mayor: Well, we feel positively as, I think that I can speak for myself. I think you have to start realizing that teaching isn’t for teachers, it’s really for students, and the question really becomes what is it we’re trying to help students do? We’re trying to help them learn, we’re trying to help them understand. Students don’t all learn the same way. Students have different ways of absorbing information and comprehending, and you‘ve got to approach students in different manners, with different techniques, with different strategies, and so one of the things that the communications technologies do is open up that possibility. It’s not a panacea. You still need a teacher, you still need a lot of support. You need a lot of teaching in many ways, but there are lots of way of reaching a student, helping that student learn.

Heffner: Dr. Cremin, what’s the level of your enthusiasm for the machinery, the technology of teaching?

Cremin: Dick, I don’t think there’s any panacea. When the blackboard came in they thought that would be a panacea, too. But I do agree that technology can make a considerable difference, and it can make a difference not only in schools and colleges, it can make a difference in homes. One of the most extraordinary changes introduced by television is it can bring all kinds of education, in a very lively way, into the home in ways that were not possible fifty years ago or sixty years ago or seventy years ago.

Heffner: But we’re not thinking now only of the home, we’re thinking of technology used elsewhere, too, in the classroom as well as the home certainly. Why did it fail in the past?

Cremin: I think in every instance in the 1930s when they were attempting to use radio for education, and until recently with television as educator, if failed because educators were insufficiently imaginative in designing what you would call the software, in designing the programs, in designing the substance, that the new technology was going to convey. New technology doesn’t carry its own teaching, it doesn’t carry its own substance, and the great challenge whenever a new technology comes is to provide substance that that new technology can proffer to students, so that as Dr. Mayor suggests, they can learn.

Heffner: Dr. Mayor, have we gotten over that problem?

Mayor: Well, there’s another reason I think why it’s working better, and again, no panaceas. But the hardware itself is changing, and so you’re now in a position where the teacher is much more in control or the learner is much more in control. When you had a situation where the teacher was dependent on a broadcast, and you had to have your students lined up, if you’re talking about a K-12 situation, at a particular time, then it was very, very difficult to control and order your class to meet those kinds of needs. Some teachers did and they did very successfully, but it was much more difficult. Now with the VCR technology, with computer based technologies, basically when the student is ready to learn, when the teacher is ready to start, whatever that unit is, this teacher is ready to begin, and you don’t have to be dependent on some outside force scheduling you, and that’s really the same thing in the homes. I mean that’s part of what our interest is at the Annenberg/CPB Project. Our interest is in really adults who are interested in learning, older people or people of college age, people who are interested in a college level education. How can you reach them? How can you free them from the constraints of being in a classroom from eight in the morning till three in the afternoon? These technologies provide that flexibility in the home, or in the work place, and that’s different.

Heffner: Is your interest in the adult population a product to any degree of a sense that it is not an appropriate approach to younger children?

Mayor: No, it’s not. When the Annenberg/CBP Project was created it had a very specific mission, and its mission really was to expand educational opportunity at the college level. It wasn’t saying it shouldn’t be expanded at the K-12 level or we shouldn’t think more creatively about how to do that, it was just saying “this is a special project that was created with a special fund of money, and it’s aimed at opening up college level opportunity”.

Heffner: What do you think about the younger children, the K-12 level?

Cremin: I think that there have been any number of programs which have clearly demonstrated the ability of television to teach, to teach without punishing, to teach without getting angry, to convey information, to convey values. “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”, “Sesame Street” come into the home and they provide educational experiences for children before they come to school. They frequently provide educational experiences for children whose parents cannot provide those experiences. They frequently, as “Sesame Street” was designed to do, help children get ready for school who might not have the advantages that other children have in getting ready for school, and having parents read to them, and having a certain vocabulary development and so on. There’s no doubt but that television can teach. There have been other experiments. I happen to know that productions of the Children’s Television Workshop best because I was associated with them for a number of years, but if you look at a program like “Three, Two, One, Contact!” it came into the home, it taught science, it taught biology, it taught physics, taught elementary meteorology; those same programs have also been used in schools. When the program first came out, as the Annenberg programs have done, there were teachers’ guides, there were print materials to come with them, and frequently the teachers in the school had the program guides an could use the programs at home as well as in school to enhance their own teaching.

Mayor: Right.

Heffner: Back at the beginning of television I remember very well, and I’m sure you do, Dr. Cremin, you’re too young to…

Mayor: Right.

Cremin: (Laughter)

Heffner: …but we do remember the degree to which there were those who said “this is going to help solve the financial problems, the economic problems, too”. Now how much will we mislead ourselves if we think that this is a way of meeting educational challenges with a lower educational budge or an educational budget that isn’t growing in a period of great wealth?

Mayor: You want to try that one first? (Laughter)

Cremin: Well, there are certain statistics that I think are important to bear in mind. Very few of the reform proposals of the last five, six, seven years have looked to television for any enhancement or reform in American education, and yet television for children frequently costs a penny a child, two cents a child as compared with certain things that hey do in school that cost twenty, thirty, forty dollars a day per child. There are certain things television can do very well, and at a cost for production and delivery that’s much less than the cost of schooling. The important thing is not to use television instead of schooling, but to use television for what it can do well, and to use schooling for what it can do well.

Heffner: Let me be a devil’s advocate for a moment. Why not talk about television and the other technologies, not as enhancements, but as substitutes?

Mayor: We talk about them in a sense as not complete substitutes, but as an alternative that has to be available to students. When the Annenberg/CPB Project funds a…what we would call a television-based course, it consists of the television programs, it consists of a whole range of print texts and whatever. The student is really doing the bulk of the learning at home or conceivably watching some of the programs at work, or whatever is really convenient, and the work with the teacher changes in a way. The teacher isn’t so much the information provider pouring information into this receptacle that’s trying to learn, but the teacher is there really much more as a tutor, trying to help the student working through problems, and may not be there in a normal classroom setting because they’re not meeting physically together. But the teacher is there for the student either by phone or by mail or by computer network which is becoming more and more common, and so there is the ability of the learner really to function more independently and work in a different way, at least at the college level with that faculty member. It’s not a question of getting rid of the faculty member, it’s thinking differently about the interaction that occurs between a learner and a teacher.

Heffner: If you think differently, you have to assume, I presume that there will be different values enhanced, if there is a different quality to the exchange. Now what’s the down side of that?

Mayor: Well, I think you have to look first at the up side, I mean ironically…

Heffner: Okay. Fair enough.

Mayor: …we have the potential for more interaction, a more intense kind of interaction looking at ideas as opposed to just simply, you know, we think about college education and we have this wonderful image of it, but really what you have in most colleges is somebody up there lecturing and a lot of students taking notes, and it’s a very passive process. If you take that process away and begin to break it down you can actually add levels of interaction and make it more intense for the student.

Heffner: You mean we don’t any longer have Mark Hopkins at one end of that log and the student at the other?

Cremin: (Laughter)

Mayor: We may have Mark Hopkins and a student connected by a small network. (Laughter) No, we obviously have possibilities for making that happen. It’s just they may not be physically in the same river. I think that’s really what it’s about in part, what the technologies do is that they begin to break down this notion of being tied together physically in terms of time and space. Learning can happen freed from constraints of being together in the same place.

Heffner: Okay, but I want to pursue that question. You say “freed from the constraints of time and place”. Those constraints brought us something, maybe something bad and maybe something good, or a mixed blessing it was. What do we lose now?

Mayor: Well, again, I think you would lose certain kinds of experiences if that was all you were offering a student. But I think what the technologies do when you use them is to say “here’s one avenue” and some students will use them for some courses, and some faculty will use them in some ways and some settings. It’s not a question or either or, we’re going to take every student and take him off that log, and move him in front of a bunch of machinery. It doesn’t really work that way so I think it’s an unfair assumption to see it as a black and white situation.

Cremin: I think there are certain things that a teacher in a classroom with other students can do that eh machinery cannot do. There’s an intensity to classroom instruction. There’s an intensity to the give and take between a capable teacher, and an interested student that the programmer can put just so much of into the program for the computer or the television, and then it can’t go as far as a human being, and so one thinks of the technology as an enhancement for this capable teacher. On the other hand, frequently the television or the computer is ahead of the teacher in that the teacher hasn’t been trained in the mathematics, the teacher hasn’t been trained in the science. One of the biggest problems in our schools, with respect to mathematics and science is teachers have been insufficiently trained. Study after study indicates that for all their effort many elementary school teachers were frightened by mathematics in their own education and convey that fright as well as a kind of distaste for mathematics however hard they try in their classroom instruction, and in those circumstances television becomes the dynamic of the situation and in a sense the dynamism passes to the television experience and the teacher is the helper, the teacher is the enhancer, and I think that happens with new technologies depending on the circumstance, depending on the situation.

Heffner: How do you respond to that description?

Mayor: I think that’s fair. I think that you do get this…these different possibilities that emerge, and I think that’s right. One of the things I think we make a mistake is to assume that you have a pre-programmed “something”, and that when we talk about technology we’re talking about everything sort of canned and the student…

Heffner: Don’t you?

Mayor: No, I don’t. For example, we have a project that we funded where students are physically dispersed, but they’re connected essentially by phone lines and their computers are connected by phone lines. They’re able to talk simultaneously over the phone line and in effect a course was taught and developed in the field of calculus at Harvard using the extension program. So the students were physically dispersed, but the interaction that you’re talking about took place. In fact, in some ways it took place more intensely because it was as if every body was at the blackboard at once. You would…the equation would be on the board. Everybody could write, the teacher would call on whoever it was who was working on the equation, students could interact. So it’s using the technologies in real time in that case, and it is at least as intense, and at least as personal as the kind of interaction that you would get in a regular classroom.

Cremin: But there’s another aspect there we must always bear in mind, and that is there’s an assumption in the public mind that a new technology displaces an old technology. When television came in people assumed that no more books would be read. We find now that certain experiences on television lead people to read certain books, lead them to enjoy books more. The problem with the use of these new technologies in the schools and colleges is that teachers are frequently not given the opportunity to change their style to learn to work with the new technology. The technology well used frees the teacher of certain kinds of things so the teacher can do other things. But this is not given in the genes (laughter), this demands re-training on the part of the teacher in the same way that re-training goes on in other parts of the economy.

Mayor: Let me give you another example. One of the…you were talking before about teachers not really being adequately trained in a lot of cases, well one of the things we know is that even when the teachers are trained, some ideas are very hard to convey. They’re abstract concepts. They’re hard for students to visualize. One of the fields that we know it’s particularly been a problem is the field of physics where students flunk (laughter) at the college level at a phenomenal rate. Well, what if you could provide that student with different kinds of resources, ways of visually imagining an abstract concept so that they can begin to get a “picture” of it in their own minds, and begin to work with it? You can use these kinds of resources to do that. Or what if you want to give students a sense of what it’s like to think like a scientist, a physicist, a biologist or whatever, give them simulations that are very close to the kinds of problems that somebody in the field would actually be grappling with, and let them work them through and get intuitions about what’s possible in understanding an issue? All of those things are possible, and they enhance a good teacher, and they can obviously help a teacher who’s less prepared.

Cremin: Notice the implication there, and that is that whereas people think that a computer or a television opportunity is a canned thing that’s the same for everyone, the technology now permits the kind of diversification that frequently is not open to a teacher with a textbook. And it’s that diversification that our schools and colleges frequently lack when they’re approaching students with different learning styles, different backgrounds, different experiences, and sometimes the first explanation doesn’t go over and you need a quite different kind of explanation. The technology is capable of bringing that into a classroom if the teacher is trained to use it well.

Mayor: That’s right.

Heffner: But isn’t that positing, in an absolute sense, that he teacher, the individual teacher will be in charge, will be in command, will, at his or her…in his or her own good time, make use of the audio/visual or whatever other…

Cremin: Correct, and the reason that the projectors stayed unused twenty-five, thirty years ago, and the computers are unused now in too many schools is that the teachers are not trained to make this new use of these new materials. It’s the way the teachers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century had to change their ways when books in print and textbooks came into existence, and if they were still giving the lectures slowly by voice, they were nudged out by the new “technology”.

Heffner: So we’re talking about tow things. On the one hand we’re talking about a beyond K-12…

Mayor: Yes.

Cremin: Indeed.

Mayor: Absolutely.

Heffner: …for what you’re talking about.

Mayor: That’s right.

Heffner: And you’re saying, Dr. Cremin, that teachers are not training themselves now to make use of the technology for the youngsters.

Cremin: Some are. But there are not the experiences we would hope to have that enable teachers to, in a sense, get the training they need, that enable teachers to learn from one another in using these new technologies. So often they’re plunked down into a school and the teachers are expected to know how to use them with no training.

Mayor: One of the reasons I think you’re seeing more use of video, more comfortably K-12 and beyond is that people have become very comfortable with the video cassette recorder. It doesn’t require a genius. You plop it in, you press the button. We know how to do it at home. You can screen the materials at home. Think about just that as a very important step for a teacher. If you want to use a new book, you look in the index, you see what’s out there, you figure out whether or not that book is going to work for you. What if you’re going to want to use a film? When are you going to screen that film? When you were using 16mm, you didn’t probably have it at home. You couldn’t watch it. It was very awkward and cumbersome. Now you want to use a videotape, you take it home, you screen it, you decide you want to use that seven minute portion and it’s the same gadget (laughter) at home that you have at school, and you’re very comfortable using it.

Heffner: But Dr. Mayor, when you…when I read your Linking Technology and Learning, Can Computers, Video Enhance Education?, I know that the answer is “yes” because when you say “enhancement”, you’re taking a population that in a sense has not had a real connection to the educative process. Is that fair?

Mayor: Not really. The students that we normally look to serve are the students who are interested in the college education, and many of them, if fact, are already enrolled, but they are typically older. They’re typically 25 years and older. They’re typically working, they’re typically part-time students, so they have some link. They may be taking a course a semester, and what they’re looking for are opportunities that are convenient for them in terms of their life, and their schedule, but opportunities to learn and to learn in a way that they really feel will benefit them. So they’re not necessarily new. Yes, we would like to see more new students come in, and a percentage, about twenty or twenty-five percent of the students who use, for example, our television based materials, we know are new to the system. But that leaves seventy-five percent who are moving very slowly through it, and if they use this kind of route it means that they can move on faster. They can actually get that degree.

Cremin: This…

Heffner: I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Cremin: Excuse me. There is an equity problem here that I think we should have before us, and that is, the technology is not equally distributed to all the schools for all the children around the country, and if you look at what’s available in the elementary and secondary schools, the suburban districts and the well-to-do districts have the computers, and have the television software. The urban districts, with the impoverished children frequently don’t have them. Further, the suburban children have the teacher-training arrangements that enable the teachers to make good use of the computer material and the television material. In the poorer urban districts, the machines when they are there, frequently go unused, and there is a growing problem of equity in where the technology is, and how well the teachers are able to use the technology in the education of the youngsters, and I think we need to be aware of that as this technology enters the schools.

Heffner: So that polarization, further polarization, may well be the result.

Cremin: May well be one result of this, and it is a concern of those of us who think that already there is increasing polarization because of the inadequate schooling of poor and minority children in our central cities.

Heffner: But certainly you’re not advocating that we not move forward.

Cremin: Not at all. I’m only concerned that we be aware of the problem of equity as we do.

Heffner: You don’t have to face that, do you?

Mayor: It’s not quite as acute at the college level, but we worry about it also. There’s diversity and different sources of funding, and yes, I think it’s critical that we all be sensitive to it all the way through.

Heffner: I know, Larry, you in a sense answered this question before, but I guess I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. Is this not a very expensive proposition, what we’re talking about? I know that he Annenberg effort has been based upon the great generosity of Ambassador Annenberg. Do we, at this time, have the kinds of funds that enable us really to go forward, considering the question of equity, as you suggested, in a way that makes enough sense?

Cremin: I think we have nowhere near the funds we need to make adequate use of the technology we have available and the knowledge we have available in the education of the American people.

Heffner: The other question is, and we have two minutes left, and come back to that, the question of values. We hear so much that the trouble in our country of the…the troubles of our country derive from troubles in terms of value. This damn machine or machinery, won’t it exacerbate this kind of problem? You say “no”, you’re an optimist…

Mayor: I am an optimist because the machinery is value-free. It’s a function really of how it’s used.

Heffner: You think it’s value free, too, to use the machinery?

Cremin: I think the machinery can be misused, as well as well used, and I think when it’s mis-used, it exacerbates problems of values. When it’s used well, I think it can advance equity in a way that “Sesame Street” did (laughter), in a way that some of the technology has done, which would be a boon to the American people.

Heffner: What do you think, where are we going to go? Now if that’s the question, will we move further along these lines successfully in the Bush Administration?

Mayor: Well, I think there’s no question that higher education is moving along those lines on its own, and it will obviously look for support in the administration. But, you know what happens is as you have certain kinds of material available to you, and certain kinds of hardware, it becomes impossible really not to think about how to use it. There was a wonderful talk I heard a while back where somebody said that the stream engine was really sort of neutral. It really depended on what you did with it, and in a sense the same thing is true…as you play with it, think about new possibilities, you see ways to go that will open up opportunities, not only for teaching but for research, and as faculty move in that direction they’re not going to let this technology…

Heffner: With no time left, are you as sanguine?

Cremin: I think the most important thing the Bush Administration could do in advancing the use of technology for the benefit of people in education is to have the Federal Communications Commission begin to enforce requirements on the commercial broadcasters for children’s’ programming of first quality.

Heffner: That’s a fair answer.

Mayor and Cremin: (Laughter)

Heffner: Thank you both for joining me today.

Mayor: I agree.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guests, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.