Industry, education, and the computer revolution

Carlyn Buckingham decided to seek part-time work recently only to discover that employers now demand a skill she does not possess: the ability to use a word processor.

Previously, the Iowa housewife held down a good job as an executive secretary. Returning to the job market after several years, she was dismayed to discover that her skills and experience were no longer marketable because of the ''information revolution.'' So she is working as a supermarket checker.

Mrs. Buckingham's experience is becoming increasingly common as new computer and information technologies transform the workplaces of America. In some cases , whole professions are being gradually eliminated and new ones created.

''I feel very inadequate because of these new machines. They are very fascinating, but they scare me because I don't know a thing about them,'' Mrs. Buckingham admits.

Her experience and feelings underscore some of the central points of a report issued this week by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Titled ''Informational Technology and Its Impact on American Education,'' this study discusses the considerable challenges that these revolutionary machines present to America's educational system, and the various roles that the federal government might play in meeting them.

''Modern society is undergoing profound technological and social changes brought about by what has been called the information revolution. . . . The impacts of this revolution affect individuals, institutions, and governments - altering what they do, how they do it, and how they relate to one another. If individuals are to thrive economically and socially in a world that will be shaped, to a large degree, by these technological developments, they must adapt through education and training,'' the OTA report observes.

These developments are creating major new demands for education and training in the United States. Literacy is being redefined to include the ability to use computers and information systems. And the penalties for illiteracy in these areas are increasing, as Mrs. Buckingham's case illustrates.

A key element in these new educational needs, the OTA finds, is ''that they will constantly change. In a rapidly advancing technological society, it is unlikely that the skills and information base needed for initial employment will be those needed for the same job a few years later. Lifelong retraining is expected to become the norm for many people.''

This challenge comes at a time when America's educational system is undergoing serious reevaluation. More than any other nation, the United States has considered education a ''public good'' that should be available to everyone. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1831, ''(Americans) agree in thinking that the diffusion of knowledge . . . is absolutely necessary for a free people like their own, where there is no property qualification for voting or for standing for election.'' On this premise, Americans established a whole range of public institutions: elementary and secondary schools, four-year and community colleges , libraries, and museums.

Today, however, this concept is under attack from those who argue that education and information should be treated as a commodity to be distributed by the marketplace. Information technologies are sharpening this debate because they are making it ''easier to produce and distribute education in the marketplace,'' the OTA study points out.

Seymour Papert, one of the leaders in the field of artificial intelligence, favors this move away from the traditional approach to education. In a 1979 essay on computers and learning, he stated that, with the explosion of privately owned computers, for the first time there will be ''a viable alternative to schools and the possibility that education will once more become a private act.'' While acknowledging a ''sinister possibility'' that computer learning will be appropriated by an elite class, Mr. Papert argues that this need not happen, that ''the computer has the potential of serving everybody.''

If computers and other social forces lead to the increasing privatization of education, ''individuals and groups that can afford to buy educational services may be more satisfied. . . . But fewer social resources may be made available to support . . . the public benefits of education,'' the OTA study comments. It also notes that ''a serious social, economic, and political gap could develop between those who do and those who do not have access to, and the ability to use , information systems.''

Skeptics point out that past technologies, such as television, were expected to transform education but failed to do so. However, the demands for education and retraining being created by the new technologies themselves may be so great that they can only be met by computer-aided instruction.

''If properly employed, information technology has certain characteristics which suggest it will be invaluable for education,'' the OTA reports. It will allow access to education and training in all parts of the country and any time of the day or night. Its services can be provided at home or at work, where and whenever needed.

Still, some educators warn that the long-term implications of relying heavily on computers in the classroom are not sufficiently understood.

The federal government has a number of different courses of action open to it , if it wishes to address these issues, the OTA suggests. These include:

* Providing tax incentives to computer companies to donate equipment to schools. This would decrease the signficant cost of ''wiring'' the nation's schools, but might lock them into obsolete computer systems.

* Subsidizing development of educational software, which is currently limited in both quality and quantity.

* Directly funding computer acquisition by the schools. This would attract manufacturers and software writers into the educational field, but may promote premature and unwise purchases.

* Increasing federal support for research and development of education technology, particularly in the areas of learning strategies, methods for production of software, and the long-term impact of technology-based education.

Currently, these issues have not achieved much political prominence. The process of forming a federal policy is still in the earliest, most formative stage.

OTA researchers report that they ''found strong support not only among economists but also in the business community for the view that the availability of literate, well-educated workers is an important determiner of productivity and economic growth.''

Other experts have pointed out that nations lagging behind in the adoption of new technologies pay a severe economic penalty by forgoing increased productivity.

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