What will the school of the future look like? For one thing, it may have a kitchen, a living area, a bath, and a number of bedrooms. In other words, more of the learning that has traditionally taken place in the school building down the street will take place in the home.
This will be possible primarily because of home computers. But school buildings themselves will have more computers, too. Teachers will learn to use them increasingly for cognitive instruction -- the kind of factual learning that a machine can handle -- thereby freeing themselves for the more rewarding and challenging aspects of a broad-based, liberal arts education.
These and other predictions were discussed last month at a three-day conference here that brought together educators, librarians, and representatives of high-tech industries.
The conference site -- the Dallas Infomart, the world's first information-processing marketplace -- was an appropriate choice, for two reasons. First, because many of the companies with permanent salesrooms at Infomart are the same ones educators will be dealing with as information systems are installed, refined, and modernized. In fact, the education conference at Infomart will become an annual event.
But there is another reason, less obvious though perhaps more compelling, that the site is right. The Infomart building, seven stories of ornate, arched white steel, is patterned after the Crystal Palace, a showplace built for the 1850 Exposition in London. At the time of its construction, the palace was considered an architectural wonder and a testament to Great Britain's technological advance in the world. Yet by the time it burned to the ground in 1936, Britain was no longer at the forefront of innovation.
As a number of speakers at the conference noted, the United States could, like Britain in this century, lose its position at the helm of technological research and development -- and its economic well-being as well.
As the speakers emphasized, one of the most crucial keys to maintaining that leadership role will be the country's education system.
``If we don't seize the opportunity, we're probably doomed to follow the Great Britain model,'' said Christopher Dede, a futurologist with the University of Houston. Keeping ahead in the world will mean building an education system in which students learn to work with machines in ``person-tool partnerships,'' Dr. Dede says.
Robots will take over ever-greater numbers of jobs that they can be programmed to master. Students, on the other hand, will have to develop skills to complement the robot's work: analysis, problem recognition, decisionmaking, and adapting to unusual situations. ``We'll still need the basics,'' adds Dede, ``but they'll be an intermediate step, not the goal.''
According to him, ``every part of the curriculum involving standardized response will be eliminated, piece by piece, from our definition of intelligence. The liberal arts,'' he adds, ``will become the foundation of the skills needed for the new economy.''
Also emphasizing the growing importance of a broad-based education was Bobby Inman, former deputy director of the CIA and now president of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, a research consortium of major high-technology companies. Noting that ``we'll see as much change in the next 15 years as we did in the last 30,'' Admiral Inman said this pace of change will mean that ``focused skills'' won't be learned until late in one's formal education. And even then, retraining on new meth ods will be necessary every few years.
Perhaps the least difficult part of tomorrow's education system will be teaching students to work with computers. As one speaker noted, ``computer literacy'' will no longer be an issue in 10 years -- except perhaps for those generations who left school before computers became a common education tool.
Students who are now in school and those who will follow will already be accustomed to learning from a screen, because of the pervasiveness of television, says Billy Reagan, superintendent of the Houston public schools.
Even though the pace of change has accelerated, says Dr. Reagan, teacher training and teaching have remained much like what they were when he entered the profession 36 years ago. The challenge to educators will be to adapt to an increasingly ``visual'' education process.
Many students have great difficulty working with, and becoming excited about, the printed page. Says Dr. Reagan, ``We're going to have to use these new tools creatively if we're going to build on the learning styles these youngsters have developed since they were born.''
According to Reagan, shrinking attention spans and the ease with which students relate to computer software that teaches and entertains have caused his colleagues to coin a new word: ``edutainment.'' It illustrates how the line between entertainment and education will continue to blur, even as the boundaries between home and school crumble.
Several participants noted that, as home computers are used more for educational purposes, greater effort will be needed to guarantee that the country's education system does not result in a new class system dividing ``information haves and have-nots.''
The Houston schools already lend computers to low-income families involved in English-as-a-second-language programs. And beginning this fall, Texas will mandate a computer curriculum. A main reason for the program is to ensure that ``not just students in the wealthier districts become acquainted with new technologies,'' says Keith Mitchell, an instructional computing specialist with the Texas Education Agency.
Other examples of how technology is reshaping education abounded at the conference. An Illinois district of 2,500 students and six schools will begin a national demonstration project this fall to explore the advantages of having a computer in each classroom.
``The significance of our program is that these computers will be used for both administration and instruction,'' says Arvid Nelson, superintendent of the Indian Springs School District southwest of Chicago.
The project, partly funded with grants from IBM and the federal government, is designed to cut down on the teacher's paper work while fostering communication with the principal's office, the district office, and other schools. And, adds Dr. Nelson, having a computer in each classroom will allow the teacher to integrate its use into everyday lessons better.
Another innovative project uses computers to teach higher-order thinking skills to elementary school students with reading difficulties. The program, developed by Stanley Pogrow of the University of Arizona, introduces students who are falling behind to such concepts as generating hypotheses and disconfirming and changing assumptions.
According to Dr. Pogrow, using computers works because ``it's through visual images that kids learn today.'' Testing after one year of the program showed the average student jumped 15 percentile points in reading. He says teachers working with the program also learn new ways of teaching basic skills.
One of the program's attractions is that it uses commercially available education software. The key, says Pogrow, is how creative the teacher is in using it.
``It's my belief,'' says Pogrow, echoing a basic theme at the conference, ``that the major challenge for educators will be to make kids smarter for an age when machines will do the routine work.''
He says the day is fast approaching when the vast majority of jobs will be either what people can do cheaper than machines, or what a machine, no matter how advanced, is unable to do. And it's the jobs in the latter category, says Pogrow, that will be the most fulfilling.