AS an educator at Columbia University Teachers College in New York, Mary Alice White keeps her ear to the ground for movements and trends in the field of education. About four years ago she heard a distinct rumble. ``By the time schoolchildren graduate from high school,'' says Dr. White, ``they have had twice the exposure [22,000 hours] to television that they have had to the classroom.
``Things are being communicated more and more in a highly visual way,'' she says from her home here overlooking the hills and farm fields of northwestern Connecticut, ``and children have been a part of it for a long time. I became convinced that the medium was changing how people view the world.... For 10,000 years, humans learned from images and from speech. For the last 500 years, humans have learned primarily from print. But it was never written in concrete that it was always going to be that way. In the future, we may learn primarily from electronic imagery.''
Electronic imagery, also called optical media, is the hottest subject in the PC (personal computer) industry today, says Roy Pea, director of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Educational Technologies and a professor at New York University. ``I'm optimistic about what we are going to see. But it's easy to get excited about the coming technology,'' he says. ``The fact is, classrooms look pretty much the same today as they did in the 18th century - only the blackboards are bigger.''
US computer firms are researching and developing some of the first optical high-technology tools that promise to help educators develop what White calls ``the curriculum for the information age.''
This past June, for example, Apple Computer Inc. announced that it had joined with George Lucas's Lucasfilm Ltd. and the National Geographic Society to explore various optical technologies incluidng CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory) to provide educators with new ways of teaching and delivering information.
Kristina Hooper, Apple's representative in this high-tech triad, says: ``Now that optical media is available, we are asking ourselves: How can we use it?'' Although years away from a product, Ms. Hooper says the collaboration ``brings together the education and computer technology of Apple; the entertainment, film production, and animation technologies of Lucasfilm; and the vast informational resources of the National Geographic Society.''
The technology making this possible includes a shiny five-inch CD that has virtually revolutionized the music industry. It can reproduce music with breathtaking precision. But CDs can store other digital infomation as well, including text, video, audio, and even computer software - anything that can be digitized.
What will the end product be capable of doing? Connected to a computer or television monitor, the CD-ROM can put on a dazzling show.
``Imagine,'' says Mr. Pea, ``that you had the entire Library of Congress on a compact disc, thousands of music albums on another disc, and a film library on another.
``A student, asked to give a report on whales, could draw from all these sources and put on a multi-media presentation including film of whales swimming under water, records of their mysterious singing, and narrative taken from books. All of it collected from a few compact discs.''
Or how about having the entire art collection of the Louvre or Metropolitan Museum available? Selections could be projected in color on a television screen as a lecture or period music played in the background.
These are some of the possibilities that current projects under development are promising. The most advanced version in the works, called CDI for ``compact disc interactive,'' will even allow students to interact with the program, ask questions, or change the action.
But as with many high-tech stories of the 1980s, promises prevail while products lag far behind.
On the market and being tried out in New York schools, however, is the Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century, which includes nearly 80 hours of film of major news events of our century. Stored on 36 discs, the $10,000 encyclopedia allows a student to view film footage of important moments such as some of the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
``Rather than simply reading from a history book,'' White says, one program allows children to ``call a piece of history to the screen, and the teacher can say: `OK, it's your decision,' and the child must make a historical decision. That way children feel they're discovering it. It is highly interactive, not passive viewing.''
Children already spend much of their free time with powerful and sophisticated imagery, says White, while the schools still operate largely in the medium of ``text and talk,'' a formula that can be boring, she says, and one that can leave the school out of the picture for the student.
Peter Burrell, Boston University's director of instructional television agrees. It's ``boredom in school, while outside school it's the information age.'' Schools are catching on, he says, but very slowly.
One problem has been that the technology itself has only been available for the past 18 months or less. And there is no incentive, to an industry with its eye on the lucrative consumer market, to make products for schools. Instead, schools must adapt consumer products to their needs. Meanwhile, even universities are researching this technology for industry and government and neglecting education's needs - a situation Mr. Burrell likens to the shoemaker's children going barefoot.
At Harvard's Educational Technology Center, Jim Kaput is working on a program that will help school children develop mathematical reasoning skills without using numbers - only images or icons in a computer.
The act of thinking, Mr. Kaput says, involves using mental representations. Text and numbers are one form of representation.
``Graphics and sound will be central to the new educational learning environment,'' he says.
Most educators and industry analysts agree that text will remain better suited to some kinds of learning. It would be hard to write poetry without it, for instance. But, as White argues: ``People in the arts can understand knowledge and wisdom that comes from the eye. Isn't education richer for having both?''
``There is more than one way to learn, and I think that once you begin exploring a visual medium for expressing ideas, for looking at problems, it's a very different way of looking at them,'' she says.
To prepare teachers for this new curriculum, White has developed a course for Columbia graduate students on what she calls ``imagery comprehension,'' toward a ``visual literacy.''
The movement toward imagery in education poses interesting questions. For instance, what is the difference between learning from imagery and learning from print? How do imagery and text shape the information they convey? Which areas are best taught in which medium?