Quarterly for Education and Technology: Using Technology to Implement Standards of Learning

Using Technology to Implement Standards of Learning

Raymond G. Fox


On July 2, 1934, the Christian Science Monitor published a front-page story by Marjorie Shuler, which reported that the 10,000 teachers attending the National Education Association convention the same year had agreed that public school education in the United States ought to be changed. As to what those changes should be, Ms. Shuler observed that “there are about as many opinions as there are blueberries growing on Vermont hillsides.” The article went on to say that during the year, “400 educational committees and commissions … have either prepared reports or are now conducting investigations to determine the role tending toward educational recovery and reconstruction.”

More recently, historian and author James Burke points out in his book The Knowledge Web that knowledge has been generated and disseminated in a particular way for the last 120,000 years. He offers the thought that the sequential nature of language arose as a function of reducing reality to its constituent parts, whether it be the caveman reciting sounds to indicate the sequence of operations necessary to manufacture stone tools, or, over millennia, the subdivision of knowledge into ever smaller and more precise segments to describe physical, chemical, and biological entities.

The segmented mode Burke identifies is present in the current education paradigm where individuals are assigned to a classroom in order to audit a linearly presented oral lecture, or to study texts that are also presented as a pattern to be comprehended sequentially, word by word. As individuals gain word-sequence familiarity, they advance to the threshold of storage and internal manipulation, interpreting word sequences as phrases, and subsequently engaging in cognitive association to call up relevant information in the brain. The assimilation of information builds a base of knowledge that allows the learner to apply his or her wisdom and intelligence to the solution of problems. One might question the efficacy of this mode of presentation over all others, as well as the notion that intelligence is necessarily augmented or energized in this fashion.

Examples of successful outcomes via different means of intelligence processing abound. For example, Archimedes (ca. 287-212 BC) was requested by his ruler Hiero II to find a method for determining whether a crown was pure gold or alloyed with silver. He realized, as he stepped into his bath, that a given weight of gold would displace less water than would an equal weight of silver, which is less dense than gold–at which point he shouted, “Eureka!” (“I have found it !”).

If effective education is defined as the development of the ability to operate upon knowledge in order to achieve prescribed (or to-be-discovered) outcomes, then the communication and retention of knowledge segments (or the ability to quickly access them) is essential. In addition, some defined sets of required knowledge need to be established.


While the Christian Science Monitor story could probably be written today to describe similar conflicts and hand wringing about the state of public education, there are certain circumstances that apply today that did not exist then. To wit: there is in place the political process of determination of what should be learned, what instruction should be delivered, and what measurement processes should be used to evaluate the results. This has resulted in the establishment of general baselines of subject matter deemed to be a necessary part of the curriculum and have been dubbed Standards of Learning (SOLs). While not precisely drawn–and in many cases ambiguous–SOLs provide a rudimentary start, as well as a baseline for testing and evaluation.

As these standards are coming into use gradually, E. D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia points out one of the many problems. About New York state SOLs, he writes:

The bigger problem with the new guidelines is in the language arts, that

is, reading and writing. The guides give so little concrete guidance to

teachers that they may, in the end, perpetuate the very gaps and

repetitions they were meant to alleviate. The chaotic reality is that

different things are being taught in different classrooms. This is

especially damaging for children who receive little education outside of


Amidst the controversy over the introduction of SOLs, Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve, contends that “raising standards has come to mean little more than higher scores on poorly designed tests.” This is a revisiting of the educators’ disdain for anything smacking of “teaching to the test.” Though fuzzy and imprecise, the SOLs do, however, provide a benchmark of sorts against which one can measure a learner’s progress. The concern Kohn voices is the possibility that along with the acquisition of knowledge, the ability of the individual to operate upon that knowledge will not be developed.

In addition to the problems with the SOLs, several other deficiencies of the present educational delivery modality remain apparent. One, although frequently overlooked, is the existence of personality interferences between student and teacher that can, and often do, hinder the process of learning. Such interferences can cause a teacher to falsely judge a learner to be inattentive, incapable of comprehending, or slow to grasp simple concepts; thus producing a seriously damaging attitude in the teacher toward a particular student. And while there is something to be said for learning in pairs in a quasi-tutorial fashion, the interpersonal dissonances among the individuals within a classroom that emanate from personal differences (in gender, culture, size, maturity, personality problems, and personal safety concerns) all impinge upon the ability of an individual to cope in such an environment. Further, given the variety of backgrounds that exist among students in an average class, it would seem most unreasonable–if not impossible–to expect a single teacher (subject to his or her own unique background and cultural influences) to effectively communicate a message to such a diverse audience. Still another drawback to the current mode of instruction delivery is that, due to the limitations inherent in the current student-to-teacher ratios, learners often are unable to obtain answers to questions at the time the questions are uppermost in their minds.


Fortunately, however, we currently have a resource available to us in the form of educational technology that can effectively remedy many of these problems and can dramatically affect education. Technology can assist in instruction delivery, assessment, management, and information storage and retrieval. It can be used to provide the necessary instruction delivery for basic knowledge, as well as for the development of the ability to operate upon that knowledge.

What Kohn misses, as do many educators, is the unique capacity for technology-based instruction delivery systems to effectively, precisely, and on an individualized basis, provide the knowledge required by SOLs to each student. And, in terms of discovery learning, this kind of instruction delivery system can be programmed to permit students to explore the “what if”–the consequences of the use of knowledge. Further, measurements of each student’s progress can be a by-product of the instruction delivery function itself, offering continual monitoring rather than a series of snapshots taken every four months. The latter, it should be noted, identifies comprehension deficiencies long after the optimum time for remediation. In contrast, instruction delivery systems such as interactive multimedia can identify and provide remedial requirements as they are needed.

To address the previously outlined problems, the systems analyst would seek methods of overcoming the inconsistencies in instructional content being delivered, while eliminating the situational and interpersonal barriers inherent in the current instruction delivery mode. We already possess such methods. Instruction delivery is available today in technical verisimilitudes of multiple modalities. Unfortunately, though, as John Henry Martin has written: “The almost universal assumption is that technology and its unique materials should be used as a supplement to the teacher and the textbook.” Dr. Martin points out that learner-based instruction delivery could become … a primary delivery agent for instruction…. “But, “[i]n practice, we have had topical segments prepared or adapted for classroom use typically confined to a 40-minute or less exercise.” He informs us that

[u]sage is therefore intermittent, idiosyncratic to the teacher, and locked

into the purposes and the content of the existing courses of study. In

other words, the manner in which the technology has been used by the

schools has predestined it to perform only a minor and subordinated role.


It must not be supposed, however, that application of technology is a simple task. It implies the use of algorithms appropriate to the subject matter at hand. An algorithm is a precise, structured prescription for carrying out a defined sequence of operations in order to achieve a predetermined objective that is capable of being measured as to its outcome. The term has been generally applied to program steps or sequences that activate computers and are represented by the programming code. However, when considered from a systems standpoint, the definition can also be applied to education and training.

The individual algorithms represent what might be termed a unit of instruction. On a simplified basis, a unit could be described as the presentation frame(s) (textual, audio, image, tactile), query(ies) (explicit, tactile, alphanumeric, mouse, position, operation sequence), branch(es), and supplementary or desired presentation/feedback. This conforms to the notion of the cybernetic process of regulation and control in education and training. The requirements for this system to operate efficiently include:

* a precisely defined objective, factor, operation, relationship or procedure to be learned

* a specified content item, concept, or array of information to be presented that will encompass the foregoing

* construction or development of presentation modalities (audio, image, motion, sensory)

* conditional logic, which responds to the state of the system as determined by the controller (student)

* specified time dependency relationships

* selective sequencing until the system achieves a steady state for each learning objective identified.

The foregoing essentially identifies the design requirements for each sequence of instruction. The sum of these sequences represents the individual instructional program to accomplish the specific objectives. Inherent in this kind of learning system is the potential for data capture, including response latency, at each point of the system regulation. It can be seen, however, that all subject matters do not lend themselves to the rigorous disciplines outlined above. For example, Voltaire said that “[h]istory is a collection of agreed upon lies.” One learns that Christopher Columbus discovered America on October 12, 1492. One learns further that it was an island in the Caribbean. We probe further, and the subject–as is true of so much of history–quickly becomes editorial and specific factoids are much in dispute. Political issues arise when ascribing content–credit or blame, reality or unreality–to Columbus. Was he Spanish or Italian? Jewish or Christian? A genius or a fraud?


For the purpose of defining SOLs, it is useful to consider subject matters that are relevant to coping behavior; i.e., reading, writing (grammar, vocabulary, etc.), and arithmetic; personal safety knowledge; rules of behavior and the environment as they impinge upon the individual.

The foregoing poses a problem to the instructional systems designer in that the objectives are not capable of being precisely defined in terms of measurable, outcome-based criteria. Hence, instructional systems designers must use other methods to address these subject matters. Because of this variability of precision, the relevant criteria for instruction measurement are not clear. Thus, there is a delineation between subject matters that are appropriate for the application of technology-based learning and those that are not. The former include hard skills and knowledge, coping behavior, computation, vocabulary, language, and verbalization. The latter include subjects that are opinion oriented (such as history, fine arts, and political science), are entertainment oriented, or contain information content that has no specific utility and is not bounded by parameters that can be precisely defined and measured.

The promise of a standard is twofold: first, that a measurable degree of learner accomplishment will be the criterion for the successful implementation of the standard; and, second, that each learner will be given the necessary information to achieve the standard.

An example of a successful application of systems principles that would be amenable to SOLs is the program “Writing to Read,” developed by John Henry Martin. The subject matter fits the criteria: writing and reading are fundamental skills required to cope successfully in society, and the process is rule based. “Cat” is spelled C-A-T. The word refers to a particular species of quadruped; it contains consonants and a vowel, the sequence, usage, and phonetic values of which are standardized. For most youngsters, it is a familiar object, thereby introducing the idea of comparable or life experience from which to set a frame of reference for new ideas or concepts, or around which to build comprehension of the consonants and vowels, letter sequence, and usage. Dr. Martin uses this in his program, along with other familiar objects, to fulfill the needs for comparables and relevant life experience to be introduced as the program matter proceeds on an interactive basis. And the basic philosophy of the program is system oriented in nature. Whereas the usual expression is “reading and writing,” Dr. Martin argued that writing is phonetic encapsulation of speech. Because speech is a form of communication learned and known at an early age, familiar spoken words, illustrated by familiar objects such as a cat, provide the intellectual systems underpinning for the program. This program is being or has been used to help millions of children learn to read and write.


It seems clear, then, that the use of technology-based learning systems that (1) are oriented to standards, (2) have the inherent capability for assessment and measurement, and (3) are free of the potential for human personality conflicts and biases, can and should be considered as a primary choice for technology-based instruction delivery systems. And that, as a result of their superiority to present methods, technology-based learning systems could actually aid in the more rapid implementation of learning standards, thus bringing about the educational changes sought for so long.

The problem with the standards for subjects such as history, literature, economics, and the like is ambiguity–or the lack of precisely defined assessment. How then do we handle those non-rule-driven subjects that present problems in definition, age appropriateness, or address variables such as history, literature, and economics? Analysis of these subject matters to determine potential applications for technology-based delivery may uncover applications of technology to permit access to information about teaching and learning tools that give in-depth correlation to local, state, and national standards. The good news is that this type of management software is now available. It can also provide alignment of textbooks, software, lesson plans, and activities with the standards. Further, assessment tools are available for test preparation and next-day reporting.

It is possible that the analytic approach discussed in the foregoing section, when applied to these non-rule-driven subjects, may yield an unintended but serendipitous consequence. While it may pose a new level of difficulty and require a different type of cerebration to define the instructional paradigm in terms of the capability of technology, it also becomes a forcing function to drive reality into the assessment starting with the structural level and graduating to the materials-management level. Possibly it may require the reversal of the design process; i.e., start with the evaluation or test criteria and tailor the instructional program to the demands of that.

J. H. “Bill” Walton, CEO and co-founder of ITC Learning Corporation, points out that “[w]e are sensory beings. In other words, the more of our senses that can be involved, the more completely and enjoyably we learn. Even better, the more senses that become involved with the learning experience, the greater our retention.” Video-based multimedia learning technologies address the new needs of today’s technologically driven society. Full-motion multimedia helps us keep the best of what worked in the past–expose-and-practice in small, discrete segments–while combining the amazing power of video, audio, and hands-on practice. And again, as Burke phrases it:

Some skills, such as rote memory, become less widely used, but there seems

to be no evidence that the capability for them disappears. In many cases

machines also take over routine work, freeing individuals to use their

skills at higher levels. The latest interactive, semi-intelligent

technologies seem likely to make this possible on an unprecedented scale.

They also bring to an end a period of history in which the human brain was

constrained by limited technology to operate in a less-than-optimal way,

since the brain appears not to be designed to work best in the linear,

discrete way promoted by reductionism.

While interactive multimedia systems may not provide every student with the capability to advance from the linearly phrased word sequence to the inspirational genius of Archimedes, they do offer an alternative for providing the knowledge base required by the SOLs. They also promote a learning scenario based on discovery learning as opposed to fact learning, enabling learners to better operate upon the knowledge gained and to explore the consequences in the discovery process.


Burke, James. The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back–And Other Journeys Through Knowledge (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

Hirsch, E. D. “One Curriculum for New York,” New York Times Op-Ed (Nov. 4, 1999).

Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

Martin, John Henry, and Ardy Friedberg. Writing to Read (Warner Books, 1986).

Walton, J. H. (“Bill”). “The Future of Learning: The Next Steps Towards the Year 2000–And Beyond,” Proceedings of the Interactive Multimedia 1997 Conference (Society for Applied Learning Technology[R], 1997).

Raymond G. Fox has served as president of the Society for Applied Learning Technology[R] since it was founded in 1972. He has been active in the field of instructional technology for more than 35 years and has been chairman of the Learning Technology Institute[R] since 1975. In addition to serving on advisory boards at the national and state level, Fox has received recognition from numerous professional groups in the field of learning technology systems, including the 1995 American Society for Training and Development award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the instructional technology field.

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