Information Age Education
   Issue Number 8
December, 2008   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

Defining Levels of Depth of ICT Educational Uses

In 1997, I wrote a short article about first-order and second-order uses of computer technology in education.
Moursund, D.G. (May 1997). Beyond amplification. Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene, OR: ISTE. Access at

In brief summary, in each academic discipline Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can be used to do some things we are already able to do, but perhaps do them better or cheaper. This is called amplification.

In each academic discipline, ICT can be used to do some things that we were not able to do (or, to readily do at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable amount of time). This is called second-order use, or moving beyond amplification.

Looking Back

HistoryDouglas Engelbart is one of the leading figures in the history of Information and Communication Technology. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

He is best known for inventing the computer mouse, as a pioneer of human-computer interaction whose team developed hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to GUIs; and as a committed and vocal proponent of the development and use of computers and networks to help cope with the world’s increasingly urgent and complex problems.

Forty years ago, Engelbart presented the general idea that computers could facilitate groups of people working together, raising their collective intelligence and making it possible for people to more successfully attack major world problems such as pollution, famine, disease, war, and sustainability.

Engelbart foresaw much higher levels of ICT use than were possible 40 years ago, and he helped to develop the computer systems that make such higher-level uses possible.

Looking at Current Times

CurrentThe first UNIVAC computer was delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau on March 31, 1951. The commercial “mass production” of this computer from 1951 to 1958 resulted in the sale and delivery of a total of 46 computers.

Today’s microcomputers are well over a million times as fast and cost less than 1/1,000 as much as the UNIVAC I. The computer processing power in a typical cell phone is well over 200,000 times that of the UNIVAC I, and worldwide production of cell phones is now about a billion per year.

We are all familiar with current uses of ICT in communication, games, still and video photography, GPS systems, and so on. We are familiar with desktop publication, computer-assisted learning, and the Web. We can all give examples of major changes that have been brought about by ICT uses in art, business, the film industry, music, and so on.

In summary, second level (beyond amplification) uses of ICT are now thoroughly ingrained into our everyday lives. Some aspects of our everyday lives have been changed much more than others by such uses of ICT. Cell phones represent an area huge and continuing rapid change. Our overall formal educational system represents an area of modest and slow change.

Let me give two examples to help illustrate.
  1. The general idea of computational thinking ( has not yet entered the curriculum. We do a very poor job in helping students learn about the capabilities and limitations of ICT as an aid to representing and helping to solve the types of problems that students are studying in school.
  2. In the world outside of formal schooling, we have broadly accepted the idea that a combination of human brain and computer “brain” is an appropriate way to deal with a broad and growing range of problems. See But, our school curriculum content and assessment systems are especially weak in these areas. For example, very few students are regularly assessed in an open ICT environment, in which they can freely draw ICT resources as they demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

 Looking into the Future

The FutureThe “beyond amplification” article mentioned earlier in this document looks only at two levels of ICT use. The previous section gives example of second level uses and points out that our formal education system is not adopting this second level nearly as rapidly other major parts of our society.

Here are two questions well worthy of careful and deep thought.

  1. What is an appropriate definition of “third level” uses of ICT? A definition based partly on examples would be quite helpful.
  2. How might such third level uses be appropriately integrated into our educational system?

Each academic discipline includes a growing collection of data, information, knowledge, wisdom, and foresight (see relating to identifying, representing, and solving problems within the discipline. This also includes storing and sharing the results, and working with people in other disciplines to make use of the results. It is increasingly clear that many or most problems are interdisciplinary, so working and sharing across disciplines is an essential aspect of problem solving in our world. (Ask yourself: Since we know that most problems are interdisciplinary, why is most of the school curriculum strongly discipline specific?)

The total collection of human knowledge is overwhelmingly large and growing very rapidly. Third Level uses of ICT address this issue. Two examples are:

  • The relatively new discipline of Knowledge and Data Mining. See ACM’s special interest group in this area, at
  • Steadily improving smarter information retrieval systems. Examples include search engines that make use of information about the person doing the searching, and information systems that store and provide access to computer programs that can actually solve or help solve problems. For example, we have long had computer algebra systems that can solve a wide range of the problems students encounter in math up through second year of higher education.

Our formal education system has many goals. The problem-solving orientation described above is but one of these goals. However, I believe that second and third level uses of ICT as an aid to representing and solving both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary problems should be a routine part of the everyday curriculum in our schools.

The goal is straightforward. Quoting from earlier in this document:

Forty years ago, Engelbart presented the general idea that computers could facilitate groups of people working together, raising their collective intelligence and making it possible for people to more successfully attack major world problems such as pollution, famine, disease, war, and sustainability.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at,  and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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UNIVAC I image above, courtesy of the Computer History Museum -