Information Age Education
   Issue Number 136
April, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the fifth in a series of IAE Newsletters focusing on possible futures of education. The unifying theme is the exploration of changes to our current system that have a good chance of substantially improving the education that our students are obtaining.

Education for Students’ Futures
Part 5: The First Machine Age 

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor
University of Oregon

“In medicine, law, finance, retailing, manufacturing, and even scientific discovery, the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines.” (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, January, 2012.)

Our informal and formal educational systems help to prepare students for their possible futures. The design and implementation of curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment in our schools build on our knowledge of what has worked well and what has not worked well in the past. We teach reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) to all students because of their enduring value over the centuries and our guesses and predictions that these will continue to be important in the future.

Guesses and predictions, “Aye, there’s the rub.” When the people and societies in our world were changing quite slowly, the future was much like the past. So, there was little need to make significant educational changes from generation to generation.

But now we live in a time when our educational system is faced by major technological changes that are occurring during relatively short periods of time. For example, during the early part of my career a good desktop calculator cost several thousand dollars and was not very portable. Now, a much better calculator is very portable and much less expensive. While fifty years ago it made no sense to integrate calculators into the precollege math curriculum, now it is commonplace to do so. Educators now argue about when to introduce calculators into the math curriculum, and whether doing so damages the overall math education of students.

Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have recently published The Second Machine Age (2014). Their book is about the Information Age (the Computer Age), how it is changing the world, and what we can do about it. See the videos McAfee (June, 2013) and McAfee (September, 2012) for a summary of the key ideas covered in the book.

In this IAE Newsletter, I briefly summarize some of the authors’ insights into how technology has changed the world in the past and how it is changing the world much more rapidly now. Their book contains a careful analysis of where we are now, and how we got here. It then goes on to make guesses and predictions  about future developments. I think the information in this book should be integrated into the general education that all students receive. It will help them to understand the world as it is now, and how it will change substantially during their lifetimes.

I believe that Brynjolfsson and McAfee have provided us with a number of quite good (accurate) guesses and predictions, and I discuss several of them in this newsletter. In the next IAE Newsletter I will focus on some educational challenges and choices based on their guesses and predictions.

A Question to Ponder

Brynjolfsson and McAfee ask, “What have been the most important developments in human history?” This is a challenging question, and the authors briefly explore many different answers.

What do you think? Perhaps it was the development farming a little over 10,000 years ago—moving us from the Hunter-Gatherer Age into the Agricultural Age. How did the development of farming change the average quality of life? As you ponder this question, include the fact that horses and oxen were domesticated about 8,000 years ago. Farming is a very physically demanding life style, and it took 2,000 years before horses and oxen took on some of the physical labor. Farming changed very slowly over thousands of years.

You might want to focus on the plow, a very important technological development in farming. The history of the plow provides interesting evidence of how slowly change occurred during the Agricultural Age. Quoting from History of the Plow:

The farmers of George Washington's day had no better tools than had the farmers of Julius Caesar's day; in fact, early Roman plows were superior to those in general use in America eighteen centuries later.

The first real inventor of a practical plow was Charles Newbold, of Burlington County, New Jersey, who received a patent for a cast-iron plow in June, 1797. However, early American farmers mistrusted the plow. They said it "poisoned the soil" and fostered the growth of weeds.

Perhaps you believe that the most important development was the invention of reading and writing about 5,000 years ago. During most of the past 5,000 years, few people learned to read and write. It is only in relatively recent times that our educational system has decided that universal literacy is highly desirable—that all children should go to school and learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Other ideas that might occur to you include the development of various religions or the development of various forms of government. For example, Democracy as a form of government, and its empowerment of the people, certainly was a “game changer.” Think about how long it has taken to give voting rights to the broad masses of citizens.
In their book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee provide brief discussions of these types of historical events that have had long-lasting impacts. They then devote the remainder of their book to discussing changes in technology and the impact of these changes on people today.

The First Machine Age

The steam engine was developed about 300 years ago. This eventually led to the start of the First Machine Age (usually called the Industrial Age). Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the steam engine was the most important technological development in human history up until that time. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

The first commercial true steam engine using a piston was developed by Thomas Newcomen and was used in 1712 for pumping in a mine.

In 1781 James Watt patented a steam engine that produced continuous rotative motion. Watt's ten-horsepower engines enabled a wide range of manufacturing machinery to be powered.

Notice that during the time span 1712-1781 the steam engine had only a modest impact on the people of the world. It can take a new technology a very long time to become widely adopted and to produce major worldwide changes.

Watt’s steam engine was a major breakthrough. Ten-horsepower is approximately the equivalent of 50 “human-power.” To be more precise, a healthy human can produce about .1 horsepower for a sustained period of time, and a trained athlete can produce about .3 horsepower over a sustained period of time. The average of these two rates of human physical productivity is .2 horsepower, and corresponds to a 10-horsepower engine doing the physical work of 50 humans. (See
.) It is easy to understand that this was a huge breakthrough. The Industrial Age had truly begun.

Over the next two centuries of the Industrial Age, the steam engine was followed by many other technological developments that have greatly enhanced the average human quality of life in the world. Examples of these developments include: the telegraph, telephone, audio and video recording and playback devices; radio and television; electrification, electric lights, electric motors; trains, cars, airplanes, and rocket ships; huge advances in our medical system; huge advances in the production, storage, and distribution of food; and so on.

Roughly speaking, these Industrial Age developments were aids to our physical capabilities. This is obvious in transportation and factory production. Audio and video communication over great distances added a new dimension to the repertoire of human physical communication capabilities.

The First Machine Age also brought us wide scale education. Sugata Mitra’s Thoughts on the Future of Learning (Part 3  of this current IAE Newsletter series) provides an interesting view of the development of schools in England and throughout the British Empire. Required school attendance and labor laws were developed to keep young children out of the factories and to meet the need for literate factory workers and clerks throughout the British Empire. The system of education that emphasized reading, writing, and arithmetic worked well for 200 years.

The Second Machine Age (the Information Age)

We are now about 60 years into the Second Machine Age (often called the Information Age). In 1956 in the United States, some researchers noticed that the number of people holding white-collar jobs had just exceeded the number of people holding blue-collar jobs. Aha, they said. This is a big change. We are no longer in the Industrial Age. Let's call this new situation the Information Age (Naisbitt, 1982).

While the Industrial Age focused on aids to human physical capabilities, the Information Age focuses on aids to human mental capabilities. These two general categories of aids to human capabilities are now being combined in robots.

Some people find the term robot frightening. So, let’s begin with a simple example. An electronic digital calculator can do arithmetic, solve equations, perform statistical calculations, and draw graphs. Probably you do not find this to be very frightening. When a human using such a calculator tells the machine what task to perform, the calculator is robotic in its fast and accurate actions of carrying out the operations to complete the task.

A modern equation solving and graphing calculator increases the productivity of humans in a relatively limited area. In solving certain types of equations or graphing functions, a human and calculator working together may be a great many times as fast—and more accurate—than a human using only pencil and paper. Moreover, a modern calculator is so inexpensive and portable that a person can carry one in a pocket and use it occasionally throughout the day as needed.

Now, think about what happened as connectivity and personal computers became available. Smart phones, laptop computers, tablet computers, and other digital devices connected to the Internet can be thought of as types of robots. This technology greatly expands the number of problems that can be addressed by a human and machine working together.

As a simple example, while writing this newsletter I can access the world’s largest library. In a few minutes I can accomplish an information retrieval task that may previously have required many hours in physical libraries. In addition, this information is available 24/7 and can be especially valuable in the many geographic areas without access to large research libraries. In accessing the accumulated knowledge of the human race, my productivity might be increased by a factor of many thousands.

In a few short years we have gone from having no smart phones to a worldwide production of a billion such devices per year. The use of computer technology and robots in our manufacturing and distribution systems means that, if we wanted to, we could provide nearly every student in the world with a tablet computer that incorporates the features of a smart phone and a laptop computer. Our educational system is just beginning to come to grips with how such technology can facilitate major changes in curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment. These and some related topics will be addressed in the next IAE Newsletter.


Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: W.W. Norton.

Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (January, 2012). “Race against the machine: How the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity, and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy.” MIT Sloan School of Management. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from

McAfee, A. (June, 2013). “What will future jobs look like?” TED Talks. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from

McAfee, A. (September, 2012). “Are droids taking our jobs?” TED Talks. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from

Naisbitt, J. (1982). Megatrends: Ten new directions transforming our lives. NY: Warner.


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See Email:

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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. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.