Information Age Education
   Issue Number 146
September, 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.

Education for Students' Futures Part 15:
The Teaching Machine Is Both Tool and Teacher

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The medium is the message. (Herbert Marshall McLuhan; Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual; July 21, 1911–December 31, 1980.)

"If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking." (Richard Buckminster Fuller; American engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist; 1895–1983.)

This IAE Newsletter explores some far out ideas about the future of teaching machines. My view of the future of teaching machines is summarized by the statement: The Tool is the Teacher. This newsletter examines a paradigm shift that is beginning to occur in education.

The Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan is well known for his statement that “The medium is the message.” Like most people, I thought I understood what he meant by this statement. However, Mark Friedman’s 2004 article, What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?, pointed out how wrong I was. Quoting from (Friedman, 2004):

McLuhan tells us that a "message" is, "the change of scale or pace or pattern" that a new invention or innovation "introduces into human affairs." Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it.… A McLuhan message always tells us to look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.

But McLuhan always thought of a medium in the sense of a growing medium, like the fertile potting soil into which a seed is planted, or the agar in a Petri dish. In other words, a medium—this extension of our body or senses or mind —is anything from which a change emerges.

[Quoting McLuhan:] "This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."

Computer as Medium

You are probably familiar with the stories of Bill Gates and Paul Allen who dropped out of college and stated Microsoft, and Steve Jobs who dropped out of college to work with his friend Steve Wozniak to start Apple. The microcomputer was a new medium, and here is my view of the message:

The new medium made it possible for relatively novice users of the medium to quickly become “world class” and help facilitate a huge change in the world.

Now, let me share three stories about examples of continuing changes being wrought by the computer-as-medium.

A Story About a 17-Year-Old

The December, 2013 issue of Scientific American includes a story about Eric Chen, who was a 17 year old high school senior from San Diego California when he won the 2013 Google Science Fair (Kuchment, 10/21/2013).

Quoting Chen:

I live in San Diego, where some of the first cases of 2009 H1N1 swine flu took place in the U.S. It was then that I made a realization that flue can kill a lot of people. I thought, "Why can’t we use the new computer power at our fingertips to speed up drug discovery and find new flu medicine?" I came across Dr. Rommie Amaro of the University of California, San Diego, and she was willing to let me work in her computation lab.

Chen then goes on to describe his activities of using the computer to screen a half million chemical compound, separating out 237 likely candidates, and testing each of them in a “wet” lab (that is, a “traditional biology lab) to identify six that are worthy of animal studies.

With his good brain, some tutoring from a professor, and the help of computer technology, a high school student was able to do cutting edge research in medicine. What a marvelous learning experience!

Genetic Engineering

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Genetic engineering (GE), also called genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organism's genome using biotechnology. New DNA may be inserted in the host genome by first isolating and copying the genetic material of interest using molecular cloning methods to generate a DNA sequence, or by synthesizing the DNA, and then inserting this construct into the host organism.

Genetic engineering equipment has now reached the stage that international and national student contests are held. Paraphrasing a story about a Genetic Engineering completion for college students in the The Seattle Times (Hodson, 11/7/2011).
  • One project created enzymes that could convert sugar into diesel fuel.

  • The other engineered bacteria that could help people digest gluten.

Both projects constitute cutting-edge science. They came from a team of undergraduate students at the University of Washington. The projects garnered the team—and the university—a world-championship prize at an annual competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In brief summary, computer technology has reached a stage in which “mere” undergraduate college students can do such projects as “building two enzymes that could be put into bacteria to convert sugar into diesel fuel.” What a marvelous learning experience!

Current Research in Materials Science

A Scientific American by Gerbrand Ceder and Kristin Persson describe how the computer has changes the entire field of materials science (Ceder & Persson, 11/19/22013).

Quoting from the article:

In 1878 Thomas Edison set out to reinvent electric lighting. To develop small bulbs suitable for indoor use, he had to find a long-lasting, low-heat, low-power lighting element. Guided largely by intuition, he set about testing thousands of carbonaceous materials—boxwood, coconut shell, hairs cut from his laboratory assistant's beard. After 14 months, he patented a bulb using a filament made of carbonized cotton thread. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Here is a short summary of the article:
  • Engineered materials such as chip-grade silicon and fiber-optic glass underpin the modern world. Yet [as illustrated in by Thomas Edison’s work] designing new materials has historically involved a frustrating and inefficient amount of guesswork.

  • Streamlined versions of the equations of quantum mechanics—along with supercomputers that, using those equations, virtually test thousands of materials at a time—are eliminating much of that guesswork.

  • Researchers are now using this method, called high-throughput computational materials design, to develop new batteries, solar cells, fuel cells, computer chips, and other technologies.

The Tool is the Teacher

The message that I take from the three examples in the previous section is that the computer being used in tool mode helps creates powerful learning and research experiences that in some sense circumvent and/or greatly speed up many years of conventional education and time spent gaining experience.

I find this to be an interesting way to think about teaching machines. We know, of course, that a teaching machine can be designed to help students better solve the problem of learning certain content. I have always wondered about the fact that for a teaching machine to be effective, it has to in some sense “know” the content it is teaching. This idea is obvious in the traditional drill and practice in math facts programs that generate random problems, present the problems to a student, and check the student’s answers against answers generated by the computer.

But, today’s computers can solve a steadily increasing range of problems—and many of these are beyond the capabilities of a human being. So, what should students be learning? Let me repeat a quote from the previous section:

Streamlined versions of the equations of quantum mechanics—along with supercomputers that, using those equations, virtually test thousands of materials at a time—are eliminating much of that guesswork.

Quantum mechanics is a very challenging field of study. The development of streamlined versions of the equations of quantum mechanics and of computers that could solve these equations produced a new “medium” that could be mass-produced and widely distributed. Students can use these new types of teaching machines to do cutting edge research. This provides an excellent example of a tool being a teacher.

Here are some more examples that I like to use in illustrating “the tool is the teacher.” I have numbered these examples as a continuation of the seven examples of my previous IAE Newsletter.
  1. As mentioned in my previous IAE Newsletter about teaching machines ( the Web and the large amount of artificial intelligence incorporated in modern search engines is a powerful aid to learning. Through using this tool, one learns to use the tool. One’s personal Web-searching skills improve. And, over the years, both the amount of content in the Web increases and the quality of search engines improve.

  2. How can a person who does not know how to play a musical instrument learn to compose for that instrument? (And, consider the challenge an orchestral composer faces.) We now have powerful computer programs and music generation equipment that can perform the music a person is composing. The tool plays an important role in the teaching. Moreover, the tool can perform the final music that is composed. What a marvelous learning experience!

  3. Recently I have been reading Michio Kaku’s 2014 book, The Future of the Mind. His focus is on human consciousness and many of the cutting edge technologies that are now available or are soon likely to be. He discusses “mind reading”—input and output connectivity between a computer brain and a human brain. Here is a Kaku quote about the idea:

    Stephen Hawking, my colleague, is totally paralyzed, and he has a chip in his right [eye] glass. Next time you see him on television, look in his right frame, and you see a brain sensor that picks up radio from his brain and allows him to type mentally.
Michio Kaku predicts that such technology will come into widespread use in about ten years. This technology requires both that the tool teach its user and that the user teaches its tool.
  1. We have long had computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing equipment. A skilled operator of CAD-CAM equipment both designs a component of a product and produces instructions that control a computerized machine to produce the component. An automated loom provides an excellent example.

    As one example of CAD-CAM equipment, we now have relatively inexpensive robot-like printing machines that function much like a laser printer. The printers use “ink” that consists of various types of plastics and metals that can be used to build physically solid products by “printing” one very thin layer at a time. These three-dimensional printers provide sculptor artists to both design are produce their sculptures. A recent article in Campus Technology suggests that widespread use of this technology in schools and higher education is still a decade away (Nagel, 8/19/2014).

  2. There are many discipline of study in which a computer and/or computerized robot is an important aid to representing and solving the problems. Nowadays, the frontiers of computer use in the various disciplines focus on a human accurately specifying a problem to be solved or a task to be accomplished. That is, a human poses a clearly stated problem or asks a carefully stated question. Given such a specification or question, the computer or computerized robot takes over the detailed task of figuring out to solve the problem or accomplish the task. A dialogue between the human and the computer system will likely occur. The human has to learn the types of questions the computer system can answer and how to state questions in a format that the computerized robot is designed to handle. The programmers work to improve the human-machine communication system. The Watson computer system that performed so well in a 2011 Jeopardy contest illustrates progress that is occurring in the types of questions a computer system can “understand” and answer.

Brief Summary

Every academic field of study and research is developing computer tools that are specifically designed to aid students and researchers. These tool have built-in knowledge and skills that are part of the fundamentals of the discipline. As these tools become more powerful and essentially indispensible to a specific discipline of study, they lay the groundwork for the tool becoming the teacher. This trend is now well started. I believe over the next few decades it will become a dominant force in education. Much in the manner that we now expect all students to learn to use computer search engines, in the future we will expect students to learn to use the specialized computerized tools that are being developed in the various disciplines the students study.

Ceder, G. & and Persson, K. (11/19/2013). How supercomputers will yield a golden age of materials science. Scientific American. Retrieved 8/21/2015 from

Federman, M. (7/23/2004). What is the meaning of the medium is the message? Retrieved 8/22/2014 from

Hodson, J. (11/7/2011). UW team wins genetic-engineering contest. The Seattle Times. Retrieved 8/22/2014 from

Kuchment,A. (10/21/2013). Teenager creates new flu drugs. Scientific American. Retrieved 8/22/2014 from

Nagel, D. (8/19/2014). Widespread 3D printing in classrooms still a decade out. Campus Technology. Retrieved 8/27/2014 from


David Moursund earned his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few highlights of his professional career include founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was a major professor or co-major professor of 82 doctoral students. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops.

In 2007, he founded Information Age Education (IAE), a non-profit company dedicated to improving teaching and learning by people of all ages throughout the world. See

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