Transforming Learning--Reflections on the PITAC Report

How can we use information technology to foster fundamental change in higher education? We asked Judith Boettcher to reflect on the President’s Information Technology/Advisory Committee (PITAC) 2001 report.

The challenge of re-designing our educational systems is so overwhelming that most of us don’t know what we personally can do to support this transformation. Thanks to our ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, the need for providing for an informed citizenry is not questioned. But national initiatives to transform, build, and update our educational systems seem to be stalled.

I hope that a recent report, “Using Information Technology to Transform the Way We Learn,” (2001) authored by a select panel on Transforming Learning from the President’s Information Technology/Advisory Committee (PITAC) gets significant attention. The Transforming Learning report lays out a set of recommendations that support the transformation of education at all levels while addressing the key elements of the education equation: tools, systems, processes, learners, and teachers.

What we need now is a national initiative to begin acting on these recommendations. Given the widely distributed nature of our educational systems, we will also need a groundswell of support for IT initiatives, including significantly increased resources dedicated to research and development.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the report is that it calls for major research on how to leverage information technologies for more effective, less costly education and training. Emphasis is placed on research in the learning sciences—to find out how we can teach and learn better through the appropriate use of information technologies. It is time now for ambitious and innovative work in education, but to do this, we need to know more about our learning processes and how our minds and bodies can interact with and make the best use of information tools.

A Careful Rethinking

The normal cycle of technology adoption is that people first use innovative tools to continue doing what they are already doing. One of the findings in the Transforming Learning report confirms that we have seen widespread experimentation with grassroots applications in recent years. However, most of this work has been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. In other words, we are using powerful tools to support existing processes and systems, but very little of this work is contributing to a true paradigm shift.

The Transforming Learning panel notes that successful integration of information technology requires “a careful rethinking of the targeted processes and social institutions” (Transforming Learning report, p. 5). We should not assume that the educational systems of the future will be built on our current structures.

What d'es this mean for those of us on the front lines, who are working with information technology tools to improve education? What do we need to know and do? Most of us believe that we have sufficient technology in place as a powerful tool to support teaching and learning, and most would agree with the statement that “the goal [of using information technologies to support learning] is not to eliminate the human element, but to combine the best of human and machine and mentoring capabilities” (PITAC report, p. 12). So, what are the specific actions we might take to make progress towards this ambitious and most appropriate goal?

Asking the Right Questions

Given the mandate to launch a major new research initiative, it is now time to support the research initiative by asking useful questions. As a reader of the Transforming Learning report, I felt urged to consider two central questions: What is the research—and what are the programs—that will speed the development of cost-effective and engaging educational experiences for our teachers and students? —and—What can each of us do to support the IT efforts that will take education to the next level of effectiveness? Within this framework, what are the more precise research questions that might be asked? Here are a few.

What is our vision for learning and how do we design an infrastructure to support it? Our national infrastructure for learning will need to be flexible, well developed, and properly supported and maintained. Some design goals suggested in the Transforming Learning report may be easy to agree on, such as ready accessibility of online programs, repositories of educational materials, customization of learning experiences, and personal digital libraries for managing one’s accumulated knowledge resources.

Another design goal is that our teaching and learning infrastructure needs to be low-cost and scalable to support “access to learning materials and systems anywhere, anytime, by any authorized user.” This vision might include high-end systems linked to hand-held, book-sized devices, and access to a base of learning materials—akin to the Carnegie visionof free public libraries.

What are some of the physical layers of a learning infrastructure? We need to know what to build and what not to build. The Transforming Learning report suggests that we need—as a nation—a “richly populated education and training infrastructure.” Some of the components of such an architecture would be:

  • Web-based templates and applications
  • Complex visualizations and simulations, and multi-player gaming
  • Adaptable capabilities for student assessment
  • Personal digital educational records
  • Content development tools and technologies
  • Technologies for tagging materials
  • Adaptable materials

What are the standards and processes that will enable the components of the learning infrastructure to be easily and affordably used? Effective infrastructures depend on standards. Standards support interoperability as well as the development of system components. The Transforming Learning report encourages the adoption of common technical standards such as those being developed and promoted by broad-scale consortial efforts. Some of these include the IEEE Learning Technology Standards committee (, the IMS project (, and SCORM (Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model) from the DOD Advanced Distributed Learning initiative (
How can we promote sharing and publishing of educational content and information resources? Assuming that sharing and publishing will follow naturally if we have common technical standards for content development might be a stretch. Development and publishing efforts within education will require content development tools, as well as release time and rewards for faculty who build sharable objects. An infrastructure that encourages recognition and sharing can also be a supporting factor. The MIT Open Courseware initiative is an example of this supportive framework for designing and building expanded, enriched bodies of content, materials, and curricula for the learning infrastructure.

What are the tools and services that can support teaching and learning? Major research is required to develop the tools to support the process of teaching and learning. Prominent examples are collaboration tools to support and maintain communities of learning, online security methods, digital libraries, and technologies to ensure access for all users. These research areas will require broad interdisciplinary collaboration, from social and cognitive scientists to computer and information scientists.

How will content evolve and be structured for new learning environments? More research must be directed towards the structuring of content itself. For example, we know that computer simulations and dynamic illustrations of core concepts can reduce the time needed for learning difficult concepts. Research can assist in determining the basic principles behind the methods, strategies, and tools to develop learning materials. We know that learning requires time. How can we make the most of that time?

Closely related to the structuring of content for the learning of individual concepts is the structuring of content for courses, course clusters, and disciplines. One example of new content structure involves creating databases of learning materials for course clusters, rather than just for courses. These databases can be structured around concepts, current events, and complex applications problems rather than around arbitrary course frameworks. This d'es not mean that courses go away, only that the one-to-one correspondence between courses and course materials becomes irrelevant.

Managing and Executing the Research

The major research initiative recommended in the Transforming Learning report will, hopefully, become a reality. This research initiative will need to be developed, managed, and sustained over at least a ten-year period. The panel specified that the research should be collaboratively funded across industry, private foundations, and state and federal government.
Of all our national goals for the next ten years, designing and deploying an effective learning infrastructure must be a top national priority. It is time to extend Jefferson’s prescription for a strong democracy.

Recommendations from the 2001 PITAC Report

Overarching Recommendation

Make the effective integration of information technology, with education and training a national priority.

Supporting Actions

· Establish and coordinate a major research initiative focusing on:

– Learning technologies and sciences – Information technologies for education and training

– Requirements for learning and teaching information technology fluency

· Establish partnerships involving government, university, industry, and foundations to support the pursuit of the research initiative and to cofund and collaborate in that research

· Enable educators and related professionals to use information technology effectively

· Work with industry and academia to develop technical standards for extendable component-based technology and infrastructures that can be widely used in online education and training.

PITAC Report (2001). “Using Information Technology to Transform the Way We Learn.” Arlington, VA, President’s Information Technology /Advisory Committee, Panel on Transforming Learning.

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