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ICT as Curriculum Content

Characteristics of a Discipline

The content of our PreK-12 curriculum is divided up into a number of large chunks that come from a variety of disciplines. Many people consider the most important “core” disciplines to be language arts, math, science, and social science. However, there are other potential candidates for “core” curriculum, including art and music. The various core disciplines are quite different, but they share much in common. For each discipline, we can think of a learner beginning as a novice and then moving up an expertise scale. It can take years of education, training, and experience to achieve a reasonably high level of expertise. For example, reading and writing are components of language arts that are stressed year after year in the education of precollege students. Even then, many people feel that the reading and writing skills of a typical high school graduate are not “what they should be.” Similar assertions are often made for the math, science, and social science knowledge and skills of high school graduates. Another characteristic that the core disciplines share is a learning theory that includes constructivism, situated learning, transfer of learning, lower-order knowledge and skills, and higher-order knowledge and skills. The is a steadily growing Craft and Science of Teaching and Learning that is applicable to the teaching and learning of all of the core curriculum disciplines. Finally, as we have said several times earlier in this book, each discipline can be characterized by the types of problems and tasks it addresses, its culture, including the tools and methodologies that it uses, and the results that it has achieved. That is, solving problems and accomplishing tasks are a characteristic of all core curriculum disciplines. Communication is another aspect of all core curriculum disciplines. Communication in all core curriculum disciplines is heavily dependent on the reading, writing, speaking, and listening components of the language arts. However, each discipline tends to develop special vocabulary for representing and communicating about the types of problems that it addresses. Thus, an important aspect of learning a discipline is learning to understand and communicate using its special vocabulary. Moreover, the discipline of ICT has developed a variety of aids to communication. Thus, each of the core curriculum disciplines is now making use of communication tools that come from ICT.

The Language of Mathematics

Mathematics is a discipline that can trace its history back 5,000 years and more. It is a discipline whose results or collected knowledge cut across all disciplines and is important in our everyday lives. Mathematics provides a good example of a discipline that has developed special vocabulary and notation for representing and solving the types of problems that it addresses. You are undoubtedly familiar with some of the symbols used in mathematics, such as: • the digits 0, 1, 2, … , 9 • symbols for the four basic arithmetic operations +, −, x, ÷ • a large number of other symbols such as =, ≠, <, >, ±, (, ), and ∑. One way to think about mathematics is that it is a language. This language includes a large number of natural language words that have been given very precise definitions for use in math, and rules for combining the words and symbols for communication about mathematical ideas. For example, the concept of “proof” in mathematics is somewhat different than the concept of proof in the social sciences, sciences, and in law. As a discipline grows, it often is divided into sub disciplines. You are undoubtedly familiar with some of the subdivisions of mathematics, such as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, probability, and statistics. You may have studied some calculus and other sub disciplines of mathematics that are found in a typical undergraduate college degree program for math majors. You know that math is a broad, deep, complex, and ever growing discipline. Since you know something about calculators and computers, you know that some parts of ICT are parts of the content of mathematics. But first, let’s look at the discipline that underlies ICT.

Computer and Information Science

The discipline of computer and information science began to develop long before the first computers were built. For example, the 1890 U.S. census data was processed by putting the data onto punch cards and using automated sorting and counting machines. The history of mechanical calculators goes back well over 300 years, and the history of the abacus goes back at least 2,500 years. The first computer science departments (they are now often called Computer and Information Science Departments, or CIS departments) in higher education were established during the later 1950s and early 1960s. Typically this occurred in one of three ways:

  • As a split off from a mathematics department, forming a department with an orientation toward math and the other areas of liberal arts.
  • As a split off from one or more departments in an Engineering School, forming a department with an electrical engineering orientation.
  • As a split off from one or more departments in a Business School, forming a department with a business orientation.

These early CIS departments offered programs of study that included a major focus on computer programming and solving the types of problems that occur in some specific disciplinary areas. Thus, a business-oriented computer science department might offer a variety of courses in COBOL programming, with the focus being on learning to develop computer systems to solve business problems. An early engineering oriented computer science department might offer courses in FORTRAN programming and courses about computer circuitry. Note: There are millions of Websites that address the history of computer programming languages. More than 2,500 different languages have been developed. Some have been designed to be quite specific to the types of problems from a narrow discipline or sub discipline, while others have been developed to be quite general purpose and useful over a wide range of disciplines.

Current CIS Departments

While the early liberal arts-oriented CIS departments included an emphasis on computer programming, they also placed considerable emphasis on developing the “science” of CIS. Thus, students in these departments studied such topics as information storage and retrieval, analysis of algorithms, and software engineering. Relatively early on, artificial intelligence became an important sub discipline in CIS. A few other important sub disciplines in CIS include computer networking, modeling and simulation, and human-machine interface. One of the unifying ideas in CIS is that of procedures and procedural thinking. In CIS, a procedure is a step-by-step set of instructions that can be interpreted and carried out by a specified agent such as a computer or an automated machine. CIS has a strong emphasis on developing procedures that are designed to solve certain types of problems, and on thinking about the capabilities and limitations of computer procedures. Thus, CIS brings two major things to each non-CIS discipline:

  1. Procedures and procedural thinking. What aspects of representing and solving the problems in a discipline can be automated or partially automated by use of computers and other ICT? How does such automation or partial automation affect what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how it should be assessed in each of the current core curriculum areas and the other disciplines taught in our schools?
  2. Various sub disciplines that are developing interdisciplinary tools. Computer networking has led to the development of the Internet and the Web. Artificial Intelligence has led to the development of voice input to computers, effective spelling and grammar checkers, significant progress in the automatic translation of languages, and a variety of other tools that are now in common use throughout business and industry. Human-machine interface has helped in the development of a number of different “assistive technology” aids for people with various types of handicapping conditions.

Historical Impact of CIS on Precollege Education

The early history of ICT in precollege education was strongly influenced by Computer and Information Science Departments and people who had a CIS orientation. As an example, computer programming was a typical component of early computer in education courses for preservice and in service teachers. Two programming languages received a lot of attention. BASIC is a language that was developed at Dartmouth University during the 1960s. Its use eventually became thoroughly integrated into the undergraduate college curriculum and eventually spread to precollege education. The original versions of BASIC shared much in common with the FORTRAN programming language whose original targeted language was scientists, engineers, and applied mathematicians. The Logo programming language was developed soon after BASIC. It was based on a programming language that was developed for use by researchers and practitioners in Artificial Intelligence. Logo was specifically designed for use by grade school students, but it has the characteristic of meeting needs at all grade levels, including college and graduate school. With the advent of microcomputers came the idea of providing generic tools (as distinguished from programming languages) that could be used by people who had not taken coursework of the sort offered by a CIS department. Very young students could learn to make effective use of a word processor. Apple’s introduction of the Macintosh computer in 1984 opened the field of applied computer graphics to students of all ages. Gradually the emphasis on teaching computer programming to preservice and in service teachers (and, to their students) faded away. Now, most preservice and in service teachers receive very little or no instruction in computer programming. Most preservice and in service teachers do not receive explicit instruction in procedures and procedural thinking from a CIS point of view. However, CIS is still alive and well in a number of high schools. Many high schools offer an Advanced Placement course in Computer and Information Science. It corresponds roughly to the first year of college CIS course for potential CIS majors. It contains a strong emphasis on computer programming and problem solving.

ICT as Content in Four Core Non-ICT Disciplines

This section contains a brief exploration of how ICT is affecting the content of four core disciplines or fields of study: language arts, mathematics, science, and social science.

  • Generic Tools: Generic ICT tools tend to cut across all or most disciplines. Essentially all of the generic tools have become commonly used tools in language arts, math, science, and social science.
  • Computer-Assisted Learning: As you already know, ICT is now widely used as an aid to student learning in all of the core fields of study and in most other disciplines. For the most part, we will not provide more detail here in this section.

We close this section with a brief discussion about a component of ICT that is both generic and that is specific to the content of each individual discipline. Networks (including the Internet, email, and the Web) are a component of ICT that cuts across all disciplines but that is also quite specific to each discipline. Each discipline has its own ways of representing the types of problems that it addresses and the results that it has achieved. The collected knowledge from a discipline can be organized in a manner that facilitates storage and retrieval, and then placed in a “traditional” physical library, or in an electronic library such as the Web. One aspect of learning a discipline is to learn about the storage and retrieval of information within that discipline. Thus, as a student studies science, he or she should be learning about the sub disciplines of science and how the accumulated knowledge of science is stored and retrieved. It is not sufficient to say that a student has learned to use a browser a search engine as generic tools for searching the Web. The overall field of information storage and retrieval (including the discipline of librarianship) is much more than this. It takes considerable understanding of a discipline and information retrieval within the discipline to locate information that may be relevant to a particular problem or task, judge the quality of the information, understand the information, and make use of the information.

Language Arts

The language arts include a number of sub disciplines such as speaking, listening, reading, writing, and literature. Here are a few examples of ICT as content in the language arts:

  • Before the development of the word processor, writing tended to be a linear process. A word processor facilitates skipping forward and backward, inserting, deleting, and moving major sections of text, and carrying out other non-linear writing activities. While writing in a linear paper and pencil environment and writing using a word processor are closely related activities, they differ quite a bit. The word processor, electronic outliner, spelling checker, grammar checker, built-in dictionary, and so on all play significant roles in the writing process. Thus, students can benefit by instruction on how to make effective use of a word processor when writing.
  • Process writing has long been considered an appropriate model of how to teach and do writing. The final step in process writing is the "publication" phase. Desktop publication has substantially changed this phase. Desktop publication includes giving careful thought to designing a document for effective communication. Desktop publication is now a significant sub discipline in written communication.
  • Interactive multimedia (such as a typical Website) is now a common environment for communication. Such multimedia often includes text, pictures, graphics, video, sound, and color. Students benefit by instruction on how to effectively read (view, use, learn from) an interactive multimedia environment. As with the reading and writing of text, the writing (creation) of multimedia documents can be considered as part of the language arts.
  • Language arts includes students gaining skill in doing oral presentations. Nowadays, presentation media are commonly used in oral presentations. Developing and making effective use of presentation media is an important component of the language arts.


  • Changes in curriculum due to changes in tools or the introduction of new tools can be subtle. For example, it used to be that students in first and second year high school algebra courses learned how to calculate square roots using pencil and paper, how to make use of math tables, and how to interpolate in math tables. Quite a bit of this content has disappeared from the curriculum; calculators have replaced it.
  • Calculators can be a replacement for a substantial amount of time that is currently spent learning and using paper and pencil computational skills. Graphing and equation-solving calculators have facilitated significant changes in the content of a number of high school math courses.
  • Software packages such as Maple and Mathematica can solve a wide range of the types of problems students study in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, probability, statistics, and calculus. This has led to significant changes in the content of some calculus courses at the high school and college level.
  • Computer modeling and simulation are now one of the major sub disciplines of mathematics. Such computational modeling and simulation is now a common tool in engineering, architecture, all of the sciences, and a number of other areas.
  • Numerical analysis is an important component of mathematics. (I did my Ph.D. research in numerical analysis). Computers are now an important component of that component of mathematics.


Up until about 25 years ago, the various science disciplines tended to be classified as pure and applied—often called theoretical and experimental. ICT has brought a new category— computational modeling and simulation. By the early 1980s, some science researchers were doing their work by drawing upon the ideas from the theoretical and experimental approaches, but carrying out their work computationally. Their theoretical models were represented as computational models, and their experiments were carried out on computers. In 1998, one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was a computational chemist. The prize was awarded for work that he had begun more than 15 years earlier. Here are a few examples of ICT as content in the sciences:

  • Microcomputer-Based Laboratory (MBL) represents a significant change in the content of various science courses due to the capabilities of laboratory instruments with built-in ICT capabilities.
  • Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have replaced or supplemented a wide range of surveying and navigational non-ICT methodologies and tools.
  • A variety of telescopes and microscopes now include powerful built-in computers and cannot function without the capabilities of such computers. The same holds true for much of the other instrumentation now used in the sciences.

Social Science

ICT has substantially changed our society and other societies of the world. Over the past 11,000 years, large parts of the world have moved from being hunter-gatherer societies to being agrarian societies to being industrial age societies to being information age societies. ICT is a very powerful change agent and now has a history that can be traced back well over 100 years. Thus, it is an appropriate content area for both history and current events. Here are some other examples of ICT as content in social science courses:

  • The Web is now a global library that contains a large number of primary source documents. Thus, students can now obtain information from primary sources rather than just information filtered through the minds of their textbook authors.
  • ICT makes it much easier to publish information and to keep published information up to date. The teaching and learning of various social studies disciplines are significantly changed by having current, up to date information readily available.
  • Students can readily communicate with students throughout the country and in other countries. This change in communication capabilities is somewhat akin to providing students access to primary resources.
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provide a set of tools that are now routinely used in geography, environmental studies, city planning, and many other components of the social sciences. Roughly speaking, a GIS can be thought of as a spreadsheet-like piece of software designed to store and process maps and detailed data that accompanies maps.
  • Economic modeling and forecasting (using computers) is now a routine component of the disciplines of economics and business.

Final Remarks

ICT now has the potential to be a significant content component of each of the core discipline areas language arts, mathematics, science, and social science, as well as other disciplines taught at the precollege and college levels. This fact creates a major challenge for our preservice and in service teacher education programs and our methods of developing precollege curriculum standards. Some progress is occurring in integrating ICT tools as routine aids to representing and solving problems in various components of the precollege curriculum. However, the rate of progress is slow relative to the rate of development of new ICT-based tools. Thus, there is a growing gap between the potential and the actual student learning of such tools as an aid to representing and solving the problems that help to define the various disciplines in our school curriculum. Our educational system was not designed to cope with a rapid pace of change in curriculum content. Our society has witnessed and is witnessing the economic and social disruptions that are occurring as business and industry attempt to cope with the rapid pace of change in ICT. Some people suggest that somewhat similar disruptive events should be occurring in education. Others hold firm to the idea that education is and should be a stabilizing component of our society and social systems, and that it is desirable that this system not have a rapid pace of change. This leaves many preservice and in service teachers caught between a rock and a hard place!