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Taking Back the Net
Part 4 - Someday (soon)
© 1999 Gary S. Stager

If you accept the challenge of embracing the Internet as a vehicle for increasing opportunities for social learning, publication and collaboration, then your efforts will lead to a new concept of schooling in the not too distant future. Anyone who questions the pace with which technological forces are changing society should be reminded that the World Wide Web barely existed a mere five years ago. The web’s impact on commerce, media, news and recreation cannot be overstated.

Will the Internet and World Wide Web play a role in reshaping education? Of course it will.

The web is already a threat to television viewership and video game sales. Kids would rather create and communicate than be passive. Perhaps there’s a lesson for school here too.

While schools debate false issues regarding whether or not students should be blessed with email addresses, kids run servers in their bedrooms.

While citizens grow increasingly concerned about student attention spans and disengagement, school becomes more homogenized, standardized and test-driven - thereby alienating even more kids. The current climate of high-stakes statewide and national testing forces teachers to innovate less, experiment less and threatens the types of creative experiences from which kids profit most. In the United States, the pressure to cram more "serious" "time-on-task" has caused art and music programs, even recess, to be removed from the daily lives of students. Seymour Papert recently referred to this neurotic get-tough stance as "the last flick of the dragon’s tale." However short-lived this period of school hysteria turns out to be the consequences will be felt for years to come.

So what does this have to do with the Internet?

Apocalypse Now

The Internet is no panacea for curing all that ails education (as I described in earlier installments of this series.) Schools and politicians can just as easily employ the emerging communications technology as an instrument of control over teaching and learning as they can embrace the natural inclinations of the net to support democracy.

A handful of educators will develop wonderfully creative cost-effective ways to utilize the Internet in ways which personalize, socialize and democratize learning. However,

we will all be made to pay the price for schools who invested excessive amounts of money on network infrastructure with little if any educational benefit to justify the investment. Make no mistake, never before in the history of schooling has so much money been spent so quickly on something as intangible as network infrastructure. Can your funders (citizens, government, parents) perceive of the value?

I predict that the near future will be riddled with scandalous headlines, tribunals and parental outrage when the bill for school wiring comes due. The backlash against schools and even the Internet will be fierce, explosive and yes, irrational. Schools lacking in vision and coherent leadership will pay an awesome price for their race to get wired. Every other school will be asked to defend their investments.

How is your school prepared to answer the question, "Why did you spend all of that money to wire the school for Internet access?" The stock answer, "it helps kids conduct research," will not satisfy the coming hordes of critics.

Two Truths

  1. If you believe that your school can stay ahead of the technological curve, you’re wrong. Admit defeat and surrender graciously. The rapid pace of technological progress will forever leave schools in the dust. You will never again be able to own newer computer technology than is available outside the walls of the school.
  2. It will always be cheaper and easier to increase communications bandwidth (essentially speed and therefore new services) to a house than a school. The increasing ease with which a family can trade-up their modem for a faster modem for a DSL modem for a cable modem for a satellite modem, etc… will ensure that the average household will likely have greater Internet connectivity than the local school.

Does this mean that schools should not possess Internet connectivity? Of course not. Being connected is a good thing, but you must balance the cost vs. benefit of connectivity. If a school can "be wired" in a cost-effective fashion with a minimum of restrictions and a dose of educational innovation, teachers and students will profit. You must also remember that the wire alone will add nothing to the educational experience.

Exciting alternatives exist. You just need to shift your perspective.

The Stager Switch - Wire Homes, Not Schools

The combination of powerful home PCs, portable computers, private Internet access, newsgroups, email and web publishing offers educators opportunities to expand the educational process by viewing the community as a learning resource.

Increased human interaction

Why should a class discussion of photosynthesis, or Catcher in the Rye, or the Battle of the Bulge, be limited to the twenty five kids randomly assigned to that classroom? Why can’t all of the students and teachers in that grade level, school, city, state, world studying that topic be engaged in the discussion? Why can’t future students interested in the topic, but too young to be in the room or former students with tales of how they’ve actually used that knowledge in real-life be part of the discussion? Why can’t parents, experts, authors and other teachers be part of the discussion? Would that not enhance the educational experience? Don’t we learn best from exposure to multiple perspectives?

Not only can the discussion be broadened to include more people, it can be continued well-beyond when the bell rings. In fact, the discussion can live 24 hour-a-day, seven days a week. My students at Pepperdine University know that if they discuss the assigned readings online outside of class, class time can be spent on more productive tasks.

Teachers will be more inclined to "team teach" or join in interesting discussions, not because they are required to, but because the discussion is interesting. AND they can do it from home in their fuzzy slippers. Do not underestimate the power of comfort in transforming the learning experience. The Internet’s sychnronous and asynchronous technologies offer such possibilities.

Greater collaboration

The distributed nature of the Internet offers teachers and students greater opportunities for collaboration with peers, experts and each other than ever before. Teachers are freed from the tyranny of the school schedule and the isolation of their classrooms.

Access to information

Yes, the Internet offers unprecedented access to extraordinary quantities of information and astonishing speed. However, the limitations of school computing reduces the quest for knowledge and search for truth to what may best be described as "hunting and gathering." Telling a class of children to find a photo of the traditional garb of Togo may create a queue waiting to use the networked computer, inefficient search strategies, unwanted search "surprises" and waste several hours, but it will lead to very little learning. Finding answers to questions is more personal, casual and efficient than the hunting and gathering observed in schools with limited resources. The purpose of such exercises is as likely be to learn to use the technology than to learn with the technology. In my opinion, web quests, computer labs, teacher created lists of URLs and magazine "hot lists" are artifacts of the potemkin village created when schools try to assimilate to few computers in ways which don’t challenge the status quo.

Access to expertise

Students now have access to "noted" experts and others with useful expertise, often other students. The public nature of threaded discussions such as newsgroups allows students to not only share information with each other, but become aware of what their peers are interested and expert in. This newfound knowledge creates an ever-expanding pool of expertise a learner may tap whether in school or at home.

Vehicle for collaboration

The distributed nature of the Internet sustains peer-to-peer, peer-to-teacher and teacher-to-teacher collaborations over obstacles of time and space.

Silly stuff

If your school is inclined to test or drill kids in specific skills/content areas, then the net may be used for that too. The technology exists for doing so in a number of ways. I don’t however see view this as the richest use of computers or the net.

The Exciting Conclusion

So, if kids can find answers to their questions, collaborate better, discuss curriculum topics with a broad representation of perspective and expertise and express themselves outside of school 24/7, then what is the purpose of school?

The exciting lesson of this tale is that schools in the near future can be freed of the tyranny of the clock and mandates for coverage of curriculum. If used well, the Internet and personal computers can free the school to what benefits kids most in a face-to-face (f2f) context.

Do not make the mistake of equating social learning with face-to-face learning. Schools can be plenty antisocial and the net can be extremely social. The question every educator must answer is, "Which things are best learned and accomplished in a face-to-face setting?"

My optimistic vision of the future is one in which learning is constant, inside and outside of school. Schools will survive by becoming the places with great orchestras, choirs, drama productions, pottery kilns, creative play, walks in the woods, electron microscopes and thoughtful adults who love children of different ages enough to engage them in personally meaningful collaborative tasks over a sustained period of time.

Our children deserve nothing less.

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