The Internet’s Renovation of Education


Jon Cox
Mr. Barber
Senior Project
27 January 2003

            Technology is the root by which civilization began. Technology is the tool that early man used to help advance civilization and helps bring us to where we are today. People learned from the use of tools. From early sticks and stones, to creating fire and the wheel, people learned to use the tools they had created. They also learned new things they had not known before. It is this use of technology, and more recent developments such as the internet, that has propelled us to where we are today. Many people call the internet era a “revolution,” or a time when the world was changed forever. The internet has indeed changed many things throughout the world. The internet has revolutionized the way education has been, and will be taught, but in order to be truly effective in the future, change is needed.

            The idea that the internet should be in every classroom has progressed to the point where it could be compared to the phrase: “a chicken in every pot” (Dede). Just as in olden times in which the simple solution to their problem was a promise of food, the promise of computers and the internet is being played as the solution to problems in education. The idea that multimedia-capable and internet-connected computers are the “silver bullets” for education to solve all problems in a school is of course false (Dede). Being viewed as some sort of magical solution to a problem, the internet and computers don’t necessarily make everything better. People who use new media are not going to suddenly become more effective than people who don’t. This restlessness about technology is simply first-generation thinking (Dede). In the past, people looked at technology like the internet as a savior for an ailing educational system, and they saw it as their “chickens” and “silver bullets” with typical “first generation thinking.”

Throughout history, education has been impacted by many different technologies, with the three major ones being the phonic alphabet, printing, and internet connected computers. While computers have been in classrooms for many years, they haven’t radically changed the structure of education (Thornburg, “K-12” 2). In the past, teachers used different types of technologies such as blackboards and desks, because those technologies made it easier for the educator to manage the classroom and convey information. It was other technologies such as film and educational television that frightened teachers though, because it reduced face-to-face interaction with their students (Education and the Internet). Educators had problems with the use of technology even in the past, some technologies, such as blackboards and desks, succeeded, while others like films and television did not. Old computer technology, such as CD-ROMs, allowed teachers to have access to entire encyclopedias, and video laserdiscs, which were able to store “tens of thousands of images on a disc the size of an LP album” (Rakow 6). These technologies were not used extensively though, mostly with teachers seeing the loss of face-to-face interaction that the technologies presented with their use. They were scared of losing their position as the focal point of education.

In the more recent past as computers have made their way into classrooms, teachers have seen the potential of the World Wide Web, but felt that they needed more powerful computers. In one book written early in the internet age, it suggested turning off images as a way to save bandwidth, as the use of high speed modems was still low, but rising (Kouki and Wright 12-13). It was the nation’s goal to have every school in the nation connected by the year 2000, and with this date come and gone, it is time for students and teachers to actually make use of the technology they have received.

            While technology played a small role in the past, the current use of technology, such as the internet, makes up a good portion of education today. Currently there is a new generation of students that have grown up with computers in the form of video and handheld games (Pedroni). Thornburg estimated that 73% of U.S. youth from 12 to 17 used the internet, 94% used it for research on school projects, and 71% said the internet was a major source of information for their most recent school project (Thornburg, New Basics 64-65). Ten to fifteen years ago there was much talk that technology would replace the teacher. Since then we have seen this has not happened, and talk has quieted since “new technologies have demonstrated their ability to provide teachers with the time and opportunity to do what teachers do best – provide human interaction” (Rakow 6). The National Center for Educational Statistics in 1998 reported that 89% of schools and 51% of classrooms had access to the internet, showing large growth from the previous statistics of 35% for schools and 3% of classrooms (Rakow 3). While slightly old, the fact that such a large increase occurred shows the immense impact that the internet could have on education.

That half of all classrooms have internet access mean the technology is available, and waiting to be used. In 1997 the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology decided the optimal ratio for students to computer was four to five. In 1998 it was six students per computer (Rakow 3). In a book written in the early days of the internet, it was stated that nations such as Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and Angola had telecommunications infrastructures that were not as developed or as freely accessible as in Europe, Australia, Singapore or the United States (Web-Based Instruction). Yet currently David Thornburg mentions in his book that he has a faster connection in his home in Brazil than he has in his home in the States (New Basics 23). In places like British Columbia, every public school has internet access, with bandwidth constantly improving (Wilson). Technology advances such as these that have brought us into the present day and has brought the internet deep into educational institutions.

Even with so large a user base for education, it is still not common place to see students asking their friends for tips on how to do better in school, and just having computers doesn’t always guarantee their use (Pedroni). In a study that two-thirds of people with incomes above $50,000 reported children use a computer at home, while only 17% of students with parents that have a high school education or less use a computer at home. Families that buy computers also give their kids an educational advantage through supplemental and additional activities at home. (U.S. Congress).

The large amount of work being done by youth with the internet today shows that while many youth have access to materials at home, a fairly large percent of the population don’t have access in their home. This is especially important, as in another study only 5% report learning how to use the internet at school, with 40% being self taught, and the remainder learning from their parents, friends or siblings (Thornburg, New Basics 64-65). People who do not have access to computers in their homes are currently at a disadvantage, and according to statistics the greatest amount of learning these technologies currently happens at home.

While schools can’t necessarily offer free computers, they can offer training to students if needed. With current internet technology available in schools, the way that it is used is the current obstacle and biggest mistake that could be made. Corporations have already embraced online training with many corporate education programs delivering their corporate education to employees over the internet. There are large differences between schools and companies though, as large firms have “very definite procedures and process that must be learned by employees, creating a top-down educational structure.” Schools are less definite, and are “charged with the task of providing a complete educational package for the citizens of tomorrow.” In schools it is expected that everyone learn the basics, but also become a creative problem solver and respectable citizen (Wilson). As a tool, as well as a technology that has many teachers worried, the internet has currently deeply penetrated the educational system. Its use though, will end up affecting how it is viewed by teachers in the future.

In this current time not everyone agrees, with some saying that telecommunications networks give students too much access to questionable material and dangerous elements (U.S. Congress). In my experience, the internet plays a large part in education. However, this could be attributed to my enrollment in the Vancouver School District, a district that has spent a great deal of money on technology. In many schools in the Vancouver School District, computers are in almost every classroom, and the internet can be found on almost every one of those. Even with all of this technology though, there is room for growth, as from my view the education of students has not increased to any large degree from what it was before technology took a staring role. It has, however, changed the way students do work, with internet research becoming a heavy part of the research process. I see many students rush straight to the internet for research instead of using books and encyclopedias. While this might not always be the best, it is a change that has happened. People involved in education such as Media Specialist Mark Ray of the Vancouver School District, also thinks in this way, saying that the information students glean from the internet “is inaccurate, incomplete, poorly written, biased, or otherwise substandard.” It is an opinion shared by many throughout the educational world as well. Education right now is far from perfect, but from the days of a blackboard and desks, the internet has changed the basic structure of how students are educated.

            Despite what some think, many people see a very bright future for the internet in education. Two-thirds of seventy-one Nobel Laureates from the US, UK, France, German and Switzerland between July and October 2001 said they believe that students will be educated through virtual classrooms by 2020. Eighty-seven percent said the internet has had a positive effect on education, and ninety-one percent believe the internet will play a very big or moderate role in proving greater educational opportunities for all (McMahon).

Despite all the praise the internet receives from some, part of a “second generation” way of thinking according to Chris Dede is not to see computers as magic, but to not see the sole purpose of computers being for automation. Already there are technological devices that could be used in the future to further education, such as PDAs, small cell phones, collaborative computing environments, high performance work stations and the use of networks (U.S. Congress). In the future, even with current technology, it is possible for rare documents that researchers had to schedule to see, to be seen over the web by anyone, whenever they want, after the items have been digitized and put on the web (Thornburg, “K-12” 5). The type of educational tools that are being hyped by many different people and companies are information tools. However, just having the information is not enough.

Information has been growing at huge rates since the Middle Ages, but in the last fifty years the access to this information has increased. In a 1994 speech and often thereafter, former Vice President Al Gore said “I’ve often spoken about my vision of a schoolchild in my home town of Carthage, Tennessee being able to come home, turn on her computer and plug into the Library of Congress” (Thornburg, “K-12” 5). The idea for the future tends to rest on information alone, but the “future of the Internet is much more about connectivity than content” (Ray). As mentioned by David Thornburg in the article Technology in K-12 Education, “We used to live in a world where content was kind. That world no longer exists. Content is abundant, and is, therefore, a poor basis on which to base an educational system” (2). Clearly the internet has a future in education, but how bright this future is depends on the problems that are found with it.

            These problems for the future rest in the hands of our government and educators, who have let certain items pass. Studies presented to Congress early on focused more on present time, rather than with emerging technologies, which would end up putting them in a crunch on how to deal with these new technologies at the time of their emergence (U.S. Congress). People have criticized the internet as an educational tool because of its numerous distractions people can get caught up in. Author Steve Steinke replied, “the fact that such temptations exist doesn’t mean the Internet can’t be an effective learning tool.” Criticism that the internet is used at the expense of time with human teachers is also only valid if kids sit down in front of computers while teachers are off elsewhere doing something else. The issue of technologies like the internet replacing face-to-face interaction can also be demonstrated in that “watching a video presentation of a great lecturer is more educational than watching a live lecture by a lousy presenter” (Steinke).

As much as some teachers may loathe video, the real goal is education, and the method does not matter as long as the goal is met. The role of the teacher is very important, and a job that despite what some may think actually requires too much work. “Teachers right now do about six different jobs, and there’s no reason why one person has to do all six of those jobs.” Teachers are required to perform custodial duty and disciplinary tasks, collecting “milk money,” as well as completing reports and paperwork (U.S. Congress). Beyond all that, with growing technology the teachers of the future would need to be that much more technically savvy. They not only need to know how to use the technology themselves, but also teach it to their students. Technology will help teachers meet the needs of learners, but the future of “technologically enhanced classrooms must be guided by 2 principals: access and quality” (Rakow 7). Once these are met, a future is possible.

            The information that the internet can provide is enormous, but without the changes that are needed to make the internet work in an educational setting, teachers will not be able to achieve maximum potential in their students. Virtual worlds have their place, but the tools they provide need to be used in service with the real world that everyone lives in. Just because a task can be completed using technology does not always mean it should be, and it is a mistake to think that new media simply displaces old ones. “People didn’t stop painting pictures once the photographic camera was invented. Nothing of value is gained by moving drill and practice from a cheap workbook to an expensive computer screen.” The true power from educational technology comes from doing things that could not be done before without, not simply by replicating old technology (Thornburg, “K-12” 7). Many educational products do not always work as well as they say they do. While some are exciting, others are ill conceived. The internet is an educational tool, and one that requires students to think when they do research, but “students do not automatically analyze, evaluate and consider what they are browsing. They may snack. They may gorge. But thoughtful, discerning and deliberate use is not a given” (McKenzie).

As with the other problems concerning the internet, it is not simply a replacement for the teacher, as teachers are almost required in order for it to be used as a teaching tool. As said by Ann Davidson and Janet Schofield, “teacher use should be voluntary in order to allow them creativity” (295). In their book Bringing the Internet to School, written from their experiences starting a technology based learning program in their district, they mention that teachers needed to be able to decide how their students accessed the internet. Whether it was in computer labs, or in computers distributed across class rooms, they found it necessary to give the teacher a certain amount of control (296-297). In the technological future, it seems as if teachers will not be able to teach without technology or risk getting left behind.

This teaching of technology is important though. Clifford Stoll criticizes the use of internet in education by saying that the jobs of 2100 will be the same jobs as today, “dentists, truck drivers, surgeons, ballet dancers, salespeople, entertainers, and school-teachers,” and none of them require computers (Stoll 121). In a separate self-completed survey of five-hundred job descriptions David Thornburg found that technical fluency was wanted in over eighty percent of the jobs and three-fourths wanted communications skills, more than just knowing how to write. They wanted team work skills, problem solving and creativity. They essentially wanted people who “think outside the box” (Thornburg 57-59). Currently employers are calling for individuals who can manage large amounts of information, solve complex problems, adapt to constantly changing environments with flexibility and creativity, as well as work in teams. However, education is already being asked to fulfill many other roles, and yet people express dissatisfaction in how schools are carrying their wishes out.

Technology, being a source already prevalent throughout education, is a resource that might be tapped in order to help bring about reform to education (U.S. Congress). People learn in many different ways, and as such it is believed that students should be able to do more than just simply learn facts for regurgitation. One of technology’s original goals was to allow teachers to meet the needs of diverse learners (Rakow 7). Students who create something in a chart or spreadsheet rather than just give a one-line sentence answer put more commitment into their decision, and are encouraged to think deeply about the question they are answering (Wilson). As said by David Thornburg, “One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results” (“K-12” 11). Expecting students to automatically have skills to use technology effectively is not possible. Students do not know how to use the raw power of the internet and as thought by many, in order to make best use of the internet, change is needed.

It is said that if Rip Van Winkle awoke today he would recognize almost nothing in our society, except schools (Dede). Currently education lacks different types of learning, and there is need for it. There is demand from employers, wanting skills from their workers that aren’t necessarily being taught to current students. Then there is the current educational tool of choice, the internet. Being an open and flexible tool, the internet is the way that many are betting on for reform in education. The goal is that the internet will end up revolutionizing the way education is taught by moving to new teaching approaches. The approach to reform is being focused on the strengths of the internet, such as getting rid of textbooks and other standardized instructional materials. Education would simply focus on a few concepts using technology, rather than surveying every single idea with pre-packaged information (Dede). Students would be encouraged to think for themselves, and find the information they need, when they need it.

Today’s schools are based on outdated styles of learning, and current talk is only about incorporating the internet into existing schools, keeping their existing schedules and curriculum (Thornburg, “K-12” 9). Reform would need to teach skills in navigating the web that previously was only learned at home. Students would need to learn basics, rather than details, as the internet of 2002 will not end up being the internet of 2012 (Ray). The American economy has also been transformed from one of industrial production, to one of information creation and exchange. With the present factory-like organization of schools, students are continually being prepared for a world that no longer exists. In the past, schools have changed with reform when there was strong pressure and good reason, such as desegregation, curriculum emphasis and special education. These past reforms though were not based on instructional technologies like the internet (U.S. Congress). The internet is the driving force in this reform, and without it people may not even see a reason that a reform would ever be needed. The world of education needs change, and the internet is ready to offer what is has to give.

            Beginning with such simple technological advances as blackboards and desks, the world of education has indeed changed. Many new technological advances have come and gone, but the current and most powerful medium, the internet, has taken hold of the structures of education and shaken it of its old ways. Technology is here to stay, and a new way of looking at education is needed as many new technological devices are set to help the internet strengthen its hold. But technology is not simply the only factor in education, and work is needed to complete the goal of reform, a task not simply to be given to software and hardware designers. As quoted by David Thornburg in Technology in K-12 Education “…some have missed the point and talk about student/computer ratios rather than how the technology is being used to accomplish solid educational goals in unique ways. Technology is not the point – learning is” (5).

 

Works Cited

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Dede, Chris. Six Challenges for Educational Technology. George Mason University. 11 Nov. 2002 <http://www.virtual.gmu.edu/pdf/ASCD.pdf>.  

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Steinke, Steve. "Is Internet education inherently doomed?" Network Magazine. Oct. 1998: 112. ProQuest Direct. 11 Nov. 2002.

Stoll, Clifford. High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom. New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999. 

Thornburg, David D. Technology in K-12 Education: Envisioning a New Future. Thornburg Center. 11 Nov. 2002 <http://www.air.org/forum/Thornburg.pdf>.

Thornburg, David D. The New Basics: Education and the Future of Work in the Telematic Age. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002. 

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Education and Technology: Future Visions, OTA-BP-EHR-169 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1995).

Web-Based Instruction. Ed. Badrul H. Khan. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications, 1997.

Wilson, Graeme. The Promise of Online Education: El Dorado or Fool's Gold? Sept. 2001. 11 Nov. 2002 <http://optin.iserver.net/fromnow/sept01/online.html>.