From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 28, 2006*: A magic strand?

We're constantly being told that the internet has had, is having, and will continue to have a far-reaching, perhaps even drastic, effect on how we live our lives. It's supposed to change the ways we work and the ways we rest, the ways we communicate with others, and perhaps even the ways we communicate with ourselves. Often, it's easy to get the impression that our lives have been divided into two distinct periods separated by an unbridgeable chasm - before internet and since internet. Though many of us probably don't yearn for what went before, that chasm is thought to be so large that even if we wanted to, there'd be no way for us to go back. With all these significant effects on our lives, it should come as no surprise that the internet is also supposed to have a dramatic influence on education. I suppose that I'm not exposing any secrets when I write that I'm convinced, at one and the same time, that such a statement is both true and false.

For those who are convinced that the internet's effect on education is, and will continue to be, enormous, there's still a great deal of debate around precisely what aspects of the internet are causing that effect. A decade ago the buzzword was "access to information", and particularly to information that wasn't traditionally available in the classroom. Suddenly pupils, who until the internet were apparently empty repositories, waiting patiently for their teachers to fill them with digestible information, became active consumers of that same information, even to the point at which many questioned whether there was still a need for the teacher as an intermediary between the pupil and the desired information. At around the same time, though in a perhaps somewhat less pronounced fashion, the ease with which pupils could produce their own web sites created the promise of the pupil as a producer of information and not just as its recipient. Alongside these major changes, a number of other, somewhat lesser, effects were also predicted.

A decade later, there can be little doubt that the internet has been quite thoroughly integrated into the classroom, though precisely how is still an open question. Many teachers (and via them, their pupils as well) relate to it primarily as a search tool. This allows some teachers to claim that their pupils have truly become adept information consumers, while others will claim that although their pupils seem to do a great deal of searching, they don't seem to find anything of value. Some teachers claim that they've moved a large part of their coursework to the web, while others respond that all that's really happened is that homework assignments and workpages that were previously printed on paper and distributed by hand are now accessed via the computer, making it little more than an incredibly expensive mimeograph machine. In cases such as this it would seem that only rarely do we encounter any content or use that can be categorized as distinctly internet-related.

It may have been difficult, in this particular scenario, to point to ways in which the internet was actually having a substantial influence on the ways in which pupils learned, but nobody seemed to be complaining. On the one hand schools could claim that they were adapting to the use of new technologies, while on the other hand the actual changes that teachers were called upon to make in how they taught their pupils were minimal. And then along came Web 2.0, and a new generation of evangelists sprang up to once again promise us that the internet would change the face of education.

How is this new generation of internet-based tools going to affect that change? The claims made are incredibly similar to those made about the web in its pre 2.0 version: pupils' sources aren't limited to those offered to them by their teachers in the classroom, they can become information producers - connecting into a vast learning network that not only supplies them with information, but to which they also contribute. Today, of course, the emphasis isn't on building (or using) traditional HTML based web sites, or commercially marketed content management systems. In order to really become a part of this interconnected learning community, teachers and pupils have to use the right tools: blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts, and of course they should also be tuned into a tagging network so that they can both contribute to, and drink from, the collective pool. Part of the lure of this approach seems to be that it's possible to "get it" - suddenly, in some sort of epiphanic conversion a lightbulb lights up above your head (or maybe you accept the blog as your savior) - and then, once you've become part of the club and learned the new language and exchanged your old, outdated, tools for new ones, you can continue doing pretty much what you did before.

In this "new" understanding of what learning is, one of the key concepts is inter-connectedness. Suddenly, kids are no longer expected to sit quietly at their desks, separated from their peers, working on assignments that aren't related to the real world. Perhaps what's strangest about this description (other than the fact that it actually quite accurately reflects what many of the Web 2.0 in education crowd are saying) is that only a very few seem to be raising their voices to tell us that there's nothing new here. But it's not only a question of not telling us something new, but also of our becoming convinced by our own hype. The creation of a vast network of inter-connected teachers and learners may sound like the basis for a wonderful and desirable learning environment, but there's no real reason to assume that, in and of itself, all this inter-connectivity either generates or distributes knowledge. It can just as easily (if not even more easily) also be the basis for the realization of the Garbage In - Garbage Out principle on a gigantic scale.

At least a decade ago, Avigail Oren at the School of Education of Tel Aviv University, one of the earliest experimenters with the possibilities of integrating the internet into education in Israel, asked "How do we change the surfing process into a weaving one?". Although there may have been technological answers to what Avigail asked, at its root it was an educational question. At what was a very early stage in the integration of the internet into the learning process she was well aware of the fact that when schools mimicked the way the society at large was beginning to use the World Wide Web, the result wasn't necessarily what we would refer to as learning. And weaving, both before and since Web 2.0, still seems a better metaphor. A key goal of education is the development of the distinct, individual, voice of each pupil. Much too much of the blogging craze in education leads to haphazard postings, to writing that gets neither edited nor read, to a collection of links that aren't held together by any organizing principle. We're told that rather than writing for their teachers' eyes only, pupils are now writing for the world, but the ultimate impression is that they're simply doing their assignments, enjoying, for the time being, a novelty which will sadly soon wear off. Though there's now perhaps "production" rather than only consumption here, it's basically still web surfing, a pleasant activity quite detached from any real attempt to find one's place in the world. Our educational objectives have to look well beyond only that. When we observe a tapestry we seek out the distinctive hand of the weaver. In the individual weaving of information into knowledge that is education, each pupil takes perhaps more or less the same materials, but hopefully does something distinctive, individual with them. Various tools can certainly help them do this, can influence part of the outcome, but it's the developing of the personal eye and the ability to observe that's truly important.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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