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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

The Once and Future Internet

A colleague recently forwarded an essay for my consideration, suggesting that it might be worthy of reprint in this journal. The essay was "WHO'S KILLING HIGHER EDUCATION? (OR IS IT SUICIDE?)", by Steve Talbott, published online in 1998 in an online journal named Netfuture. Talbott, a technical author for O'Reilly media, proposed that information technology would have an effect on higher education, but not necessarily a positive one. He posed that education was being transformed into a process of information transfer, which, in the future, would make teachers and schools "superfluous."

It's now the future and we have a chance to assess the path that information technology has laid  for higher education. But first, I was curious to see what I was saying in this column in 1998. Topics included controlling SPAM, filtering e-mail, and the contest between Web browsers. It seems that nothing has changed since 1998. My rhetorical question about the Internet in 1998 was,

Will it be a thriving and egalitarian international communications and commerce media, as accessible in libraries as it is in executive offices? Or will it be "television," A.K.A. a "wasteland" of commercial and meaningless information driving a consumption-based economy and culture, filling the coffers of a few very rich companies and people?  

This question is still in the process of being answered, as we see in the recent debate about net neutrality.

Returning to the article by Steve Talbott, I don't find that many of his "predictions" have come to pass or that the role of computing in education has substantially changed. Perhaps one change is the increased use of Internet technology as a transfer medium for information. But if you fault the transfer technology and confound it with the actual education, then you must also throw out the printing press and all the books that have ever been published. Most of the discussions I've heard in regard to using IT as a educational medium are exactly about how NOT to just rely on it as an information transfer medium. In other words, a stale lecture read from transparencies is not transformed by its transfer to PowerPoint or the Web.

While I'm sympathetic to some of the author's points, I don't see the significance of his eventual point:

I envision an education where students gather around a teacher because they find his life to be a pathway to new understanding.
As to the computer, I imagine it will find its genuine, supportive role only to the degree we gain deliverance from the silly notion that it is educationally decisive.

I don't think that the former statement is necessarily mutually exclusive to current higher education. The best teachers are those who do share themselves as well as their knowledge with their students. The best teachers attract a community of learners, and that community now can extend beyond a single room, thanks to current Internet technology.

I also don't think that many other than those within the world of media hype ever believed that computers and IT were some kind of ultimate educational solution (I didn't/don't). This article seems to be in reaction to the media hype that was very common in the late 90's and during the Internet boom. The irony is that if any technology would enable what the author describes as "curriculum ... determined by the teachers themselves, out of their direct experience with students, rather than by remote administrators...," the Internet, assuming that it is not subsumed by government regulation, has more promise to support such a movement than waiting for such groups to gather under trees.

Talbott is also the author of a late-90's book entitled, The Future does not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.  He describes his book as follows:

Along with Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil, the book offered just about the first critique to suggest that the widespread utopian expectations for the Internet were not well founded.

I think we've learned by now that no utopian expectations can be well founded. However, there's no escaping that our society has changed, and barring some natural or self-made disaster that sends us all back to following a plow all day, I'd predict that that change will not be reversed.

If we future beings have learned one thing about the Internet, it is that we are not creating a global village. One thing the Internet does support are many communities that can extend beyond the geographical limitations of the past. Whether its a community of learners or a community of software developers (as in open source), the impact is not from the technology itself, but rather from how people can use it to their advantage. That's not a utopian vision of life-apprentice learning, but it is a significant and sometimes positive change. We'll just need some more future to tell for sure.


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