The Internet and Education

First broadcast May 6, 2001.

There are many legends about scientists being asked the worth of their discoveries. In one yarn, William Gladstone asks Michael Faraday about the practical value of electricity, to which Faraday replies "Why, Sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it." H. G. Wells told the story, and it seems to go back to R. A. Gregory in 1916, who attributed the story to a philosopher called Lecky who died in 1903, but that is as far as I've traced it. The legend's probably gained in the telling, and another version has Faraday replying (as Benjamin Franklin may once have done) "What use is a baby?"

In either case, the point is that you can't tell beforehand just how you'll be able to use a newly-discovered system or gadget. The most common judgement comes from people looking at it through what Marshall McLuhan called rear-view mirror driving, looking backwards to assess the future. We consider the telephone as a form of telegraph, or television as radio with pictures, we compare the functions of the railway train with those of the stage coach, and we complain loudly that there is nowhere to attach the horses.

Rear-view mirror comparison is mainly used to attack new technology, with people asking "what educational use is this Internet thing when there's no place to sit an overhead projector on it?" As we consider new technology, we fail to recognise that it probably has many new functions to offer, functions we should focus on. Incidentally, the comments I make about the Internet apply equally to other multi-media systems, because these are moving more and more to Internet delivery.

I devote my waking hours to assembling information for placement on CD-ROMs and Web sites. I try to produce material which is linked into a cultural framework, that crosses boundaries, and provokes students to make novel discoveries. I am very aware that without the right questions and tasks, my work won't be changing anything much - it will be mere shovelware, stuff gathered from the highways and byways, and shovelled into place.

At the moment, people are only just beginning to look at the Internet as a tool for education - or as any other sort of tool for that matter, but this is hardly surprising. The Internet is still in its infancy, even though it has been around since 1969. New technologies seem to follow a pattern of twenty years' development while the technology is properly worked out, then thirty years of growing acceptance and expansion as new functions are recognised.

The half-century probably reflects the time it takes to replace an adult human population with people who have grown used to the new technology, to place them in positions of power where they can apply the new methods. During the thirty year period, people begin to understand the technology, and how they can best use it, as the technology and society adapt to each other.

The first 50 years of printed books generated 40,000 titles and 20 million volumes which are known collectively as incunabula, from the Latin word for "cradle". At the end of two human generations, the technology and format of the book had settled into a stable pattern, with accepted sizes, binding standards and typefaces, and most developments since that time have followed a similar path. New forms like the novel and the coffee table book may have emerged more recently, but today's books wouldn't puzzle somebody who learned to read at the end of the incunabula phase.

The first serious railway was the Liverpool-Manchester line, opened in 1830. Many other lines were built by 1850, and continents were spanned by 1880. After that time, the railway shaped the nature of warfare by allowing troops to be transported rapidly into a war zone. For a long while, though, the locomotive was called the Iron Horse, showing how people still used analogy to explain new technology.

The telegraph began with the first workable telegraphs in Britain and Germany around 1835, there was large-scale wiring of individual countries by 1855, and the world was linked by submarine cables by 1885. The telephone, seen first as a replacement for a messenger boy, was invented in 1876, it was being accepted in some offices around 1900. In 1914, people in New York could talk to people in San Francisco by telephone, and it became common in homes in the western world around 1930. "Wireless telegraphy", as it was revealingly called, began when Hertz discovered radio waves in 1888, by 1908, it was in effective use, and by 1938, most homes in the developed world had a radio receiver.

The first projected motion pictures were shown to the public in 1895, and by 1915, movies had progressed from short scenes to complex features, cinematography had become an art, and California had become a centre for film-making. By 1945, the Hollywood system was in full swing, and many of the classic films that we know and revere had already been made, though later advances in computerised special effects would make most of these films seem amateurish by modern standards.

From another viewpoint, feature movies started around 1909, The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie" was filmed in 1927, and 1959 saw that standard "biggest movie", Ben Hur released in cinemas. Al Jolson said in The Jazz Singer "You ain't seen nothin' yet, folks", but from today's perspective, the same line could have been used in Ben Hur to alert us to the changes still to come in the cinema, even though these changes did little to alter the social impact of the cinema.

Television began with the first successful transmissions in 1925, it took off in Britain and America in 1946, and by 1975, most homes in the developed world had a television set.

Computers were first seen only as glorified adding machines, which explains their name - the original 'computers' were people who carried out arduous and repetitive calculations. This explains why, when the Sydney Observatory was built in the 1850s, it featured a room for the computer.

Most computer buffs would say modern computing really began with the Fortran language, invented in 1956. In 1975, the first floppy discs were being sold, the Altair 8800 computer was on sale, and the Microsoft was founded. By 2005, when the half-century is up, most homes in the developed world should have a computer - but few of them will be used for arduous calculations like the original human computers.

Then we have the Internet, which started as ARPANET in 1969, and came into wider use around the world 20 years later in 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. We are now one-third of the way through the adoption phase, and we are beginning to have some ideas about what the Internet is, and how it should work, the functions it may fulfil.

In the late 1980s, I was in a museum of science and technology where I had to plead to get a second computer for a staff of fifty - now we would take it for granted that each work space should have a computer, and that these will be networked. Even homes have networks. In the early 1900s, a telephone on each office desk was a ridiculous idea, and the notion of a teacher in a classroom having phone and Internet connections is still seen as remarkably wasteful - in most schools, anyhow, but this may change.

Equally, school students must complete public examinations with pen and paper, even if the exam involves essay-writing, a task these students habitually do with an entirely different medium, the keyboard and screen. Is this because the people who make the decisions are from the pre-computer era? Like those who argued in the 1980s against the use of calculators in examinations, they may burble about the risks of cheating, but the problems are not insuperable, and to hide behind such excuses is to ignore a whole new medium. It is like demanding that students revert to quill pens and write in copperplate script.

Clearly, many new opportunities are not apparent at the start. Technologies continue to progress after their development and adoption phases, but the changes they make to society are muted, as the technology simply becomes a part of the background. Jet airliners began in 1952, and matured with the flights of the first Boeing 747 and the first Concorde, both in 1969 - and changed the way people in the developed world took their holidays and vacations by the end of the century.

Who could have predicted in 1952 that today's holiday-makers would use Internet cafés to maintain a link with the folks at home, that the vacationers would quite probably have booked their flight over the Internet, and would have found out about their destination on the Web? That brings us back once more to the role the Internet will play in the future, helping people to learn, to find information, and to gain an education.

It is time to consider, in an unblinkered way, the educational potential of the Web and multimedia. Right now, the critics are right: the Internet offers a jumble of information that is poorly organized and frustrating to use. Search engines point to dead links, and offer no indication of quality or suitability. At least one search engine only lists sites that are pointed to by other quality sites, but this may leave excellent material out, for what is quality astronomical information for me, may not be quality for a professional astronomer. and vice versa.

One solution is to go to a trusted site like the ABC Web site, to consult their list of links, but this still leaves us up in the air about the level, content and usefulness of the linked sites. Today, the Internet offers remote access to raw data and information, but this is not the same as real education. Judging what the Internet might do for education is like trying to make judgements about an integrated urban public transport system, based on your extrapolations from a glimpse of Mulga Bill's bicycle on a mountain track on a stormy night.

The key to the future appears to be the use of metadata, data about data, information that boosts our ability to find useful and trustworthy information. Metadata work like a library's card catalog, but would contain additional information such as technical requirements, and educational level. It could also be extended to meet many other purposes.

This would allow the information to be matched to the user's known profile or stated requirements, taking into account things like age, skill level, interests and educational goals. This is not the way search engines work right now, where they generally search for phrases or words in the entire content of the pages they can see, ferreting around, in more of a rummage than a skilled and honed enquiry.

In the future, there will be trusted repositories, where metadata can be used to help people find appropriate information. Unfortunately, this will lock out a great deal of useful information at the same time, because individual enthusiasts, knowing all there is to know about, say, the longbow, may be omitted from the metadata network.

Recently, I found an error on a trustworthy site, where Allan Cunningham, the explorer and botanist in Australia, was confused with another Allan Cunningham, a Scots poet, who lived about the same time. I knew the poet's brother, a naval surgeon, had visited Australia a number of times, and that he had referred admiringly to the botanist in terms which made it unlikely they were brothers, but confirming this took me to an amateur site that would probably never be trusted by a formal system, but should be.

Right now, the infrastructure doesn't exist, but the ideas are there. It will entail people establishing standards, which will have to gain world acceptance. At that point, "education" on the Internet will start to go beyond regurgitated shovel-ware.

The shovel-ware problem began at the start of modern printing, when every printer's earliest product seems to have been a Bible, simply because the text was available and out of copyright. In the same way, early radio and cinema shovelled up the stars of vaudeville, and television used up the stars of radio or cinema in its early years. Right now, most people who offer education on the Internet are just dressing up the same old materials in an electronic format, but we can do much more, once we have standardised permanent addresses, and carefully-considered links weaving through the text.

The future educational Internet will involve new digital libraries, with all types of data routinely blended and easily managed, with loops to interactive courses, lessons that are individually tailored for the needs of specific students, materials offered in the format that different students find most useful, and a pace that is specifically suited to an individual. With the right planning and with the development of new methods, online teaching will change the meaning of "education".

But of course, none of this will ever work, because Blind Freddy can see you can't write on people's terminals with a stick of chalk. If you haven't heard that objection yet, listen carefully, for negative statements with precisely that degree of logical consistency can be found in every pundit's newspaper columns, and in every teachers' common room, across the world, because people always look at a new medium in the rear view mirror.


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