Education Unbound

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As an instructor in my college's applied information technology program, I see every day how computers radically transform both the means and the ends of education. Nevertheless, I am far from optimistic about technology's ability to flourish in our schools—public or private. That's because technology is, in effect, begging the whole question of schools themselves.

When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton replied, “Because that's where the money is.” For thousands of years, people have gone to school because that's where the knowledge is. Just preserving it there has been a challenge for most societies. Thousands of peasants had to toil to support a handful of literate clerks and priests whose duties included training their replacements. Control of knowledge meant power, and its flow was vertical.

Our pen-and-paper technology has become “transparent,” but it took a long time to get that way. From a skill possessed by a tiny minority, literacy has become the norm. It took half a millennium to achieve our present levels, however, and we educators are still under fire for failing to make literacy universal.

By the same token, those of us who use computers in education are a minority that often finds it difficult to bring our colleagues up to even nominal skill levels. Inducing them to use computers in their classrooms is almost impossible, so for most North American educators the computer remains a glorified typewriter— and a very “opaque” technology.

Even the most computer-illiterate educator can see the threat implicit in technology. For the first time, the flow of knowledge needs not be vertical. It is becoming horizontal, and the teacher is far from crucial to its transmission.

I saw this, paradoxically, in a failed experiment in computer-mediated instruction. As a mentor in a distance-education writing project, I received students' work from schools all over the British Columbia interior of Canada. I would download their work, read it, and upload my detailed comments. It was an exciting and dramatic way to bring students and teachers together, but for some reason we never got to the point of extended dialogue. Nor did I hear from anything like the number of students I had expected to, since so many school districts had joined the project.

Not until I met with some of the participants in person did I learn the real reasons. In one school, uploading messages was the job of a staff person with plenty of other things to do. In another, the mentor project was the interest of just one very busy teacher. The students were still once removed from the process.

Moreover, it soon became apparent that many teachers felt threatened by their students' access to outside information. Such access implied a freedom from the local curriculum, an ability to define one's own curriculum. The teacher looks increasingly unneeded under those conditions.

The self-defined curriculum is exactly what we now see in bulletin-board systems and Internet news groups, where individuals request and send information as they please and deal with no subject unless they wish to. While organized online courses are growing, the real vigor in the system seems to me to exist in just those anarchic forums, whether dedicated to Star Trek or to the latest developments in particle physics.

I feel less confident that teachers will be able to provide appropriate materials by incorporating these anarchic online resources into the existing curriculum. Who will decide what's appropriate in the future—the teachers or the kids? And for whose agenda—the teachers' or the kids'?

Talking to prisoners at a local penitentiary a couple of years ago, I naively expressed the desire that they get online. They laughingly told me the authorities would never grant them access to modems, probably because modems would make even the penitentiary walls a transparent technology. Indeed, someone would surely start robbing banks online while still doing time.

Similarly, educators sense that kids with computers are likely to break out into that horizontal knowledge flow and escape teacher control. Some of us think such a breakout is the whole purpose of education, but most of us are still scared to death of the possibility.

Innovative plans for school reform, such as Whittle Communications' Edison Project, promise all kinds of technology as part of the school furniture. But they don't address two more fundamental issues—that technology is becoming ubiquitous and that skills are developing among students far faster than they are among teachers.

In Mexico, where illiteracy is common and typewriters are few, public scribes can still earn a living because people must come to them for everything from legal documents to love letters. In the United States and Canada, however, such scribes would starve to death.

When computers and fiber-optic networks become as available as a dial tone, students will have little reason to congregate in one building. The technology plan for the Edison Project recognizes the distance-education option, but not its importance. When students realize that any course—indeed, any information—is accessible online, the implications will shake the system to its foundations.

One British Columbia private school, Wondertree, has, in a sense, already made the Edison Project obsolete. Its students choose their own curriculum, hire their own teachers, and have earned a reputation as fully professional designers of education software. Wondertree is now about to launch “Virtual High,” which will link secondary-age students via a bulletin-board service. They will meet with teachers in person only about once a week. (The founders of Wondertree also operate a bulletin-board service for homeschooled children all over the province.)

In 1990, as part of a project called “Wired.Writers,” I taught writing online to students in British Columbia, Ontario, and Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. One Inuk student in Pond Inlet sent us all a story that has reverberated in cyberspace ever since. “The Struggling Story of Surusimiitut,” by Sue Qitsualik, brought us all “face to face” with a powerful talent operating in both her own culture and ours. At that point, she needed access to her teacher's technology, but, by the end of the decade, she will be able to reach literally millions of other individuals without going through an intermediary.

I saw something like that unmediated contact on another occasion when Russian journalism students, online, asked my students about Canadian Indians. They got their answer from some Chilcotin Indian students at Columneetza Senior Secondary in Williams Lake, British Columbia, who had been “eavesdropping” online and decided to join in. When I saw the Indian students' comments, I felt delightedly superfluous.

Yes, computer technology can and will transform the schools. But it will be a process that many educators will resist bitterly because it also will transform their roles. As someone recently observed, the teacher will be not “the mentor at the center, but the guide on the side.”

It's a lot like parenting, actually. Letting go isn't always easy, though it's necessary. When I finally let go of my daughter's bike and watched her pedal away on her own, she left me behind. She didn't need me anymore. At that moment, too, I was superfluous. Many educators dread the experience of letting go of their students. But if they do, they will find it to be the greatest measure of their success.

And, as in parenting, letting go is inevitable.

Vol. 05, Issue 04, Pages 38-39

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