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No boundaries for the journeys of the mind

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue September, September 1 - September 30, 2001 | BY Arun Kumar Tripathi 

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What makes the Internet more than just the latest in a long chain of technological innovations that have fallen short of inflated expectations in the realm of advanced learning?



"Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratising force, cutting across the . . . barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities . . . imposed by birth and other circumstances" (Indira Gandhi)

Communication in hard copy has been an essential ingredient to human progress. It empowers people to decide if they want to expand their horizons, capture new opportunities, and exercise greater degrees of freedom and choice. Today, the Internet offers promises of distance education and learning at speeds unheard of in the hard copy world.

The world-wide classroom is preparing for a future where new platforms and service architectures enable the virtual highways to bring information to end users via wireless, mobile, fixed lines, fiber cable and finally to the Internet, converging seamlessly with boundless energy. The Internet gives diversified learning styles an opportunity not provided previously by other means of communications -- allowing people to think critically and communicate freely, boundlessly, independent of time or place, from their home, business or vehicle.

The Internet has grown in recent years from a fringe cultural phenomenon to a significant site for cultural production and transformation. The Net offers us a chance to be a true global community. It also gives us a challenge to think critically about our own lives. It has given us the responsibility to govern ourselves. The Net has some unique advantages: It takes away many logistical difficulties of space and time; information flows faster and more efficiently. Here it seems that the many possibilities of harnessing, achieving and accomplishing the goals of learning and education via the Net are possible.

"We need to educate more people, educate them to far higher standards, and do it as effectively and as efficiently as possible." (An American Imperative, report of the Wingspread Group)

Technology provides some great tools, but teachers help students, and librarians help teachers (and students) make the best use of rapidly expanding and increasingly complex information resources. The technology by itself cannot organize lessons, communicate enthusiasm, or discern what best meets the needs or encourages the intellectual growth of students. Accelerating experiences in technology show that teachers around the world are using computers and telecommunications imaginatively and effectively in presenting curriculum and in engaging the interest of students.

Students must be taught "non-cyber logic," to research in an old-fashioned library, with all the social and high level thinking skills that go along with it. They need to have their fingers "walk through" school with pen and pencil as well as with a mouse. Teachers should motivate and facilitate learning on all levels. Higher level thinking skills can only be honed, if one has something to relate to personal experience. The "what if" (if / then) expression is a necessary component of life, as well as a program. The Internet makes it possible to locate information in seconds, but it does not provide the human connection a simple smile from a teacher brings to the face of a struggling student. The social skills gained from a simple spelling bee last a lifetime. The human connection is a crucial element of the learning process. If not, then why is it mimicked in programs with question responses and module completion comments with motivating expressions (as in "Congratulations! You are doing well, John!")?

The fact that teachers are connecting to the Information Superhighway and taking their students along for the ride makes a strong statement in itself. By creating innovative lessons, projects and "quests," teachers inspire and keep students engaged in what I call "full life cycle education." Technology is indeed here but interpersonal skills will always be needed as long as humans coexist with it.

"Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerising video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other and we need them all." (Arthur C. Clarke)

From the analogue to the digital, a revolution is driving major changes in the way education is produced and delivered, enabling multiple signals to be carried across a single physical wire called baseband, which was once only able to carry one signal at a time. The digital world is a first-level support life in the beginning of the 21st century; it will be the infrastructure underlying commerce and community until the next support level is created.

Those of us using new technologies need support and encouragement. I have often been amazed at the resistance to distance learning among educators. I think loss of control is a primary issue for many educators who are reluctant to become involved in distance learning.

Distance teaching often requires extra time investment and ongoing, professional training of staff. Teachers must give more control to students. Virtual communication is much more informal and students are freer to respond and work more independently. Instructors should be more personal and empathetic in distance education. They should help students find their own paths through the highways of cyberspace. Teachers should assist students in organizing their own ideas. Many educators resist these student-centered adjustments.

Working at true human exchange and interactive communication/education is extremely significant today for many reasons. For one thing, I am convinced that human feelings of isolation, disconnection and alienation are often at the heart of violent acting-out. Distance technology can either contribute to the problems of isolation or can help to make people feel connected to communities of people with related interests and values.

"Learning . . . a necessity of life. It's a consummation, like eating or making love . . . people are still half-starved for learning" (James Cooke Brown The Troika Incident)

Becoming a learner yourself is the first step in recognizing that we are all learners: inquiring, discovering, sharing and solving our problems together. Moreover, we are learners for our entire lives -- not just the time spent in school and training. Creating programs that extend beyond the narrow conception of school-to-work flows from a fundamental commitment to linking education and work throughout the life cycle.

The Center for Education, Employment, and Community (CEEC), along with colleagues at the Education Development Center, are pioneering the development of integrated skill standards, which integrate technical and academic skills. Embedding these standards in real-life scenarios from the workplace produces the type of learning that prepares people for today's jobs in high performance work organizations and enables them to continue to learn and develop for a lifetime. It also generates materials, projects and life experiences that closely mirror the way knowledge and skills are actually applied in the workplace.

"Where is all the knowledge that was lost in the information? Where is all the wisdom that was lost in the knowledge?" (T.S. Elliot)

The Information superhighway is an expanding frontier, cosmos and galaxy of information -- the combinations of information influx and expansion of software functionality on the Internet and the rapidly growing number of computers on the system make it unlike anything we have ever encountered before.

With the degree of freedom such a system allows, it is impossible to prevent information from becoming accessible once it is placed in the network. In the last five years I have been stunned by the amount of information that is discoverable -many copies of the same thing are found in many places, making it impossible to eradicate. Neil Postman has argued that technology seems to be developing faster than our ability to understand what we are using it for. What are the positive effects of new and emerging technologies? Are there ways to maximize the benefits of the Internet and e-mail while minimizing the possible negative effects on society?

Television is a medium where a producer or reporter has complete control over the programming content. Cyberspace decentralizes the information distribution process. Isn't that good thing? People with fast modems and powerful machines can participate in the creative and thought-provoking experiments on the Internet, but those without the right equipment cannot.

"Cyberspace presents us with a dilemma. We are physical beings who experience the world through our bodies. . . . When we enter cyberspace, even a 3D World (VR) it is the mind that enters. The body stays outside, an avatar only of the mind. The appearance of being in the world is much more than merely observing it. (The Robot in the Garden, Ken Goldberg, Editor)

Americans tend to think of technology as objects, usually tools or instruments. For example, we talk about a gun as though that in itself were "a piece of technology." We believe the neutrality claim about technology because objects themselves don't act. The neutrality claim is a truism that comes from thinking of technology as objects that are used by humans; hence, only humans are morally responsible for what happens. The objects cannot be blamed; hence, technology cannot be blamed. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger (The Question Concerning Technology) suggests, this line of thinking leaves us only with the question of when (and how) we will bring technology under moral control. Heidegger asks, however, what is the essence of technology? Perhaps, in essence, technology is far more than mere tools and instruments.

On the other hand, Larry Cuban says, "The need for 'technology literacy' has become a myth that hides one unvarnished fact: To get a high-paying job in today's economy one needs a college degree."(From the article, "Is Spending Money on Technology Worth It?")

As described in The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920 (Larry Cuban) chalk, slate, books and pictures were all used in the 19th century as teaching aids. Cuban defined instructional technology as "any device available to teachers for use in instructing students in a more efficient and stimulating manner than the sole use of the teacher's voice. Hardware and software, the tool itself and the information the tool conveys, define the technology. " Every time new technologies were introduced, claims were made that revolutionary changes would occur in teaching and learning. But persons other than teachers most often began these changes. Very few people questioned these claims. Later, studies were done to investigate the use of the new technology and it was usually found that teachers made little use of it. At this point the teacher-bashing began. Cuban felt that part of the problem was that non-teachers were attempting to change the practice of teachers. They did not stop to consider that teacher expertise, drawn from a pool of craft wisdom about children and schooling that dances beyond the limited understanding of non-teaching reformers, should be bolstered rather than belittled.

. . . What makes the new technologies worth embracing? Why should institutions of higher education undertake the major investments that are involved? What makes the Internet more than just the latest in a long chain of technological innovations -- including radio and television -- that have fallen short of inflated expectations in the realm of advanced learning?

Are the new technologies in fact helping to create a more informed and communicative society, as well as more cohesive communities? Or are they more of a diversion, in education or in other fields? Are they inhibiting genuine human interaction and understanding as much, or more, than they are helping? How can we think more precisely about this issue? . . .

Is the educational promise of the Internet real? I believe it is. The cluster of technologies that we know as the Internet powerfully reinforces and extends some of the most effective traditional forms of university teaching and learning. On many campuses, it is already having an impact more dynamic and pervasive than that of any previous breakthrough in information technology. And the transformation in progress is only beginning to unfold.

The essay above is a preview from a forthcoming anthology on digital education by Arun Kumar Tripathi. The author is a research assistant with Telecooperation Research Group at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany. His research interests include e-learning, ubiquitous learning, building intelligent systems for schools, AI in learning and education, cognitive aspects of human-computer interactions, instructional technology, and use of the Internet and computer technology for distance education, particularly the Web and its applications.

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