In the Internet Age it’s become commonplace for businesses to view the entire globe as a single giant ‘shop’ through which humanity (or at least those who have internet access) are constantly flowing. The game for businesses has become one of standing out in the crowd and making sure that the products or services on offer are as appealing, presentable and accessible to as many people as possible.
How does this concept apply to education?
We have looked before at how the process of education has normally taken the form of schooling, with the conventional model of children of a certain age being herded into buildings in local areas and then put through a graded hierarchical system as they grow into adults, year-by-year learning from a set curriculum in a set place from a set group of previously trained and experienced adults. This model has become so accepted that schools as places of learning, and the whole process of year-by-year education is woven deep into the woof and warp of most societies.
But the advent of new technologies throws all this into question. It’s now possible - indeed, very easy - for almost anyone to contact almost anyone else and gain access to almost any body of knowledge without much mediation and at any time. The battle in the traditional classroom against smart-phones, tablets, lap-tops and so forth is being lost as the newer generations find that the fast-moving and highly accessible world they can perceive and participate in through these devices is often much more interesting than the somewhat static and restrictive world of the standard school.
Learning is going long distance. And long-distance brings certain fundamental ramifications: ‘assembly-line’ thinking, in which large groups of the population are stamped with certificated knowledge by a centrist authority, is being undermined; critical thinking, new forms of social cooperation, compromise, teamwork and fast and effective communication is superseding the ‘broadcast’ model of knowledge, the established ways of gathering young people together in order to teach them, the hierarchical structures which all of that brings, and the inherently slow methods of class-based and teacher-assessed learning.
High-speed digital networks already connect classrooms, colleges, libraries, hospitals, and government offices; students are already learning foreign languages, mathematics, and science from teachers hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Educators are mentoring student teachers through networks all over the world. Workshops and seminars are being held over the web; groups and clubs are using the web to conduct meetings; distance learning experiments that are taking shape across the country. For example, during the Gulf War, students in the United States communicated regularly with students in Israel, discussing such subjects as what it feels like to be under attack by Scud missiles; meanwhile, oceanographer Robert Ballard has interacted with hundreds of thousands of students who viewed images from undersea submersibles as they were being used to do research in such places as the Mediterranean Sea.
This isn’t just a question of multiplying the resources available to traditional schools and teachers, and in that way greatly increasing opportunities for both teaching and learning - this is question of transforming the model of learning itself. Students anywhere in the world can now potentially acquire almost any information they want directly from experts. Network links expand and enrich the pool of teachers in mathematics, science, or the arts; information that students receive through the web can be individualised to fit their specific needs; technology can act to foster a cooperative approach between different groups; even the traditional definition of young people as ‘learners’ and older people as ‘teachers’ is breaking down as the newer generations absorb the new technologies faster than their elders.
Rather than technology being used to reinforce outdated models of education that fall far short of the goal of providing students with what they need in today’s world, the roles of teachers, students, and technology are being reshaped. Rather than computers being used to empower students with traditional homework, in stretched education systems where teachers have no time to pay attention to individuals, the technology can and is being used to enable new forms of direct access to knowledge.
And this is still only just beginning to tap into the potential of this ‘education revolution’.
So as well as the world being seen as one giant shop containing potentially billions of customers, might it not be possible to imagine the world as one giant classroom containing potentially billions of learners, of any age? The internet makes communication possible on a scale never before possible or dreamed of: a child or an adult can gain access to any piece of knowledge at any time, from almost anywhere. Rather than hierarchical models which physically herd age-determined groups of learners into geographic schools and through assessment-based structures, the internet empowers a ‘channelling’ model in which the individual has the ability to determine the gradient and pace of learning, the subjects to learn and the location and conditions in which learning will take place.
Hierarchical, geography-centred schooling creates a set of problems: it fails to deal with individuals adequately, creating a culling effect over the years as some students fall by the wayside; it engenders social difficulties by placing learners physically together with other learners with whom they may have little else in common and with whom friction may arise; it brings into being huge infrastructure issues including traffic congestion, environmental damage and building maintenance expenses as well as arguments about central curriculum and assessment methods.
Non-hierarchical, geography-free methods of learning largely sweep these matters aside. A duty of care of some sort would be needed to monitor individuals who might need support; adequate and healthy social interaction would need to be part of the picture; the expense of creating and maintaining a technological infrastructure would need to be confronted, as well as issues to do with the nature of a ‘free’ curriculum and by what criteria progress would be measured - but these concerns will need to be addressed quickly, as the world moves further into the Internet Age.