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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

On Surfing—and Steering—the Net: Conversations with Crawford Kilian and Clifford Stoll

People around the world are clamoring to get online. But will the Information Superhighway really result in better teaching or richer learning in classrooms? Two experts disagree.

A Conversation with Crawford Kilian

Some people say that the Information Superhighway won't revolutionize learning; instead, it's going to replicate the worst features of TV: superficiality, sound bites, mindless surfing. What's your response to that sort of argument?
You have to have a goal in mind. You wouldn't open up the Yellow Pages for the fun of it, but if you want to order a pizza, it can come in pretty handy.
Right now I'm writing a long article on global warming for a local newspaper. And I'm astounded by how much material there is on the Web, and how easy it is to contact authors of this material via e-mail and have them send more material to me. So it can be an absolute godsend. I don't know how I ever would have gotten this article done, short of spending a week in a university library, and I would probably have gotten less material.
So whether the Web is used productively depends on the purposes students have for using it. If they have a real-world goal of some kind—beyond simply getting recurring jolts from finding a new Web site every 30 seconds—they're going to get a lot of information very quickly. But students really need someone to help them define their purpose and steer them through the vast amount of material online. The word cybernetics comes from the Greek word kybernetes, a steersman. So the teacher's role in any modern classroom is to steer the crew through this white water of information pouring into the classroom. It's terrific to have access to all that information, but you really need someone who can guide you through the material, to show you how it's organized, and, just as important, teach you how to judge the value of what you find.
Is that practical, though? Many teachers seem to know less about using the technology than do their students!
There's definitely a generation gap. Here in British Columbia, we actually have a program called STTC: Students Teaching Teachers about Computers! But there's an equally serious culture gap between teachers who use computers and teachers who don't. Many teachers are close to retirement and not really prepared to make the intellectual and time investment to master this new technology. And some of the computer users, full of evangelical fire, resent the apathy they see in their colleagues, so they simply cease to have much to do with them. That's not healthy for educational institutions, and it leaves many students out of luck if they are assigned a teacher who is unprepared to help them use these new technologies.
How are educators taking advantage of computer networks for improving their own professional practice?
Increasingly, it happens through the newsgroups and listservs available online. For example, a teacher may join a newsgroup for teachers. And maybe after being on it a while, a group of teachers specifically interested in teaching courses online evolves out of that. So these isolated individuals suddenly find that they've got a common spot where they can come together to share their experiences, get good ideas, learn what badly backfired and avoid it themselves, and so on. As each wave of explorers discovers what the hazards are and solves them, it becomes easier for the next group to move in and consolidate what the first group has learned.
So, rather than operating as individual pioneers, people are forming very tight-knit and responsive groups that can make life easier for everybody else. These networks can be organized around academic disciplines, they could involve only teachers in a particular region or those teaching particular levels, and so forth.
It's exciting that educators are sharing what works for them. I remember Al Shanker saying several years ago that there ought to be a database for good lessons and units; every teacher shouldn't have to start out from scratch. Is there much help online?
It's beginning to come together, mostly in the listservs, but also in the networks that individual state or provincial education departments are running. Teachers can log into these networks and find everything from software that keeps your grade book organized to detailed bibliographies linked to reading lists. Then there are the informal networks of educators beginning to put stuff out on the Net. For example, I'm creating a Web page right now with some advice I've cooked up on writing fiction. I've used it in my courses, and it's worked pretty well, so I'm just going to put it out there. And anyone who wants to can use it.
You're one of a small group of people who have taught courses online. How do these work?
In an online course, students and teacher work at home or in the office using computers linked by phone lines. Online courses can reach anyone with a computer, a modem, and the right software, so they're attractive to people who can't take a course because it's too far away or scheduled at the wrong time. Students can go online on Friday night, Sunday morning, whenever. You can put your textbook and course handouts online and let students print them out.
All this makes it exciting to teach and learn online. But one of the things I found from teaching a couple of online courses over the past two years is that you get a horrendous non- completion rate. Without the physical presence of the teacher, without the need for an ironclad deadline for getting stuff in, many students procrastinate, drop out, or simply don't get engaged. A few of the really bright, motivated students do flourish in online courses. But face-to-face, it's easier to get the more passive students to do the work and benefit from it.
In the online environment, you definitely miss a lot of what goes on in a classroom. It's as if you were an opera performer and I tried to coach you over the phone. I can hear you singing, perhaps, but I would miss most of the overtones and undertones because the bandwidth is so narrow. The same thing applies online. You have the text on your screen or printed out. That's fine as far as it goes. But it pales in comparison to what goes on in the classroom, which is a vortex of information.
In one of your articles, you compare online discourse to prisoners tapping out messages on pipes ....
Right. For the most part, we are sending only text. We read it awkwardly in front of these machines. The information coming through is in a very narrow range. We don't get what we'd get in a normal exchange in a 3-D world.
Vancouver has a "virtual" high school you've written about. What's going on there?
Virtual High takes an interesting and sometimes controversial approach. It's a private school that uses computers and online communication very intensively. The school's philosophy emphasizes the autonomous learner, the student who sets his or her own agenda and then pursues that agenda using technology to acquire and synthesize information. It has about 25 students at any given time, and it's been in operation for three or four years. All the students get a Powerbook, and they could do most of their work right from home, because they can plug into the school's own computer network.
The curriculum students take is largely up to them. They decide what they're going to study, then they interview "learning assistants" (they're not called teachers), and they select the ones they think are going to do the best job for them.
Do students work from home, or do they go to a school building?
The original concept was that this would be a virtual high school, that it might require only the space for a computer server in someone's basement. What they found, though, is that adolescents are naturally gregarious; they feel a need to be together. So there is a facility: a big old house with all kinds of places where kids can "plug in." The kids like to hang out together, even while they're working on different material. Some of the students work on designing their own software, which they are doing with commercial customers. The emphasis really is on individually motivated learning programs. They find the idea of having to take a course very repugnant. It's controversial because, in many respects, it takes power away from the teacher and puts it in the hands of the students.
People excited about what technology can offer sometimes talk about "virtual learning communities." How do you interpret that?
To me, it refers to an evolving culture where the old hierarchy doesn't quite apply. The role of teacher as authority who sets deadlines, decides what people are going to study, and how they're going to demonstrate their grasp of the material becomes much less significant. Instead, the teacher is a mentor who holds that role by virtue of knowing more, but who is still a learner, rather than the high authority. The mentor is quite consciously learning from the student's experience. It's a more egalitarian structure than the typical classroom. The mentor and student may sometimes change roles, if the student learns more about something.
For example, someone created a Web page devoted to writing resources and listed an article I published on running an online writing course. So now I routinely get e-mail from people as far away as Norway wanting to sign up for my course—even though they won't get any "credit" for it! So I might say: "Send me your story and I'll give you comments on it." This sort of ad hoc, casual, noninstitutional sort of community is springing up here and there. Sometimes it will only last for a couple of exchanges of e-mail. Sometimes, these might be "virtual" students of mine for a few years. It's sometimes a demand on my time, but it's also fun, and I learn from the experience. They sometimes provide me very good material, and I offer them advice on getting through some of the problems they're encountering.
The informality of the teacher-student relationship in a networked environment might trouble some. Especially as more students get wired at home and do more of their learning there, what's the role for the professional educator?
The need for educators may indeed, in some respects, be smaller. But we're also going to see that inequities in access to technology are going to pose social and political problems. The more affluent students may have the choice of going to school or staying at home working on their computers. The poorer students won't have that choice. That's going to create new demands on teachers. Some of their students are going to be very choosy about the curriculum, and they may be in a position to say: "Phooey on this, I'm going home to get on the Web." At the same time, other students may not have had the same opportunities and may need even more extra help. So, if anything, teachers will have to be more resourceful and sensitive to student needs than ever before.

A Conversation with Clifford Stoll

Schools are already spending millions of dollars on computers, and President Clinton is suggesting that all schools be wired to the Information Superhighway. Good or bad idea, in your view?
This is an unreviewed idea. It seems strange to spend billions of dollars without any quality studies saying whether it works or not. Not whether it technically works, but whether it's good for learning. The problems that schools have today—with discipline, with kids not reading enough—aren't going to be solved by wiring them. These are important issues that should be discussed. But people are rushing in, quite blindly, to promote computers for reasons that have little to do with education.
I think our priorities are out of whack. When I'm shown a computer lab in a high school, I ask the principal: "What did this room used to be?" The answers I get are quite telling. The rooms used to be an art studio, or a band or music room, or a library, or part of the gym. That says something about where our priorities are.
Many supporters say that students find computers engaging, and that they'll be more interested in learning.
There's no question that kids find computers engaging. Kids love computers and multimedia. They'll sit there and click on icons for hours on end. But just because something is fun to do doesn't mean it has really engaged the child's mind. Quite the opposite! Watch kids playing Nintendo or fooling around on the Web. They love this precisely because they don't have to work. The magic mantra of computing in education is: This will make learning fun. Buy this program, or bring the Internet into your school, and it will make learning fun. Well, I'm one of the rare people in North America who doesn't believe that. Since when is learning fun?
It certainly can be. . .
It sometimes is, but most learning is not fun. Learning takes work! It takes discipline and responsibility; it requires that you do your homework. It takes a commitment from student and teacher. And those are the very things that are missing, desperately missing, in the rush to put computers in schools.
Don't computers have some advantages? For example, students in different schools, even in different countries, might participate in joint research projects, keeping in touch by e-mail. Isn't that, potentially, a positive learning experience?
Teachers tell me this all the time. "My students are sending e-mail to students in other countries. Isn't that great?" But whom do we want teaching our kids—other kids across a network? Sending e-mail to another student is going to give you unreviewed, unchecked statements that might or might not be valid and might or might not fit into what your students need to learn.
Bringing the Internet to schools is going to avert teacher-student interaction. It's going to teach students that they don't have to listen to their teacher; you can get good information from the computer.
Unchallenged throughout our maniacal love affair with computers in the classroom is the question: "Is this actually good for learning, or is it a terrific way to avoid learning in the same way that filmstrips and educational movies were in the past 25 years?" People say: "This is a great way to avoid textbooks." Why are we in such a hurry to get rid of textbooks? Textbooks contain useful information!
Textbooks in some classrooms, though, are way out-of-date, and one advantage of the Internet is that you can find much more current information there.
But why is the online information necessarily more up-to-date? Because you got it instantly? Classrooms do not lack information. What they lack is studiousness, commitment, and time enough there to deal with the information that's available. All of those things are undercut by computers and networked systems. Look at the way studying is being de-emphasized. People feel: "Why should I study when all I have to do is look it up on the Internet?"
People say you can do great research over the Internet. What's the effect? Instead of synthesizing a composition from many sources and thinking about it, students will fire up the Encarta encyclopedia or look something up online, get a report, copy it, and paste it into their own work. Copy-and-paste strategies are the opposite of quality research. So the ease with which one can perform these functions, once again, may discourage students from actually putting in the hard work that learning requires.
Haven't you seen any good uses of computers and networking in classrooms?
I have seen some programs where computers in the classroom were actually handy. But, inevitably, the computer is secondary, rather than central, to the learning process. For example, students who were doing weather observations would go out and measure rainfall, wind direction, direction of lightning, and so on. They'd do all this at home, write it down in their notebooks, and later on correlate it over the computer. The computer was secondary. Central to this was their participation in a real science experiment.
I've seen children read and type up reports on what they've read. Again, the computer is secondary. First comes reading and understanding what is on the printed page.
But I have also watched plenty of pilot projects get rave reviews even though they've accomplished nothing. So, as someone who likes computers, I'm trying to wave a yellow caution flag. We are rushing blindly into networked computing, and we are not asking important questions, like: "What do we lose when we emphasize computers in schools?" I know what we gain, but what do we lose? I know one thing we've lost is our belief in teachers as the central source of information in the classroom. Another thing is penmanship. Another thing obviously is the attention span! Students will spend time on the computer, jumping from one place to another, but they won't spend time reading.
You're one of the pioneers of the online world. What's changed your perspective on it?
I've paid my dues online. I've been using computers since 1963, and there aren't many computers that I haven't used. But, in the past five years, I've become more and more worried about this strident overselling of computers and technology in the classroom. And there are few skeptical views being expressed. We need to honestly talk about the role that computers ought to play in the classroom. The usual response is: "Don't worry, computers are just a tool." That's meaningless. Hey, a television is just a tool—an entertainment tool. And the computer also tends to be used as an entertainment tool.

John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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