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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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The Sense and Nonsense of Wired Schools

by Ralf E. Streibl

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


"Information is the means, not the end. Even being informed is not positive 'as such.' You must know what you need the information for, which action you can use it for. Information in stock even has negative effects. You get used to the beautiful, laboriously acquired possession and you will insist in the end that the world has to be as you 'know' it." Hartmut von Hentig *

Wired Schools - What For?
"Schools to the Net" is the programmatic title of a common initiative of the German ministry of education and the German Telekom AG. Their concept dated April 1996 says the "Goal of the initiative is to raise teaching and learning at school to the requirements of the information society by means of IT (information technology) use in classes and access to telecommunication networks. Teachers and pupils will not only be able to reshape the information and learning processes, but also to communicate and cooperate with other schools worldwide." The large-scale promotion campaign has been successful. The number of schools that want to participate in the initiative has quickly increased, not least because the campaign stimulates competition. The publicity suggests that schools which do not provide access to the Internet are in effect locking their pupils out of the future.

To evaluate the goal of developing a global village style of teaching, we need to consider possible applications of the network infrastructure at school, and the hopes and fears they raise.

Using the Internet as a Source of Information
The Internet is often compared to a huge library or a comprehensive encyclopedia. According to euphoric newspaper reports, you can find information on almost everything there. However, what the Internet lacks is an indication of which sites contain significant, current, and correct information. Even search engines are of limited use in navigating the chaos of this least sorted library of the world. Theoretically, online information can come out faster than any new edition of a printed work. If only that were the case, the Internet would put every library in the shade. In practice, though a certain amount of energy is invested in making some basic information on a given subject available on the Internet, the data are seldom revised and augmented on a regular basis. Consequently, the Internet contains a lot of obsolete information, half-truths, and incomplete collections - electronic corpses lying in the cellars of the global village.

In a book, the blurb, table of contents, and index give the reader context for and an overview of the material; on the net, such information is often missing. For example, there are no conventions regarding how electronic data should look.

The sensible handling of information from all over the world requires two things. First, since you need to evaluate the importance of the information, a certain amount of all-round education is essential. Second, you have to find your way through the chaos and to develop cognitive maps of the information. But what is the use of such maps if sources located at a given address yesterday, will not be there tomorrow, or if their contents have been changed? Without indications of which sites are the most significant, the network is worse than an unsorted telephone directory. For the near future, schools can probably use networking most reasonably by collecting and swapping teaching concepts and materials. But who will take on the work of coordination and quality management, and who will finance that work?

The utopian dreams of self-determined, network-aided learning shown in industry's glossy leaflets and promotional films have little to do with reality. In fact, the situation is mostly determined by a dearth of didactic concepts for reasonable media use, and of financial resources for education, as well as by technical problems. Moreover, information on the net tends toward the trivial and commercial. Thoroughly investigated, well-structured and worked-up material requires much time and work and is correspondingly expensive. People who cannot afford or don't want to pay for it, only have the freedom to choose among the many sources of insignificant information at their fingertips.

Using the Internet as a Medium of Communication
Computer networks do allow people from all over to contribute to ongoing discussions through asynchronous communication in writing. But many of the public discussions on the Internet take place on a qualitatively low level - the global village crackerbarrel. Hence, for electronic discussions in the field of education, the use of separated groups may often make more sense. But first, those responsible need to decide when and if electronic discussion should be held at all instead of or as a complement to "live" discussion. If external participants take part, either experts in a field or students from another school, an electronic discussion could prove useful. But the joy of making a contact often distracts people from the kinds of learning that cannot take place electronically. Experience of a foreign culture, for example, cannot be imported solely by texts and pictures; thus electronic exchange can only promote intercultural sensitization to a limited extent. International electronic contact between schools might well be useful as preparation for a real real-world meeting and for maintaining contact afterwards. Despite the euphoria of worldwide contact, it's important to keep in mind that many societies don't have access to Internet technology: the distribution of global data flows on a world map clearly shows that the global village is built quite asymmetrically.

Does the "Schools to the Net" Initiative Really Promote Education?
Education is meant to prepare people for a life in society, whether it is an information society or not. But it is not the task of education to produce the information society. Already in the 1980s, during the first wave of implementing computers in schools, the interests of business and industry were the driving forces; they contributed little in the way of pedagogical concepts. Today the prevailing view seems to be that computers should be widely used in schools and that the schools should be connected to the Internet. The "Schools to the Net" initiative manifests this technocratic bias. It is true, of course, that education must deal with the new information and communication technology. But to rush things will only do harm. For neither computers nor networking determine the quality of education. Even if the idea is not in vogue during our colorful multimedia boom: less is sometimes more. An instance is the ZAMIR Transnational Network, which is based on electronic mailboxes. It has connected the states of the former Yugoslavia with each other and the world outside. The success of ZAMIR shows that limitation to textual materials does not hinder communication; on the contrary, it is getting even more intensive!

The Internet is not an educational alternative. Information does not replace education; education is exemplary at dealing with the world. Learning to use information is often more important than the information itself - at least, if developing autonomous, critically emancipated human beings is the goal. The educational system cannot address all subjects and areas of life with equal intensity; rather it has to teach the ability to handle new situations independently. In the educational process, the use of various media can support this goal. But it must not be assumed that the new media are always superior to the old. Depending on the subject and objectives, the teaching methods and social context (large or small groups, individual tutorials), the classic media, such as posters, can prove more helpful than Internet access - but they are not promoted by industry and politics. There is no doubt that in certain learning situations network access at school can be helpful. A workplace for Internet investigation in the school library can be also useful. But to consider the networking of schools prerequisite to successful education is complete nonsense.

Educating For and Despite the Information Society
Today, education must prepare the students for a life with the public media. Almost everybody is exposed to the media in their spare time or professional life. One of the core tasks of education is to teach the students to go beyond being exposed to having a critical look. This task includes promoting social discourse about the media contents, as well as fostering the abilities to ask the right questions and to live with uncertainty and variety. Students need to be able to assess which and how much information they seek, then to get it, work with it, and evaluate it. With regard to the field of communication it is, above all, necessary to discern the limits of media-mediated communication.

Thus, education must teach and strengthen the abilities required to survive in an information society. These abilities concern not so much manipulation of the new technology as self-confidence, cultural identity, communication skills, critical faculties, self-criticism, good general knowledge, political awareness, and social competence.

A variety of opinions and viewpoints can doubtlessly be helpful for developing individual positions and questioning them further through social discourse. But obtaining an arbitrary number of statements by many people does not guarantee productive discourse. An unsorted mash of opinions can be misleading and hinder processes of cognition, especially if consumed without thinking about it. The vision of having the world's knowledge available on the network may be tempting, but a small, well-sorted library is in any case more than a large, unsorted heap of books, pieces of paper and snippets of texts of indeterminate origin.

Giving students access to the Internet and telling them "Here's all the information in the world - happy learning!", even under the rubric of "self-controlled learning," is committing treason against education. The information society does not create responsible citizens, it needs them.

* Cited from: Öffentliche Meinung / öffentliche Erregung / öffentliche Neugier; Göttingen 1969.

Ralf E. Streibl is a member of the Forum InformatikerInnen für Frieden und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung (FIFF), the German equivalent of CPSR. You can reach him at:
University of Bremen, FB3
Bibliothekstrasse 1
D-28359 Bremen


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