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The Internet and Education

I've always thought of technology, the Internet, and the World-Wide Web as a great catalyst for improving people's understanding of the world, and thus, helping people learn more.  Because of this belief, I've been working with technology in education for almost 30 years -- one could say that I've devoted my life's career to it.

However, there are occasionally times when I wonder about the direction that technology is taking us and our society.  With the proliferation of social networking sites that often appeal to people's basest instincts to sites like Twitter.com (which seems to be so aptly named because people seeming to be twittering away their time), to  the tabloid-like hysteria of some sites, I wonder if we are really raising the overall knowledge and intelligence of our society or seeking new lows in human behavior.

A review of a book that takes the latter viewpoint (that the Internet is dumbing us down) prompted me to write about this topic.  The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen, apparently argues (I haven't read the book yet, so I can't say definitively) that the Internet culture is causing our overall society to degenerate.  Based on some things I've seen on the web, I can express sympathy for having concern about our society in light of what the web is doing to our existing "pillars" of society.  Entities such as our traditional media (newspapers and broadcast TV) are clearly struggling to cope (maybe even to survive!) with the onslaught of blogs, YouTube, Google, and new web-based entities yet to be created.  Encyclopedias, as I knew them when I was growing up, are virtually extinct now.  They were gone before many people even realized it. There are concerns about online sites that sell prescription medicine (how can one count on the quality of what you buy there?), display pornography in its basest form, and promote obviously impossible "get rich quick" schemes.....all designed to profit off of the ignorance of many users of the web.

Some could argue that this competition is good for society since those institutions that can't compete will wither and die (the old survival of the fittest argument), yet one has to wonder about quality control issues -- do bloggers do fact-checking or are they simply repeating rumors and misinformation? Although I recognize the inherent problem with generalizing about bloggers that way -- many bloggers are very responsible and carefully check their information sources -- I also know that our current society recognizes certain traditional media outlets, (the New York Times, for example, even though it's taken a few hits lately for its reporting) as reliable and trustworthy because they take care to ensure they are publishing stories that are verifiably based on facts.  There is not yet an established recognition by many in society that certain blogs are known to be reliable and trustworthy, so we continue to fret about "what is happening to our society?!" 

Here's a rebuttal to Keen's argument by Lawrence Lessig, noted Stanford Law professor and creator of the Creative Commons licensing scheme for open content, in which he piece-by-piece pulls apart Keen's statements about Lessig.  (One of the truly great things about the web is that publications that contain misinformation can be quickly and effectively rebutted online -- traditional media has a difficult time providing that kind of immediacy, often resulting in misunderstanding and faulty belief structures getting embedded in society and taken as truisms when they are often untrue.)  I loved Lessig's final sentence, in which he says, "...you're missing the point if you simply compare the average blog to the New York Times."  Sums up my point above exactly!

Oh, and by the way, like any good Web 2.0 entity, Lessig posted his rebuttal on a site where anyone can comment on his arguments.  Be sure to read them, too.  Some are very thoughtful.

So what has all this got to do with "The Internet and Education?"  Well, if you're thinking about formal education, like schools and colleges, then you're thinking too narrowly.  Clearly the internet is an educational environment that is teaching all users all the time.

Stay tuned, more to come on this topic...
 Updated Monday, September 17, 2007 at 6:23:35 PM by Willie Pritchard - pritchardwillie@fhda.edu
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