How does one answer, “Is the Internet good or bad for education?”
I teach online, and I am completing my Master’s in an online program. Most days, I work from the comfort of my own home. Plus, I can work whenever my mind is at its best. All of this is possible because of the Internet. But it’s also possible for many other reasons:
- How conducive my home environment is to working
- How fast and reliable my Internet is
- How much self-control and self-regulation I have
- How well I manage my time
- How much available time I have
- My own software and hardware skills
- My ability to find research and solutions online
- As well as other factors that have slipped my mind
So when I speak about the Internet and Education, I come from a specific position. Right now, for me, I think it’s great. But I also know that not everyone has the same access or possesses the same skills to effectively use the Internet.
It’s difficult to talk about the Internet in general, because it is almost a world itself. To ask “Is the Internet good?” is like asking, “Is Earth good?” Well, what part of Earth? The people? The history? The technology? The climate? The flora and fauna? The future?
Then, one must describe what exactly is education? Learning? Skills and job training? Training for today’s jobs or the nebulous jobs of the future? Who are the learners: pre-K, K-12, higher-ed, or adults? Or, are we talking about the disadvantaged poor? Those with disabilities? The entitled? Millennials or Baby-boomers?
If forced to answer the general question, “Is the Internet good for education?” I’d say yes. But, there is also a potential for the Internet to corrupt that which is good and to accentuate that which is harmful in education.
So perhaps the best approach to considering whether the Internet is good or bad is to consider what the Internet does and how these affordances could either help or harm education.
The Internet stores and allows access to content. If it could be known, it’s on the Internet, somewhere. This helps education by relieving some of the mental load of remembering information. If students and workers do not use the information frequently, there is less of a need to have it memorized; to know where to find it as a refresher is enough. Off-line this exists in the form of job aids in workplaces and in math equations in the front of the SAT. Education itself is shifting from emphasizing how much students know to how students use information. As long as everyone who needs information can locate and access it in need, the Internet is good for education and for job training.
Yet, this isn’t always the case. Some websites are behind pay-walls, restricted to members of a group, or are copyrighted. Furthermore, some schools block websites, further restricting students’ access to information. Also, increasingly, websites use algorithms to analyze user data to personalize content: like search results, ads, and profile feeds.
Creating and Publishing Content
Web tools and platforms allow users to create and publish content. Thanks to YouTube’s video uploading service, we have cat videos and Pewdiepie. In education, that means students’ efforts and work can be produced and shared with a wider audience. A student’s reflection online – like this one – is no longer a piece a paper turned in to the teacher, but is the student’s own digital property. In higher education, movements like Reclaim Your Domain focus on giving students platforms to publicly share and digitally possess their work. For example, students at University of Mary Washington graduate with their own domain and their own portfolio of work.
Yet, many schools use learning management systems to hold students’ discussions, work, and efforts. Students enrolled in an online course are able to create and publish work within the LMS, but once the course closes, students no longer have access to that work. In some ways, this is worse than the physical alternative where students clean out their lockers and stuff all their notebooks, Scantrons, and projects into their book bags. Online students participating in a class using an LMS must be diligent in saving their work on their personal computer or in the cloud. To what extent this happens, depends on the student’s awareness and attitude toward their work.
Speed of Communication
Provided there is a reliable and functional connection, the Internet accelerates the spread and diffusion of ideas. For education, this means teachers can hold asynchronous email correspondence with each other, administrators, parents, and students throughout the day. Students can also do the same with each other using text or web-based apps. Teachers can inform students of assignments after or before school, or in lieu of school, if there is a snow day. Parents can reschedule conferences without waiting for a teacher to return their call. Students can join conversations with each other and other classes after school in message boards or during school using synchronous communications technology.
This speed also allows teachers to provide students immediate feedback on assignments, and students can respond to lectures and classwork immediately as well. Google Apps For Education and Microsoft for Education both use their web-based apps and cloud storage to facilitate this exchange of work and ideas. Then there are the various services like Kahoot, which in some ways are no different than students raising hands to answer questions, but provide more data. It just takes a teacher longer to count how many students answer A than it takes Kahoot to tally the entire class’s response.
Not only does the speed of communication help instruction and learning, but it also helps improve our schools. Because of the speed of communication, students are now able to voice their concerns about their school to a larger audience in the moment. A problem at school appears on the nightly news, and student protests reach international audiences immediately.
However, this is not always good. Negative comments, bullying, and misinformation spreads just as quickly. The multiple efforts of educators, parents, and policy makers to teach digital safety and etiquette are a reaction to students’ misuse of the technology.
Related to the speed of connections is the Internet’s ability to connect people from anywhere, anytime. Faster communication means students can communicate with students across the country or across the globe without waiting days or weeks for a letter. Yet it also means, there are more students to connect with. Before the Internet in schools, students may have connected with another class via telephone, but now online social networks make it easier to find available audiences. Yes, with phones, students could easily call anyone, anywhere, but they were limited by whom they knew to call in the first place. Now, with social media, more classes, groups, and organizations have an online presence. This makes it easier not just talk to them, but also to find them in the first place.
Since social media allows users to search and find groups and people who share common interests and experiences, students and teachers can use social media to extend their learning networks. Students who may not share any interests with his/her classmates can find others like them online. Teachers who may be the only ones in their building to teach a subject can use social media to collaborate on a subject.
However, when like-minded individuals find each other, social networks can become exclusive, and communication channels become echo chambers. Diversity brings new ideas, and when social networks become so homogenous, new ideas become a rarity. Instead of being exposed to different perspectives and new information, online groups will frequently affirm their own perspectives and block any challenging voice.
These four categories are neither strengths nor weaknesses when applied to education. They just exist, and like most things that exist they can be manipulated by users. They can be used to either advance knowledge, invite inquiry, and aid discovery, or they can be used to repeat circular arguments, quiet dissenting viewpoints, and censor information.
Whether the Internet is good for Education depends on the actions of educators, students, parents, and policy makers today. Here’s some suggestions:
- Keep it open, available, free, and encourage Creative Commons licenses.
- Raise awareness of how websites use user data to filter search results and personalize ads.
- Encourage and enable students to own a place on the web for their own content.
- If working with an LMS, encourage students to save their work outside of the LMS.
- Promote civility and support communities.
- Follow people and groups who don’t share your same views, and ask students to do the same.