Published August 1997
We should be ensuring that our educational system takes full advantage of the learning potential of the new technologies
Whither education on the superhighway? The internet is a huge information resource, an infinite pool for learning, but is it being welcomed into educational institutions? I fear that, in Ireland, where there is no stated government policy on adoption of internet technologies in schools, that progress is being made in a sadly piecemeal fashion. Developments are subject to the whims and vagaries of commercial sponsorship and individual teacher enthusiasm.
This is a sorry state of affairs, where no central leadership is being given to educational establishments whose members are frequently confused and bemused in the face of rapid change. We pride ourselves on the quality of our educational system, and often hark back to our traditional self-image of the island of saints and scholars. Yet many of our educators have never sat at a computer terminal or manipulated a mouse, let alone explored the global learning resource at the end of a modem. Like many key figures in our community, too many educators are being allowed to hide their ignorance of the medium behind luddite expressions of distaste or indifference. Meanwhile the "online" world races into the next millennium with a different vision of the future, laying the foundations for new and deep social divisions.
Education is the key to the future, is the future. If we are to believe any of our own platitudes about making the world a better place for children, we should be ensuring that our educational system takes full advantage of the learning potential of the new technologies. While preparing an introductory seminar on the internet for teachers I researched a number of educational web sites. Some were exciting, some were not, but most were built for educators, not for learners.
This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. While the world wide web is a welcome forum for educators to explore questions of policy, direction and philosophy, education has more to gain from the medium than academic discourse. The internet, in its very essence as a global information resource, is an educational tool. Its true pedagogic worth is in its ability to lead learners out from narrow physical confines, to traverse new and ever-branching paths to knowledge - true distance learning.
In the '70s a great debate raged in education on whether or not to stream. It was argued that children in low streams were discriminated against in terms of quality of teachers and facilities, and that it encouraged labelling and poor self-image. In favour of streaming were many teachers who found it difficult to raise the level of learning beyond that within the grasp of slower learners - the principle of the lowest common denominator. Related issues such as class sizes, better facilities and a review of the examination system were largely ignored - these were the given circumstances, the unchanging picture of the educational establishment. Reformers often address symptoms, not causes.
What harm - streaming may become a non-issue. In the classroom of the future, children of mixed abilities, and with varied interests will benefit from a more fluid type of learning. New technologies will liberate students to explore what inspires them, at their own pace, and teachers will be freer to spend time with students who need individual attention. There is limitless scope for collaborative, interdisciplinary projects in the worldwide classroom, fostering cultural links, team abilities and eclecticism. We learn with our children - parents know this intimately, some teachers do. The internet is a hub for life-long learning, less like going to the library, more like a window shopping trip to a shopping mall - where you can find designer info, cheap tack, plastic relaxation areas, green zones . . . the whole panoply of life - we need never be bored at school again.
In some societies the classroom of the future is very close, and many innovative Irish schools are on the road (there's even a planetarium at the community college near the remote Mizen Head). The Irish are adept communicators with a vast, dispersed community - we have lots of friends in the world to meet and greet. Our children are poised to become pioneers on an endless trail of friendship and knowledge, they should fly with our blessings.
Published in Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - August 27, 1997.