Posted on July 22, 2012
So I watched this short little documentary about “Future Learning.” You can find it Here. I was particularly struck by the following quote: “The absence of the teacher in the presence of the Internet can become a pedagogical tool.”
While I’m a HUGE fan of what the Internet can and has done for education, I think this type of thinking is dangerous. Let’s ignore the fact that the Internet is a vast network of human intelligence (i.e. the product of millions and millions of contributing “teachers”), and concentrate on the other weaknesses of this statement.
The Internet is a seething sea of stuff. It is densely connected (via hyperlinks and embedded content), but the guiding force behind such inter-connectivity is largely arbitrary or idiosyncratic. The internet’s skeleton is not a logical framework separate from its users; it is an organically blossoming web of personal tastes, ideological narratives, and cat videos. In order to find, classify, and use its indexed knowledge, we actively Google and passively Facebook; we consult Wikipedia, query YouTube, and (if you’re like me) occasionally troll forums.
But it can be hard to know where and how to start. I sometimes think of the Internet as an endless aisle of soup. If you’ve been the grocery store without a list, you know how daunting too much choice can be. You can spend hours in the soup aisle examining ingredients and comparing prices. You came to the grocery store wanting a can of soup, and you leave boiled in a broth of existential angst and beef stock. The same is true of the Internet. Choice necessarily limits future choice, and choice is necessary for any type of progress to be made. When the number of things to choose from is as large as what’s found on the Internet, the first choice you make eliminates 99.9% of you potential future choices. Better look before you leap. And look. And look.
This is where teachers come in. Teachers don’t make your first choice for you–they don’t commandeer your keyboard and, with a few swift keystrokes, set you on an increasingly involved search for knowledge. Rather, they show you what you can expect to encounter after making that first choice and who you’re liable to become. This is powerful stuff, and it’s more than being a glorified tour guide. In essence, a teacher explicitly says, “this is the knowledge you can expect to encounter if you choose as I have.” But even more importantly, a teacher implicitly says through their example, “this is how the knowledge will shape your view of the world.”
It is this dimension of education that the Internet struggles to provide. It is possible to emulate from afar, but it is more possible to do so when the figure or person you are emulating knows and respects you. I want to be like Salman Khan (founder of khanacademy.org), but I’d want to be like him a lot more if he personally knew me and took an interest in my ideas. An education solely mediated by the Internet lacks this crucial communal component.
Sure, you have things like Google Hangouts, Skype, and Facebook chat–and these things can be sometimes be sufficient substitutes for face-to-face interaction. But physical distance is not eliminated by closeness to technology. I guess I’m not really a fan of Descartes’ dualistic conception of the mind-body split. You can try to elevate your mind to a realm of pure, unfettered access to information and inter-connectivity (the internet), but unless you find a way to put your body there, you’re not really there. And unless you have teachers who know and respect you–and whom you know and respect–you’ll have a greatly impoverished education.
So yeah–sorry for the diatribe.