OTH op-ed

You Say You Want A Revolution:
An Educational Internet in a Commercial World

Andy Carvin
Education and Information Technology Fellow
Corporation for Public Broadcasting

(Note: This essay is to be published in the education journal On the Horizon, and may not be copied or republished without the consent of the author and Jossey-Bass Publishing.)

ON AN UNUSUALLY FRIGID morning this past December, nearly 2,000 of the world's leading World Wide Web entrepreneurs, content designers and programmers converged on Boston's Marriott Copley Place to consider the implications of "The Web Revolution." The event was the opening of the biennial International World Wide Web Conference, the fourth in a series which began in Geneva in May of 1994.

In the scant 18 months since that first conference, where several hundred academics gathered to discuss the web's architectural development and its potential as a research and publishing tool, the meeting had evolved into a who's who of commercial software giants, online service providers and programming whizzes, all of whom seemed to be focused on the Big Question of the Moment: How can we use the Web as a revolutionary, yet economically viable commercial tool?

It's a question that until recently was scoffed at by even the most maverick venture capitalists, for the Web was still a new and unpredictable world with questionable transaction security and a limited, though well-to-do, populace. But with the advent of graphical Web access through mainstream online services such as America Online and Prodigy, as well as the ever-plummeting price of direct 'Net access through other Internet service providers, entrepreneurs ranging from Bill Gates to college student online magazine publishers are lining up to take the leap into Web content development for the masses.

Scattered amongst this sizeable group of business folks and technology gurus, though, were a handful of educators interested in asking a different question: How can we use the Web as a tool that revolutionizes lifelong learning? For some time now, teachers have represented some of the most ardent proponents of Web publishing and online access, even though its use in academic settings has been somewhat limited, especially at the primary and secondary levels.

But at the Boston Conference, it was more apparent than ever that the cry for expanded Web use in education continues to fall on skeptical ears. For example, while attending the conference I hosted the one panel session which focused on the role of the Web in education. Though the discussion was well attended, with more than 100 conferees gathering to meet with our six panelists, there was an underlying tone of futility that seemed to permeate even the most optimistic of predictions.

Panelists, as well as audience members, told of numerous success stories where university professors have integrated web sites into their curricula, or where high school kids use the web for developing online projects with other students around the world. Yet, as 3Com founder and ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe said at the conclusion of the conference, it seemed, sadly enough, that the discussion's participants were merely rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. His point is well taken - as many conferees asked before, during, and after the education panel, is it worth the energy for us to push technology into the classrooms in environments where research conducted online still isn't considered 'scholarly' research, or where limited budgets force administrators to choose between PCs, textbooks and teachers' salaries, or even where kids bring guns to schools and anarchy is the common denominator from classroom to classroom?

For many of us, the short answer is yes. It is all too easy for leaders in education to develop a binary attitude towards technology, where access to computers and the Internet is often equated with the loss of other needed resources or the unnecessary addition of pressure on the educators themselves, who must spend precious time acclimating to the technology and integrating it into their personal teaching styles. One must only visit one of the many collections of educational web sites, such as the ones on Yahoo, EdWeb or Web66, to see and explore hundreds of examples of the private revolutions in educational web use that are occurring in classrooms around the globe. The power of the Internet as a publishing, researching, and communication tool is all too clear for formal (and informal, for that matter) institutions of learning to ignore.

Suffice it to say, it's impossible for anyone to predict accurately where this so-called Web Revolution will go next, despite the conference attendees' attempts to do just that. As conference keynote speaker Brian Ferren of Walt Disney's Imagineering Studio noted so eloquently, the early pioneers of new communications technology, whether it be the Web, radio, or even the printing press, rarely ever grasp the true future potential of that technology until years after its initial development. And though we may not know exactly what path this burgeoning technology will take, the posturing of industries and special interests to guide that path in certain directions has already begun in earnest. This fact could not have been more evident at the Boston conference.

With that in mind, we must now consider another question: What role can the education community play to help steer Internet development into positive and practical directions? Now that the Web is guided largely by commercial and private interests, some might argue that education's role is minute at best. In terms of actual dollar power, that's probably true. But at the same time, we must find a way to speak out and let industry leaders know that students of all ages, as well as teachers and administrators, have much to gain from an Internet that is both affordable to access and open to personal educational publishing. And beyond the basic pedagogical uses of the Internet, it is also in the best interest of those companies who are developing the network to prepare today's learners for an ever-more competitive, technology-oriented workplace.

Though the conferees in Boston represented a diverse range of backgrounds, industries, and interpretations of the Web Revolution, one idea above all others merited mass agreement - The World Wide Web, or perhaps its yet-unborn progeny, will dramatically change the way we all conduct business, gather and present information, even the way make money. It may also, perhaps, revolutionize education, or at least certain aspects of it. Then again, considering all of the other dilemmas that plague schools today, it may not. For many people, the jury is still out on this one. But unless we as educators take a leadership position among the major commercial developers and help articulate the Net's potential role in education and lifelong learning, we may never get the chance to find out who is right.

Now is the time to take that chance. For, as Wendell Phillips once said:
Revolutions never go backward.

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