Blazing Classrooms

Rafael Martín
6 March, 2018
Editorial: 182
Fecha de publicación original: 28 septiembre, 1999

Lightning never strikes twice in the same place

This weekend I was asked to give a talk on “The Internet in Education” during the XVI National Conference on Energy and Education, organised by the Nuclear Forum in Madrid. 700 school teachers from all over Spain filled the Faculty of Medicine’s Ramon y Cajal Great Hall at the Complutense University. The conference gave rise to one of the most interesting debates I have had the pleasure to participate in on the question of education in the Information Society. The audience’s interest was evident. However, unfortunately so was the fact that we still have a long way to go to establish an education system which firmly addresses the particular needs of the Information Society.

As I have said so often before, this cannot be done by simply filling the schools’ computer rooms with computers, nor by guaranteeing Internet access to some teachers and students, although this is an essential first step. If we don’t at the same time foster a mature vision of the world that educators and students are going to be confronted with just around the corner, the temptation to try and solve problems by grand, but not very meaningful, public gestures becomes irresistible. And then, in the end, we will all lose out because we will be left defenceless by better thought out –and translated– versions of that vision produced in other parts of the world. You just have to put a bunch of teachers in a room to discuss the role of the Internet in education for the main obstacles to constructing this vision to become clear. And the meeting in Madrid was no exception. At the risk of being overly reductionist, the numerous critical arguments that made up most of the interesting debate that followed my talk could be summed up as follows:The Internet is a technological phenomenon and as with all technological phenomena, it could just be a passing fad.

It seems to me that this idea stems from a tradition of bad technology teaching in our schools; from the fact that schools are technologically poorly equipped as is demonstrated by computers being confined to “computer rooms”; and from the obvious difficulties that arise from trying to ensure that computers play a central role in the education process, especially if they have to be connected (awkward infrastructure problems) and, in addition, need telephone bills paid (awkward bureaucratic problems).

Nevertheless, the most serious mistake is considering the Internet as a mere technical addition to present educational resources, thereby masking its real nature: a worldwide network of computers that stores information that users can access simultaneously and from any point within that network. Not just through web pages, but via a vast array of different technologies which always presupposes the existence of someone to communicate with. What it is, then, is a virtual environment which encourages relationships between people and groups, enhances co-operative work, increases the distribution of intelligence and, to put it graphically –and at the risk of sounding simplistic– in the specific case of education, does away with the school walls, hots up what goes on in the classroom, and alters the relationship between teachers and students established since the Industrial Revolution. No scanner, photocopier, slide projector, nor computer with word processor, spreadsheets and data bases, can do this. It only happens when computers are connected to other computers making relationships with other people via these networks possible.

From this point on, all objections to virtual culture, if they are to stand up, cannot be supported by mere personal impressions, but must be accompanied by scientific research. Questions such as the purported personality problems that kids might suffer as a result of their contact with an impersonal medium such as the Internet, the dubious educational value of video games or particular dangers that have been regarded as inherent to information technology, are often indicative of a fear, or even an ignorance, of the use of these resources.

The basic question, as I see it, is how we simultaneously deal with the following three questions:

What education (the content). Here in Spain, there are hardly any multidisciplinary forums where teachers, parents, students, publishers, video game and other multimedia material manufacturers, private industry, etc., come together to forge the kind of vision I mentioned before. In the short term, this means an alarming shortage of multimedia material and the means to take advantage of them (from training to infrastructural resources). Investment in text books in relation to the ones directed to developing these new materials is completely disproportionate considering the gigantic evolutionary steps being made by the Information Society. We are still anchored to book education with all the consequences that this entails.

How you impart it (the use of networks, in particular the Internet). Education in the Information Society is not just what we have now plus an e-mail address, in the same way that the Industrial Revolution was not just the agricultural society plus the tractor. We need to develop the conceptual technology that allows for group-work, sharing in the intelligence distributed within the Net, generating new content in a context that transcends old disciplinary barriers and takes new areas of knowledge that are emerging into account. If the Internet’s inclusion in education is limited to learning how to search for information, it would be better to leave that job up to the intelligent agents designed by artificial intelligence and then just pack up and go home. Digital education requires new “encounter technology” and the exchange of knowledge between real human beings. And, once again, interdisciplinary forums are essential to steering this process.

How education is planned (the reorganisation of present educational structure).Virtual culture steam rolls over traditional fields of knowledge. Geography, History, Mathematics, Literature, Sciences etc., don’t make any sense in separate areas (or timetables) assigned to the corresponding teachers, when the virtual classroom, precisely through the technologies mentioned in the previous paragraph, allow for an integrated approach to these subjects, not as a simple amalgam but as a new definition of knowledge. Anyone who has spent any time playing with some of the new, more successful video games, such as The Age of Empires (to name but one), will have realised that this is the challenge we are going to have to face.

So, as we have already said: it is not enough just to get the Internet into schools. It is not enough if teachers don’t get involved in reorganising education within the world of networks as soon as possible. It is not enough unless they create forums for debate aimed at developing conceptual technology that will resolve the question of the joint participation of all factors involved in the new educational paradigm. Hopes that a central authority will resolve the question of Information Society “syllabuses”, conflicts with the inherent logic of virtual culture, where the creativity and innovation of individuals and organisations create new frameworks for personal development which are quite unpredictable. This is a complex evolutionary process fed by ingredients as apparently different as scientific research, redefining public interest, market competition, the development of new artistic abilities and technological innovation.

As this school year starts, all state schools here in Catalonia have been equipped with Internet connections and a computer room with a couple of multimedia computers, thanks to the Argos and Educalia projects in which public administration and private enterprise are taking part. It is a beginning too weighed down by a vision of the accumulation of infrastructures. As Virginia Postrel says, if we don’t manage to get away from certain preconceptions and prejudices just at a time when the grand principles are being severely criticised, we could end up as enemies of the future, which is, as we all know, a sure fire way of breaking with the present and ending up like a shipwrecked person who can just see ships passing by in the distance.

Translation: Bridget King