Networked Education (*)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
9 January, 2018
Editorial: 165
Fecha de publicación original: 27 abril, 1999

What will those that stumble on the plains do when they get to the mountains?

The task of schools is to prepare people for life in the world they are going to live in. Today it is clear that the connection between what is taught and that world is being called into question. There is abundant proof of this, although it may be presented to us in a rather haphazard way. On the one hand, the preoccupation with getting Internet into schools is beginning to be prioritised. On the other, we are told that children have difficulties with reading and expressing themselves. And somewhere in between we are informed of a teacher/student conflict. The latter are expert in the art of handling electronic devices and addicted to audiovisual culture. The former are afraid of being left by the wayside of the so-called “technological revolution” or information and communications technology (ICT). Out of this concoction, in which lots more ingredients are on the boil, a legitimate question arises: is there any relationship between the world in which students and teachers live and what is taught in schools?

The answer does not just depend on the role the Internet will play in education. Students of today are the children of a very particular world which presents them with specific needs and requirements. In the present education system, they cannot find interlocutors capable of understanding this new dynamic. Although they are not talked about now with the same enthusiasm as before, it is the generation of Nintendo, Sega and other platforms, rocked from the cradle by the impact of audiovisual and special effects, action movies set in atemporal, non-historical times, with heroes that don’t have social or geographical references, that are sitting in classrooms today undoubtedly perplexed by the education they are being given. They are used to moving in an environment where the past, the present and the future do not exist but where they can construct, deconstruct and reconstruct them at will with different objectives and content each time. And they can do this alone or in collaboration with others, in real or pre-recorded time and independently of physical distances, or differences in culture, language and religious beliefs.

They live “off/online”. Where does school fit in here? For the moment, it is “out of line”. Faced with a booming virtual world, in which we all participate one way or the other, educational institutions dither about the number of computers and Internet connections they will be able to get out of the administration, Gates or any other patron. But the question is not whether more or less computers or more Internet connections are needed. Or not just that, anyway. The challenge is the emergence of a virtual world, the logic of which –clearly quite set apart and different from that of the real world– is altering the very foundations of the education system. And it is this which must be reshaped in order to adapt to virtual logic. The barrier which is making the interconnection between students, teachers, the education system and the changes occurring in the world difficult, is not just related to digital information –the volume, range, quality, accessibility, number of web pages of a particular kind, use value, etc.–, but to our capacity to insert ourselves into it.

Virtual logic breaks down the parcelling up of knowledge before our very eyes. And that is just the beginning. Subjects considered absolutely “crucial” may vanish into thin air over the next few years though they may apparently be eternal. Their place will be taken by the ability for transversally integrating different fields of knowledge and, in so doing, they will give rise to a new kind of knowledge in line with the characteristics of this logic. The youth of today have acquired impressive abilities for operating and moving around in virtual environments quite naturally. But this ability is not suitably channelled by the school system. In fact quite the opposite: the distance between these abilities and the disciplines considered to have great educational importance by tradition (“we all learned this way”) is seen as a sure indication of a “lack of preparation”, “school failure” or “shortcomings of the education system” which should be rectified by more time spent on reading and some changes in content. As far as the latter is concerned, in general, the miracle will happen when teachers somehow become “better prepared to deal with computer devices”. This is a gross mistake: filling classrooms up with computers is no guarantee of attaining a different conceptual perception of the world in which we live, and that is what is needed.

If this change in perception does not become the main factor for change, adapting the education system to virtual logic runs the risk of getting lost in extremely trivial concerns, however much they are dressed up in high-flown language (“we must teach moral values” or “teachers will always be the guides students seek out”). This transition means transcending the present idea of education centred on what is taught (the content), to attain to an education that focusses on the how (the way information and knowledge is approached). Educating the “what” is preparing students to answer questions. Educating the “how” is teaching them to ask questions. The educational system have to teach the basics of how to formulate relevant questions: to know how to look for things, ask questions, navigate, design information flows and find solutions. What this means, amongst other things, is being flexible enough to deal with the unusual, the new, the unknown. Learning to look for things means learning to propose alternatives. It means learning to learn. In the same way as the education of the “what” depends on books, the physical object that embodies the parcelling up of knowledge, the education of the “how” depends on human networks and interconnected telematics, in cooperative environments and simulated sets, etc., to fulfil its objectives.

It is time for think-tanks on education to stop being afraid and only coming up with answers based on nostalgia. The best defence is not to attack the “inability” of computers to satisfy demands which nobody is proposing (“will they replace teachers?”), indulge in the digital illiteracy of teachers or the poor or insufficient quality of the information available in the Net. These are marginal aspects of the problem and subject to vertiginously swift changes. When people argue that the only thing you find in Internet is junk information (“cognitive junk”, according to some) related to the subject of education, we need to ask first what information we are talking about. The information that was in the Net in 1989 (electronic bulletin boards), in 1991 (gopher systems and WAIS to classify and look for academic information), in 1993 (the WWW), in 1995, in 1999 or in the year 2007? Are we talking of static, silent information or of multimedia here? Are we talking about information only available to the experts or that which is beginning to reach us through the weirdest domestic appliances? The virtual world is not a static one, nor is it a lasting one such as that of an education based on teaching through books. We create the virtual world all the time and we have to learn it (and apprehend it) without ceasing.
*Notes from a talk given at the “Educnet’99, I Congress on Education and the Internet”. Madrid, 24 April 1999.

Translation: Bridget King