The student that read newspapers

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
18 April, 2017
Editorial: 89
Fecha de publicación original: 14 octubre, 1997

In doing we learn

3rd in a series of articles on education in cyberspace.

Last week the Internet made one of its still rather rare appearances on the front pages of (some) newspapers and (fewer) TV channels and for once it didn’t have anything to do with gruesome crimes, transnational fraud by one of the numerous up-and-coming mafias or the latest digital paedophile congress. The news was that the British government led by Tony Blair had decided to invest 100 million pounds sterling in equipping 32,000 schools in Great Britain with computers. The aim of this initial investment is to pave the way to ensuring that all scholars in the U.K. are connected to the Internet by the year 2002. I don’t know if, for the media, the importance of this announcement was the size of the investment, that it was for net-education (unusual in Europe) or that coincidentally that bespectacled young man sitting next to Mr Blair when the announcement was made was Little Lord Gates. Nevertheless, this is the first and most important step made by any European authority to get education into cyberspace (as long as this promise doesn’t just become a pretty picture, something which we are all too familiar with).

The measure follows in the wake of similar policies being introduced on the other side of the Atlantic and places these two nations at the forefront in this crucial sector (blimey, the English again!). So much so in fact, that on the same day as the announcement was made, a minor fracas arose that, in a few phrases, summed up some of the key features of education in cyberspace. Great Britain’s Princess Ann, who was opening a congress of private schools, criticised those who think that “children can be left alone to learn everything they need for themselves from computers”. Gates, always ready to defend the principle of authority, hastily responded by saying that “Technology will not substitute teachers, but will be an extra tool in their hands. The Internet is neutral, it is a means to connect people and does not presuppose a specific programme. That’s where the beauty of it lies.”

Well, no, Mr Gates, that is not where its beauty lies. Its beauty lies in just the opposite, as you very well know, in that the Internet is not neutral but interactive, so the tool will not be in the hands of teachers alone but also of students. And, of course, dear cousin Ann, (we are all part of one big family now, aren’t we? Or why else did we help to resuscitate that bunch of old bores in Buckingham Palace by going over the speed limit in Paris?), children are going to be free to learn all they need from computers. Exactly what one understands by “free” and “all” in the context of a networked society and the conclusions one could come to as a result, is another kettle of fish altogether. Here, I’m sure, we will agree to disagree on this but for the moment I don’t think that this will endanger the future of your dear mother, your brother, and, above all, your revolutionary nephew, who perhaps surprises us by expressing all the subversive spirit inculcated in him by his mother incarnating the first digital monarchy of the Early Infolytic Middle Ages.

Machines, of course, will not perform the miracle of injecting freedom into the education process, but interconnectivity and interactivity will do the trick. In exactly what proportion this interactivity will bear the weight of this process is an open question. But, clearly, it will not be solved through administrative decision-making, but via a dynamic relationship between teachers and students through global exchange of knowledge. Free and chained will possibly be the contradictory terms that will define the features of education on the Net, a training process which will encompass from the youngest to the oldest, right through higher education to constant personal and job retraining. In this permanent education process to which “students” will return over and over again, they will not always have a tutor. More often than not, they will have to take the wheel into their own hands and face the responsibility of finding new routes across the oceans of cyberspace knowledge.

Nevertheless, with the help of a teacher, their colleagues, or on their own, they will be able to exercise an unusual degree of freedom in accessing data banks to consult, gather data, information, knowledge and experiences, and then process all that. In this task, they will find the land of knowledge very populated: teachers and students will share it in a non-sequential process determined by the horizontality of their relationships. To paraphrase Princess Ann, we could criticise those who think that teachers will be free to learn for themselves all they need from machines. Without the active collaboration of their students, which will happen anyway, it would amount to nothing. And, as we can see, this has very little to do with the supposedly neutral nature of the Internet and a lot to do with the type of Information Society that is arising on the networks.

The way this relationship will start to take shape (something which is already apparent in numerous experiences in education in cyberspace) will be through electronic publications, in other words, communications systems that transmit everything from knowledge to different ways of conceiving the world, or projecting it. Electronic publications will be the vehicle for projects, information, knowledge, for a learning “routine” and elaborating ideas, in short, for a cultural perspective. Through this media we will experience the “densification” of information and knowledge –with its corresponding systems of classifying, searching and distributing– which so many people seem to be afraid of. But these electronic publications will constitute the basic foundations needed for building up educational content in a digital world.

In other words, we are on the threshold of something extraordinary: classrooms filled with students who read newspapers. Not only that, but they’ll make them. I’m not referring to El Periódico, El País or Le Monde (although they might contribute to them). No. I mean their own online newspapers, their own publications. They will create and distribute them and through them they will maintain a constant educational network. They will become the new breed of journalists. Textbooks, even digital ones, will probably play second fiddle to these electronic publications, which will become the framework of a multidisciplinary, multiracial and multicultural body of knowledge within the global context of interactive communications. “Rapid response” projects, as dynamic as a daily newspaper, but, at the same time, lasting, renewable and “immortal” in data bases on the Net. In this way, education will build up its own archives, or its own section of the great digital archive.

In order to exploit the potential of this change, both teachers and students will have to learn the basic art of communication suitable to this new state of affairs. For it to be published, data will have to be converted into information and this into knowledge. To deal with this process, people will have to be specifically trained in how to consult (to select sources of information and knowledge), discriminate (gather relevant information) and produce feedback from this process (publish). Teachers and students will be both the sources and users of information in a landscape where the only thing that will be certain is the increasing density of the flows of communication. Participating in these flows and making them dynamic is an art that will have to be elevated to the category of a discipline. Learning in cyberspace will consist of, amongst other things, learning how to deal with information using the tools of a knowledge officer, one of the new professions which the networked society has given birth to.

In many ways, the points of reference are not that different from what a journalist does, although within the context of the Net the knowledge officer will have to be someone capable of detecting reliable sources of information, managing it, being able to sort out what knowledge is pertinent to the cognitive process in question, surveying and mapping out the diffuse territory in which knowledge is to be found within the geography of the Net and producing something new from this. Teachers and students will have to learn how to read newspapers, but also how to produce them. This activity will make up a substantial part of the educational content and this is something which the authorities, more concerned with protecting every meter of cable of their telephone operators and the large corporations’ sales of machinery, have not paid enough attention to. Consequently, it’s not strange that they talk more about hardware than what is going to be done with it once it is interconnected.

We need to take a look at what this education knowledge officer will be like and what role this implies for teachers and students. There will be obvious repercussions from the point of view of the role that each plays in the new digital education model and the kind of content that needs to be developed in a multicultural transparent society. Above all, because we are moving from the phase where communicating vessels distribute a fixed volume of knowledge between them to one where each vessels is able to generate its own content and pour it into other vessels, thereby creating a new and different substance.

Translation: Bridget King.