NCAC Censorship News Issue #65:
Much discussion about the Internet focuses on its purported dangers to children, with little attention to its value as an educational and informational resource. In an Orwellian bit of legal reasoning, the Justice Department now argues before the Supreme Court that the federal law restricting “indecent” material on the Internet is necessary to protect free speech rights. If families are not protected from sexually explicit material, the Department claims, they will not avail themselves of the Internet’s benefits. In the following essay excerpted from the February 21 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine addresses the revolutionary impact of the Internet on scholarship, teaching and learning.
Is the educational promise of the Internet real? I believe it is.
It’s worth recalling that, in an earlier age, the specter of huge libraries filled with countless books raised anxieties not unlike those we today associate with the Internet — concerns about how to cope with overabundant information of mixed quality and how to avoid encouraging antisocial or even unhealthy behavior.
As early as the 18th century, Diderot looked upon the rapid proliferation of books and foresaw “a time …when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole of the universe.”
“The world of learning,” he feared, “will drown in books.”
Although historical parallels are never exact, I expect that over time we will gradually resolve most of our anxieties about the Internet, much as students and faculty members have learned to regard large libraries, filled with innumerable books and journals, as a familiar, manageable, and essential part of their lives. The sheer novelty of the Internet will subside. The tools available for readily identifying relevant, reliable information are likely to improve. The world of learning will not become lost in cyberspace, I suspect, any more than it has drowned in books.
Yet the question remains: What makes the new technologies worth embracing? Why should institutions of higher education undertake the major investments that are involved?
Fundamentally, there is a very close fit — a critical interlock — between the structures and processes of the Internet and some of the main structures and processes of traditional education. Let me offer a few illustrations.
– The Internet can provide access to essentially unlimited sources of information not conveniently obtainable through other means. We are witnessing, in other words, a dramatic expansion of the capacities historically associated with our great research libraries. The library and Internet will be viewed increasingly as a versatile, unified system, providing an enormous variety of materials in different format and media — so that data, texts, images, and other forms of information can be easily accessed by students and faculty members alike, and readily manipulated in new ways.
– The Internet allows for the creation of unusually rich course materials. Recently, I reviewed one of a new generation of Net-based multimedia case studies being developed at Harvard Business School The case focused on the production problems of an Australian-run sock manufacturing plant in China, features not only standard text, but also on-line interviews with company executives, videos of the production process, interactive spreadsheets that allow the student to gauge the implications of varying production schedules, hypertext links to relevant reference materials, and so forth. As this example only begins to suggest, the Internet holds the potential to be an exceptionally fine tool for creating densely woven, unusually engaging, and highly demanding new course materials.
– The Internet enhances the vital process of “conversational learning.” The Internet creates an array of new electronic forums for conversational learning. Communication takes place at all hours, across distances, among people on campus and beyond. Sustained, direct human contact is absolutely essential to serious education. Nonetheless, the Internet permits a significant extension of the scope, continuity, and even the quality of certain forms of interaction.
– The Internet reinforces the conception of students as active agents in the process of learning. For a century or more, evolving theories of education have stressed the role of the student as an active learner — someone who asks questions, searches for relevant information, discusses ideas with others, and generally moves ahead as an investigator, discoverer, or adventurous scholar-in-the-making.
The Internet dovetails with this vision of learning. It calls upon the user to be active and engaged — following leads, distinguishing the substantial from the trivial, synthesizing insights drawn from different sources, formulating new questions.
In short, the Internet has distinctive powers to complement, reinforce, and enhance some of our most effective traditional approaches to university teaching and learning. To be sure, there is always reason for caution when circumstances are changing so quickly. We must not let the intriguing potential of the new technologies drive us headlong toward innovations that erode rather than strengthen education. We must not undervalue the continued need for books and other tangible documents, or neglect the irreducible importance of sustained, face-to-face human contact in learning. But neither should we mistake what is happening for a mere fad or mirage, and fail to realize the transformative possibilities of the new technologies.