What Do We Really Know About Education and the Internet?

DESCRIPTION: This article discusses the absence of adequate data on the effects of the internet in education.

"The next big killer application for the internet is going to be education, "John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, said back in 1999. "Education over the internet is going to be so big, it is going to make e-mail look like a rounding error."

Two years after Chambers made this prediction, in April 2001, Charles M. Vest, who was at the time President of the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology (MIT), announced that the university was making materials for nearly all its courses available for free on the internet over the next ten years under the MIT OpenCourseWare (MITOCW) initiative.   Five years later, UC Berkeley announced its own plans to offer complete academic courses on Apple's iTunes U. Yale, Stanford and Harvard soon followed with similar initiatives.

Today, internet-based educational services and applications have evolved, and many more experts, scholars and institutions have embraced the worldwide web as a revolutionary educational medium.   Millions of people across the planet access online educational courses -- both open and formal -- through VOIP services, podcasts and an abundance of digital reading material.

Limited knowledge base

While the internet is generally acknowledged to be a positive force behind the effort to expand the reach of the world's educational institutions, some experts have acceded that very little is known about its actual impact on the quality of learning.  And experts like Francesc Pero of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are beginning to find this shortage troubling.

In a report for the World Economic Forum, Pero describes how, while reviewing global policies on technology in education, he was surprised by the limited existing information on the effects of modern communications technology on education.  "If good a evidence-supported knowledge base existed in this domain," he says,"then the analysis of these effects, and the factors that determine or conditon them, could be used to unveil what works and why."

Pero's observation coincides with the results of a survey among technology and education experts published by the Pew Research Center last year.  The research organization's poll indicates a disagreement among those surveyed about how the internet is influencing traditional higher education, in particular.

Opposite views

One respondent to the survey, Sam Purnett, president of FAD Research, warned that online courses generally fail to mirror the face-to-face interaction that occurs within the physical classroom. "On-screen learning is appropriate in some instances,particularly as a supplement to the classroom," Purnett said, "but it will always be inferior in the quality of information exchange and interaction."

Others, like Peter Finch, director for technology for the public media company, WGBH, took the opposite stance.

"As communications technologies improve and we learn how to use them better, the requirement for people to meet face-to-face for effective teaching and learning will diminish," Finch said. "Some institutions will focus on facilitating virtual environments and may lose any physical aspect."

The need for student assessments

Pero concedes that, at least on a global scale, technology policies in education are -- as of yet -- not based on any recognized body of empiricial evidence.  The limited knowledge base on the subject -- and the obvious disagreement among experts polled by the Pew Research Center -- appears to support his opinion squarely.  "Policymakers," Pero says,"may be trusting the unknown."

Pero is however hopeful that emerging questions surrounding the effects of new communications technologies on teaching and learning will give rise to national and international student assessments.  These, he says, have been helpful in the past.  "But the right research questions must be asked," he points out.

Pero says these right questions will not be about whether the internet and technologies like it should be used at all in education, but about which technology solutions are best suited to evolving learning requirements.  "Equipment may shine and speak for itself," Pero says," but unless it is properly used, no educational effects will ever be seen."

Author Bio:
Henry Conrad is a 29-year-old game developer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aside from gaming and being a tech junky, he also dabbles in creative writing, which allows him to create great storylines and backgrounds for his characters. . Follow me on Twitter and join me in Google +

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