Moving to the world of interconnected computers, we can see them being used for straightforward tasks such as sharing teacher information, posting homework on the Web (thereby eliminating children’s ancient excuse that they forgot their homework assignment) and getting useful information from trusted sources, as well as for many educational activities that involve e-mail and access to distant Web pages. Distance learning is another emerging capability of interconnected computers, particularly useful in matching locales where certain teaching specialties are unavailable with places that have the right people and the right knowledge.
If we can agree on some shared conventions, we might even construct my dream-a distributed virtual world heritage museum where each nation posts its writings, sculpture, music and other cultural offerings on the Web and the rest of us, flying a virtual histori-copter, soar easily in space and time, from Plato to Confucius to the Renaissance.
The achievements and promises of computers for learning go to the heart of the information revolution: Unlike the agrarian and industrial revolutions that helped learners indirectly by feeding them, transporting them to school and providing them with electricity, the information revolution helps much more directly because it deals with the principal currency of knowledge- information.
In light of all this potential, how can anyone argue that the jury is still out? Well, take U.S. high school students. They consistently rank from 12th to 18th, internationally, in physics and math, whereas Asian students rank first. Yet U.S. students have far greater access to computers than their Asian counterparts. Might there be some ancient, obvious and major thing about learning that we could learn…if we only lifted our heads long enough from our screens to look at our better educated neighbors? Another, possibly related, reason for the jury to be out is that learning may critically depend on what humans, rather than computers, do best: Lighting a fire in the student’s heart, role modeling and nurturing may contribute more to learning than the neatest hyper-linked courseware.
So what are we to do, confronted as we are by high promises on one hand and a jury that’s still out on the other? I suggest the same answer I gave to Prime Minister Netanyahu: Experiment creatively and massively (in the thousands), but refrain from deploying massively (in the millions)…at least until the jury has something to say. This won’t make politicians shine as bright, but our children may ultimately shine much brighter.