Looking for an Education Elixir? Don't Look to the Internet!

By Sky Dayton

(Originally published September, 1999)

Two years ago, in the annual education issue of bLink (EarthLink's member magazine), I wrote a column refuting a popular idea — that the Internet was a magical cure for the woes of our educational system. I got a lot of positive feedback from that article, especially from EarthLink members who were parents or teachers. Two years later, as I once again scan the editorial landscape to determine the most pressing issues in education, I still find headlines and politicians proclaiming that the reason we can't educate our children any more is that they don't all have computers hooked up to the Internet.

Back to Basics
First of all, I'm the biggest proponent of technology you'll ever find. EarthLink even provides Internet connections to classrooms through our Knowledge Network program. But, without basic education as a foundation, computer technology is useless. The Internet is the greatest communications medium in history, but the quality of the communication flowing on it derives directly and completely from the quality of education. If our kids can't read or write, the Internet and all of its power to transform our future will be squandered.

Before we focus on putting a computer on every desk and wiring every school to the Internet, we should make sure our high school graduates actually know how to read, write, and do basic math. Our future quality of life stems directly from the quality of our education.

So what's wrong with our education system? I don't profess to have all the answers, nor can I try to do justice to the topic in this short space. But I have noticed a few interesting trends.

Complexity = Lack of Understanding
In business and life, everything is simple once it is understood completely. Consider a massive Boeing 747 jet as an example. Unless you're trained as a pilot and understand the technology involved, just sitting down in the captain's chair and staring at all the buttons would leave you spinning and confused. Worse, if you tried to tinker and pushed the wrong button, the consequences would be severe. But to trained pilots, that complexity doesn't exist. To them, it's a walk in the park.

In the past 30 years, education has become a "complex" subject. It used to be relatively straightforward. Now, we have the proliferation of "authorities" who would have us believe that the process of educating children is esoteric and unknowable to parents, and even to teachers.

Ironically, it seems that the more "authorities" there are for a given subject, the less is really known about it. I mean, how many authorities have you heard of in carpentry, or even computer technology? None. Where we have discovered the fundamental laws of something, we don't find authorities. They aren't needed, because anyone can become adept in the subject.

Clearly, the current educational system has not discovered the fundamental laws of education. Instead, we have spiraling complexity, quasi-educational excursions into areas such as "values clarification," "self-esteem," and even "death education," and the wholesale prescription of psychotropic drugs to schoolchildren. In the process, there is a complete departure from the basic education that has been the bedrock of our culture. To any independent observer, it appears that education is out of control.

A Technology for Learning
What's missing? We didn't have any of these "solutions" decades ago, when the standards for a public high school graduate were much higher. Nor did we have a computer on every desk.

If any technology is needed in the classroom, it's a fundamental TECHNOLOGY FOR LEARNING. We need a workable, replicable methodology anyone can use to assimilate and then apply knowledge. Computers and the Internet may well have a part in this, but the process of learning is much more fundamental.

At least everyone agrees that the consequences of doing nothing are severe. If we forget basic education, we can forget our future — with or without the Internet.