Brain 2.0: Internet education without education of the Internet

Preface

The following post is an assignment for my Writing for New Media class at James Madison University. The assignment called for writing for a web publication of choice (the Verge NATURALLY was my first choice) and exploring the epistemology of the Internet after reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. In his book, written in 1985, he makes a lot of points about how the introduction Television is ruining several facets of public discourse: education, politics, etc. Though his ideas may seem to be debunked by the web, he makes a point. We are enthralled to put everything into new media without question. The purpose of the following post is to question how we learn with the Internet infiltrating our lives more and more. Please feel free to give me feedback, but be gentle! I'm more of a designer and less of a writer! Also, I would love to see some discussion about it. Do you agree or disagree with my call for grade-school education about the web? What are some ways we can utilize education better online? Can we PLEASE make Blackboard less crappy? Thanks for checkin' it out. -Zach

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Downloading info into our brains from the Internet is quickly becoming realized as Americans learn to break out of the classroom and feed it online. MIT Open Courseware is the undergrad and grad-school version of Kahn Academy's grade school, allowing anyone around the world to sign up for an online course in biology, science, and astronautics so long as they follow the syllabus and study on their own time. Similar services are offered online such as Carnegie Melon's Open Learning Initiative. Luis von Ahn (of Re-captcha fame) even found a way to get free language learning software in the hands of anyone in return for translating the Internet with DuoLingo.

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The problem is in the lack of humanity of pure online learning.

There is no doubt that free downloads of learning are readily available, but is it really changing the way we educate? The attractiveness, speed, and free-resource model of the Internet has been with us for about three decades, yet traditional college is still around an extremely popular even through the increase in tuition rates, free-resource learning has not surpassed paid learning. The problem is in the lack of humanity of pure online learning. If my experience with online classrooms through community college taught me anything, its that it works for the determined-the ones who resist Facebook sessions for a forum discussion about Art History on Blackboard. Its success is assisted by the human element.

Connection with classmates and teachers prove to be the driving aspect behind learning. "[...]By removing the one-size-fits-all lecture from the classroom and letting students have a self-paced lecture at home..." Salman Kahn, a man who some proclaim to be the "world teacher", explains the implementation of the video and web learning program Kahn Academy into the classroom of Los Altos, California during his 2011 TED Talk. Kahn introduced a great wealth of videos for free learning of basic subjects. Schooling can now be done on the Internet and is currently being implemented in the classrooms of Los Altos, California where students are encouraged to learn from the Kahn Academy website at home while getting specific help from classmates and teachers during class time.

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America's increasing fascination on the Internet and technology is hitting our view of education in new and extreme ways. The Internet isn't just a research tool anymore: it is the teacher. "[...] When you go to the classroom, letting them do work," says Kahn, "having the teacher walk around, having the peers actually be able to interact with each other, these teachers have used technology to humanize the classroom." Kahn's push towards humanizing the classroom begins humanizing the Internet more. So far, Los Altos' school system reports success with the program. There seems to be worth in using the Internet as a catalyst to better focus on each other.

The Internet isn't just a research tool anymore: it is the teacher.

I appreciate being a pre-internet kid growing up, because teachers were still getting a grasp of how to put the computer in the classroom, I noticed that my age group's ability to learn about and utilize new technology and media platforms at great speed would sometimes surpass a teacher's ability to teach it. Grade-school classes about how to use Microsoft Office would often divulge into gaming sessions after assignments were completed immediately. Newgrounds' game section kept me occupied longer than the material some classes. The majority of my tech-centered classes never seemed to push for a deeper understanding between the relationship of user and the Internet, but taught how to handle the basics (and that you should NEVER use Wikipedia as a source for your papers).

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There is a dark side amidst the excitement and embrace of the Internet's glorious teaching ability, though. Saying the web is your teacher is a dangerous thing: as we humanize the net the way Kahn did, we start seeing the Internet as more than just a tool, but an escape. Psychologist Sherry Turkle expressed her concerns through her book Alone Together: Why More from Technology and Less from Each Other. "So you want to go to that board meeting, but you only want to pay attention to the bits that interest you," Sherry explains at her February 2012 TED Talk, "and some people think that's a good thing. But you can end up hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other."

Sherry brings up several points in her book that, though up for debate, bring some serious considerations for the way we approach the Internet in schools. Maybe a friendlier face can put it better: Paul Miller stated before his current one-year escape from the web, "The Internet is a tool, like the sewers. You don't live in the sewers." Shouldn't we fear for classrooms being held in the sewers? Kid's are growing up post-internet are reaping the benefits of the net but not understanding its social, political, and economic implications of it. Why isn't "Internet 101" not part of the curriculum when kids are getting smartphones as fifth grade?

But maybe the next generation of grade-schoolers have a chance to get this education about the Internet, thanks to a rise in internet-savvy younger teachers entering the mix, we will finally have elders who understand its speed, its complexity, its faults, its language and its free-resource benefits. We are bridging the generational gap, so to speak, with brains immersed in "Web 2.0".

Zach Bruce is a graphic designer, web designer, college student, and self-procaimed cartoonist who is currently pondering his future of having a computer glued to his hands at all times. You can find out more about him at his personal web page or, or more frequently used Twitter account at @ZaxCG2.