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Internet – So What? (c.1995)

[As published in The Computer Paper]

I recently presented a demonstration on the Internet, specifically the World Wide Web, to a group of educators. I was careful to show all the cool and trendy places that get all the ohs and ahs. After a short period of this, the questions got down to the nitty-gritty of what to do with this resource.
This was a group of computer literate educators, mostly members of the local user group, that took a Friday evening and sunny Saturday to attend computer workshops. In short, they are the computer using elite in their schools. These people are keeners for technology and work very hard against shrinking budgetary resources to get technology into the hands of students. Their reaction to the Internet as an educational resource is mixed. Whether this was a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, it amplified many of my own thoughts.
I am a great believer and a constant user of computer technologies but I must admit to having my confidence shaken by the public hype over Internet and like technologies. My fear is that the hype will blur the critical analysis that should accompany teachers, students and parents in school matters, all people in everyday life when making choices about technology. The logical flaw works like this.
The Internet is a vast resource  (true)
Schools need resources (true)
Schools need the Internet. (false, or at least not provable from the above)

For those without direct interest in school issues please substitute ‘people’ for ‘schools’ in the above statements. Although everybody is discussing ‘The Internet’ the level of understanding is very low. The Internet, at its heart, is a technology not a thing. This technology allows for the combining large and small computers over vast distances. The result is a patchwork that allows information to pass to just about anywhere. No one ‘owns’ the Internet and with a few minor exceptions no one ‘manages’ it either.
The result is a frontier not a highway. People that are using it are left to their own devices, both literally and figuratively, and the “kindness of strangers.” As a result most Internet activity is a mass jumble of unrelated and sometimes irrelevant events. So as a school or individual the prospect is more of tripping over something than of finding something that your looking for. In such an environment, a level of prudence in both the searching for information and the acceptance of what you find is required. I made a point at my recent presentation of showing my cat’s web page. This I created for a laugh one day when I had nothing better to do. I used it as an example of two things.
First, anyone with a minimum of means can access and input information into the Internet. This is powerful and necessary if this technology is to be widely accepted and used. The problem is anybody means ANYBODY whether the information is useful, relevant or even true. This should be a concern to all and something that Internet users should be consciously aware of. Second, The clutter of irrelevant or plain useless information only increases the difficulty of locating useful information. Additionally, it is extremely difficult to divine the truthfulness, character, or honesty of those providing the information over an electronic link.
What are our defences in a case like this. Well, the easiest and safest is abstinence. If you do not trust a medium you should not use it. However, the domination of television  and cable in homes shows that this is not realistic. Even if it was, it might not be prudent to exclude yourself from a medium that are carrying discussions and decisions that may eventually effect your life. Abstinence does not do justice to the many excellent resources that are available from the Internet. The better choice is the determined and measured use of the Internet that shows you are aware of these pitfalls.

I should say to those that view the Internet as a recreational medium that, that approach is fine and you should stop reading here and go back to reading alt.funny.jokes.steinfeld and ignore these rantings.

{are they gone yet? …. good!}

For the rest of us, specifically educators, we need to get out on the Internet and be active critical users. We need to assess the merit of individual resources. This will make us ready to be advocates for what our students need rather than gatekeepers of a flood of information.

Part I Internet as Telephone.

The Internet as a technology allows for the exchange of information across vast distances and disparate computer systems. This is only useful to the extent that it connects people. This is probably the most appropriate use of the Internet. It is usually overshadowed by more glitzy applications with graphics, sound and video.
The Internet at it heart is just a stream of text travelling down a wire. While that type of information can be rather limiting, it covers a vast array of the most common types of communications. It is in effect the format of a letter with the immediacy of a telephone call. A fax is the closest comparison but a fax can carry pictures and signatures. This makes a fax a more robust medium than the Internet.
The Internet does have some unique features. The speed of transmission, or perceived immediacy, cause people who use the Internet to type like they talk rather than type like they write. The implications for the English language should be of concern to all. If dashing off a fax replaced composing a letter, then what will slapping together a email do? This runs against the normal conclusion that more written work should improve language. You have to question the direction and quality of language under such circumstances.
The overall advantage is the spread of ideas, information, and thoughts between people that would not otherwise correspond. The result is a free flow of ideas with little moderation or control. The problem is that all ideas appear to have roughly equal merit until the writer themselves prove otherwise. This is a valuable and necessary condition for a mass medium that all people should be able to access. The problems with this are already starting to arise. In the frontier world of the Internet the bandits are as rampant as they ever were in the old west. As an educator that would like to see students have access to the Internet this is of great concern to me. My students need a practical set of skills to separate the useful from the trite.
The other result is volume. The shear number of messages flashing across the Internet is incomprehensible. This is interesting because the volume and tone of many discussions make it possible for political and social movements to be born and developed outside the view of a large portion of the population. Those without access to the Internet could be excluded from important cultural discussions.
This should be a concern to all of us. While the solutions are complicated and sometimes nebulous, a concerted effort must be made to find them. Ideas like Freenets and publicly sponsored Internet access, through libraries and schools, are a large step toward this goal.
The ability of the Internet to connect people is powerful and pervasive but it is not universal.
Part II Internet as Television
While the Internet is a powerful tool of two way communications. The power can be turned to one-way communications if the sender chooses. This follows a television analogy of broadcast media.
As with regular television, the Internet has its share of PBSes and Geraldos. To be a good consumer of television you must be a critical viewer of both the source and the content. Unfortunately, the history of good television consumers is sadly limited. The chance of developing the good skills will be nearly impossible in the hysteria of the Internet. This means, as educators, parents, or regular consumers, we must start a process now that asks the questions that need to be asked of information providers.
The need to consider the source of all information on the Internet is vital. Established sources such as universities, libraries, and government agencies can be considered reasonably reliable. After that, media sources such as CNN, Reuters, and major broadcasters can be considered as reliable as you local paper. Then comes the free-for-all. The major problem is that individuals can write personal opinions or views but because they are part of a big organization it may be tough to distinguish the organisational information from the individual opinion. It is normally the policy in most large institutions for people, such as university professors and employees of government, to state clearly that ‘this is a personal opinion and should not be considered the position of …” The people on the fringes, university and high school students or some kid using his parents account, are tougher to distinguish and are less likely to be explicit about their position.
The result is that information on the Internet can not be considered wholly reliable. This runs against most peoples tendency to accept electronic reporting, news, TV, radio, as a reasonable facsimile of the truth.
Another major problem is it is almost impossible to distinguish the motivation and the character of those providing the information. This is further compounded by our tendency to believe first hand information. If we hear a voice or see a picture from Bosnia we accept it as an accurate report going on. On the Internet you could be getting direct information from Bosnia or any other hot spot on a real time basis. It is possible that the person may not be in Bosnia at all. Even if they were, are they serb, moslem,or croat? What is their motivation? Are they part of a government propaganda machine? The questions are endless and almost impossible to answer. The Internet also has a facility for anonymity. This makes an information judgment almost impossible.
These detrimental factors do not overshadow the shear power of the media. The largest example is in “access to information”. Many governments now have laws that require it to make documents freely available. The Internet provides governments with a cheap and reasonably reliable delivery source. This will certainly be cheaper than providing paper copies to anyone that requests it. Unfortunately, this will exclude those without the ability or means to access this form of information.

Recently (Spring ‘95), with little fanfare, the largest part of the Internet was handed over to commercial interests. The Internet, which was originally an education and research network for academics and government, had been created in the US by the National Science Foundation after taking over the basics from the Department of Defence. This was an attempt by the government to divest itself of the physical management of the wires that make the Internet possible. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this, and many taxpayers would claim several things right, it does mark a fundamental shift in the Internet as a structure. Not long ago, there were rules forbidding “for profit” activity on the Internet. Now, a significant minority if not a majority of the traffic is commercial in nature. This should change our view of the Internet. It is not a public utility or even a commercial utility. There are no rules about what can or can not go on the Internet. Legal standards are almost impossible to establish and even less likely to be enforced on a global link such as this.
As a user you need to ask; why is this information here? what is the motivation of those that are providing it? and what are the implications of using it. The best analogy is; how would you feel about television if any of your neighbours could put up a transmitter and broadcast whatever they want.
Part III The road , not the superhighway, ahead.
A cynic, by nature, must take a pessimistic view of events. In the last few paragraphs I have attempted to take such a view of the Internet. I do not dislike telecommunications but I do fear the ‘new is better’, ‘more is better’ view that seems to be developed around the Internet. It seems to have found a niche in our societal desire for ‘infotainment’ There is nothing particularly wrong with this approach but it does put some serious limitations on what we can realistically gain from the Internet. No one would suggest showing daytime television talk shows, or prime time ‘real life’ dramas in the school classroom. Yet the goal of bringing Internet into the schools is accepted with little discussion and no real plan on how to use it.
Those that choose to bring Internet into their homes face similar problems. The reliance on it as an information source has some major problems. The use of it as an entertainment source is fine but individually isolating. While we create  a global community through electronic telecommunications are we neglecting our local community. If so, at what cost. If not, then what are we trying to create in our ‘global village’? I profess no answers, and probably more questions than most, but the questions need to be asked.

I think the first field will be the classroom for  answering these questions. The classroom is where society chooses to inculcate its young in knowledge, tradition, customs, and expectations. The application of the Internet in that environment will shape how the future of the Internet will shape our society.

When applying the Internet to the school setting we need to ask the following.
Is the Internet to be an information source?
Is the information to be a solely commercial domain?
Is the Internet to be an entertainment source?
Can the Internet be all of these?
In a system where physical separations do not exist the need to find mental separators is critical. Without these information, entertainment, and commercial enterprise would merge into a vast blur.

Bill Kempthorne (billk@wimsey.com) is a Math/Physics teacher at Mountain Secondary in Langley, B.C. He has a soon to be published paper on Computers in the Grade Eight to Ten classroom and a semi-regular contributor to user group newsletters and similar publications. Electronic rebuttals are accepted in the manner offered at the above address.
The view expressed here should be treated as the sole opinion of the writer except were specific quotations or references are cited. Permission to reproduce for individual educational use is granted, all other rights reserved WAK&CO ©1995