Students of almost every age are far ahead of their teachers in computer literacy. This is especially true of younger kids with younger parents. So how is this digital revolution affecting education? A binary answer: Not enough. According to a federal study, most schools are essentially unchanged today despite reforms and increased investment in computers.
The general pattern is for computers to be in a computer lab--something separate and apart like a Bunsen burner. Why? Students who have mastered the wonders of the Internet at home know that with a desktop computer they can do everything faster--take and save notes, write and do research. With guidance, kids can learn these skills at home, especially when high-quality interactive programming becomes more widely available in science, history, math, geography, and languages. There is much work to be done in creating these electronic assets, however. And it is critical for teachers to join the revolution--to adapt information technology to the methods and content of their instruction.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips--hello, Mr. Chip!
What does this mean? It means a teacher can take the class around the world electronically to look at the development of civilizations in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Latin America. A Spanish class in Idaho can talk to students in Bilbao. It means linking biology students in Chicago with a researcher at a microscope in San Francisco, history students with a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, technology students with the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Just think, teachers using digitized collections of Civil War photographs and oral histories can immerse students in original building blocks of American history. Students can take virtual trips and collaborate with other students around the world and research in the best libraries in the country. Teachers can compare techniques with colleagues around the country and create teaching modules on everything from calculus to cloning. Distance learning can explode the number of courses a student might take online with peers, retired experts, and master teachers and writers. Observations can be posted on the Web for use by thousands of other teachers and students. Even the smallest one-room schoolhouse in the wilds can tap into great teaching on an infinite variety of subjects.
There is no limit to the possibilities. Distance learning can include Advanced Placement courses and special tutoring for the learning disabled whose talents are not developed in regular classes. With electronic links, textbooks will morph into digital versions with interactive sections, videoconferencing, and dramatic television sequences. What excitement! And all this can be kept as fresh as milk. In the language of Marshall McLuhan, video is a "cool medium" ; that is to say, it lends itself to high audience participation. Parents can also benefit by viewing their children's work online, exchanging E-mails with teachers, and watching webcasts from distance schooling. This is the 21st-century version of distance learning. What it offers is much more flexibility in time, place, and pace of instruction, an opportunity to create a superb instructional environment adapted to each school's particular needs.