George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's Note: Bringing School to the Information Age

The new reality is that the public-education system is no longer the only, or the paramount, place where we go to learn.
By James Daly
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Credit: Veer

For more than 150 years, the local public schools were our community's temple of knowledge. They dutifully gathered, assimilated, and dispensed the wisdom of thousands of years of insight and learning to the eager (and sometimes not-so-eager) ears and eyes of fidgeting youth. Once you left the school's care, however, as a young adult, you were pretty much on your own to track down the information and wisdom that would lead to a more enriched mind or pocketbook.

Then something dramatic happened. In 1989, researcher Tim Berners-Lee was noodling around in his Swiss lab, working on a way for his colleagues to share ideas electronically on different networks using an odd jumble of computers. He came up with an online knowledge-sharing device: the World Wide Web. By the mid-1990s, new Web browsers produced by companies such as Netscape and Microsoft made sailing through the sea of online information simple; Berners-Lee had inadvertently kicked open a door to the world's knowledge.

Then came the crackling summer of 1995. While a staggering heat wave scorched the country -- New York City had a record-setting streak of twenty-four consecutive days with no precipitation, while out in the Great Plains, a freight train derailed when the tracks warped in 112-degree heat -- Netscape planned something even hotter: It went public. When that offering happened on August 9, the company's stock and its fortunes skyrocketed. Where there is money to be made (and Netscape was making billions), inventiveness and ambition followed.

The rest of the story, writ in large neon letters, has been a redistribution of knowledge that has essentially turned our world upside down and inside out (or is it the other way around?). In the past decade, the easy access to nearly any piece of information imaginable has become an expected part of our daily life. We've been Googled and YouTubed and iPodded so completely that the names of these very companies have seared into our cerebral cortex, even becoming verbs ("Did you google it?") in our daily chatter.

What happened with our schools? Not much. They continued to plod on gamely, passing out paper-based textbook after paper-based textbook, keeping their rooms and halls nearly free of the technology saturating their students' lives. The public-education system was a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, dozing peacefully beneath its educational elm while the distance increased between the technology that schools provided and the daily reality of the world students live in.

Subtly, but inexorably, schools -- or, for that matter, libraries -- were no longer the key holders to the temple of knowledge. A millennia-old arrangement of information distribution disappeared in the time it took for a newborn to reach fifth grade.

The new reality is that the public-education system is no longer the only, or the paramount, place where we go to learn. Most likely, the average child did his or her first Google search on a home computer. For many kids, they probably first logged on to a network (most likely AOL or Yahoo) remotely, using a portable PC a parent brought home from the office. Their first online chat was more likely to happen at home while the child was enjoying Club Penguin than it was in English class.

This shift represents a fundamental restructuring of what public education is all about. Schools must now jump into the river of information provided by business, international groups, and the media and step into a new role: assembler of the collective intellect. Educators must help students sort out the insightful from the ludicrous, assisting them in their new role as capable and critical thinkers. Schools should not shun the seemingly endless variety of outside information sources, but should instead see them as new sources of inspiration for their daily lessons.

In an age when the flow of information was limited and controlled, schools were worthy gatherers of knowledge. That world is gone. Public education has entered a new phase, and it's time for it to catch up to the students it's charged with teaching.

Editor in Chief
James Daly

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kazembe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Technology is merely a means to progress. And yet, while our interest in technology is continuously piqued, so, too, do we humans have to alter our very orientation toward hunting, gathering, and sifting information.

Intelligence is not what you know... it's how you use what you know.

Bonnie Bracey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The way that technology was introduced in this country was in a robust way. We created the ideas for the infrastructure deployment, cost factored it, and we initiatied, case studies and resources to engage, enrich, that teachers could evaluate and immerse themselves in content to learn to create new ways for learning. We funded the schools of need. We created pathways along the Superinformation highway.

The whole thing became politically charged. Just as the technology was rolled out politics got in the way. OTA was shut down , and so there was no
effective government watchdog, but the hope was that the regional centers RTEC's , would be able to help teachers transform teaching and learning.

It was interesting , the Pope, Oprah Winfrey and
Dear Abby all proclaimed the Internet to be evil.
Look who has web pages and generates sales from it now.

The link of schooling to the community has provided the engine for our democracy during the last century and a half. If someone else--a for-profit company, the federal government, entrepreneurs--provided infosections for local communities, America would be changed profoundly in ways we can now only dimly perceive.

The problem our nation now faces is how to provide infosections for everyone. There are many who are fortunate to be able to be connected to the new technologies in schools, their homes, and their community centers. Sadly there is still a very large digital divide in our own country.

There has also been a take down of the steps along the information highway, that created stop signs.

We have been talking about 21st Century Skills for about ten years now, but we have retreated into the familiar to satisfy the NCLB fervor.

The new NCLB emphasis changed teaching and learning in interesting ways. A lot of misinformation caused a retreat in spending, and seeing teachers as customers, and students as customers too, the emphasis has been on testing, not innovation, construction or project based learning.

Those who have communities, parents or neighborhoods who have continued to invest, learn and focus on technology as media, are fortunate to have these links and connections and are a giant step ahead of their peers. We do have the digitally deficit along with the digital natives and digital immigrants. Few speak about them or notice the problems.

Business leaders, engineers ,and scientists predict that we must broaden the participation of students in our nation if we are to continue to be a leader in the world field. There are a lot of initiatives that will restart the teaching of science, math, technology and engineering and also will infuse the humanities into the curriculum.

Let's hope it is not too late. We use technology for entertainment. Let's hear it for academic progress, and innovation.Let's hear it for teacher time to learn collaborative media in meaningful ways.

Jennifer McDaniel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree! My fear is the education system will get "on board" too late in the game and our kiddos will suffer. In the meantime, I will continue to do my part to encourage the use of technology in the classroom!

Michael Kaufman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your points are extremely important for anyone and everyone involved in the schooling system.

I would like to make one distinction that could go a long way to seeing the kind of change you suggest. I think it is time we call a spade a spade and stop confusing schooling with education. This comment may not be popular but it is in fact our inconvenient truth.

Our free public schooling system is just that - a schooling system. This system was designed with an intended purpose - to provide the bare minimum to the 20% of the population that could not afford a private school (in 1874 families that wanted their children to learn paid for them to attend private schools).

The system we have in place now has not changed much since its inception.

Our ideals and our hopes and dreams for children - all children - have shifted to wanting a 'skies the limit' education. This ideal is not consistent with the policies and practices in employed in the schooling system.

I for one believe we need to make the distinction between schooling and education - and only by doing so do we have the possibility of actually realizing the potential we all hope for.

Technology is just one tool in the toolkit for real education and learning. Changing the way we think is equally - if not more important.

Garrett Brisdon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with this general assessment of secondary education and appreciate the way in which Edutopia has provided a forum for making such points and for sharing some of the work that innovative teachers are doing to address them. I am currently lucky enough to be able to collaborate with such teachers and would like to offer some examples of real 'on-the-ground' innovation in the classroom. We are implementing a Science 10 course which has four solid foci: Project-based Learning, Differentiated Learning, the creative application of knowledge (using tech), and Assessment for Learning.

For example, we are having our students research most of the learning outcomes of our course online in cooperative triad groups and organize the information into wikis. We then have lesson/discussions to provide context, help them to understand the material and to see ways to apply it in real life. We are just starting a unit-long project on water quality with a poisoning scenario that they have to solve, a lab activity testing drinking water quality, and patnering with a local tech business for comprehensive water quality testing.

Our work builds on a course we implemented last year which was featured in a Canadian national newspaper regarding our project work on solar energy and robotics, "Engaging these students is down to a science: Lessons in chemistry, astronomy and energy efficiency with real-life techniques at Victoria-area high school" (Globe and Mail, April 2, 2008)

We are very excited about this (as are the students and their parents) and to broaden the arena of collaboration, we are blogging the process of implementation and invite comment:

The more that we share this way, the faster we will meet our students real needs in the 21st century, and make their experience of schooling the productive and exciting one that it should and can be!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.