CYBERSPACE, THE NEXT FRONTIER. This can be your voyage, to go where you have never dared to go before, to meet people you have never met before, to see things you have never seen before.
To the visionaries the Internet is an electronic superhighway constantly reminding us that we live in a time of remarkable connectedness. We are told it is an ocean of information, across which we can sail to stroll through great museums and browse the great libraries of distant lands. We are told it is a cyber-mall where we can rummage through the wares of all sorts of shops. We are told it is the ultimate storehouse where we find and bring into the classrooms all sorts of images, data and knowledge. We are told that we can join with others globally; that whatever we need we are milliseconds away from a host of people across the planet. People who otherwise would never have known each other can talk together.
Imagine, a message passing over all natural and man-made barriers: a message received everywhere, as if invited to a cordial electronic global cocktail party. It is exciting, fascinating and fantastic.
The internet affords us unimagined opportunities to grow. We cannot grow without taking in other worlds; the more we grow the more we discover how small we are; the more we discover how small we are, the bigger we become.
If it sounds heavenly, let me be a virtual devil's advocate. Beware of miracle makers whose statements are punctuated by such words as "instant", "automatic" or "guaranteed". Beware those who offer computers as a patent medicine for society's educational ills, who would convince us that technology is going to produce automatic solutions. "With this new technology we can...", they exclaim. With the wave of a wand, a click of the heels, the utterance of an incantation, the electronic gurus offer us easy answers.
If we stop to think for a moment, did the invention of the book magically make people literate? Did the slide rule make students automatically better mathematicians? Did the replacement of the quill by the typewriter mean that people instantly wrote like the Bard? No. The pundits have not considered human reality.
The experts have forgotten that how we actually use the technology is a very human thing. I was born in 1940. In time, that was not long ago. In technological terms, it was the primordial past. Educated during the chalk and pencil era, I began teaching before Xerox was a household word. Yet I am among that 15% of the population that avidly, fearlessly, grasped the computer. The other 85%, educators included, experience varying degrees of techno-stress. Half of these are reluctant to use the technology until they know they can do so with the minimum of error . The other half, a full 40% of the population, reject it. They fear it will reveal their stupidity. It is, indeed, hard to learn the new ways. If nothing else, it demands a new language in which familiar words have strange meanings: spam is not something to eat; web site is not the home of a spider; surfing is not riding the waves; a hacker is not a sensational, perverse murderer; a boot is not something you wear on your feet; wired is not being high on an illicit drug and a laptop is not something to sit on.
Teachers can be intimidated by being overtaken by their students, especially in knowledge of the new technologies. So while administrators rush to wire schools and libraries and go digital, they tend to ignore the mundane but essential software, which is not just the computer programming. It means funds, time and effort to train teachers to become learners, without which computers would be less than essential.
There is a dark side to the online world. Technology is creating a bias towards children of better-off families in better-off schools. It perpetuates and accentuates class differences. Some pundits insist the problem will take care of itself as technology proliferates, but I wonder.
This wonderful electronic library does not have the controls of a paper library. It is deafened by babble, flooded by electronic trash mail, slowed by traffic jams and breakdowns and often overwhelmed by the solicitations of sordid street people and hawkers. It is as confusing to find information as it is with a card catalogue. And indeed, anyone surfing the web will tell of the inordinate amount of time needed to work out a convoluted reference term in order to find material.
Finally, however marvellous these new technologies ultimately may be, it is humans, with emotions, creativity, imagination, wisdom and humour, who are the most marvellous of all marvels. The computer is only important if WE use it to serve us and make us more human. The internet has little purpose unless it helps tap our human potential for life-long learning and teaching, and makes us all a little more humane.