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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

September 6, 1999

PCs and notebooks don't add up to easy Net access at school

As kids head back to school after Labor Day, the more fortunate among them will be toting notebook computers instead of spiral-bound notebooks.

If Apple has its way, many of those notebooks will be cute, Internet-enabled iBooks in translucent blue or orange.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is hoping students will be equipped with Internet-enabled Windows PCs sporting Office 2000, Expedia, and other educational "essentials."

But are either of these technology families really what schoolchildren need?

Sure, learning to use computers and the Internet effectively is an essential component of modern education. But if kids are going to learn how to make the most of technology, it's got to be fun as well as educational. Today's desktop and notebook PCs are simply too complicated, quirky, and crash-prone to be even remotely entertaining for adults, let alone children.

I think the time is ripe for some Internet appliances aimed at the education market -- simple, rugged, fun-to-use devices that would give students full Internet access without subjecting them to the torments of the Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

Such devices also need to be more intelligent than mere dumb terminals. They need to include a decent set of authoring tools for creating everything from reports to art to Web sites. What's more, they need to be programmable, because programming (whether it's in HTML, Java, or C) is the most creative thing you can do with a computer.

These devices have to be cheap enough for schools to buy them in quantity -- the price of personal computers is a big barrier to educational Net access today. Schools should not have to resort to advertising-supported FreePC ploys to get wired, either. It's bad enough that Coke and Pepsi get to advertise to captive audiences of schoolchildren during lunch -- let's not subject children to the same thing when they're trying to build a Web site.

And as engaging and entertaining as these educational computing devices would be, they should be an adjunct to education, not its centerpiece. Sure, dissecting a virtual frog on-screen might be a good substitute for physical dissection. But some things kids just need to learn by doing, touching, and getting dirty.

Distance learning revisited

When I last wrote about computers and education, I criticized the notion that "distance learning" -- taking classes via the Internet -- would ever be an effective replacement for in-person teaching. (See "Distance learning is no substitute for real-world education.")

I still stand by that assertion. But distance learning has its place, as I learned from the readers who wrote to tell me of their educational experiences online.

Several readers told me how they earned college and advanced degrees via online courses. For them, distance learning opened doors that had been barred to them by time, money, or physical location.

Many readers also pointed out, rightly, that Internet-based classes make a lot of sense for corporate training and continuing education.

Nevertheless, the future of education isn't a clear-cut case of brick and mortar vs. the Internet. You can't just replace a teacher with a talking head on a computer screen.

Instead, consider this: How can we incorporate the Internet into our existing educational systems in a way that makes sense and benefits students and teachers alike? Send me your ideas at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney is the content development manager for InfoWorld Electric. He has been writing about the Internet since 1993.

Previous columns by Dylan Tweney

Ticketmaster: You'd better put down that Web link or we'll sue you
August 30, 1999

Web technology is no substitute for customer service
August 23, 1999

The `e's have it: learning to spell the new economy
August 16, 1999

Webvan delivers logistics lesson to online vendors
August 9, 1999

Every column since August, 1997

Please direct your comments to InfoWorld Electric.

Copyright © 1999 InfoWorld Media Group Inc.

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