Waiting for the Internet

I have started reading “Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education” by J.L. Elias and S.B. Merriam (2005) and this post is a reflection of a theme I am beginning to see as I get introduced to the history of the practice of education and the various philosophical movements that have shaped the development of the education field.

There is a lot of interesting material here to think and write about, but for the purposes of this post I am focusing on how it appears that early education movements were almost anticipating the potential of the Internet, and how the Internet seems capable of fulfilling goals of education that were previously far more difficult to fulfill without the technology.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Elias and Merriam write “Socrates’ chief contribution … was his method of exhorting his disciples to question all assumptions and to become knowledgeable…” (18)  As any intrepid explorer of the Internet can see, the vast access to information allows the questioning of assumptions to become a matter of necessary habit.  No longer are readers limited to the perspective of one news source – inaccuracies and inconsistencies become apparent as multiple sources are explored, and the disconcerting tendency of individual sources of information to be limited becomes a routine assumption in any search for information on the Internet.  It appears that Aristotle would approve, given his focus on the formation of self-education habits and his ideal that this would be an activity undertaken as “an end in itself.” (18-19).

The Internet seems to promote the type of learning described by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave” and the belief that “learning was the painful process of freeing the mind of prejudices” (18).  I describe the failure of individual sources of information to provide complete and accurate information as “disconcerting” because that has been my reaction when I encounter credible and respected news organizations that appear to fail at providing accurate information.  That is the loss of a prejudice that is painful because it disrupts the certainty of any source of information.  Plato’s related ideal is that this freedom from prejudice would lead to an acceptance of “responsibility to help others achieve this goal.” (18).  The rise of blogs is one aspect of the Internet facilitating the acceptance of this responsibility, but it is the nature of the Internet itself that allows news sources, individuals and groups to reach such a wide audience, it makes the acceptance of that the responsibility possible.  Without the Internet, only a privileged few could act on that responsibility to any significant degree, and it is not surprising that “Socrates, Plato and Aristotle proposed an education for the leadership class of a society” (19).  However, the ability (as well as the increased motivation that can arise from this expanded ability) to accept that responsibility seems so much greater now that the goal can be meaningfully accomplished by those who have access to the Internet.

The nature of the Internet appears to make many of the goals of education far more possible than they have ever been at any point in history.  The Internet creates a far broader “leadership class” and I will not dance lightly over the global class divisions that are reinforced by the existence of the Internet.  The unpleasant reality of the Internet is that it replicates the days of “servile classes” and “leadership classes” (19) in a very similar manner to what was experienced in the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  However, this “leadership class” is expanding on such a scale because of the Internet that it is appropriate to consider it a new freedom for billions of people.

The American Revolution

Elias and Merriam write that the colonial period of American history “witnessed a struggle” between “elitist-classical education” and the “utilitarian democratic-vocational preparation” advocated by Ben Franklin (21).  Ben Franklin is described as a “founder of American adult education” and noted for his establishment of the education club “Junto” (22). This is where the “anticipation” of the Internet can begin to be seen clearly.

On the Internet, Franklin’s club might be a moderated forum, complete with essay contests (22) and networking with like-minded organizations (22).  Thomas Jefferson “argues for the widespread diffusion of knowledge” and “the importance of self-education.” (22).  There is no doubt in my mind that Jefferson would have embraced the Internet as a means to facilitate his ultimate goal to “prepare leaders for the new nation” (22), particularly in light of his call that this education be made available “regardless of wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance.” (22).

The early nineteenth century saw the creation of a “nation network of study groups” (23), which is exactly the kind of potential that I refer to when I talk about the potential of the Internet.  Every small scale effort and activity that attempts to reach communities and form groups with the goal of education is possible on a far larger, sustainable and accessible scale because of the Internet.  The evolution of education toward more equal access and the creation of focused groups seems to suggest where the Internet is going.  These previous attempts responded to American democratic ideals and available resources of the time.  With these same ideals and the now far greater abilities to connect groups of learners, the Internet already manifests a tendency to follow this historical pattern.

After the Civil War

Elias and Merriam describe the Chautauqua program that emerged after the Civil War (23).  There are elements in the ideals of this program that could suggest philosophies for effective online educational programs.  For example, this program assumed that:

“the intellectual powers of adults need direction, assistance, and encouragement; teachers can enter the process by direct contact or through correspondence; education can occur in voluntary associations, local circles, contact with resident scholars, lectures, and in summer schools and assemblies.” (23)

Remove the geographical constraints and all of this can occur on the Internet on a far larger scale.  The idea of “correspondence,” be it through a message board, discussion forum, email or instant message, can now happen with greater ease and access at this point in history.  “Local circles” now only need to be “local” to a website, but worldwide participation is now possible.  “Scholars” no longer need to residents, lectures and assemblies can be attended from any computer and schools can operate year-round. This is not to say that every education program can be transferred effectively into the online environment, but instead that the potential to take many kinds of programs to wider audiences is a fundamental part of the potential of the Internet.

The Twentieth Century

Elias and Merriam note that this period sees the rise of a focus on “social stability” and the development of programs aimed at working people (24).  “Study-discussion groups, foriegn affairs associations and other culturally oriented programs” are developed during this period (24), as well as “adult education councils comprised of representatives from churches, welfare, labor, business and women’s organizations” (26).  These kind of interactive activities and networks across various groups is another example of the practice of education anticipating the Internet, which now facilitates these kinds of activities and networks with far greater ease than was available during most of the twentieth century.  Films, lectures and articles began to be used in education programs during this period (26), which are materials that are well-suited for use in online education programs.

In a review of the goals of “liberal education,” Elias and Merriam identify features of the philosophy of the liberal education movement that seem to track the capabilities of the Internet, particularly in the goal of the facilitation of “theoretical wisdom” (28). I have highlighted terms in the following section to note where I see concepts that resemble the nature of the Internet:

Theoretical wisdom is the contemplation of the deepest principles of some reality and the reorganization of its connection and relationship to other areas.  Theoretical wisdom is the search for truth about the human situation and the world.  It calls for study and reflection and requires a certain amount of leisure and freedom.  It results from a life dedicated to learning for the sake of learning. (28)

I have seen the term “blender” used to described an Internet user who produces new work that is a “blend” of multiple sources of materials.  This reorganization is a way to analyze the connections and relationships between ideas and sources of information and is relatively easy to accomplish in an online environment.  The Internet “search” is a fundamental feature of the Internet, although it currently remains in its infancy and distorted by a quest for profit.  The Internet is highly conducive to being used as a leisure activity, and there is a great deal of freedom in the parts of the world without censored access.  Overall, “learning for the sake of learning” seems to be fundamental to the nature of the Internet, primarily because of the ease in which this activity can be accomplished.

There is a learning process that seems to occur as searches are conducted – in some ways the Internet trains a user to develop search skills and there is a need to learn how to assess the credibility and validity of any one source of information.  It seems possible that the more Internet searches that are conducted, the easier it is to see the variation in sources and their respective merits.  I bring an education that includes a college and law school degree to my searches on the Internet, so it is hard for me to know how much of my assessment is related to that and how much I have learned from the Internet itself.  However, since I obtained unrestricted access to the Internet about two years ago, I have noticed a change in how I use the Internet and sense that I have learned new skills.  This is one of the reasons that I have found the work of Dr. Michael Wesch so fascinating, because it appears that the Internet is a new kind of learning process, and one that has the capability to radically transform the practice education.  I believe that the historical trends that appear to anticipate the Internet support this theory.

The concept of a “learning society” (31) seems to take on an expanded meaning in the context of the Internet, and the “equality principle” (33) developed in the twentieth century now seems to be within reach.  What were ideals in the twentieth century now appear to be far more possible, and it does appear that some educators were anticipating an “affluent society of the future” where “part-time adult education could be offered to “every man and woman at every stage of grown up life.” (Toynbee in Gross, 1963, 135)”(36).

The 21st Century

Elias and Merriam describe the National Issues Forum (NIF) as “a network of community and educational organizations that makes space for citizens to come together to discuss, deliberate, and analyze contemporary issues facing communities.” (76)  An interesting feature of these programs is that the are led by “trained discussion leaders.” (77)  This is the kind of trend involving “networking” and the creation of forums that seems well-suited for enhancement in an online environment.

There is an additional aspect involving the end of the monopoly on information by institutions attempting to create these types of programs.  While NIF provides materials to outline the issues and present possible solutions (77), the Internet removes the monopoly on information and permits a fuller discussion than what would otherwise be possible in an environment where the discussion leaders control the facts and ideas available to participants.  The Internet seems capable of making such forums more credible by avoiding the appearance of selecting information to promote a predetermined outcome.

There is a social dimension of education that remains a fundamental feature of education programs for “nontraditional students,” such as Learning in Retirement Institutes and the Elderhostel network (47).  It may be that these programs will expand to include active and ongoing online programs while maintaining the opportunity for direct social contact.  It is important to note that I do not foresee all education becoming transferred to the online environment.  It is the potential of the Internet to dramatically enhance the goals of education that appears to be a developing trend.  It seems that each of the philosophies of education that I am reading about can find something about the nature of the Internet as helpful to their particular goals.

The advent of the Internet appears to shift some of the ongoing philosophical debates, along the lines that  Elias and Merrian point out, that “all philosophies of adult education originate and develop in a particular historical and sociocultural context.” (15)  I see a vast new frontier developing in the practice of education and an important role for educators to play in the evolution of the Internet.

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One Response to “Waiting for the Internet”

  1. A definition of “adult education” « Learning Document Says:

    […] to “technagogy” and have started tagging posts on this blog with the terms “internet learning theory” and “internet learning theories.”  One of the ideas involved is that the […]


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