When I was a young boy, there were three principal books in my home: The Bible, an atlas, and a dictionary. So, for me, school (in the '50s) was a treasure-house of information, intellectual stimulation,and learning. There were books, smart people, and resources. School became the oasis, home the desert.
Today, many children experience the opposite. Schools are short of books, computers, and information, and larger class numbers severely limit access to terminals. So children more and more are discovering a computing paradise in the home - often well stocked with CDs, network connections, and challenging interactive software.
With each successive generation, the gap widens between parent and child in terms of life experience, educational opportunity, and basic technological and social skills. And rapid technological change is stretching that margin even further. Because the average 10-year-old has more computer "flying time" than the average 50-year-old, it presents an interesting dichotomy. Young people have more time to interact with computers and a lifetime to gain expertise, while the older population has little time either to catch up or reach the same depth of understanding and capability.
Paradoxically, it's the older people who make policy decisions regarding technology and education - decisions that will affect the younger generation.
Students too often arrive at universities and schools only to find a marginal access to computers. This is now forcing some of the smartest candidates to choose universities on the strength of their computer resources, or to buy their own personal computers. How can you graduate with the latest knowledge and training without adequate technology? You can't.
Lecture notes and educational material are increasingly becoming available for the screen, while the whiteboard, overheads, books, and paper are gradually being usurped. Going to class without a laptop will soon be as remiss as arriving without a pen is now.
School for lifeAnd it's not just at school that computers are becoming crucial to education, for education is moving out of the classroom and into the world. It seems like only yesterday that both an education and a job were for life. No longer. Our world now centres on Just In Time (JIT) education, experience, and information. Technology and competition are pushing us to achieve more in less time. As a result, we need a more general education to prepare us for a world of rapid change.
Specialist courses and modules are beginning to dominate beyond- school- and first-degree-level education. Many companies are running tailormade academic, business, and training courses. My organisation British Telecom has offered master's degree programmes for several years, with contributors flying from around the world to lecture.
The inconvenience and expense of this arrangement first prompted me to use videoconferencing. A one-hour lecture and half-hour tutorial conducted across the Atlantic using an ISDN line is £90, which is cheap compared to the cost of transporting lecturers. But this is just the beginning. There's still the dilemma of gathering students into one place. So we are moving inexorably towards a master's degree on screen. Dial-up lectures and individual tutorials will soon be available on demand.
Already, in the US, some medical degree courses begin by students hiring laptops on which the first two years' notes are preloaded. However, these notes are not a direct transcript from paper to screen, but a new form of interactive multimedia - a new teaching dimension - where students learn up to 50 per cent faster and retain 80 per cent more information.
Economic and time constraints only allow students a subset of real-world experiences. But, an increasing number of onscreen demonstrations and hands-on virtual experiments are being introduced. By going virtual, all parameters and conditions can be selected and individually tweaked, embedding equations, graphs, and explanations into the new environment. Imagine, optical fibre where you can adjust the refractive index, semiconductors where you can adjust hole mobility, aeronautics where you can set extreme wind conditions, biology where you can accelerate gene mutation - the list of developments is endless.
We can now enter the world of the electron, the cosmos, or, indeed, the human body on any scale we wish. We can witness the oxygen-exchange mechanism in the blood, or the photonic interaction of light with receptors in the eye. All of this and much more, for example, is available in the latest encyclopaedic CD-ROMs of the human body.
Of course, the real classroom will always play a valuable role - bringing people together to talk, to argue, and to learn the lessons machines cannot teach. Perhaps by bringing together human and machine into new combinations, stressing the strengths of each, schools and universities can start to create a new oasis. Then the interaction of specialist equipment, intellect, and experience can begin to thrive. It's either that or remain in the desert.
Peter Cohcrane (email@example.com) is head of advanced applications and technology at BT.
"The imagery of cyberpunk authors, and of a few virtual world builders, echoes with images of purely phantasmic bodies, freed from the constraints that flesh imposes. They take for granted that the human body is 'meat' - obsolete, as soon as consciousness itself can be uploaded into the network.... [But] it is important to remember that forgetting about the body is an old Cartesian trick, one that exacts a price from those bodies rendered invisible by the act of forgetting - those on the lower end of the social scale by whose labour the act of forgetting is made possible."
- Allucquere Rosanne Stone, from "Virtual Systems," Incorporations.
One hundred years from now, historians will have no documentation of the initial boom that launched online media as a fundamental form of human communication. Solution: We should freeze the World Wide Web on January 1, 1996, back it up, and bury the hard disk. We should also transmit a copy of the archive to the nearest solar system that might have intelligent life.
- Dave Winer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"Psychic Litter" is a term I coined to mean acts of immorality so small as to be below the level of consciousness. One example is wasting small amounts of the time of many people. Bruce Tognazzini, the user interface guru, once opined that by creating a product that wastes a half hour of time for each of 4 million users, you waste 900 work-years of human productivity. That works out to about 12 complete lives.
- David Joiner (Talin@DreamersGuild.com)
The dogs of my neighbourhood have their own newsgroup and sophisticated communication network - they use variations in uric acid instead of an alphabet. This occurred to me while I was walking Beast, the oldest of my guard dogs. His access server, the neighbourhood, isn't as automated as the Internet, so messages aren't all left in the same place. He has to travel from tree to lamppost, sniffing out the threads started by other dog posters. But he can always find those posts. He imbeds his snout into the grass or gravel and snorts and snuffles, and sometimes what he reads makes him pretty agitated. He adopts a "Who does this mutt think he is?" expression, lifts his leg, and posts his reply for the next dog to come along and find infuriating.
- Rev. Ivan Stang (email@example.com)