Net-based Learning Communities

This is Chapter 12 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

Entering a classroom, the sixth-grade girl sits down at her terminal and composes an email message to her “Net pal” in India. The two of them are comparing notes about efforts to save endangered species in their separate localities, as part of a class project. Their messages, discharged across the Internet, reach their destinations within minutes. Each child's excitement about making contact is palpable.

In later years, these children may even chance to meet, and their email exchanges will have prepared them to accept each other on equal terms, rather than to be put off by cultural barriers.

An attractive picture? I once thought so. But even assuming this sort of thing to be one of the bright promises of the Net, I doubt we will see its broad realization any time soon. Why? Because the promise is being overwhelmed by sentimentality, uncritical futurism, and the worship of technology. We're seeing an unhealthy romanticization of the Net.

The world is disappearing from the child

Allow me a brief flanking movement here. It's now routine for social critics to bemoan the artificial, fantasy-laden, overstimulating (yet passive) environments in which our children grow up. I'm not sure the bemoaning helps any, but I believe the concerns are largely justified. The problem is that they too rarely strike through to the heart of the matter. For if the child must fill up his existence with “virtual” realities and artificial stimulation, it is because we have systematically deprived him -- not to mention ourselves -- of the real world.

Link together in your mind a few simple facts, many of them commonplaces:

Schools have become ghettos for the young. Perhaps for the first time in history, our century has seen children strictly cut off from meaningful connection to the world of adult work. That work is hidden away behind the walls of the industrial park, or else has disappeared into the remote, intangible, and opaque processes magically conducted through the screens of computers. Likewise, all the once-local functions of government have become distant, invisible abstractions, wholly disconnected from what the child observes going on around him. The evening news concerns events he must find hard to distinguish from last night's movie. The ubiquitous television serves in addition to cut him off from meaningful interaction with his own family. Even the eternal inevitabilities have become invisible; sickness and death are but the rumors of a sanitized mystery enacted behind closed doors in the hospital -- grandmother will not utter her last groans and die untidily on the couch in the living room. And perhaps most importantly (but this receives little attention), the science he encounters at school is increasingly a science of abstractions -- forces and vectors, atoms and equations. And so he is deprived also of his living connection to trees, rain, and stars. The world recedes behind a screen, a veil of unreality.

I do not pine for the particular forms of a lost past. The question, rather, is how to replace what needs replacing, and with what. As things stand, the picture sketched above leads to a crushing conclusion, first elaborated so far as I know by the Dutch psychologist Jan Hendrik van den Berg at midcentury. Can we rightly complain, van den Berg asked, when the child grows up and somehow fails to “adjust”? Adjust to what? Nothing is there -- everything is abstract, distant, invisible! And so the modern outcome seems inevitable: the child is forced to live within an inner fantasyland, cut off from the nurturing, reassuring matrix of structures and authorities that once constituted community. No wonder the surreal world of the video game is his natural habitat. Nor will it do any good to trash the video games, if we find no way to replace them with a real and appealing community.

How can we knit a community together?

To turn such a child over to the Net for instruction is not an obvious good. Can we structure the bewildering, abstract, gamelike maze of possibilities into healthy learning experiences, appropriate to the child's age? Or will he be more inclined to find here only a yet more glorious video game landscape?

The “interface” between the young girl and her Net pal is undeniably thin, one-dimensional, remote. As valuable as it may nevertheless be, it is not the missing key for redeeming the learning community. Even as a tool for promoting global understanding, it scarcely counts beside the much more fundamental -- and deeply threatened -- sources of social understanding. The girl, of course, will learn whatever she does of friendship from peers who sweat, bleed, taunt, curse, tantalize, steal, console, and so on.

If I need to find out whether she will become a good world citizen, don't show me a file of her email correspondence. Just let me observe her behavior on the playground for a few minutes -- assuming she spends her class breaks on the playground, and not at her terminal playing video games. Unfortunately, the assessment is not likely to turn out positive so long as the schoolyard is hermetically isolated from any surrounding, multidimensioned community. And to see the Net as an easy remedy for this kind of isolation is, at best, simplistic.

The danger of the Net, then, is the very opposite of the romantic picture: it invites further de-emphasis of the single, most important learning community, consisting of people who are fully present, in favor of a continuing retreat into communal abstractions -- in particular, retreat into a community of others whose odor, unpleasant habits, physical and spiritual needs, and even challenging ideas, a student doesn't have to reckon with in quite the same way her neighbor demands.

An instructor in advanced computer technology for a Midwest high school wrote to me that “students who think it is cool to have a pen pal in Malaysia won't talk to the black students who locker next to them.” He went on,

Where I teach we have the ESL [English as a Second Language] program for the whole district, butting right up against the TAG [Talented and Gifted students] program. I have run a telecom project for students in TAG classes for the last two years and I have yet to see any of the TAG students, who spent weeks “talking” with students in Kuala Lumpur, say so much as a word to the Southeast Asian students in the ESL program.

When are we together ?

The most bothersome thing in all this is the tendency to leap rather too easily from raw technology, or from simple images of its use, to far-reaching conclusions about extraordinarily complex social issues. There is, after all, one absolutely unavoidable fact: technologies for “bringing people together” do not necessarily bring people together.

Before the news media went gaga about the information superhighway, there were asphalt superhighways. In many ways these did bring us closer together. The whole transportation revolution was no puny thing, even beside the computer revolution. It remade society. We now brush up against each other in ways unimaginable in earlier eras. Few of us would want to give up all the new possibilities. But, still, the uncomfortable question remains: is that the spirit of “community” I feel as I peer over the edge of the superhighway at the dilapidated tenements below? And when I turn to the Net for my commuting, will I lose even the view from the asphalt?

Actually, the rhetorical question is unnecessary. I telecommute from my suburban basement, and rarely have occasion to venture very far out. I blame no one else -- nor any technology -- for this; the choices are my own. But one still needs to ask: how will technology play into the kinds of choices society (that is, we) are already tending to make? Here is the sort of question we should be asking when we gaze into the future. Some technologies naturally tend to support our virtues, while others give play most easily to our vices. I am dumbfounded that so many fail to see how the spreading computer technologies -- in education as in many other arenas -- not only offer distinct hopes but also tempt us with seductive overtures at a most vulnerable moment. It would be much easier to welcome an exploration of the computer's uncertain promise if one didn't see so many eyes firmly shut against the already existing tendencies.

The things that count

Perhaps my single greatest fear about the growing interest in networked learning communities is that we will further undermine the human teacher. The most critical element in the classroom is the immediate presence and vision of the teacher, his ability to inspire, his devotion to truth and reverence for beauty, his moral dignity -- all of which the child observes and absorbs in a way impossible through electronic correspondence. Combine this with the excitement of a discovery shared among peers in the presence of the actual phenomenon occasioning the discovery (a caterpillar transforming itself into a butterfly, a lightning bolt in a jar), and you have the priceless matrix of human growth and learning.

The email exchange between the young girl and her Indian counterpart, added to such an environment, might be a fine thing. But let's keep our balance. Surely the problems in modern education stem much more from the rarity of the aforementioned classroom milieu than from lack of student access to such Net “resources” as overseas pen pals.

Many people in our society are extremely upset -- justifiably so, in my opinion -- with the current educational system. That gives some hope. But a dramatic and ill-advised movement toward online education may well be the one smoke screen fully capable of preventing an aroused public's focus upon the issues that really count.

Yes, the student eventually will have to acquire Net skills, just as she will have to learn about word processors and the organization of reference materials in the library. But this is not a new model of learning. The most evident new model -- not a very desirable one -- lies still half-understood in the Net's undoubted potential for dispersing energies, distracting attention, reducing education to entertainment, and -- above all else -- leading the television-adapted student ever further from human community toward a world of fantasies and abstractions, a world too artificially plastic and manipulable, a world desperately removed from those concrete contexts where she might have forged a sturdy, enduring character.

Let's give our teachers a realistic sense of the possibilities and the challenges of the Net, so they can soberly assess how it might further this or that teaching goal. Let's not subject them to a tidal wave of blind, coercive enthusiasm that adds up to the message: “Connect as soon as possible, or be left behind.”

Get The Future Does Not Compute now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience books, live events, courses curated by job role, and more from O’Reilly and nearly 200 top publishers.