The internet’s not for learning?

I confess to being depressed by a summer article in The Economist, “The second half of humanity is joining the internet” (June 6). In the spirit of Thorstein Veblen’s critique, poorer parts of the world are getting on the internet*, mostly though mobile phones. And even fewer people there than in the developed world are using this online time to learn things.

The Economist article did not specifically count online courses, only “education information/services”, but the use is pretty low. And it likely includes looking up something on Wikipedia so you can win a game, or checking the weather.

People everywhere do the same thing: use the internet mostly for “timepass” – passing the time by communicating with friends and family, playing games, and watching videos. I’m not saying these things don’t cause learning. They do. But the purpose is entertainment and emotional satisfaction, not becoming an educated citizen.

It just serves to remind me how truly wide the gulf is between those who value education for its long-term benefits, and those who just want to pass the time. Are the people who get satisfaction from intellectual challenges rare? If so, will the smartphones make them even more rare?

Because that’s the crux of the issue. When all this internet-y, web-by stuff began, we educators were all excited. Vast libraries of information! Massive open online classes! Anyone can learn anything from anywhere!

I’m not anti-entertainment. I’m a huge classic movie fan, and I watch a lot of TV programs where one character calls another “Inspector”. I read modern novels just for fun, or to get to sleep. I’m not always working, always teaching, or always learning.

But I am again reminded of the old Zits cartoon:


The internet relies on huge servers, and uses tons of resources. It only seems “clean”. The mobile phones contain rare earths, the servers are so hot they need to be in the Arctic, the power plants chug away so we can have long power strips full of our charging device plugs. It’s odd to make that sacrifice just so that people can play Fortnite from anywhere.

Perhaps our goals were too utopian. The article points out that our vision of the subsistence farmer checking weather on his phone to save his crop doesn’t really happen. But why shouldn’t everyone use the internet for whatever they like? And can’t we learn wonderful things on our own? Some little boy somewhere is watching a Zeffirelli clip on YouTube and is inspired to become a great set designer. Some little girl is watching the US women’s soccer team and will be a great player. Is formal education a more important use of technology?

After two decades online, however, I am saddened that there hasn’t been a little more educational uptake and a little less “Whasup?”.

 


* I used to be very careful to distinguish the web from the internet — the internet is the entire online structure, while the web is the world wide web accessed through a browser. The recent dominance of the “app” and sites requiring log-in is closing the web, and has become the most-used aspect of the internet other than email.

2 comments to The internet’s not for learning?

  • jmm

    In the paleolithic, when I was in grad school and the internet was only a gleam in little Bezo’s eye, we thought that when everyone had access to all the accumulated knowledge of humanity, humanity would spend all its time watching porn. From this perspective, perhaps Fortnite is a win.

    If it’s true that we’re wired by evolution to exert the least possible effort to get what we want, and it’s also true that survival is easy these days (in developed countries), what incentives are there to learn anything? Is the deep joy some of us find in mastering ideas, or understanding how photosynthesis works, or knowing the difference between American and cattle egrets, just a fluke in our wiring?

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