Net May Do for Education What Others Couldn't

In an e-business world seemingly driven by competing forms of hype, this year's single loudest buzz is coming from the e-learning community. From Wall Street fortune-seekers to IvyLeague professors, the powers that be have embraced the idea of the Internet as the ultimate learning tool. If you follow the topic at all, you've almost certainly run across Cisco Systems Inc.'s CEO John Chambers' brash prediction that the e-learning industry will be so big, it will make e-mail look like a rounding error.

Certainly, the potential is there. The Internet undeniably brings many new and potentially wonderful educational capabilities - real-time, on-demand access, customization, personalization, multimedia and 24/7 availability from any browser. Then, of course, there are the huge economies of scale that could potentially bring the world's finest teachers right to your desktop at a tiny fraction of traditional costs - perhaps even for free.

But haven't we heard all of this before? It's hard to avoid the unfortunate fact that virtually every major 20th-century media advance was accompanied by predictions about a coming revolution in education. I can certainly recall that being said about VCRs, cable TV, satellites, CD-ROMs and, of course, PCs. I strongly suspect the same was also said about radio, television and even the lowly tape recorder.

And yet, I don't think it would be too harsh to say that the net impact of all these technologies on traditional K-12 education, and even most forms of university education, has been just about zero. CD-ROMs, in particular, seemed to offer many of the same potential benefits that the Internet does today - on-demand access, multimedia, low cost and great economies of scale. But how many of us ever took serious advantage of any CD-based educational opportunities? Not me.

For whatever reason, since at least the time of Socrates, humankind has been unable to improve on the traditional teacher/student relationship. Perhaps there really is no substitute for the inspiration and motivation that a face-to-face experience can provide, and perhaps no test can match a good teacher's ability to sense whether a student is "getting it" or not. This says to me that traditional forms of school-based learning aren't in serious jeopardy.

Therefore, the primary e-learning opportunity isn't about replacing or reinventing education as we know it; it's about bringing real learning into the workplace and the promise of dramatic improvements in executive and employee education. Indeed, it's the familiar, even shopworn, phrases such as continuous learning, life-long learning and the knowledge economy that will determine the real future of e-learning.

And here, despite the gloomy precedents, you can count me in. The Internet is transforming just about every business task and function, and the current pace of change could easily continue for a decade or more. This convinces me that the great majority of workers will have to continually learn and relearn how to do their jobs, to a much greater extent than in previous eras. The only way this additional learning can be delivered practically is over the Internet.

Thus, the Internet is different from previous technologies, not just because it's a better educational tool but because by transforming commerce, it effectively creates its own demand. Unlike CD-ROMs and other media, the Internet dramatically increases the need for new learning, a demand only it can fulfill. With all due respect to the wonders of e-mail, John Chambers will be proved much more right than wrong.

David Moschella is vice president of knowledge strategy at Means Business Inc., an Internet start-up. Contact him at dmoschella@earthlink.net.

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