On April 22, 1993, the computer scientists who developed the Mosaic 1.0 browser decided that the Internet should be available to all of us.
Before that, it was mostly computer programmers, scientists, university professors and government officials who used the World Wide Web to communicate ideas. After 1993, the rest of humanity was given a new and remarkable power: Anyone with an Internet connection could publish a thought to anyone else anywhere in the world who also had access to an Internet connection. No professional publisher or editor was there to guide you before you hit “send” to ensure accuracy, logic or even common sense.
Historian Robert Darnton says there have been four great Information Ages: The invention of writing in 4000 BC in Mesopotamia; the invention of movable type; the advent of Industrial Age steam-powered presses that made books available to middle-class and working-class people for the first time in history; and now, post-1993, where the abundance of information threatens to drown us all.
What are we doing about the avalanche of information?
As an educator and a historian of technology, I like to look back and see what happened in the previous Information Age, during the Industrial Era.
People in the 19th century were every bit as concerned about “too much information” as we all are now. Before mass printing, common people might own a prayer book and a primer. Most of their ideas came from sermons by the minister or public pronouncements by the magistrate.
Pundits were alarmed that now “Dolly the Dairy Maid” could read as many cheap, popular novels about simple characters like herself as she wanted. Many worried that these novels would fill uneducated readers with unruly thoughts, whether in the realm of morals or politics.
The response to this perceived social problem was to turn to education.
In the United States, that meant developing a system of free, publicly-funded education.
Between 1852 (in Massachusetts) and 1918 (Mississippi), every state in the US passed laws making education compulsory.
HUNDRED YEARS OUT OF DATE
What are we doing in our own Information Age to educate the next generation to be good, responsible citizens of the World Wide Web?
It is significant that, mostly, we are teaching and testing our children much as they would have been a century ago.
Our kids (and this is true around the world) go to school much as they did over a hundred years ago, at the height of the Fordist era.
The schools we have inherited were designed for standardisation and industrialisation. Their aim was to turn farmers into factory workers and, on a different social level, to show shopkeepers how to be corporate employees.
We have inherited this Industrial Age system of specialised, field-driven, silo-ed, top-down, standardised education. We measure achievement in “bubble tests” where you find the best answer from five possible ones.
How does that kind of thinking prepare our students for a world where they can upload or download any thoughts or pictures or movies or music they want?
They can remix and mash-up. “One best item” or “multiple choice” thinking does not prepare youth for the information avalanche of our post-Internet world.
Since 1993, we have been given astonishing powers that come with dangers and distractions. We (adults as well as children) are unprepared for the attention overload and demands of our world. Our educational system is not helping.
It was designed to help people focus on tasks assigned to them, to perform specialised tasks, to be part of a hierarchy where someone else set the pace, the task and the impact. Rote memorisation of a single, discrete body of information prepared you for a standardised way of thinking.
It does not teach you the best ways to break your old habits so you can develop new ones suited to a technology that changes the way we interact with one another, from Facebook to Twitter, seemingly every day.
The Internet has changed the ways we live, work, learn and pay attention. But we are still teaching our kids as if the Internet has not changed our lives. We’re still teaching like it is 1992.
We have to transform education for our Internet era just as the Industrial Age changed it over one hundred years ago.
We must rethink standardised testing, standardised disciplines, standardised time, standardised thinking for the interactive, crowdsourced, Do-It-Yourself, multi-tasking, global and digital world we live in today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Professor Cathy Davidson is Co-Director of PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University and co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.
She is a panellist for the 2nd International Summit of the Book in Singapore, and will give a public lecture on the Science of Attention and the Future of Learning on Saturday, 4pm, at the Central Public Library Exhibition Area.