Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Battle of the Bandwidths

Computers pro and con: Old school battles new school in a paradigmatic shift.

At about the same time this article, "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops" appeared in the New York Times, I delivered a presentation on Internet-enabled communication at a Sonic Foundry's Rich Media Users’ Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.

The New York Times article discusses how schools systems are not finding any benefit to student test scores from their adoption of laptop computers. Some school districts, such as Liverpool, NY, are abandoning their laptop programs entirely, citing high maintenance costs and students' use of the laptop to surf the web, hack into local businesses and access Internet pornography. Educators find that there is no difference in test scores between students given laptops and those who learn the three R's using more traditional media such as textbooks and other written materials.

Sonic Foundry's Mediasite™ recorder, which is in use at my educational institution, is one of several competing products that may be revolutionizing the use of computers and the Internet in the classroom. Mediasite™ combines into one source the video, audio and Powerpoint slides presented in a classroom lecture. This combination of several sources is the “rich” in rich media. Recordings are stored permanently on a server and can be viewed via video streaming from anywhere in the world.

So here we have a technological opposition, a battle of the bandwidths as it were. On the one hand we have old school academics who can't figure out how to effectively use the laptop computer in their classrooms. On the other we see pedagogic innovators who embrace the opportunities generated by computer-based technologies. Though the discussion revolves around the effective use of technology, the real conflict may be between a space-binding medium (paper-based books) and a medium that binds both space and time equally (Internet-connected computers).

Harold Innis, a founding father of Media Ecology, argued that the nature of a civilization is determined by the characteristics of its dominant communication medium. Cultures that carved their stories into stones were time-binders and tended to be conservative in terms of change and stable in terms of social hierarchy. Stones were hard to carry any distance, but lasted a long time. This is an example of a time-binding medium.

Papyrus is an example of a space-binding medium, which the Romans used to command a vast empire. Papyrus could be carried easily and allowed the Romans to send orders over great distances, but it didn't last very long, and was subject to destruction by fire and other forces. Cultures that used more portable materials were able to command vast empires, but lacked the stability of stone or clay cultures.

The Internet, upon which rich media technology is dependent, may be the first instance in human history of a medium which binds both space and time equally. The ubiquity of the World Wide Web is counterbalanced by the permanence of server storage and retrieval, a combination I have called the “Memory Well.”

A school system which based its pedagogy on the Internet would have to change its notion of what knowledge is and how to communicate that knowledge to its students. Just as the handheld calculator freed students from the need to memorize the multiplication tables, the Memory Well may force a reassessment of what needs to be taught and how to teach it. This may be the crux of the dispute between the pro and con computer forces.

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