Archive for June, 1995

The Kids Who Would Be King: Electronic Publishing, Self-Esteem, and the Rocky Road to Expertise

Thursday, June 1st, 1995

As a relatively young and new member of the education technology community, I’m often struck by the way in which network users are not always very mindful in determining what makes a person on the Internet an “expert” in something. For example, I’ve created a web site for educators called EdWeb. It explores the effects of information and telecommunications technology on education reform, and it provides a handy collection of online resources for schools. Most of it was written while I was on a fellowship — a run-of-the-mill internship project, some might argue.
EdWeb is not very fancy, nor very earth-shattering in terms of content. Yet to some users, its mere existence in cyberspace has deemed me as an “expert” in all things educational and technological. Teachers, parents, kids — even programmers — stumble on to my site and assume that I must have distilled my fair share of blood, sweat and tears to gather such a sum of knowledge. With questions ranging from “I’m trying to set up a shell account and I keep getting this incomprehensible configuration error” to “I need to do a report on pandas for my teacher. Can you tell me about pandas?”, I receive dozens of queries every month, all written with a sincerity that seems to suggest (to my constant embarrassment) that I have a Peanuts-like facade hanging over my home page saying “Education, the Internet, and the Supreme Truth, 5 cents — the Doctor is In.” Little do they know that less than a year ago I was an unfocused grad student in mass communication and rhetoric, with not even a smidgen of educational technology sensibility. So much for a good secret.
The Ambiguity of Being an Expert
It’s a powerful word — expert. Its origins are somewhat meager — the Latin root expertus literally means “one who tries” — yet today’s expert is one who has not only tried something, but who has also spent years to become the master of it.
In the case of the Internet, though, a loosely-used appellation of expert seems to get thrown around a lot — no matter if you’re an expert in C++ programming, American history, or monarch butterflies. Perhaps this willingness to dub certain Internet site developers as experts stems from our societal reflex to genuflect at the altar of technology. If you’re smart enough to be churning out articulate information online (so the logic would go), there’s a pretty good chance that you must know what you’re talking about. They can’t see you, they can’t talk to you directly; there’s no graduate diploma stamped onto your Web site. Our perceptions of an Internet publisher’s experience stem only from the knowledge and the style that is offered to us online.
Up until very recently, the Internet was strictly a realm of the technologically initiated — computer professionals, academics, researchers, and the occasional PhD candidate were the norm, for even rudimentary online publishing required a high level of operating system skills. For the greater part of the Internet’s 25-year lifespan, cyberspace was for the happy few who took pleasure dwelling in a morass of Unixspeak and server configuration hell.
But with all of the latest developments in Internet publishing, from idiotproof HTML editors and Web browsers to point-and-click serverware, a whole new class made up of school-age Internet users is beginning to stake claim to the throne of cyberspatial expertise. An expertise, so to speak, that exists in the eyes of those new users who continue to look at the Internet as the place where those with The Knowledge loiter about.
Take for instance the students of Los Alamos High School in New Mexico. Under the guidance of researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, these kids have authored, designed, and published multimedia hypertext tutorials on subjects ranging from the history of computing to hydrodynamics. Sure, they may have not spent half their lives didactically moulding themselves into experts in the most traditional sense, but because they’ve been able to publish their knowledge online, it certainly seems like they’re several steps ahead of the rest of the pack. One look at their Web site is all it takes — “Damn, these kids must be experts or something.”
Strike that thought for a second. Looking back to my years in junior high, I distinctly remember doing an in-class skit on the history of computers, too. Granted, I concluded the presentation by pointing to a marvelously brand-new TRS-80, but the majority of my talk included a lot of bad art, chalkboard sketches of ENIACs and UNIVACs, and the occasionally fumbled 3 x 5 card. And as I look over Los Alamos High Schools’ project on computer history, I realize that what they’re doing is just the same as what I did, although with a few years more to cover. Nothing has changed, really, except their medium of choice and the culture surrounding that medium.
Publishing a report on the history of computers over the Internet blows my work away for obvious reasons: it’s slick, it’s in hypertext (not like I could ever do a live presentation in hypertalk), and it’s got lots of big pictures that don’t slide off the easel at inopportune moments. But above all else, the reason why they win the big cookie and I don’t is because their education has access to the Internet. Society continues to look at cyberspace as a land of futuristic ideas and futuristic people, yet getting information into and out of that land is now present-tense work that any junior high kid could do without blinking. We stare in awe at a good web site, and yet when we look down at the online picture of the person who created it and see she’s only thirteen, we automatically say “Brilliant! Forget high school — send her directly to MIT!”
In essence, compared to my presentation and the millions of other traditional class projects that take place every year, an Internet publishing project causes adults to do something they all too often do not do anymore in the lives of their children — they take notice. They take notice of what kids can learn. They take notice of what kids can accomplish. And perhaps most importantly, they take notice of each and every kid’s potential as a productive young person. Isn’t that the unspoken covenant of education — if you go to school, do your lessons and learn, learn, learn, you will be rewarded for it in the long run? Praise from parents, teachers, and other adults can be a most satisfying and self-affirming reward. In the schools and homes of modern America, should we not strive for more reasons to praise our children? Who knows; maybe this new-fangled technology stuff can push us in the right direction.
The Real World Online
So what happens now that more and more schools are getting wired and using networks to teach their students electronic publishing? First of all, we should cheer them on and welcome their chance to do something unique and inspiring – there’s plenty of room ’round here for them to keep quite busy. And yet as the Internet becomes a mundane aspect of K-12 education, we must also begin to wonder whether we are bound to look at young people’s Web sites as less unusual and more pedestrian.
Will Web sites become just another staple of the American classroom, not unlike today’s book report or in-class skit? Web sites published by kids are still a relative scarcity, and are thus more exciting and more impressive to us as adults who lack electronic publishing knowledge. Yet in the World Wide Web of tomorrow, where student publishing becomes commonplace, that all-to-familiar parental response to their kid’s work may ring through the links of cyberspace: “That’s nice, honey, but Daddy’s busy now.”
These new kids of the Internet may no longer be seen as young and burgeoning experts; they’ll just be a part of that generation that knows how to work online, right? Maybe so. But for these very kids, the Internet will let them take their knowledge and skills outside of the classroom and share it with the networking public. The entire online world might not care, but the parents, neighbors, and members of each child’s community most certainly should.
It’s the real world out there online; real, at least, in comparison to the insular and compartmentalized traditional classroom, where a student’s sharing of wisdom begins and ends within the same four walls, day in and day out. Though the perceived wonder of the Internet itself will undoubtedly fade with time, can we afford to allow our interest in what kids can do with it to fade as well?
These are the next generation of experts, and we should not be afraid to let them know it. -ac
(Originally published in Computer-Mediated Communications Magazine / Volume 2, Number 6 / June 1, 1995 / Page 3)