There’s a revolution going on today in America’s schools, a revolution that we are simultaneously aware of yet consistently ignore. And despite what you’re probably thinking, I’m not going to tell you about the Internet. We all know that the Internet is rapidly impacting the classroom environment – as early as 2000, the National Center for Education Statistics predicts that over 95% of all U.S. schools will have some form of Internet connection. But the real revolution is more than just the Internet, more than computers per se. The real revolution overtaking our schools (and the rest of society, for that matter) is a Digital Revolution: a fundamental switch from transactions in a corporeal world to interactions in a virtual world.
I’m certainly not the first person to realize this (let’s face it, I’ve probably got 10,000 other pundits in line ahead of me). Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab has made much out of this Digital Revolution, our society’s radical adjustment from atoms to bits. We can see the switch perhaps most readily in the Business section our of local paper. Amazon.com has become the darling of the stock market: in December of 1998 financial analysts predicted its stock could easily reach $400 per share, despite the fact that the online bookseller has yet to make a profit. Why has Amazon struck such a resonant chord among investors, consumers and (perhaps most ominously) its bookstore chain competitors? Because it’s bought into the Digital Revolution with incredible success. In the bookselling days of old, people visited bookstores not necessarily because they wanted to visit, but because they wanted to read a book. The bookstore was simply a middleman to provide the reader with content. Enter Amazon: sit in front of your computer, visit a website, find a book, buy that book. The startup company made the boldest of claims to its competitors: you no longer needed physical booksellers to meet the end goal of selling books. No more middleman, no more bookstore.
When Amazon first appeared, I was more than a little skeptical: browsing a bookstore is half the pleasure of buying a book, right? As the months passed, I inevitably found myself wanting to purchase new books (As much as I adore libraries, I have the neurotic tendency of purchasing every book I read; a new work conquered and mounted on the mantle, Ex Libris Andy Carvin.). Sometimes I had no clue what I wanted to read next, so I would engage in the obligatory bibliophile field expedition to the local Borders. But every so often there would be times when I knew exactly what book I wanted. My life is busy enough as it is, I’d tell myself; Do I have time this week to pick up that book? Yet before my mind could answer the question my fingers began to type out those six letters into my web browser: A-M-A-Z-O-N, Dot Com. After a quick web search and online purchase my book was on its way to me, the shipping charges essentially deferred by tax free shopping and a nice discount.
Now that I’m halfway through this column, I should probably pause and give you the opportunity to ask yourself, “Where is this guy going with this bookstore stuff? Amazon.com has nothing to do with schools, right?” Let’s look at it this way. If you ever wanted to buy a book, whether it was 1995 or 1895, you had to observe a physical ritual: go to bookseller, find book, buy book, go home, read book. But as we’ve seen here, Amazon.com has rewritten the rules: sit at your computer, visit website, find book, buy book, receive book, read book. Book purchasing no longer involves visiting a physical space. Browsing, reviewing, shopping and reading can all be done in the comfort of your own home. The same digital transaction process can be applied to other industries: purchasing a car, buying or selling a home, planning a vacation, getting an education.
Getting an education. It may be ackward to admit it, but in a systems processing sense, a school is nothing more than a middleman in an educational transaction. Whether it was 1995 or 1895, you had to follow the same ritual: send a child to school, teach that child, send her home; repeat 180 times before advancing to next level; repeat entire process 13 times until a diploma can be brought home with child. That’s the way it worked, largely because that’s the only way it could have worked. Few parents could afford the luxury of time to homeschool their children, so they sent their kids to where the teachers were: the schoolhouse. Another physical place, another transaction.
It would be somewhat spurious to carry the analogy literally and suggest that the kids of the Digital Revolution will receive their entire schooling in front of a PC at home. Schools provide important socialization and mentorship opportunities for our children. But the Amazon example should at least tell us that education no longer has to occur in the same four-walled spaces. As Kathy Rutkowski noted so eloquently in her Multimedia Schools essay this January, digital communications invite immeasurable opportunities for distributed virtual learning, connecting students with educators (and other students) at vast distances. It also allows for a reversal of the transaction process: digital technology empowers students to become teachers and creators as much as they are learners and observers. Transaction becomes Interaction.
And what of our libraries? They too must prepare for a fundamental shift in use.
Like it or not, education is going digital: a veritable world of 1’s and 0’s.