Internet U.

A new documentary, 'net.learning,' looks at the benefits and hazards of the Net as global lecture hall.

Published September 4, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the new PBS documentary "net.learning," technology critic Neil Postman looks mournfully at the camera and decries the current educational obsession with Internet-assisted distance learning. Nothing, he says, can replace the bond created between a teacher and student who are physically together. To plunge headlong into a future of virtual education, he argues, would be very, very "sad."

One hopes that, having made these comments, Postman eventually watched the documentary in which his quotes appear (it airs on local PBS stations over the next two weeks). Perhaps after pondering the segment in which two high school seniors in a rural Illinois town take a calculus course online, or after reviewing the history of correspondence courses for farmers in Iowa, Postman might realize that the debate about "distance learning" isn't necessarily about new technology eradicating old ways -- this isn't an either/or choice.

Sure, it would be terrible if the rush to the Net abolished all face-to-face education. But few people aside from the most committed technophiles are hoping for that day. More rational observers are encouraged by the possibility that the Net can supplement the educational process or fill in where the current system fails. But whatever your position on the merits of the Internet's role in the educational process, there is no escaping one reality -- the debate is no longer theoretical. More than a million students in the United States are engaged in some form of online course work, reports "net.learning." And that number will only grow.

"Net.learning" is a rare artifact indeed -- a treatment of an Internet-related issue that manages to avoid both neo-Luddite technology-bashing and digital revolutionary hype-mongering. Instead, "net.learning" offers a balanced, thorough and engrossing exploration of a complex subject that defies easy categorization -- and, in a blessed distraction from the traditional aesthetics of the virtual domain, manages to dangle oodles of entrancing visual images in front of the viewer, from modern dance in New York to hog farming in Iowa.

The farming segment offers one of the most intriguing stretches in the two-hour documentary. Farmer Floyd Everett needs a bachelor's degree in professional agriculture if he wants to be promoted to major in the National Guard (majors require a four-year degree). But he's also the single father of three children and his farm is 10 miles from the nearest small town. So he makes do with old correspondence course video tapes that offer no interactivity and no back and forth with the professor -- and are sadly out of date to boot.

Everett could benefit from Net-based correspondence courses -- e-mail interactivity alone offers a clear step forward from the clunky correspondence courses of the past. Unfortunately, his phone lines are low quality, and any Internet access would be charged at long-distance rates. So he can't yet jump on the Net bandwagon. Still, when he does get a chance to do some Web surfing, he looks for information about a certain kind of tractor and is stunned by the amount of data available. Two years earlier, he notes, there was very little to be found.

Everett's dilemma helps to place the question of Internet-assisted education in the context of decades of attempts to deliver education to people who cannot otherwise gain access to it, rather than as an assault on the traditional educational establishment. Similarly, the example of the two high school seniors who want to learn calculus also suggests that there are eminently useful applications for the Internet in education. Without the Net, the two young women would have been forced to twiddle their thumbs for their entire senior year -- the school can't afford to offer a calculus course when only two students want to take it.

"Net.learning" makes abundantly clear that there are countless cases in which education via the Net makes sense, whether it be in terms of cost savings, convenience or corporate strategy. But documentary makers Howard Weinberg and Karen Frenkel don't shy away from pointing out the negative aspects of Net-based education -- the increased loneliness of the long distance learner, the incessant pressure on teachers to respond to e-mail at all times, day and night. Weinberg and Frenkel could have devoted more time to the controversial issue raised at those universities that are requiring professors to put their course materials online. Many teachers worry that their own positions are becoming expendable, or easily replaceable, as they are forced to upload their intellectual contributions to the Net. But such concerns don't get anywhere near the same amount of attention in "net.learning" as do examples of how the Net can be used positively.

Otherwise, the documentary is evenhanded. You've got your old-guard technology naysayers like Postman matched up with smooth-talking apostles of the new, like the University of Illinois' Burks Oakley II. Oakley somehow manages to mouth nearly every platitude a pro-Internet evangelist can muster -- e.g., the technology will only get better, the costs will only drop, universities as we know them are practically obsolete.

"Net.learning" has scores of characters -- students and teachers, librarians and English professors. And loads and loads of computers, with modems bleeping and mail programs warbling. After it is all over, the viewer is left with one unavoidable conclusion: Whether you're for or against Internet-assisted education, this is no longer a debate about the future. Net learning is here.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Business Education