The Internet explosion has revolutionized the way we communicate and do business with each other. As with previous technological revolutions, it is often viewed as a feasible replacement for all manner of important social and economic interactions. In the case of education, “distance learning” has joined the lexicon alongside “e-commerce” and “B2B,” and now many ask whether distance learning will replace traditional methods of education. In short, the answer is no.
Properly used, the Internet is certainly an important educational tool. It has transformed the way students and faculty communicate, amass information, and conduct research, putting onto desktop and laptop computers immediate access to the world’s libraries and research facilities. In this regard, it will play an essential role in the future of education.
But as an alternative to learning from individuals in real time and space, it comes in a poor second. Distance learning can serve a purpose: It can operate in much the same way as a large lecture, where hundreds of students silently consume information presented by the instructor. Where the ultimate purpose is simply to transmit information from one place to another, distance learning through the Internet will play a future role. It might be particularly useful in certain subjects like technical instruction, learning trades, and rote repetition of skills.
But the Internet is not the best way for anyone to learn. People learn by actively participating not only with their instructor but with their fellow students. They ask questions, they join in discussions, and they move the process of learning forward in unpredictable directions through their participation. Without significant technological advances in the distance-learning model, this kind of interaction is simply not possible over the Internet. And for many types of education, e-learning will never meet the potential of live human interaction in the classroom.
Yes, the Internet will play an important role in the future of education, but it will not end face-to-face interactions, small group discussions, and one-on-one teaching that have been at the heart of education. Just as the Internet will never bring about the demise of the book (as was once predicted), it will also never replace teaching and learning from one another face-to-face.
Leon Botstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been president of Bard College since 1975. He is also music director of the American Symphony Orchestra.