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Next-generation Internets to provide new opportunities for learning

November 12, 1998
Web posted at: 9:50 AM EDT

by Bob Metcalfe, InfoWorld columnist


(IDG) -- Everyone says education is the key to better living in the Information Age. But having just attended this year's Camden Technology Conference, I am not so sure.

I am sure education is broken in the United States. There's no denying the increasing cost and decreasing performance of K-12 public schools for most of our 42 million children.

I am also sure that technology alone will not fix our increasingly centralized, Soviet-style, anti-choice system of teachers, their colleges, their unions, principals, school boards, curriculum committees, textbook publishers, legislatures, judiciaries, and departments of education. The Internet is good, but it's not that good.

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But the decline of education is not why I'm doubting its paramount importance. What I learned in Camden is that education is losing share in the market for learning.

Learning is paramount. And the fraction of learning that does go on in schools is decreasing. That's why we chose not to say our conference in Maine was about educational technology. Instead, we called it the Camden Technology Conference (CTC98) on the Transformation of Learning. See

How much of what we need to know in life did we learn long ago as children in school? How much do children learn in school vs. at home, from their peers, in books, or on TV? How much more will we learn outside of school as the Internet reaches beyond 20 percent of households?

Increasingly, parents are opting to school their children at home, because that's where, even before the Internet gets there, most learning goes on anyway, right?

There was agreement in Camden that home and work, not school, are where we will find the future of learning. What isn't clear is whether this is mostly because of education's decline or the Internet's rise.

The Internet presents new opportunities for learning. Many of these are being pursued outside of schools. Education entrepreneurs are focused, for example, on using technology for training in corporations.

Why do entrepreneurs avoid schools? Is it because schools don't have much money? The 1998 worldwide market for corporate computer training is $18.5 billion. Is it because schools are in the grip of institutions bent on fighting change? Few technology entrepreneurs are so foolish as to take new ideas to teachers' unions or their school boards.

Our public schools were designed back when most people lived on farms and needed the summer off for harvesting. Then our schools evolved into Industrial Age slice-and-dice education factories, with children segregated by age and subject, before being picked up in the early afternoon by their moms.

Modern learning, in and out of schools, is tending toward more learning by doing (less by systematic memorizing), more learning just in time (less chance of being unmotivated long before the need), more customized learning (less one-size-fits-all), more integrated learning (less slice-and-dice), and more entertaining (less by holding young feet to the fire). There is also more learning about how to learn. Digital technologies, especially the Internet, are accelerating these trends.

Many of those working on learning and education see great promise in the Internet. Having seen what it can do, they are quite articulate about what it can't. Better living in the Information Age depends on better learning, and better learning depends on better Internets. What better reason to hurry the Internet's various next generations?

In the meantime, we have our children and their teachers. While working on better Internets, we better not forget to spend time on learning with our children. If you don't have any children, borrow some.

Also, while breaking the stranglehold of education's current institutions, we better not forget to support teachers, who are as much victims of the current system as our children.

For more on CTC98, see

Internet pundit Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973 and founded 3Com in 1979. Send e-mail to See

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