The Internet and Education

by Robbie McClintock

Published in Briefing the President: What the Next President of the United States Needs to Know about the Internet and Its Transformative Impact on Society. Washington, D.C.: The Internet Policy Institute, 2000. pp. 123-136.

Length: 5,900 words

In the late 19th century, compulsory elementary schooling for all took hold as a civic responsibility and entitlement. In the early 20th century, the public extended compulsory schooling into adolescence and provided opportunities for universal secondary education. In the second half of the 20th century, with the GI Bill and a succession of other measures, a widening sector of the population gained access to higher education. As an historic force in education, early in the 21st century the Internet is completing the democratization of education in a way that will make all educational opportunities open to all people at all times in all places.

As the Internet completes the universalizing of educational opportunity, serious issues of public policy arise—issues of resources, of incentives and empowerment, of control and regulation, of assessment and accountability. The following sections survey some of these issues.


Every major enhancement of educational opportunity has provided substantial personal and public benefit at increased cost. Since the mid-19th century, enhanced access to education through compulsory elementary and secondary schooling and broadened admittance to higher education significantly raised expenditures for education, public and private. Societies around the world have unanimously judged the benefits of these educational efforts to be worth their substantial expense.

There is no reason to expect the cost-benefit calculus with respect to digital technologies in education to be different. As it expands educational opportunity, the Internet will force increases in educational expenditures. But increased benefits to individuals, groups, organizations, and society at large will balance the expense.

Traditionally, universal education was a wish, barely approximated by opportunities for large groups and cohorts—for instance, children aged 6 to 12, who received schooling for part of the day for part of the year. In principle the Internet is greatly extending these historic achievements, making educational experience accessible, not just to large cohorts, but to everyone, not only for significant periods, but all the time at any place—24 hours a day, seven days a week, that is, "24/7" in current jargon. Further, the education afforded to all is greatly enriched. Traditionally, universal opportunity concentrated on elementary education, which had a very limited content. In principle, the Internet now opens the full resources of higher education—the libraries, laboratories, and expertise of the culture—to all people in unprecedented ways. It makes digital participation in the cultural resources of every discipline and profession possible for anyone at any time from any place.

But where will we get the resources to implement this added access? It is very difficult to estimate the costs, for the added access will change existing structures and add new ones. For 20 years, a demand for more technology for education has taken diverse forms. This demand continues and will grow as a recurring quest for new and increased expenditures, driven by the interaction of technical innovation, social need, and civic interest. Resources for open-ended innovation like this come from four main areas: individuals, philanthropy, government, and commerce. Let's consider in turn the contributions each can, and can't, make.

Of all the issues likely to arise from the interaction of the Internet with education, the role of commercial activity in the expansion of educational opportunity is likely to become the most deeply controversial. It is beginning to drive a wedge of basic disagreement into a broad, existing consensus about the range of activities appropriate in institutions of higher education and about the presence of profit-driven action in the elementary and secondary classroom.

Incentives and Empowerments

As the Internet expands access to education, who does what, when, why, and how will also change. Expanded access to education does not simply mean that people will do exactly what they did before, only doing it longer and in more locations. Opportunities and pressures will both invite and push students, teachers, parents, academics, and the public to develop new pedagogical behaviors. With respect to these changes, policymakers need to consider potential patterns of empowerment and possible incentives to help key groups adapt.

Control and Regulation

The problems of control and regulation that are endemic to the Internet impinge upon its educational effectiveness. These problems arise in part because the Internet blends activities together—in particular, commerce, entertainment, and education—creating significant cross-interference. Problems of control and regulation also arise because the Internet greatly accentuates the tendency to disregard the structure of established jurisdictions, something that is already evident in modern communications and transportation. Paradoxically, the characteristics of the Internet that make it such a powerful force for extending educational access also give rise to these problems. The more the Internet becomes the locus of education, the more pressing these issues will become. Consider two instances:

Other problems of control and regulation triggered or accentuated by the power of the Internet to expand opportunities for education may become equally important. For instance, questions may develop about whether markets or whether public authorities should serve as the operative providers of important civic services. The Internet makes commercial enterprise an increasingly effective means for raising the resources needed to extend unlimited educational opportunities to everyone. The power of commerce to raise resources derives from its clarity of purpose. Take return on capital: if the return is good, capital resources will accrue to an enterprise. So long as investors believe the returns will be high, commerce can generate substantial means for the pursuit of public goals. What happens should the expected returns drop?

Likewise, questions may develop about whether key Internet domains should merge or remain distinct. New media marketers, for example, are touting the synthesis of entertainment and education under the heading "edutainment." Many will agree that education should be entertaining and learning fun. Many Americans also hold—or once did, at any rate—that entertainment should "elevate" and lift up the spirit. Yet the formula in entertainment today is to hold audiences by leaving their members unchanged, ready to return over and over again to repetitions of the same basic production. Education, in contrast, changes a person; the whole idea is to move from mastery of one thing to another, to develop, to grow, to mature. Can education and entertainment combine? Is "edutainment" really an oxymoron?

Finally, the any-time-anywhere learning that the Internet fosters does not necessarily respect established boundaries and jurisdictions. Distance learning bursts apart the standard structures for accreditation that the academic world has come to use. For example, the French have become almost comical in their efforts to establish regulations ensuring parity for French as a global language on the Internet. What, given the anytime-anywhere characteristics of the Internet, is the locus and cultural character of the education that it is making so accessible to each and all? Who will guarantee quality and relevance? Who will provide vision and exert leadership? Towards what ends?

Assessment and Accountability

As best they can, policy makers need to account for results. Therefore, the most important question becomes: will the benefits of "24/7" educational opportunity for all people justify the costs? People, school systems and governments have committed the physical resources to make this opportunity available. They have empowered participants to adapt and change their ways of work to accommodate new ways of learning. They have coped with the strains engendered by historic change through sage strategies of control and regulation. Will they find the benefits worthy of the effort? This is the challenge of assessment and accountability.

Where changes are incremental, assessment can rely on linear assumptions—each input should have a proportionate output. The assessment of educational innovation usually takes this form. Currently the public, press, and policy makers alike pay avid attention, whether or not they like the results, to measuring comparative academic performance in key subjects at key stages of the scholastic structure by scores on high-stakes tests. These measures track the outcome of effort within a given educational system, and they are political realities that demand attention. They are not, however, measures that will suffice to account for the benefits of the Internet in education. The educational system as it exists cannot encompass the Internet if we continue to rely on outdated measures. In extending educational access to unprecedented levels, the Internet acts on the system, not within the system. It does not optimize; it transforms.

Transformative historical changes are much like changes of phase and they have significant latencies inherent in them. This creates two serious problems for effective assessment. First, standard measures may show no effects throughout a period of latency. Assessment programs using standard techniques to identify the effects of the Internet in education may deceptively indicate that expensive efforts have no effect, weakening the rationale for investment in the efforts. Second, with transformative physical phenomena, observers usually know nearly as much about the altered state as they do about the former condition, and hence they have a reasonably good idea about how to test for the post-latency relationship. With transformative historical phenomena, people do not simply observe the transformation; they undergo it. As they undergo it, they have no way of knowing exactly what the post-latency state will be like. Hence, it is intrinsically difficult to develop and introduce new, post-latency assessment measures.

But we must develop these measures. They are likely to involve indicators showing extreme diversity in the users of high-quality cultural resources on the Internet and the degree to which the collections of great libraries and museums are available and used at a distance. Pressure on formal educational programs to serve as gatekeepers and as sources of credentials may diminish. People may report participation in intellectual and cultural activities to be intrinsic goals, rather than means towards extrinsic purposes in higher proportions than now they might report. Increasing difficulty in trying to apply the old measures in situations where traditionally they once worked well, as patterns of behavior now slip away from established expectations, might indicate that transformative changes were taking hold of educational practice. Many familiar strategies of assessment rest on the assumption that one can predict what a good student should know as the result of an educational experience. That assumption becomes dubious in an educational environment in which the Internet empowers students to interact with the whole culture. The very definition of accountability may change. Currently accountability aims at giving the public evidence that educational programs meet the purposes they are designed to serve. In a system in which each student can continuously select from and interact with the whole culture, assessment itself may become an operational resource, providing self-directing individuals with much more effective, immediate feedback, that helps them manage their work.


The Internet makes a process of social and educational democratization possible. With it, societies can extend meaningful educational opportunities to all people at all places at all times. Such an achievement, if fulfilled, will not be the work of technology; it will be a profoundly human, social achievement. As such, it will take time and sustained effort.

In education, it is especially difficult to concentrate on truly long-term policy—people rightly feel that the educational interests of children, here and now, must not get sacrificed in pursuit of improvements that will help children growing up in a far off future. When policy becomes too long-term, it unfairly sacrifices today for the betterment of tomorrow. We can view this problem differently, however.

Here and now, the most important idea, which can become real for everyone, is that education at its best is continually a work in progress. Existing schools impress people, especially the young, as fixed and stable givens, places of predictable routine. Education should not comprise a fixed program, good or bad, that people do to the young, the aspiring, the perplexed. Education is properly a shared, unfolding, open effort. Insofar as educational programs appear monolithic and unchanging, they are at their core miseducational, for they communicate a profound mistruth to their participants, that good education consists in fixed and bounded programs.

Human possibilities are unlimited. Educational activity should exemplify that truth. Educational institutions themselves should engage in an unending quest to reach beyond established achievements, not only at the cutting edge of research, but pervasively throughout their work. Educational arrangements must communicate to all the boundlessness of possibility—here and now—by committing to a vision of continuous change that leads far beyond what anyone can reasonably expect to achieve in the finite future.