November 07, 2002
A little distance learning

This being a blog rather than just a magazine, it is not surprising that the subject of how computers do or do not contribute to education has loomed large in the first discussions here.

I'm starting to suspect that although the impact of computers on education is already huge and will get huger, the one huge thing that computers have so far not done is replace very many teachers. To put it another way, computers have not changed teaching very much. What they have changed is the world, and the way that everyone - not just "pupils" or "students" - learns about that world.

I want to write now about a computer program which, again, isn't going to replace any teachers, but which illustrates how at least some teaching might be done very differently to the way it is done now, and in a way that is much more productive and which might yield huge economies of scale.

Last night I had an odd experience. I watched someone else take control of my computer. But he didn't do this by pushing me out of my chair and sitting down at my keyboard, because he wasn't even at my home. He was at his own home, which is miles away. He did this by using a computer program called PCAnywhere, which he had already put on my computer in the old-fashioned way.

He performed this miracle-at-a-distance because we wanted him to install some more software onto my computer, but this time (and every similar time in the future) for him not to waste his time and my money travelling to my home. And since we both have fixed cost, high speed ("asdl") internet connections – connections which allow us to carry on talking on the phone down the very same wires – the whole operation went very smoothly. He rang me, and told me what to do to "surrender" my computer to him, so to speak, and from then on I just watched as my mouse arrow wandered around on my screen, at his command, his screen having switched itself from looking like its normal self to looking instead exactly like my screen.

The "distance teaching" applications of an arrangement like this are obvious, and I expect many a tutorial from him in the future. For remember, there is no reason why my computer master need have confined his attentions to just one computer. He could have taken control of as many other computers as we all collectively chose to agree to.

Now I'm pretty sure that this kind of thing has been going on for many years now, on corporate "intranets" and so forth. But I further suspect that this has recently become a much more widespread experience and is due to become even more widespread, much as the Internet itself started out as a habit only practised by already connected little networks of collaborators in very capital intensive and money-no-object activities like making superbombs or superplanes for the US government. But then the Internet suddenly exploded into a globally interconnected mass experience, as soon as the average personal computer was able to cope. Well, the kind of telecommunicational wiring that is now becoming standard in the average household is becoming able to handle this sort of intimate long range communication between those same computers.

I could elaborate, but the kind of people now reading BEdBlog surely don't need me to. Instead may I simply end with a plug for the expert services of the computer expert I've been talking about. His name is Mark Roussell and he can be emailed here. For remember, what this posting has been all about is that Mark's expert services can now be used by customers anywhere on the planet.

If you trust him. I do, obviously, as do others whom I can refer you to. But that's a whole different discussion.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:38 PM
Category: Technology