January 20, 2003
How the internet solves the text book problem

A preoccupation of this blog is the influence on education of technology in general, and computers, the internet etc., in particular. People with preoccupations like this (such as me), are constantly to be heard saying that the effect of computers, the internet etc., is to make it possible for education to be individualised rather than massified, free range instead of factory. And computers, the internet etc., do indeed make that easier to contrive.

However, I had a conversation with my friend Sean Gabb this evening (Sean is among other things, a teacher of politics and economics at college level) which put a slightly different slant on this familiar story.

When I was a student, one of the most annoying facts of student life was that at the very moment when I wanted a particular book from the university library, I couldn't get it because there were also a couple of dozen other students all queueing up to read the same book. Eventually I got my turn, or else bought a copy of the book if it was important and not too expensive. But it was all most inconvenient.

Contrast this muddle with the situation of Sean's students. Sean no longer recommends books to his students; he recommends instead material that is available on the internet. Setting aside the question of whether this change presages the Collapse of Western Civilisation As We Know It, this procedure does have one huge advantage. All the students in the class, provided only that they have access to the internet (which they all do one way or another), are able to access this material without treading on each other's toes or in any way inconveniencing one another. There is no queue to read the relevant stuff. They just read it, exactly when they want to.

One inefficiency of Normal Education is that the classes are so very, very big, with the inefficiency of all the students in them being expected to proceed at the same pace. This they might not want to do. Electronic technology creates a personal library for each student that each can learn from at his own pace.

But another inefficiency of Normal Education is that sometimes the classes are so very, very small compared to how big they might be, if it were only possible for many hundreds – even (by using a bit more technology) thousands or millions – of students all to be consulting the same texts at the same time, in response to their teacher's recommendations. There are surely some teachers who are so excellent at teaching that thousands would want to learn from them, and would be quite willing to proceed at whatever pace such a teacher chose to set.

Maybe a future generation will decide that "the age of mass production" is the phrase we now use to describe that part of the real age of mass production when production costs were still actually quite high. Now the cost of mass producing texts, at any rate, is plunging towards zero. Good teachers can now, with the aid of the latest technology, achieve economies of scale undreamed of in the past.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
Category: Technology
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