WASHINGTON, D.C. - The use of the Internet for education and research is still in its infancy, experts said today, offering a jumble of information that's poorly organized and frustrating to use.
But the educational potential of the web could ultimately become so effective and sophisticated that it will literally challenge the need for centralized schools and universities, said scientists who spoke Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"Right now, the web can provide access to learners, in their home or remote locations, who previously didn't have it before," said Robby Robson, the education reform coordinator at Oregon State University. "That's fine, so far as it goes. But access to a mass of information is not the same as real education, and the progress we will make in coming years should be huge.
"I would suggest that no one should judge the usefulness of the Internet in education by what they see available today," Robson said. "That would be like equating our modern transportation system to the earliest automobiles traveling on dirt roads."
A key to the evolving usefulness of the web for education and research, Robson said, will be the use of "metadata" that will vastly improve our ability to find useful and trustworthy information. This metadata, or data about data, is conceptually similar to the information available from a library's card catalog, but contains additional information such as technical requirements, educational level, and can be extended to meet many other purposes.
That information may be able to be paired up with known facts about a computer user, Robson said, such as age, skill level, interests and educational goals. So if a high school student were to seek information about how to do quadratic equations in mathematics, the computer would help determine exactly what they need and steer them towards lessons that are suited to their skills and needs.
Conventional search engines can work in different ways, Robson said. Many of them look for phrases or words in the entire content of the pages they can see. This is like looking for something in an enormous warehouse by opening every container and seeing if what you want is inside. Other engines categorize a small number of sites using very rough categories designed for general use but not for educational or research purposes.
The result is that a search for "quadratic equation" will turn up thousands of web pages of which only a few are relevant to any particular student in a particular situation.
"In the next few years, however, we should have trusted repositories for education that can use metadata to make the Internet far more useful in education," Robson said. "This infrastructure doesn't yet exist, but we're building it."
Not too much further away, he said, every learned or professional society in the world may be putting on line, in a standardized format, such things as course offerings, faculty databases, conference information or professional publications. So if a user wanted to find a course in forest ecology, they could quickly be steered towards institutions worldwide that might have such courses, some of them available online.
And ultimately, the nature of education itself on the Internet should be vastly improved, Robson said. It's important to remember that as an educational tool - about four years old - the Internet is in its infancy.
"Right now, most people who are offering education on the Internet are just dressing up the same old materials in an electronic format," Robson said. "But there's much more that can be done."
That includes new digital libraries, "interoperability" so all types of data can be routinely blended and easily managed, interactive courses, lessons that are individually tailored for the needs of specific students, materials offered in the format that different students find most useful, and a pace that is specifically suited to an individual. In reality, Robson said, online teaching could be as or more effective than any other kind.
"Our present reality with education is based on the constraints of an agrarian and industrial society," Robson said. "We are moving into an age with different constraints and where technology can be used to deliver education where people want it, when they want it and how they want it."
The effectiveness of that process could ultimately challenge at least some of the need for large centralized schools and universities. One can picture everything from "college towns" enjoying elevated status as the nerve centers of a new economy, to suffering the same fate as mill towns in the twentieth century, Robson said.
"The only thing certain is that we live in interesting times," he said.