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Web Education: Friend or Foe?

The mysteries and opportunities of the web are rapidly unfolding and its potential for virtual shop front marketing is being augmented by a desire to offer education as a consumer item for which all computer users may window shop. The flexibility of the web allows any educator to set up their own electronic education outlet: be it a specialist boutique, or a virtual education shopping mall. 

The same pioneering spirit which was characterised by the hundreds of school teachers and lecturers who battled against all odds to generate educationally significant programs using the BBC computer is born again in the age of the web. This time the ground-breaking efforts are set in an ever changing landscape with world-wide visibility. This changes, by orders of magnitude, the potential marketplace for all software-driven education packages and offerings. 

But anyone who has translated an amateur enthusiasm for the new art of computer programming into a sizeable collection of software titles for the BBC computer, will only reluctantly admit that it took a real determination and probably help and advice from a plethora of friends and colleagues to overcome the many technical hurdles. Publishing on the web is fraught with as many difficulties, but the support is typically more abundant and hopefully more professional for which a premium price may be charged! 

Most educators will have free or relatively inexpensive access to the web but little or no funds for the professional software tools and web services that are on offer. This will not deter our intrepid explorers who will have heard that worthwhile expeditions into the 'land of the web' can be done on a shoestring budget - these are our BBC programmers re-incarnate! 

The Holy Grail is to complete a path which allows the educational treasure to be made accessible to all those who would wish to seek it. Once this is achieved, the next goals might include enhancing the treasure and showing others the path to achieving the same. But as fast as new paths are beaten for others to follow, so the web jungle re-shapes itself making some paths redundant or no longer passable. 

If the lessons of history have anything to offer they might suggest that the marriage of education and technology will be taken over by business enterprises. The BBC programmers, and their descendants, either formed software companies of their own or else sold their ideas to established software publishers. It might be tempting to predict the same outcome for 'web education' ('webucation'?), but that would be to ignore the power of the web, which puts control directly into the hands of the professional educators. The web is potentially a far more enabling technology for education content writers than the BBC computer ever was. 

Given the global potential of web-based education and learning, it is not surprising that educators the world over find themselves somewhere between the 'web curious' and the 'web pressured'. While I do not think that 'web education' will change the delivery of education overnight, I believe that the opportunity to develop expertise in the field is ripe for the harvesting. 

I would hazard a prediction that in the medium term, the software tools and professional services available to educators will become easier to use and at a price that most can afford. But the outlook for those on a shoestring budget (which may remain the majority of education users for a while to come) may well be the choice of beating their own paths or relying on 'local guides' (web gurus). I believe that the short term requires that concentrations of would-be web educators should increase their local population of web guides and gurus to help avoid missing the web expedition boat!

Dave Neilson 
Information Technology Officer
Warwick Institute of Education 

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