Computers have caused a revolution in education, but the tremendous changes seen in the last decade may be surpassed in the next as those computers are connected in a global education network.
Teachers and high school students sample the water in Lake Baikal in Siberia while at other lakes around the world, other teachers and students take similar samples from local lakes and subject them to the same simple water-quality tests. Via their school computers, they exchange their results and their observations about how water pollution problems are the same around the world. They are part of a "global laboratory" project that includes scientists specializing in water pollution.
A similar computer network pins citizen activists, joined with students, teachers and scientists, in "sister watershed" groups throughout the world.
Amateur birdwatchers and biologists pool their rare bird sightings in a North American computer network that is linked with bird researchers in Central America and South America.
The differences between classroom and community education are blurred on the global computer networks. Voluntary organizations, government agencies, students and teachers are all involved in a real that has become, for many, a virtual classroom, without walls, and increasingly without borders.
Already, pilot projects have high school students sharing the methods and results from field studies of environmental quality, using computer telecommunication to leap national boundaries. Elementary school children share their life experiences end visions of the future the same way. Their messages to one another, passed with tremendous speed and shared simultaneously among many classrooms, provide strong, personal lessons in science, geography and human relations.
Environmental education curriculum development, pursued independently and often in isolation by teachers, school districts and universities over the past two decades, is now linked in a global forum that can respond immediately to the ever more complex and urgent environmental problems the world faces. Teachers the world over are connecting with their counterparts to discuss how they can do their jobs better. Co-ordination of international education projects is less burdened by the constraints of time and travel budgets as computer networks provide forums for collaboration.
The technology for this exchange takes advantage of the personal computer's ability to communicate over standard phone lines using a modem. The simplest networks connect personal computers in a "store-and-forward" system that echoes messages from one to the next, until all have copies. These least-cost networks are linked to larger, faster computers that act as central information storage banks and relay stations. They in turn exchange information with one another and tap the power and data in computer systems at major research and educational institutions.
In many ways this vast new sea of information presents its own challenges, often akin to "drinking water from a fire hose." The enormous glut of fact and opinion is impossible to take in, and has forced those who would taste its power to devise new ways for organizing and sampling the information flow.
Electronic mail services and computer "conferencing" let students and teachers communicate with each other privately, or publicly as members of large discussion groups. Computer conferences are organized much like those where people meet face-to-face, except that the meeting rooms are inside each participant's computer. Computer conferences transcend time zones, since participants review and comment on each others' written postings as their time and interest allows. Everyone gets to read and think about questions or statements posed in a conference, and everyone has a co-equal opportunity to reply.
Computer networking is making classroom walls disappear. Real environmental problems are entering the classroom with immediacy via computer nets, and students are jointly seeking understanding and solutions with scientists, citizen activists, journalists, government officials and community leaders of all kinds. While access to computer networks is still remote for most people on the planet, it is becoming more and more available to the gatekeepers and opinion-leaders who help shape common understanding of the global situation. The increasing abundance of the multiple information sources available via computer networks, if viewed as a well-stocked marketplace, may also stimulate demand for more and better goods by the world's information consumers.
Citizen participation in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), for example, has been ccoordinated via computer networks on seven continents, giving NGOs access to complete text of the preparatory committee documents, and providing public forums for news and issue discussion. This availability of information has a dramatic effect on how an event such as UNCED permeates the mass media everywhere.
Underlying the often chaotic view presented by the mass media, structures are developing to channel the new rivers of information to empower this and coming generations to deal with the issues it describes. A variety of efforts at computer networking for environmental education provide some great models. At the root, these efforts are all based on the same notion: that environmental problems must be viewed with a global perspective, but responded to by individuals acting locally, in their own communities or homes.
All of this new technology is not without cost, and the developed countries are clearly ahead in providing computer access for education. But even in the United States, where computer telecommunication is becoming commonplace, profit rather than educational reform is a dominant force in determining who gets access.
The harsh reality has motivated citizen computer networks to band together in the international Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to make computer network access broadly available. The APC hosts several promising educational efforts on its partner computer networks that now extend to more than 90 countries around the globe. These services may be tapped by anyone with a personal computer and modem, often via a local call, at costs roughly equivalent to a newspaper subscription or monthly telephone bill.
The education projects offered on the APC networks are examples of how low-budget computer communication can fit into community programs and classrooms.