First Monday

Computer Mediated School Education and the Web by Glenn Russell

The addition of the Web to the range of technologies which humans have used to mediate between themselves and the world has contributed to problems as well as advantages in the area of school education. Historical antecedents in areas such as writing, printing and industrialisation provide a context in which mediated experiences can be examined. In the 21st century, the availability of online education increases the possibility that virtual experience will be substituted for reality. There are also concerns that there will be a blurring of appearance and reality, and that cultural imperialism will continue to spread by use of the Web. Together with the observation that computer-mediation via the Web tends to reframe the central role of the teacher in the educational process, these factors are considered in terms of the need to establish future guidelines to reduce the adverse impact of the Web on school education.


Introduction: Historical Antecedents
The Virtual Experience May Substitute for Conventional Teaching
The Virtual Experience May Blur Appearance and Reality
Computer-mediated Experiences Can Encourage Cultural Imperialism
The Teacher Makes the Difference



Introduction: Historical Antecedents

Historically, humans have used a range of technologies over time to mediate between themselves and sensory impressions of the real world. Technologies such as writing, printing, telegraphy, radio, film, television and computers have enabled improved communications and have become a normal component of daily life. In the late 20th Century, the rapid development of computers and their use in schools provided an opportunity to implement education which was often computer-mediated.

The 21st Century has seen the growth of a range of such applications in schools, including simulations, games and materials delivered by the World Wide Web. In addition, a number of educational providers have launched various forms of virtual schools, where some or all of the educational content is delivered by computer to a more geographically distant learner. The science class which once might have dissected a frog in the lab, with their teacher providing guidance, now has the choice of using a CD-ROM, or a Web site. In some cases where students are unable to attend school, the student may work on a virtual frog at home without any face-to-face contact with a teacher or peers.

The process whereby empirically-based educational processes are subsumed by their computer-mediated counterparts can be seen as a subset of much earlier technologies. These sometimes evolved in the face of criticism. Historically, support for mediated experience or opposition to it has sometimes been related to notions of perception and learning, but at times new technologies have challenged authority, or more conventional modes of living and working. Such examples can be seen in the introduction of writing, the spread of printing, and the mechanisation which accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

More than 1,500 years ago, Plato (1973) was critical of the technology of writing. He wrote:

"Those who acquire it [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources ... it shows great folly ... to suppose that one can transmit or acquire clear and certain knowledge of an art through the medium of writing, or that written words can do more than remind the reader of what he already knows on any given subject" [1].

Plato's reservations about writing, which were based principally on a belief that the new technology would have disadvantages for the learner, were not sufficient for the proponents of writing to abandon it. The skill of writing, however, did not become common in the West for hundreds of years.

The spread of printing technology throughout Europe in the 16th Century provides an example not only of challenge to existing power structures, but of a movement driven by increased learning and scholarship. In an earlier time, the Church and its agents, priests, had been able to interpret the Bible and control access to it, because books were handwritten and scarce. Without printing, the extensive changes which accompanied the Reformation might well have been delayed for a long time. However, for some, the importance of printing lay in its educational potential. Eisentein (1979) cites a comment from Thomas Elyot in 1531:

"I dare affirm a man shall more profit in one week by figures and charts well and perfectly made than he shall by only the reading or hearing the rules of that science by the space of half a year at the least" [2].

As the Industrial Revolution gathered speed in Britain during the early years of the 19th Century, Thomas Carlyle became uneasy about the ways in which machinery was replacing human labour. He believed that there was a tendency for people to lose something important as they became increasingly dependent on technology. In an article originally published in the Edinburgh Review in 1829, Carlyle wrote:

"Were we to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it ... the Mechanical Age ... Nothing is now done ... by hand ... Our old modes of exertion are all discredited and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. There is no end to machinery ... Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand" [3].

What the preceding examples illustrate is that there is a tendency for a new technology to disrupt customary practices, the exercise of power, and the ways in which people live their lives. This trend can also be observed in a range of technologies which were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. An early U.S. report (Technological Trends, 1937) examined the way that new technologies had challenged existing technologies. The automobile was an economic threat to railroads, newspapers feared loss of advertising revenue with the development of radio, and the typewriter enabled the employment of women typists. Sometimes, as Technological Trends points out, the real reason for opposition to a technology may not be explicit. It is not surprising that telegraph companies might remind people of the disadvantages of the telephone, or that gas lighting companies who were concerned about the value of their shares on the stock exchange would remind the public of the hazards of electricity.

Given such accounts of why technologies can be seen to have advantages and disadvantages, it is not surprising that the use of computer-mediated technologies in school education would follow a similar pattern. The introduction of computers is often seen as beneficial, and there is considerable research to support claims that they are advantageous when used with classes. Shelton (1993) reported research which indicated that multimedia enhances communication, and that users learn with multimedia.

Khalili and Shashaani (1994) conducted a meta-analysis of 36 independent studies which showed that computer applications have a positive effect on students' academic achievement from elementary school to college. However, claimed benefits are not always accepted uncritically. Clark (1983; 1994) argued that media by themselves do not influence learning, and that, consequently, the claimed advantages for the use of media should be examined more critically.



The Virtual Experience May Substitute for Conventional Teaching

Among the range of computer-mediated applications available for teachers to use with students are simulations. Merrill et al. (1996) refer to simulations as being "a representation or model of a real or imagined specific object, system or phenomenon " [4]. Simulations can be valuable, particularly when the original experience is impossible to recreate for students. Examples such as a moon landing, an emergency in a nuclear power plant, or an historical event might be included here. However, as Turkle (1997) argues, there may be a problem if the simulation is inaccurate, as the students may never become aware of their lack of understanding. In a real-life situation, it may be necessary to discern a complex web of human behaviour and cultural viewpoints, and the programmer may have simply been unable to accurately translate such factors into the software. If there is such a deficiency in the software, it will take a skilled teacher to recognise this fact and still teach the students effectively.

An additional problem is that some teachers may use simulations for activities that previously did not require the use of a computer at all. For example, many senior high school students would have had the opportunity of being involved in the dissection of a frog or a rat in their science lab. It is, however, possible to use a Web-based simulation instead. Armstrong and Casement (1998) suggest that although the use of virtual frogs would save frog's lives and be less messy, no two frogs are exactly alike. The use of a simulation, in such an example, could lead to an imperfect understanding of frogs and biology.

An aspect that can be overlooked is the possibility that computer-mediated experiences can be limited when compared to that of real life. Multimedia generally incorporates images, text, and sounds, and as an experience can be considered as less rich when compared with a real-life context which also uses touch, taste, and smell. Indeed, Davy (1985) argues that the use of computer-based activities in place of traditional activities such as playground games can lead to "experiential impoverishment". This line of argument is not new. It was used by Mander (1978), who argued that television replaces direct experience of the world with mediated experience, and that the result was a lack of understanding of the real world.

In this respect, computer-mediated experience in the classroom exacerbates an existing situation whereby recognisable imperfections in a technology are accepted because the beneficial outcomes outweigh the disadvantages. However, as Nissenbaum (1997) points out, such an attitude exposes people to unexpected outcomes and risks.

Where the virtual experience substitutes for what teachers have often done in their classrooms, without clear evidence of it being educationally superior, there is room for suspicion of the motives of those involved. There may be a shortage of trained teachers in this area, or inadequate funding for labs and equipment. Underlying these factors are more serious questions about the commitment to teacher training and the funding of educational systems. Ironically, the decision to invest money in computers may have been at the expense of classroom supplies. It is possible to imagine a hypothetical example of a school that decided to use virtual rats because of a shortfall in the science budget. However, if less money had been spent on computers, and real rats had been available, the students might develop better biological knowledge, and the cost may be no greater.

When experiential education is subsumed by its computer-mediated counterpart, there is also the problem that students' abilities to form their own conclusions may be reduced. This possibility can be illustrated by a controversy at the National Museum of Australia (Shanahan, 2001). In this instance, the installation of high-tech exhibits in the indigenous gallery drew criticism because it was seen as politically correct. Whereas a more conventional exhibit might have displayed artifacts and allowed the viewers to forms their own interpretations, the high-tech exhibit was seen as issuing fashionable interpretations. When the exhibit does the interpretive work that individuals normally do, there is an increased possibility of errors and false conclusions.

For schools, the implication of the preceding example is that the importance of the teacher's role is correspondingly increased. When students interact with a powerful medium which has the potential to inculcate the values of those who commissioned or programmed it, there is a need for teacher discussion so that the students will be able to make informed decisions about the material. While this is a role which teachers have always undertaken, organisational decisions about teaching methods may run counter to it. In some cases, students may work in a library or resource centre without active teacher involvement; in others, students may work apart from the rest of the class using multimedia for enrichment or remediation. Teachers may also encourage homework that involves computer-mediated interaction, and in these circumstances, parents may not have the opportunity or skills to assist their children with the problems inherent in some computer-based materials.



The Virtual Experience May Blur Appearance and Reality

Slouka (1995) maintains that we are surrounded by simulacra, in areas such as television and advertisements. Virtualisation in schools is likely to exacerbate an existing trend in society whereby students' learning about the world does not always come from a direct and real-life interaction with it. In Australia, a recent television advertisement for a CD-ROM featured a girl who claimed that she had lived among native peoples, seen wild animals, and explored strange places. Her experiences had actually been based on her use of the CD-ROM. While adults would be aware that this was a marketing strategy, it would be easy to assume that the differences between virtual and real were unimportant. Young children might be able to understand that the virtual experience and reality were different, but they might also not fully appreciate the extent of that difference.



Computer-mediated Experiences Can Encourage Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism, in a technological context, refers to the potential for a technology to erode existing values and replace them with the values of a more dominant group or individual. When students use computers at home or at school, the values of the software are transmitted to them. A student in Europe can access a clip-art gallery, and find that there is an over-representation of Americans in it, or a student in Japan can access the World Wide Web and find that most of the Web sites are in English. For Bowers (1988), the mind of the programmer is reflected in the form that the subject matter takes. In essence, the teacher surrenders some of his or her authority to the unseen programmer. While it can be argued that the teacher has always had to cope with bias in classroom materials, including books, the problem is more acute with computer-mediated materials.

There are three reasons why this may be so. First, the sheer volume of materials available through computers is likely to exceed the ability of teachers to evaluate it. Second, there is an increasing tendency for students to be asked to use computer-mediated materials at home, or in contexts where there is minimal opportunity for teachers to consider its implications. Thirdly, computer technology amplifies the power of individuals, through corporations, to influence others. Collectively, the preceding factors can contribute to a classroom situation where teachers abrogate their authority to an unseen programmer, or the values of a corporation. The values of those involved in the programming and distribution of the online materials challenge those of the classroom.

An emerging variation of this trend is advertising on Web sites. In the pre-digital era, a student involved in a project on animals might simply have used a book in the classroom to find relevant information. In contrast, a student in a classroom with access to the Web might have to encounter a number of advertisements. The underlying values in these advertisements might run counter to that of teachers or parents.



The Teacher Makes the Difference

Research by Clark (1983) on the effects of using media in education indicated that media, by themselves, do not influence learning under any conditions. More recently, Hiltz (1993) has concluded that the Virtual Classroom (the name used for one type of copyright software in the U.S.) could be a viable alternative, but that success was dependent on students' abilities and motivation, the teacher conducting the course, the nature of the course materials, and the nature of the students. What is likely is that the teacher may often make more of a difference to students' learning than the Web. By concentrating too much on the enabling technology, and too little on the human factors involved in the educational process, computer-mediated learning using the Web can result in a skewing of the values and understandings necessary for a developed society. Disadvantages are more likely to result from the use of the Web in education than has been previously recognised, and there is a consequent need to explore what steps should be taken to reduce the growth of future problems.




In 1901 a leading article in the London Times reflected on the growing popularity of the motor-car:

"The motor-car, as every one assures us, in phrase as new-fangled as itself, has come to stay. We cannot doubt it ... We shall always have it with us henceforth, and we must all make the best of it. It is easy to draw an indictment against it ... All the counts of such an indictment rest ultimately on the fact that the motor-car is new-fangled, unfamiliar and imperfect, like all human inventions at first. They have all been preferred from time immemorial against every new departure of human invention and progress ... For good or evil, it will largely modify our social life " [5].

The article went on to argue that drivers would need to exercise responsibility to avoid accidents, and that authorities would have to consider registration and other regulations to avoid future problems. Similar comments could be made about the impact of computer mediation on education. It is likely that although computers have had a place in school education for some years, the developments of the late 20th century may yet prove to be only the first stage of a continuing involvement. In this context, the growth of online educational applications may remind educators, students and parents that disadvantages as well as advantages can be expected. This paper has discussed the substitution of virtual experience for reality, the blurring of appearance and reality, the growth of cultural imperialism, and the central role of the teacher in the educational process. It may be possible to reduce the consequences of these factors by acknowledging that they exist, but regulating authorities might also need to consider guidelines to reduce the impact. End of article


About the Author

Dr. Glenn Russell is a member of the Faculty of Education at the Peninsula Campus of Monash University in Frankston, Victoria, Australia.



1. Plato, 1973, p. 97.

2. Eisentein, 1979, volume 2, p. 698.

3. Symons, 1955, pp. 22-25.

4. Merrill et al., 1996, p. 93.

5. The Times, 1901, p. 7.



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Editorial history

Paper received 10 September 2001; accepted 16 October 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Computer Mediated School Education and the Web by Glenn Russell
First Monday, volume 6, number 11 (November 2001),