The Internet: Legitimate Educational Tool or Giant Electronic Sandbox?

Article excerpt

The popularity of the Internet within universities is already well-documented. A new generation of students has been raised on computers. Moreover, such technology pervades academic operations. These trends have been discussed in other publications and are certainly relevant to the training of environmental health professionals (1-3). This very popularity, however, raises a deeper, more fundamental issue: how should the Internet fit within the overall mission of university programs?

In this lively debate concerning all professionals, two schools of thought have emerged. One school views the Internet as a fundamental, analytical tool that is no less important for professionals than the analytical tools used in the study of biology, chemistry, or physics. These proponents emphasize the need for a paradigm shift in how we view our profession. While acknowledging the assorted flaws of the Internet, this school views criticisms of the technology as an agenda for future development.

The opposing school of thought views the Internet as primarily a fad, not yet worthy of academic or professional study. While acknowledging the importance of Internet developments as a supportive function, this view emphasizes that few (if any) understand its true potential in the classroom. This school argues that the benefits are often vaguely defined, while the true costs of such applications are often glossed over. For example, it cites time commitments as one of the largest costs of having course materials online. These commitments include the time required to create and update documents, and time required to learn about the Internet and associated tools (4,5). This school points out that proponents often ignore such costs.

The Internet's role within the university mission presents increasing relevance to environmental health professionals. At stake are the most basic of tasks: how we access data, the scope of our communication, and even our analytic skills with traditional as well as emerging problems. Accordingly, this paper adds to the discussion by addressing three questions:

1. In practical terms, why do we need electronic classrooms?

2. What is the evidence that computers meet these needs?

3. How should we evaluate this evidence?

Why do we need electronic classrooms?

The first of these three questions gets to the philosophical core of the debate. Universities, as well as the environmental health profession, have certainly survived without this technology. On the other hand, following new developments and incorporating them into evolving professions is vital to our advancement. Recognizing both of these positions, electronic classrooms can meet the following practical needs.

Responsiveness: Across the country, limited budgets are leading to larger student-faculty ratios. The teaching mission at universities is being eroded by larger, more impersonal classes. The Internet can enhance the ability of instructors to be responsive to student needs. It also may provide increased flexibility for instructors. For example, instructors can update course materials in the middle of a semester without redistributing new handouts.

Linkages: The Internet can increase the marketing of our profession to a broader community. Students, faculty, and professionals alike can benefit from increasing their professional linkages. In particular, the need for international linkages has never been greater. This is evidenced by the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, along with changing demographics across the country. The Internet can address these needs in a powerful manner (3).

Information: The need for the Internet in the scientific community is a growing concern (6,7). Again, limited budgets have struck at all levels of science. Young scientists can hardly survive without the tools of the Internet, yet these tools are not always provided in current curricula. …