Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn
Gabriel Lombardi, Ph.D.
(to learn more about the author, click on the link)


The World Wide Web has brought about a revolution in communications. Never before have so many had ready access to so much information. The Web has also given an unprecedented number of individuals the ability to publish their own work.

Unfortunately, many are threatened by this revolution. For some, the first question that springs to mind is not "How can we use this?" but rather, "How can we control this?" Consider the following quotation from another contributor's e-testimony:

"If we would not put a student in a car designed by a teacher or an educational researcher, then we should not put a student in an educational environment that has been designed by someone who is not a professional designer."1
This current runs through many of the opinions that have been submitted to the Commission. The implication is that the medium must be controlled by the professionals, namely, those trained in the business of education. The argument goes something like this: The web is a frightening place because anyone can post whatever he or she likes. The reliability of web-based information is uncertain, so it needs to be controlled. The push for control extends to areas peripheral to education itself, such as counseling:
"Because school counselors and admission professionals voluntarily comply with the rigorous ethics requirements in the SPGP [Statement of Principles of Good Practice], we believe that web-based counseling and college information sites should be held to the same (or similar) standards."2
This argument is flawed. Students obtain an education in a subject, such as mathematics or history. There is no education disembodied from its subject. Those expert in the subject are best qualified to determine how to educate students in that subject. One could even argue that special expertise in the subject is not always important, given the above-average achievement of homeschooled students.3 To paraphrase Clemenceau, education is much too important to be left to the educators.4

Accreditation and Standards

At first blush, accreditation would seem to be the minimum requirement for an educational institution. Yet, when I list a graduate degree in physics from Harvard University, no one thinks to ask whether Harvard is accredited in physics. A school's reputation is the principal determinant of quality, not the approval of an official accrediting body. Many well-known business schools are not, or were only recently, accredited. For example, it would surprise many to learn that the Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business was only accredited by the International Association for Management Education (AACSB) in March, 2000, even though the program has been in existence since 1969.5

The irresistible impulse to control mentioned in the introduction can easily suffocate this infant technology. The Web's unique ability to open the doors of publication to all is the very aspect that the advocates of control find so threatening. One must be wary of calls for restrictions under the banner of higher educational standards. Regulations should be used sparingly, lest they curtail the freedom and destroy the opportunity provided by this new medium.

Interaction is King

In the early days of the Web, everyone seemed to agree that "content is king" online. Subsequent developments in technology and software cast doubt on this presumption.6 At many websites, including educational sites, there is widespread use of flamboyant graphics and animations. While these technologies have their place, they are expensive and provide little added value to the student. They are a disutility for users who have low-bandwidth Internet connections. More important, these features often are a substitute for true content. While Flash splash pages, animated GIFs, and Shockwave animations may be fun to watch, they do not necessarily help students learn and they effectively exclude those without state-of-the-art computers and Internet access.7

What is the power of the Internet in education? It is not to deliver high-bandwidth streaming video; broadcast television has been doing that for decades to little educational effect. The real strength of the Internet is as an interactive, two-way communications link between teacher and learner. It enables the realization, across large physical distances and many time zones, of an approximation of the level of interaction that is possible with face-to-face contact between instructor and student. In the best cases, the effect can be richer and more pedagogically useful than a student experiences in a large lecture hall.

The online student-teacher interaction can take many forms. The simplest, yet effective method is e-mail. There is no better kind of teaching than one-on-one communication between the teacher and student; teaching can be tailored to the needs of the individual. This approach is labor-intensive, perhaps prohibitively so. Where practical, it can be an effective way to teach online. Message boards, listservs, chatrooms, realtime online communication (Instant Messenger or ICQ), and other methods can be used to supplement e-mail and build a sense of community among students in an online class. Scintillating graphics are less important than frequent and individual interaction among the participants.

Many examples have been discussed in the literature. Smith and Taylor8 give a particularly detailed description of their experiences teaching an online physics class using relatively low-tech, text-based communication. They list some advantages unique to online education, as well as those common to any implementation of distance learning. Smith and Taylor conclude that the online classes require students to be more active in their education, rather than receiving an "...effort-free bath of information often provided in a lecture."

A somewhat different approach, and one requiring a higher initial investment, is described by Bork.9 He advocates the use of computer technology to create an interactive environment with minimal instructor involvement. While his vision has yet to be extensively tested, it has the advantage of being scalable. It is only labor-intensive at the inception of a class; dissemination to a large number of students does not require the wide deployment of scarce talent.

Both of these models eschew complex technology and high-bandwidth requirements in favor of text and simple graphics. In hindsight, this makes sense. Full-motion video is hardly new; television dates back more than fifty years, yet is rarely part of the educator's toolbox. The book is an effective, but even older and simpler technology that also relies upon text and static graphics. Web-based education adds interactivity to this mainstay of the educator's armamentarium.


In light of the concerns expressed above, I urge caution in the regulation of this nascent medium. The Web has the potential to improve and extend educational opportunities. We should encourage the development of this medium, perhaps in ways that cannot be foreseen. A colleague expressed this best:
"Let us see what the potential is before we start to control and narrow the scope to what a few professionals think it should be."10

A Personal Note

I have been teaching online since 1995. My students have transcended the boundaries of age and geography to learn mathematics and science with me. For example, my youngest calculus student was enrolled in my class by his mother at the age of nine. He completed the class in about a year with the help of his parents, who transcribed and faxed his homework to me. It is difficult to imagine that this student, living in rural New England, would otherwise have had access to such an educational opportunity at a reasonable cost.

Over these last five years, over 300 students have enrolled in my classes. While not all have been as successful or remarkable as the young calculus student, they have had an opportunity that the constraints of time, place, or cost would have otherwise denied them.


1 [archived]
2 The SPGP is "promoted and enforced" by the authors of the statement.
3Rudner, Lawrence M., "Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998" Education Policy Analysis Archives7 (March 23, 1999) [, archived]
Rudner shows that homeschooled students in his study had median achievement test scores in the 70 to 80 percentile range. About 25% were one or more grade levels above their conventionally-schooled peers. See also "Home Is Where the E-Classroom Is" by Kendra Mayfield, Wired News [,1284,38161,00.html, archived].
4George Clemenceau said, "War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military."
5Pepperdine's Executive MBA program was ranked among the top 20 in the United States by Business Week in 1999, before it was accredited by AACSB. The AACSB was founded in 1916 by a group of leading American universities.
6Shields, Michael, "Is Technology or Content King?" ZDNet News (January 31, 2000) [,4586,2430139,00.html, archived]
7See, for example, the testimony of Marilyn M. Pickens []
8Smith, Richard C. and Taylor, Edwin F., "Teaching Physics Online" [, archived]
9Bork, Alfred. Interview. "The Future of Learning: An Interview with Alfred Bork,"  Educom Review, 34 (July/August 1999).
10Farma, Susan, (Personal communication, August 2000).

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