TED Conversations

Megan Summers

Impact Entrepreneurship Group


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Is the internet, not formal education, the new great equalizer?

Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery. – Horace Mann


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    Oct 3 2011: Maybe, but what I like about Internet is that, although it's a "device" made by humans, contrary to other devices made by them, there is no discrimination against anyone

    And it's one of the most important parts of our today's society
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      Oct 4 2011: I beg to differ, the internet does discriminate.

      There is very little the illiterate can accomplish on the internet. This is not a major hindrance in the developed world but a huge factor working against those who can most benefit from the information riches contained within.

      Secondly, the internet operates much the same as a library. It simply stores and serves up information content put there by others. It does not teach by and of itself while it may have content that is capable of teaching.

      While I personally believe the internet is not a substitute for formal education I do believe it is a fantastic complement to it. Because it does make knowledge more accessible to more people it will go a long ways towards equalizing economic opportunities just as the printing press did a few centuries ago.
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        Oct 4 2011: I agree with Damon. I would add that even in the "developed" world not everyone has a computer let alone a ISP. Access is still limited to the more economically privileged. One of the challenges is to provide not only adequate access for all but also finding smart ways to sift the available information into useful content chunks that enable an individual's self-improvement project. Being literate, as well as, media literate, and having the economic means makes a big difference in using the internet to enhance a life.
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          Oct 5 2011: My sentiments exactly, you put it very clearly.
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        Oct 6 2011: The amount of video lectures, how-to videos, online video courses, interactive games/exercise, and documentaries available on the internet alone are enough to serve as a monumental resource for even the illiterate. All they would have to do is be shown how to get to the right sites (a handful would do). Or to be shown a specific list of videos to watch.

        Furthermore, an illiterate person could begin their journey in educating themselves by becoming literate, perhaps with some help, using internet resource alone (videos or interactive games would be the only real viable options in this case that come to mind).

        I agree with your other points. It is true that there is a learning curve to self-education on the internet. In fact, I consider it a new kind of literacy. Internet literacy is the education paradigm on our century. And it is creating a great divide among even those who are formally educated.
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          Oct 7 2011: Even with how-to's and the other tools you mention you still expect the illiterate to need assistance in order to learn how to use the internet. Learning to read is not an easy process for anyone, children or adult. It takes time and effort to accomplish. I know this as I can speak a couple other languages, albeit poorly, but I am completely illiterate in them.

          Beyond basic reading ability you must add computer/internet competency as you mentioned to access the collective knowledge stored on the internet. These issues combine to form a barrier to access that would prevent even the most well intentioned illiterate person from effectively utilizing the net to help level the playing field.

          I do not believe it impossible for the illiterate to benefit from the internet. I do believe the medium discriminates against them by the very nature of its primarily written format.
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        Oct 7 2011: The videos on "The Hole in the Wall School" would illustrate a different point of view. Children were quickly able to teach themselves English and so much more without any help from adults. Thought you might be interested, it's one of my favorite TED videos.
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          Oct 7 2011: I just watched the lecture you referred to


          Very impressive. I'd like to note that the self learning was limited to children that operated in groups. Assuming those qualifications are met, it is clear that the internet is non discriminatory. The question becomes, does the internet discriminate against illiterate adults whether alone or in groups.

          Thank you for sharing this talk with me.
      • Oct 7 2011: Damon, I agree, the power of the resources available via the internet cannot be adequately capitalized on among the illiterate. However, it can have a profound impact on the lives of the illiterate by reaching those few in the community or surrounding communities who are literate, but have no access. This in turn creates value that may make resources (time and money in particular) available to increase the literacy rate of the population, creating a virtuous cycle. Similar to the way the printing press lead to much higher literacy in the west, the internet could do this in the developing world, but much faster, with far greater scope of content and at a fraction of the cost of printed books.

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