The internet, and our increasing reliance on technology, is constantly changing the way people go about their daily lives. Whether cultivating relationships with classmates or friends, conducting research for a project, or mobilizing people to take action in their communities, teachers and students live in a world where technology is increasingly becoming a part of all that they see and do.

That was the message Tiffany Shlain, founder and chair of the Webby Awards, an international awards program that honors the best and most innovative sites on the internet, and on-air technology expert for the television news program Good Morning America, had for the thousands of educators and technology experts gathered at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on Oct. 27 for the second day of the National School Boards Association’s T+L² conference.

“It’s a little like the air we breathe,” said Shlain of technology’s impact. But while the pervasiveness of technology is viewed as a good thing by most ed-tech enthusiasts, Shlain cautions the pace of innovation, while loaded with potential, also could lead to certain challenges educators should prepare themselves for.

“We’re all so immersed in technology that sometimes we fail to see how it’s changing the way that we live,” she explained. When thinking about the internet, Shlain encouraged educators to ask themselves a single philosophical question: “Where are we today and where are we going?”

In an era when more than 500 million people in more than 40 countries now use the internet, Shlain says technology, as a tool, affects everything from how we view our own personal space, to how we communicate with friends and co-workers, to the way that we write and record our thoughts, and the information we consume.

Through interactive web sites like MySpace.com, where teenagers and adults reportedly are flocking in droves to create their own personal web environments, designed as a means of personal expression, to Wikipedia.com, the online encyclopedia that invites curious web surfers to edit and add to the comments of those who came before them, Shlain says, the internet, unlike school projects and book reports, “is organic … it’s never done.”

The result, she says, is a free-flowing culture of ideas that encourages students and others to forge new relationships, to question how they live their lives, and think critically about the choices that they make.

“People want to share what they know and people want to hear what other people have to say about things,” Shlain said.

The web also is helping many students and teachers branch out socially, she said. Dating and other personal interactions that once seemed intimidating now are becoming easier thanks to online services such as eharmony.com and other dating web sites–many of which seek to forge new friendships by helping connect people with shared interests. Similarly, in the classroom, many of these online services are connecting students and teachers with peers and colleagues from around the globe, enabling them to share best practices, learn about foreign cultures, and establish lifelong bonds that enhance their understanding of the world in which they live.

“Like six degrees of separation,” Shlain pointed out, the internet is constantly “expanding our network of personal relationships.”

With change, however, also comes great responsibility, she said, especially on the part of the nation’s teachers, whose job it is to prepare students for life and work in a new digital century.

“We need web literacy,” Shlain told the morning audience. With all of the changes that are occurring in how we access, receive, and process information in a digital world, she said, students and other members of the online community need to develop a sense for what is and what is not reliable. At the same time, she added, students also must understand that the internet, while full of useful information, is not the only place where quality educational materials can be found.

As the internet continues to play a more prominent role in the way that we conduct our everyday lives, Shlain says the needs and wants of students will continue to evolve and to grow–so too will the challenges facing educators.

Already, Shlain said, the web is providing evidence of new trends in education and personal communication. Blogs, a form of personal expression once defined by writings and commentary, are becoming more multimedia focused, including photographs, videos, and other features providing new outlets for personal expression. Search engines also are getting smarter, integrating advanced features and customized interfaces to help individual users more easily locate what it is they’re looking for online. Meanwhile, in the classroom, distance learning is becoming an increasingly attractive option for students looking to take on more rigorous courses.

So just where are we headed exactly?

Shlain says she’s not quite sure. But wherever this online odyssey eventually leads, one thing is clear: the allure of the internet will always be about the potential to be a part of something “larger than ourselves.”

Links:

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

The Webby Awards
http://www.webbyawards.com/