The Internet offers both advantages and challenges to educators and trainers. The advantages arise from the Internet's enormous capacity to link participants with information and with each other. But problems with navigation, structure, interactivity, complexity, security, and sheer consumption of time must be addressed.
The Internet is potentially a powerful linking and communication vehicle. Heinich, Molenda, Russell, and Smaldino suggest that the Internet's power lies in its capacity for providing numerous connections to engrossing, multi-sensory experiences, suited to individual needs. The fact that these can be constructed by teachers themselves, and can incorporate knowledge of their students' needs and feature meaningful student-student collaboration and student-teacher interaction, also makes the Internet a revolutionary learning tool. At the same time, the Web's inherent lack of structure may result in some users getting unintentionally “lost in cyberspace,” or making poor use of time (“surfing,” or exploring interesting but irrelevant minutiae). Also, Internet materials often fail to exploit the medium's potential for interactivity, consisting of one-way presentations of information. The reliability of online information may also be suspect, unless its provenance is known. And successful use of the Internet currently demands proficient literacy and computer skills. (As noted earlier, this may change as bandwidth availability makes supplemental audio and video more available.)
In relation to Figure 6-1, the Internet offers a means for gaining the attention of learners, and of presenting opportunities for focusing perceptions and prompting recall. Learner participation can also be supported, especially with CMC and use of collaborative learning projects. Providing instruction, and assuring appropriate organization, sequencing, and higher-order outcomes are less easily accomplished with the Internet, for reasons discussed here.
Two related Internet-based media show particular instructional promise for those with the skill and discipline to use them well, especially in relation to organization and sequencing challenges presented by the Internet: hypermedia and hypertext. Hypermedia is the linking of multimedia documents, while hypertext is the linking of words or phrases to other words or phrases in the same or another document. Internet delivery may be hyperlinked or linear. As a technology, hypermedia has existed for decades, but with advances in hardware, software, and human-computer interfaces, it is now technically feasible to incorporate hypermedia systems routinely in teaching, and dozens of hypertext and hypermedia development systems now exist.
While hypermedia permit huge amounts of information from a variety of media to be stored in a compact and easily accessible form, the sheer amount of available information may also overwhelm learners, especially if they are unable to refine a search or conduct a focused exploration successfully. Users require skills (some technical, others related to organization and self-discipline) to make efficient use of hypermedia materials. Although the results of hypertext use in teaching have previously been somewhat mixed, the promise is in the potential to offer self-directed learners the option to control the details of their own learning to a much greater extent than is possible in group instruction. With emerging online communications capabilities, the ability for teachers to oversee and monitor this kind of learning also increases. The problem is to overcome the users' tendency only to “focus on facilitating access to information,” and not on actual learning outcomes. This is an important distinction, and one that could be applied to any of the media discussed here.
Online learning is still in its early infancy. There are many outstanding, and, in some cases, vexing issues: costs are declining, but still limit widespread access; many users (teachers, trainers and learners) feel they do not have all the skills they need to make mature use of online learning's potential; administrators and policy-makers often overstate the likely impacts of going online; and the relation of learning outcomes to technology use, for specific populations and in particular circumstances, has not been clearly identified, and is not well understood.
Although these realities prove that there must be evolution before online learning can be seen as mature, at the same time there are promising signs. Access to the Internet is improving, especially for some previously disenfranchised groups; for example, women as a group now exceed men in numbers of Internet users. Some consensus about good practice is emerging, including examples of clearly successful uses of technology to meet persistent learning needs. Finally, in-service training is increasingly available to potential users.
Will these trends continue? Change has been a constant in the online learning world, and as technical capabilities come out of the lab, they are quickly packaged and made available to users by entrepreneurs. Education could keep pace, and could avoid the costs and uncertainties of invention, by merely following the technological lead of the corporate sector.
Whether online learning follows this path or not, it has a good chance to grow because online access to information—wired or wireless, structured or user-driven—and interaction using various computer-based technologies are established social and economic realities. Whether one deplores or applauds this reality, it is nevertheless a fact that as a culture we now go online for many purposes. Consequently, every educator—and especially every distance educator and trainer—should consider the potential of online media as an element of their practice.