New Community Networks: Wired for Change

by David Foster
Published in SEDL Letter Volume IX, Number 3, August 1996, Constructivism

SEDLetter Reviews New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Douglas Schuler. ACM Press. 528 pages. Indexed. $26.85 paper.

"Communities are the right scale for many human endeavors," writes Douglas Schuler in the preface of New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Schuler's community is not the classical "and static" community, but a "new type of community that combines aspects of old and new." And to take advantage of their hybrid vigor, Schuler asserts that such communities must develop an important community resource - community computer networks.

As a matter of fact, community networks supported by computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) or the Internet are springing up around the country and around the globe. Communities are using computer telecommunications capabilities to support dialogue, interaction, accountability, education, entertainment, community services, and government and to promote economic development, information dissemination, and cultural activities. These factors make New Community Networks timely. And since Schuler looks at communities and the issues of community development and not at technology for technology's sake, his book will remain a valuable source of ideas well beyond the next networking innovation or breakthrough in broadband services.

Schuler is concerned about education, health care, government, culture, economic equity, and - especially - democracy. Many of his ideas address educators' concerns such as cooperative group learning, life-long learning, systemic reform, critical thinking, school-linked services, engaged learning, learning communities, and an entire spectrum of equity issues. Schuler envisions community networks that support an "educational system [designed] to help every individual develop intellectual independence and a sense of empowerment"; he states that "any community network that is intended to support the community must help address the crisis in equity and access in education."

Schuler brings impressive credentials to his topic. A software engineer, Schuler has worked on the social issues of computing for nearly 15 years. Current chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, he helped found the Seattle Community Network. He is credited by Apple librarian Steve Cisler with writing "the definitive article on community networks."

Schuler's book is not armchair reading. The author is concerned about the state of post-Cold War society. He argues that the so-called peace dividend has evaporated and that democracy, which he views as a key tool for public deliberation and decision-making, is "increasingly misunderstood, underused, irrelevant, and blunt."

But Schuler is a self-proclaimed "meliorist," a person who believes that society has an innate tendency toward improvement and that this tendency may be furthered through conscious human effort. He describes communities as "the heart, the soul, the nervous system, and the lifeblood of human society" and stresses they are the "right scale" for many human endeavors. Although Schuler senses that a certain malaise and lack of identity - a certain existential nausea - have swept our society, he feels that communities and technology just may offer the prescription for a cure.

To this end, Schuler examines six core societal values: conviviality and culture; education; strong democracy; health and human services; economic equity, opportunity, and sustainability; and information and communication. He illustrates these concepts with in-depth analyses of functioning community computer networks and discusses the implications that technology and community networking have for the future. An especially useful chapter deconstructs the stages in the life-cycle of a community network. Finally, Schuler includes an extensive set of additional resources culled from print and electronic media.

Community Networking and Education

Schuler is clearly hostile to institutionalized education, which he describes as "intellectually stultifying" and "like a prison sentence." As an alternative he advocates individualized education where respect for the student is a given; an approach to the three Rs that includes listening, speaking, and new media-based forms of communication; critical-thinking skills; and a process that supports "exploration and development of new syntheses, paradigms, and perspectives." Computer networks, Schuler points out, are especially suited for this type of learning because information and resources can be freely disseminated over a distance to selected or diffuse groups of people. Equally important are the growing and powerful new technologies that support a broad spectrum of collaborative activities.

Lest this seem pat, Schuler provides pragmatic examples that support his proposals. He describes how networks can provide homework help, resources for rural schools, forums to engage students while they hone communications and critical-thinking skills, and other relevant, engaging educational environments. The reader learns about some great educationally constructivist Internet resources such as the Science Learning Network and the Academy One program.

Schuler feels that the community must support education and that education must support the community. And he concludes that "we can go further in the direction of establishing an educational system that is responsive to people's needs: a university that is universal - education for everyone, everywhere."

And What of the Future?

Schuler asserts that "technology should serve culture and society - not the other way around!" And he envisions people using computer networks in ways that support culture and society.

Today, computer networks such as the Internet are creating a powerful synergy among globally linked individuals who are empowered by computers. On the horizon are further technological advances: inexpensive bandwidth that will provide richer, more powerful virtual worlds; hardware that will have built-in intelligent agents and powerful, economical multimedia capabilities; and software that will deliver information that updates itself and knows how to be found by those who need it.

These enormous leaps in bandwidth, imaging, and computer intelligence will provide better, more accurate virtual representations of the real world. They will introduce tremendous sophistication to virtual communities while making them more appealing to larger numbers of people than they are now. Technology will offer even more exciting ways to reinvigorate our communities - and this will make Schuler's ideas for community networks more relevant, more important, and more easily achieved than they are today.

More Resources

  • The Science Learning Network
    Constructivist Internet resources for educators
  • Academy One
    Interactive resources and activities for K - 12 students and educators academy_one/menu.html
    [May 14, 1997: Link no longer valid. -webmaster]
  • The Morino Institute
    Advocates of community empowerment through electronic networks.
    Has a Web site for Schuler's book at commnet/ncn.htm
  • The Community Network Movement
  • Schuler's groundbreaking paper Community Networks: Building a New Participatory Medium
    Purchasing information for New Community Networks

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