Forty years ago as a freshman, I pulled my first book off the shelves of Hayden Library at MIT. This month, every MIT undergraduate departed from campus in an attempt to contain COVID-19, leaving behind the vast resources of that library. Ready or not, we are all being thrust into an enormous experiment in online learning. One that can have positive and permanent outcomes, if we handle it right.
With schools closing from Changshu to Cambridge, suddenly students are cut off from the physical resources they rely on: the teachers, the classrooms and libraries that are the backbone of learning. And in this flux, those in marginalized communities—from rural areas without broadband or schools with few online books—are even more profoundly challenged. The Economist reports that in the United states, “7 million school-age children cannot access the internet at home.”
“If this is just a prolonged pause in our education and economy, without the benefits of learning and adapting, one of the most profound impacts of COVID-19 may be…a “quiet brain drain.” It will be time our children never get back.”
But here’s the good news: we know how to do this, to impart knowledge at scale over the Internet. Online courses, online libraries and broadband all exist—but we need to expand and upgrade them to meet the needs of the close to one billion learners around the world whose classrooms have been shuttered.
24 years ago, I founded the Internet Archive as a nonprofit digital library serving more than a million learners every day. Today, the Internet Archive is working with hundreds of public, school and university libraries to digitize their core collections and make them freely available over the Internet. Even as MIT was sending students home, we were working with MIT Libraries to see how many of their books we have already digitized. In 24 hours, we were able to hand them back 166,000 digitized books to lend online through their catalogue and via archive.org. This week, the Internet Archive created a National Emergency Library of 1.4 million digitized books to serve the needs of students, educators and learners who can now access them from home.
Think of this as a huge experiment. In one big push, we can improve online learning and its infrastructure in a way that may otherwise have taken years. This crisis encourages universities to be bold, to make investments that ultimately may mean many more students can benefit. Perhaps 500 undergraduates can fill a hall at MIT, but how many millions can take an online MIT course, once the books, materials and lessons are online?
China is a few weeks ahead of the United States when it comes to experimenting with online learning. In January, my son, Caslon, was teaching English to 4th graders in Changshu. Now he is teaching them from San Francisco, with recorded lessons and online interaction. Next month, his school in China is poised to reopen, but I suspect it will be forever changed.
If this is just a prolonged pause in our education and economy, without the benefits of learning and adapting, one of the most profound impacts of COVID-19 may be what Dr. Kate Tairyan, Chief Medical Officer of the online college NextGenU.org, calls a “quiet brain drain.” It will be time our children never get back.
But we have the opportunity to harness American ingenuity to build a stronger, more robust educational system—by leveraging the Internet, new technologies, and our investments in digitizing books at scale into something that democratizes learning for a generation to come.
Brewster Kahle is the founder and Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive. A passionate advocate for public Internet access and a successful entrepreneur, he has spent his career intent on a singular focus: providing Universal Access to All Knowledge. Kahle graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied artificial intelligence.