Advances in computer and other communication technologies
in the last few years have increased the educational use of and dependence
upon the World Wide Web - not only as a repository of knowledge, but more
importantly as a medium for computer mediated communication (CMC). There
are many ideas as to what constitutes an effective online learning environment.
It all needs to be put into context. This issue examines definitions, delivery
strategies, practices and pedagogical issues associated with networked
learning at present and in the near future. It also examines which guiding
principles and factors for implementing online learning can or should be
derived from past practices and experiences, and why.
We are in the midst of an evolution in learning, or perhaps a revolution. Although originally inspired by dedicated educators, the implementation of online learning in colleges, universities, and more recently, the corporate sector appears to be a top-down, financially driven force. Faculty appear to be in a state of either acceptance or denial with the technology, and there seems to have been as many online course failures as successes, evident in the number of faculty strikes, petitions and resignations in the late nineties (Noble, 1998).
Teacher’s roles are in transition, mutating from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’ mode. While some teachers are struggling with the acceptance and implementation of new technology, administrators are allocating budgets and creating policies and procedures. All of this activity has prompted a closer look and examination of the teaching paradigm itself, in an attempt to determine whether traditional pedagogy should be transformed or even replaced in order to be viable with computer mediated instruction (CMI). In many instances, critical examination seems to be coming after-the-fact, and one wonders if we should still be using the term ‘new paradigm’, as the New York Times last year estimated that there were thousands of courses online in the United States alone (Koeppel, 1999). Over 95% of the schools in the U.S. are connected to the Internet (NCES, 2000) and a 1998 study showed that one third of all U.S. classes were using Internet resources (IHEP, 2000), which suggests that this percentage may be closer to or even exceeding 50 percent at present. According to BBC News, the number of universities in the US providing internet-based courses leading to degrees has more than doubled over the past academic year, from 15% to 34% (BBCb, 2000).
Although the impetus for change stems from management,
teachers and learners alike, in the end it may be up to faculty to actually
apply the pedagogy and its associated methodologies that will successfully
integrate and implement this newer paradigm of learning in the twenty-first
century. The tutor’s role in the equation may be much more important than
was previously thought. Just as all courses may not be amenable to online
delivery, many learners may not be easily adaptable to it either. We are
entering an era where special skills and technical support are required
for both learners and educators. Collaborative learning and communities
of knowledge are becoming the norm, but what exactly are these concepts
and where did they come from? Further, what are the implications of networked
learning in higher education today, and how does an institution get involved
without making serious mistakes?
CONCERNS AND CONSIDERATIONS - A FLASH IN THE PAN?
Are we talking about worldwide closure of established, traditional educational institutions? Good quality online instruction is time and labor intensive to produce. It is more than simply transferring a series of lecture notes or multimedia components to an Internet format. To the dismay of many administrators, the cost of viable online instruction exceeds that of traditional instruction. Many institutions have jumped on the bandwagon early, and have spent considerable time and resources on setting up online course facilities, only to realize that the investment was not reciprocal. For example, a few years ago, Western Governors University in the United States had a first semester enrollment of only 10 online students. At the University of Washington in 1997, 900 faculty members signed a petition against the University’s ‘digital education’ initiatives. Less than 30% of the faculty at UCLA completed their Instructional Enhancement Initiative tasks in 1998, and many faculty members resisted altogether (Nobel, 1998). Some institutions have responded to these obstacles in unique ways, and interesting developments to monitor include the number of business deals between schools and private companies. In the private sector, Wall Street is beginning a love affair with web-based training companies with such names as Click2Learn and SmartForce, which are, at the time of this writing, trading at all-time highs. Many other online learning companies are going public. I recently received the following email, which is indicative of some of these new relationships and current market forces:
In a recent discussion with a North American colleague, he stated, "We've laid the tracks, put the train on it and what we need now is freight." In making decisions to implement technology into the classroom, many people have thought that, 'if we build it, they will come'. I've also noticed that there has been much confusion in regards to professions and technology today. A visit to 'dice.com' illustrates that there are a variety of obscure job titles being created today in an attempt to solve problems. Many companies (including universities) seem to be looking for individuals that know how to use a particular piece of software without any regard for the expertise of the domain. I wouldn't assume that knowing how to use AutoCad and Microsoft Project Manager means that I could build stately buildings while keeping the network up and running. I don't believe that knowing how to use Adobe Photoshop and Premiere would make any programmer a photographer, graphic designer or television producer either, but apparently some lost souls do. It's understandable that computer technology is a great mystery for some, but without the 'freight' and its manufacturing components, designing a system for its own sake will certainly lead to failure, or at least timely or costly re-fits.
In his 1997 paper Restructuring for Technological Change, based on experiences at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Tony Bates suggests twelve organizational strategies for implementing change, which I have summarized:
Distance learners are quickly becoming educated consumers (no pun intended), and much more discerning in selecting quality courses or institutions, which are not only the ones incorporating better technology, but also the ones with the lowest student to faculty ratios. Those universities seeking value added benefits for the institution alone might not survive. We are, after all, dealing with student outcomes and attitudes and ultimately, their satisfaction. Will all existing institutions be able to obtain an esteemed ISO 9000 rating in order to attract students and life-long learners? If we are in fact speaking of quality education as opposed to quantity education, will it not take highly dedicated, knowledgeable and skilled educators to assure quality development, implementation, and evaluation? Clearly, ‘quality is job one’.
The proliferation of research and publications in the online domain is also growing exponentially, creating a greater focus on teaching and learning than ever before. A visit to Microsoft's web site reveals a multitude of information and resources for online learning, which further exemplifies growing interest in this area. The American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association recently published a comprehensive review of the contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance education (Phipps and Merisotis, 1999). The detailed report responds to the many questions being posed by educators and learners concerning the quality and effectiveness of online instruction. It indicates that even though there is much convincing evidence to support distance learning, there are many gaps in the research, and the educational community still has much to learn in respect to technology enhanced (distance) learning. It also contends that although there is much focus on the technology itself, more important concerns should deal with learner characteristics and motivation, learning tasks and the instructor. Another concern is that solid educational research fails to keep teaching practice informed. The article ends with the question, "What is the best way to teach students?" If I read my paradigms correctly, it should have been "What is the best way students learn?"
William Massey in "Life on the Wired Campus: How Information Technology Will Shape Institutional Futures" (1997), states:
Becoming a ‘guide on the side’ instead of a ‘sage on the stage’ does not represent the connotations it may suggest to some, in that the role of the teacher is diminished. Learner centered strategies have never diminished the role of the teacher before, and networked learning should not alter this fact either. It is true that educators will have to learn about new methods, tools and technology, but the art of teaching itself still remains in the hands of the content experts and designers of learning environments, or in other words, the teachers.
One realization is that the quality of online instruction is dependent upon the ownership of the design, implementation, delivery and evaluation of education. As well as being grounded in teaching theory or active practice, teachers traditionally have a passion for educating, and this care, concern and dedication translates into quality for the learner. Therefore, I believe that it is important for institutions to grant ownership to creators of online material. Dictating curriculum is one matter, but materials and methods either produced by, or strictly dictated by, course coordinators or others might hit a little too close to the heart for some teachers to accept, and alienation may result. Policy issues for administrators could include monetary rewards, but should at least include an understanding with faculty members in regards to ownership of online curriculum development and delivery.
In addition to policy issues, institutions must consider professional development as well, and subsequent activities must transcend the use of new technology tools alone. The 1998 National Survey of Information Technology in Higher Education found that helping faculty integrate technology into instruction was the top technology challenge facing colleges and universities (IHEP, 1999). Many software companies are addressing the need for non-programmers to be able to create rich, interactive online material, but faculty will still require time and technical support to implement it.
If in fact, teachers are to accept ownership, they must realize that they are very much involved in policy making and in control of learning. Recently I facilitated a number of workshops to introduce teachers and course coordinators to the WebCT learning environment. Although these were primarily hands-on, procedural workshops on software, I deemed it necessary to attempt to relieve some of the anxiety and fear of change present among the participants. During the introduction, I briefly stated what the institution was attempting to accomplish and made the following recommendations:
Another observation was that highly technical faculty were the minority. Teachers must be reassured that beyond mentor and peer support, technical support is only a phone call or email away, and administrative bodies must realize the necessity for this type of support.
Instructors will have to think about new ways of
creating content and tasks, and some may even have to become proficient
in the areas of media production and instructional design in regards to
educational technology. Enabling effective, interactive learning is no
small challenge. The focus has simply shifted from how teachers teach,
to how they can set up worthwhile learning activities for learners, through
networked online environments. In other words, less teaching and more development
and facilitating to provide more learning. Knowledge and skills are required
to create, deliver and moderate networked online learning, and this acquisition
should begin with teachers’ awareness, involvement and ownership.