March, 2000
Issue 4 - Part 1
I N S I G H T S    I N T O    U S I N G    E D U C A T I O N A L   T E C H N O L O G Y

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? 


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: will give you an American Airlines AAdvantage(r) voucher worth 500 miles when you enroll in a UCLA Extension online course between February 10 & February 29, 2000. Before an organization introduces any major technological change, a major cultural change among staff is required (Bates, 2000). Without proper planning, leadership and support both for teachers and from teachers, the picket signs could come out and/or the whole project could fall over, or even be handed over to Joe Entrepreneur. I contend that a strategic plan for technology is required first and foremost at all levels within an organization or system (or even up to the macrocosm of a country) before any top-down or bottom-up approach is even considered. Institutions considering implementing online learning strategies with widespread implications must not only plan very carefully, but may also have to include everyone from the computer technicians to politicians, in drafting-out plans.

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 '' 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:

  1. A vision for teaching and learning - how learning should take place in the future, compliant with the institution’s purpose.
  2. Funding re-allocation – long term plans that increase funding to technology-based teaching.
  3. Strategies for inclusion – ensuring that faculty are encouraged and supported, including the creation of advisory committees.
  4. Technology infrastructure – can be costly ($20 million at UBC) and should be driven by (and not lead) the institutions vision and strategy.
  5. People infrastructure expertise is required in technical support, media production, instructional design, faculty development, project management and evaluation.
  6. Student computer access – a costly endeavor as labs become outdated quickly, and not all students are able to afford computers and connections. Bulk leasing and buying and sponsorship and government may help.
  7. New teaching models – there are many variations with technology, and faculty must be supported to understand its relationship to teaching and learning.
  8. Faculty agreements and training – changes in the way faculty are trained and rewarded are required. Increased workloads may be a problem. Teachers need to understand the context of the situation before learning software.
  9. Project management – multidisciplinary approaches and structured processes that do not impede innovation are required.
  10. New organizational structures – several small organizational units, committees and technology savvy leaders are recommended over large departments.
  11. Collaboration and consortia – strategic alliances between universities and the private sector can reduce risk.
  12. Research and evaluation – which is based on new paradigms and learner’s responses, rather than using the classroom as the base. 
Online education is a very serious business these days. Last year for example, the Illinois Board of Higher Education committed over 400 million dollars to establish Internet-based education, including wiring remote communities with fibre optic connections (IBHE, 1999). The University of British Columbia in Canada has spent in excess of 4 million dollars over 1997/98 expanding bandwidth and updating their network, and the provincial government there has invested 300 million in the installation of broadband services (Bates, 2000). In a speech on higher education in the 21st century, Mr. Blunkett, the U.K. Education Secretary, stated that, "The arrival of the knowledge economy has intensified the competitive pressures on higher education institutions. Learning has become big business, so a new national initiative is needed to maximize Britain's chances of success in this global environment." He further said that the "do nothing" universities would not survive the next decade (BBC, 2000). In Britain, 24 million pounds is being spent to bring fibre optic connections into the home, and what is shocking is that most of the investment is coming from North America (Bates, 2000). In Japan and Europe similar incentives and large investments are being made. Even close to my home in Ontario, Georgian College is building a 24 million-dollar 'Centre for Technology Enhanced Learning'. As you can imagine, investors in both the private sector and education will want some kind of a return on this money, and obviously large quantities of high quality educational materials will be required in the near future. Where on earth will all of these come from?

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:

"The faculty role will change from being mainly a content expert to a combination of content expert, learning process design expert, and process implementation manager. Faculty will also be motivators and mentors, interpreters, and, as a colleague put it, ‘expert learners’ – people who lead the learning process by breaking the trail and setting the right personal example. Technology can leverage faculty time, but it cannot replace most human contact without significant quality losses." It is apparent that technology will not be able to totally replace the human factor, and that the human factor must embrace the technology. I suspect that a vast majority of serious educators are at this very moment, engaged in some professional development activity related to teaching and learning with technology. My observations are that the ubiquitous hype and trendiness of 'getting online' is over, and that there is growing realization that easy money in online learning does not exist. It seems to me that the real work of applying pedagogically sound methods to online technology is becoming more apparent, and consequently, the roles of instructors and tutors are becoming a more respected and active part of the process. 


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:

  • Focus on the learner - Think about how students can become more involved and better achieve goals in or through the online environment.
  • Focus on the content, tasks and activities, not the technology – Do not try to make the content fit into the technology, rather, create interesting and engaging tasks that can be enhanced through the technology. Make things more interactive.
  • KISS (keep it simple) – Avoid becoming overwhelmed. Keep your concepts simple and focussed, and don’t get lost in presentational design or other technical issues.
  • Teamwork – Help foster a cooperative environment with faculty and staff, to assist and encourage each other.
I then proceeded to demonstrate a generic ‘blank’ course, followed by one I created along with comments on my personal experiences developing and implementing it. In doing so, faculty quickly recognized the fact that the software in question was just another tool to help students learn more effectively, and that they where the keys as to how students would relate to it. Many were reassured when they realized that the goal of online networked learning was to replace conventional teaching methods, not conventional teachers. At the end of each workshop, discussions revealed that the participants were already thinking of new and innovative ways to deliver their course content. Of course subsequent workshops will have to be held, which will dive deeper into the world of online teaching and learning. This may not have been the time to discuss in depth the social constructivist nature of learning in the 21st century, but I strongly felt that a general awareness of new paradigms should have preceded any workshop about using a particular technological tool.

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.

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