Dimensions of Technology Change

From its inception, education technology has caused divergent views about its effects on teaching and learning. For some educators, the advent of radio in the 1930s and television in the 1950s promised to democratize education; others believed these technologies might become tools of fascist leaders used to dominate people's thinking. In fact, radio and TV did neither. Eventually, they supplemented and extended traditional courses, yet most educators still had few options. Faculty members could lecture, engage in classroom discussion, and assign readings, papers, and projects—not much else. The academic schedule permitted few variations in the number and length of weekly meetings.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some educators thought computer assisted instruction (CAI) and computer-based training (CBT) would enable everyone to learn at their own pace, making lectures and class meetings obsolete. Often under new names, these technologies continued to supplement and extend traditional courses, but did not offer new options. However, the value of individualized learning was much discussed. The desirability of both enabling learners to take different paths through an organized collection of materials and allowing others to use different media was confirmed. Many came to acknowledge the variety and impact of learning disabilities and styles. But most faculty members could not even begin to reach new goals without making extraordinary personal effort or gaining unusual external support.

The advent of the personal computer in the 1980s renewed enthusiasm for a revolution in education. Although PCs continue in technology's role to supplement and extend traditional courses, they alone do not extend teaching and learning options beyond what they were in the pre-PC days.

The Web—and even more rapidly and widely, e-mail—began in the 1990s to give teachers and learners a few more viable options. Faculty could now find and provide timely, fresh, immediate information to their students via the Web. Students could do research, with access to unprecedented volumes and varieties of information. Online education became much more common, most often as supplement to classroom-based courses.

Meanwhile, the calls for a major shift toward "learner-centered education" increased, with emphasis on individualization, independent learning, active learning, authentic teaching, standardization of course content and outcomes, "scalable" new programs. In the era of "seamless integration" of academic resources and "ubiquitous computing," many reports suggest that the more pervasive use of such technologies can support this "personalization" of education, in which participants build personal connections with each other.

The new challenge for students, faculty, staff, and administrators is to learn how to take advantage of too many options—instead of too few. How can each institution make good choices and effectively implement them?

This little history of technology in education suggests that we all watch these dimensions of change:

  • Individualization: Responding to individual differences among learners and teachers, both in learning and teaching "styles" and in media preferences
  • Standardization and Access: Providing equitable and convenient access to information and instructional resources
  • Personalization: Enhancing communication and "connectedness" across all kinds of boundaries
  • "Communitization": Supporting the development and maintenance of communities of learners, teachers, citizens.

More dimensions will continue to evolve, and as they do, we need to learn how to keep changing.

About the Author

Steven Gilbert is President of the TLT Group and moderates the Internet listserv TLT-SWG.

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