Back to the Future of eLearning
The TV generation comes face-to-face with net-gen eLearning.
This year marks an anniversary of sorts in the world of computing, information
technology, and eLearning. It was 40 years ago, in 1966, that Patrick Suppes,
Stanford University (CA) professor of Philosophy and early
innovator in the world of computer-assisted instruction, offered a compelling
vision for the role of technology in education in his Scientific American article,
“The Uses of Computers in Education.”
Both the processing and the uses of information are undergoing an unprecedented
technological revolution. Not only are machines now able to deal with many kinds
of information at high speed and in large quantities, but it is also possible
to manipulate these quantities so as to benefit from them in new ways. This
is perhaps nowhere truer than in the field of education. One can predict that
in a few years, millions of school-children will have access to what Philip
of Macedon’s son Alexander enjoyed as a royal prerogative: the services
of a tutor as well-informed and as responsive as Aristotle.
While the language seems a little awkward in the context of current terminology
and technology, Suppes’ article remains a compelling statement about our
great aspirations for the role of computers and information technology across
all levels and sectors of education.
On the other hand, the potential “yang” to Suppes’ “yin”
about technology in education came in 1972. Writing in Change magazine, founding
editor George Bonham offered some damning comments about the “lackluster
record of the educational uses of television” that may sound familiar:
For better or worse, television dominates much of American life and manners
Part of [the] lackluster record of the educational uses of television is of
course due to the heretofore merciless economies of the medium. But profound
pedagogic mistrust of the medium also remains a fact of life. The proof of the
pudding lies in the fact that on many campuses, fancy television equipment
lies idle and often unused
Academic indifference to this enormously powerful
medium becomes doubly incomprehensible when one remembers that the present college
generation is also the first television generation.
Visualize a word processor, substitute “technology” for television,
and it’s clear that Bonham’s comments about television in 1972 echo
the assessment that many in and around the campus and educational communities
offer about the uses of computers and information technology today: great potential,
uncertain (and expensive) implementation, accompanied by large doses of “pedagogic
mistrust” and “academic indifference.”
Bonham’s assessment may be doubly distressing when we recall that he
is talking about many of us—me (clearly) and perhaps thee: middle-age,
mid-career boomers who came of age with television. And the tension for many
of us who were (are!) the television/analog generation is that our classrooms
and campuses (let alone our homes!) are populated with a digital generation.
The current discussion of digital natives notwithstanding, the digital generation
is defined by expectations: students ages 18 to 68 who come to campus expecting
to learn about and to learn with technology. This
digital generation includes full-time undergraduates at residential colleges
and universities, part-time students in community colleges, the 15 to 20 percent
of adults in community college courses who already have one or more college
degrees, executive MBA students in evening and weekend programs, and millions
of students in online courses and degree programs.
Yes, we’ve made great progress in the past two decades. In and around
the classroom, on- and off-campus, the technologies and the icons of the much
heralded, at times over-hyped technology revolution in education (micro/desktop/notebook
computers, the Web, wireless, and Google, et al) have changed and enhanced many
aspects of the educational experience, across all levels/sectors of education.
The yin and yang of technology and education—aspiration vs. implementation—are
reflected, in part, in the most recent Sloan-C report, Growing by Degrees:
Online Education in the United States, 2005 (www.sloan-c.org/resources/growing_by_degrees.pdf).
This annual report remains the best source for data about the core numbers and
key issues for online courses and degree programs. And the data presented in
the 2005 Sloan-C report, released in November 2005, point to continuing growth:
Headcount enrollment in online courses rose 18.2 percent from 2004 to 2005,
to some 2.35 million students. Academic officers report that “core [full-time]
faculty” are actively engaged in teaching online courses. The proportion
of provosts/ chief academic officers who believe that online education is critical
to their institution’s long-term strategy increased from 49 percent in
2003 to 56 percent in 2005. Finally, the academic officers who participated
in the most recent Sloan-C survey overwhelmingly report that “it is no
more difficult to evaluate the quality of an online course than [a traditional
course] delivered face-to-face.”
The timely and informative Sloan-C data help map only one segment of the large,
growing, and increasingly complex world of eLearning in higher ed. The Sloan-C
report defines online course: “All or most [80 percent-plus] of the content
is delivered online. Typically has no face-to-face meetings.” IT also
offers definitions for other segments of the broader eLearning landscape:
- Traditional courses where no online technology
- Web-facilitated courses that use Web resources
such as a course management system to support and supplement what is “essentially
a face-to-face” course where online content accounts for 1 to 29 percent
of the course content
- Blended/hybrid courses where online content represents
30 to 79 percent of the course content and includes online discussions; blending
online and face-to-face delivery
The quality, evaluation, and learning outcome questions that the Sloan-C survey
asks about online courses apply to all segments of the eLearning world: Web-facilitated,
blended, and online. We need more and better data to help map these segments
of eLearning, much as the Sloan-C data help to map the broad terrain of online
Moreover, the quality questions involve more than courses, either traditional
or technology aided/enhanced. They apply to individual courses, to academic
programs, and to a broad range of institutional efforts and initiatives.
Eight years after Suppes offered his prediction about the coming role of technology
in education, Robert Persig was asking academics and civilians, as part of his
journey in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), compelling
questions about “what the hell is quality in higher education?”
Forty years after Suppes, 32 years after Persig, and well into the third decade
of the “computer revolution in higher education” that began in the
early ’80s with the arrival of the IBM-PC and the Macintosh, we have not
come full circle with these questions. Rather, we have again lapped the track.
Suppes’ vision and Persig’s query remain compelling (and complementary)
as we continue to be motivated by aspirations and challenged by implementation.
Want to know more about the future of eLearning?
Join me on March 1 when the award-winning Ready2Net series—broadcast by satellite
and available over the Web—returns for a public conversation about “The Future
of eLearning,” with experts from across the campus community. For more information,
go to page 28 or to register for the March 1 program, go to: www.csumb.edu/ready2net.