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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…now 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 ( 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 is deployed
  • 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 learning.

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:

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