If one accepts that change is one of the few constants in our existence, the commencing quotation, taken from "Bodhisattva Samantabhadra's Gatha to inspire the congregation" [A Buddhist Religious text.] presents a response to this constant. As communication and education develops a greater attachment of flexible learning strategies, life long learning and "advances in technology", there needs to be a point at which questions of nature of the outcomes need to be considered.Be mindful that all are impermanent, so grasp every
opportunity and do not debauch for a moment.
In this process, where is the human person within this situation? The human person is both at the alpha and omega of this, both as creator, and participant in the information technology that are decentralising the learning and understanding and being provided an increasing level of control of this process, as an integral part of these changes. The increasing capacities of technology along with the development of the Internet and World Wide Web are making the matter of learning more personal and more decentralised, thus diminishing the human presence in the process, and changing the way we are learning, what we are learning.
Whilst there is a substantial body of evidence to show the effectiveness of these changes in pedagogical strategy, there lurks a question, does it work because it is new, because it is better or "boys (or girls) with their toys"? Are these advances doing what needs to be done in a more effective manner way, that allows us to learn and provide more scope for increasing access to the knowledge that we have around us and the manner in which we can use this information.
Oliver Goldsmith's poetic review of the Industrial Revolution in England, as noted through his epic "The Deserted Village" saw the main element of the social fabric of society, the village environment disappear, as the common lands were enclosed and the need for employment drove the peasantry to the cities.
As the Goldsmith's peasantry are drawn to William Blake's "Dark satanic mills", similar types of concerns are reflected in where the current delivery of education is going, with its decentralisation and the greater emphasis on the learner control. Like the English village, whose passing, Goldsmith laments, the buildings and grounds that were the school and university will slowly disappearing into cyberspace, as the process of decentralisation continues. Whether this is a course for concern, rather than an observation of fact, can be debated. However it is a trend that reflects the needs of a society with a greater capacity to access information and communicate to the world at large than at any time in the history of this planet. Rather than merely carry on regardless there needs to be a review of the direction of the change, and how this will impact on the society in which it is occurring.Ill fairs the land, to hast'ning ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and Lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breadth can make them, as a breadth has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride
When once destroy'd, can never be supplied.
Within Tertiary education in Australia, there is very much a state of transition from the 'cattle call' lectures with the masses scribbling intently, responding to every word delivered from this venerated information source. It is slowly changing to where the students, scattered across the cyberspace, generally acting as independent agents, interacting on some chat line, and wondering "is this going anywhere?" There is an implicit concern from those who are in positions of authority that whilst this might be the way to go, the main business of the organisation is to have bums on seats inside the grounds of the organisation. And at the end of a defined period of time, having them walk away with pieces of paper that were gained by being present at this location, rather than being in a learning environment of which the learner has potentially greater control.
Whilst it is questionable as to whether the academic talking at a sea of heads, in various stages of rest from writer's cramp, can be described as the ideal learning environment. The required large "teaching spaces" (which would include spaces of up to 800-1000 seats in the sandstone Universities), with an individual at a set time, dispensing information in circumstances that English once described as "operating without the active engagement of the minds of those involved" (English, 1999). However this approach to information delivery has been the main strategy of university education since most of our present academic leaders can remember. It is nothing more than an extension of the approach used by the Greek scholars, such as Socrates sitting with his students.
Whilst Socrates was 'corrupting a few Athenian children of the nobility' by sitting around in the market place, and asking "why?", teaching was done as an exercise in interpersonal communication. With maybe Plato or Aristotle taking notes, so that they could try this on their elders later. Teaching, and to some extent by implication, learning has developed as being a social and communal process, in which information was transferred by one to many. By the time education became more accessible, and larger groups were gathered the sense of community diminished as the need to know increased. Victorian Literature, varying between Dicken's 'Nicholas Nickleby' through the stories of large groups of children, seated in a large hall - their tutors (who were also their peers) being taught the lesson, which they were then expected to rote present to their group, all in the same room. Thus the communal process of learning and the need to know were inter-balanced.
The need to get the information to the many, whether they are in classrooms of 35+ desks or in large lecture rooms, further diminished the social and interactive nature of learning. It reduced its capacity to be an active and involving process, and has become a relatively passive and receptive place. As the nature of information became more diverse and the technology, responding to need, made the dissemination of information easier, the need to know has become less crucial to know why or how the process functions.
These sentiments around as a result of a discussion I and My father, a former senior research scientist and I, commenced after he had presented on "Ockham's Razor" (Radio National, ABC, 1997) about the negative impersonal outcomes of the present uses of technology.
For most of my working life, I was closely associated with people in the forefront of the application of computers to building, urban services and planning, and it is this association, as much as anything, which has led to the concern I now feel about increasing reliance on computer controlled processes and services, which seem to have no visible human control. (F. A. Blakey, 1997)Technology has been developed to meet two basic requirements - to make life easier and to increase productivity. Henry Ford and his organisation's development the conveyor belt approach to manufacturing and the development of the Hill's hoist best exemplify this.
As society seeks to make more (of whatever) and make life easier (as a consequence?), the human presence seems to be reduced to a secondary player, either anticipating the next change or finding the money to pay for the next development in technology. Why should education and learning be immune?
As we 'decentralise' learning delivery, with the online courses for everything from astrology to literacy and human psychology, we are loosing something in the intimacy of the learning activity? My father noted that if we follow this process through to a logical conclusion (of which this may be one of many), that physical space of schools would soon be reduced to a few offices. The teaching staff will be both 'teaching' to a class within an asynchronous time framework, and responding to remediation and clarification demands, thus increasing the workload, and spreading across a twenty-four hour time frame. Their students could be anywhere from the library, home or in some formalised cybercafe, next to people of various ages, learning other disciplines online.
Learning would be reduced to a considered individual act, rather than an act of communal and social change, such as exemplified by the kindergarten child's collective discovery that two and two are four, or the attendant life skills gained within a classroom or a playground.
That this trend is occurring already, rather than being a cause for alarm, is something that needs to be acknowledged. Rather than limit the capacity of learning flexibility, we should move to expand its horizons, but knowing what it involved and what curricula and instructional requirements are needed to be included to avoid the outcome being one giant expensive indulgence, whose outcomes can be established as being achieved, but in doing so, producing unintended consequences that have the potential to negatively impact on those whom these changes are planned to benefit most.
Computer development has always been fraught with the problems of expectation and anticipation. As the improvements and changes in hardware and software design, and the costs involved in making these changes, have been occurring in an effort to accommodate these demands. The level of 'anticipation' balanced against the level of unfulfilled expectations have lead to a degree of random development, best mirrored by the development of the Apple and IBM operating system differences, both meeting the same requirements, and totally incompatible - and to some extent proud of it. The commercial imperative made the ready access to a changing paradigm of technologies became limited to those who have, rather than those who need.
The selling of computer technology was done more as a commercial venture rather than as community service or resource. In the beginning, the education community was told that it would make your lives easier and you will have greater time to do other things. It will take over the basic rote learning instruction and provide the learner with necessary learning re-enforcement. Thus the early Microbee and Apple IIe began the initial steps towards the physical decentralisation of learning. Rather than have learning as a community activity, children could go and individually 'play' (which is an interesting concept in itself) on the computer.
The balance between improving the learning experience, freeing up the teacher to focus on "important areas", and ensuring that the scarce and expensive resource actually met the hype, should have seen a careful and considered response to the technology. The promise was both what it could do, but more importantly it was of what was to come. This was the start of the momentum.
Soon there was curriculum instruction and the advent of the 'computer education' academic. Someone who studied how to and why to use the most expensive item of technology in the teaching space, and its advent followed much along the lines of the media teachers, who were part of the landscape during the 1970s and 1980s. Somehow the 'toy' had to be made to work and last longer the previous one.
The major difference in this though, where media moved into the realms of the philosophical and the 'hi-tech', computer usage and development become more accessible, reduced in price and became more diverse in the possibilities of their use. The 'Computer Expert' became someone who both taught about the technology as well as advised the organisational management on how this technology could support the needs of the educational organisation. Please remember this was in the beginning, and things have changed.
But rather than musing over the faults of the "Mother Church of Seattle" (the home of Microsoft, for those who aren't sure) for instance, it is necessary to pause and reflect on the nature of our expectations. The development of the capacity of the computer to act and 'think' (or rather anticipate with a range of options, a set series of responses as determined by those who programmed the machine) has presented the user with a series of challenges. This, along with the Internet developments, made the choices even more diverse, and the possibilities even greater.
Thus with a greater the range of options, the greater potential for confusion as people found out what was possible. As the capacity of the computer and its software developed, along with the advent of, and increased access to the Internet and World Wide Web (www), so the increased complexity of the options developed. But who was determining whether the outcomes sort, were being met?
It is difficult to appreciate the nature of a medium that is in perpetual change. Also how humanity relates to the technology, and the most effective ways in which it can interact. So a law amount of trial and error took place, as research determined how this would assist them in doing what they were doing at present. Rather than go through the historical processes, there are innumerable studies that confirm that people learn more, enjoy the learning experience and have a greater range of options to self direct their learning experiences (eg Liaw et al, 2000; Lyall and McNamara, 2000).
One can note however that this is within the context of tertiary education, and as a result of being used within an environment of a committed change agency. It is positive to note that the direction towards constructivist theories of communication provide a sense of managing one's own destiny. However administrative requirements can temper the degree of flexibility allowable within the learning environment.
Thus we are moving to a more 'realistic' learning environment, despite the reduction of primary interpersonal interaction. It is said by some (Sims, 2000) that this human presence is compensated for by increased interactivity, and the flexibility that the Internet's Discussion and Chat Rooms afford.
As to whether this is a flexible delivery of educational information is to be debated. Much of the present literature seems to see flexible delivery appears as code for computer mediated, assisted or based information, presentation or communication. This is not deny that the electronic communication technologies are flexible media within their design constraints. But this tends to focus on the sexy end of an exercise that should be seeing the liberation of education, and not the up market relocation of the right to know.
If we accept that the human person is at either end of this process, both creator and consumer, where does this overt presence become evident? As a passive receiver of all gifts of knowledge/information from the 'all seeing' and ever intelligent computer, or one of the Gods that created the vision, or what?
Could we have a master computer being more like "Red Dwarf's" Kryton (ABC-TV, 1999) or "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's" (Hawkins, 1978) neurotically manic-depressive great computer? Even Clarke's malevolent "HAL" (Kubrick, "2001 - A Space Odyssey", book by Arthur C. Clarke) becomes more possible as we improve our understanding of how technology communicates. And who would program these 'manifestations of God'?
The nature of learning, assumes, or rather requires a "someone" to write a program to operate the machine. This process was later developed into the creation of retrievable programs referred to as 'software'.
The requirements of the user - how this was determined in a manner open to question - has largely dictated the expansion of the memory capacity of the hardware, and its capacities to do more than just the limited activities of the aforementioned Macs, Microbees and PCs. The memory requirements were increased and so did the software space requirements that they were required to use.
The increase in memory space allowed for the development of material that would be user friendly. The learner's needs were governed by formal content requirements the nature of the curriculum design. Thus the medium of the computer became subservient to the requirements of the content. Thus computer mediated material looked more like electronic text material with the odd 'bell and whistle'. This despite the trend induced by the computer technology of individualised learning approaches and ownership of the outcomes. The move away from instructivist to constructivist pedagogical strategies has required the moving feast of the computer enhanced medium to be considered more in the design of material presented through this medium.
With control of the process now something of an open question, the demands on the parties has increased, as the technology removes the time parameters of the normal classroom. The learning, and the communication between the parties, now takes place asynchronously, and on terms governed by the technology rather than organisational paradigms.
The content provider's role therefore is to create the learning environment to allow this to occur. This therefore has to acknowledge that content is changing and is something the user brings to the interface, as the content within this medium now focuses on the learning processes, themselves. In short, it is not so much what is to be taught, but how is it to be used.
This is further affected by the changes in the hardware - reducing in size and being less bound to the wall plug and Internet link, and being able to be used in numerous situations outside the formal teaching spaces.
And the outcomes, the packages, web pages and the like, do they achieve measurable learning outcomes? The overwhelming response is, yes, they work (eg, Phillips and Luca, 2000; Lyall and McNamara, 2000). Measurable learning outcomes occur - even if you occasionally have to sneak up on the 'buggers' to do so. (Van der Molen et al, 1996).
So if it works - why raise concerns? The effects of the de-centralisation of learning appear to be a diminishing of an overt human presence, which effects the outcome of the learning, if learning is seen within a social interactive context. Learning has been a communal experience. The increased use of the cyberspace as the major means of educational information delivery, effects how a community operates and could appear to diminish that sense, and reduce it to meeting of a series of individuals, meeting asynchronously. There is also a sense that the alleged flexibility that this technology was supposed to provide to the education process, has niche marketed itself into a position of one size fits all.
The knowledge is acquired through interaction between both the information provider and the group. Thus more than just basic intellectual development occurs - we are members of this community develop (or fail to in some cases) social and life skills. This is limited in an environment where the learner is alone with the instrument, and linked to an environment governed by the capacities of the machine, rather than those around them.
A potential spin off is that the learner becomes more isolated, and open to having suspicions re-enforced, and prejudices confirmed. The access to the capacity to use the technology becomes an exercise in economic rationalism, as those who can, do, and the poor and disadvantaged can wait to experience the trickle down effect. This is best exemplified in the NSW Government's moves to increase computers in schools and Trade Unions running deals to get their members Online (Red Tape, 2000). The Public school system comes under challenge as those who have access to the new technology, attract those students who see this as the way to go. What is rather bemusing though is that the technology in these environments is used as extensions of the existing processes, rather than being used for their own sake.
But why worry about a community when the learning is supposed to be occurring at the rate required by the user. There are a number of matters that come to play as a result of making the technology user driven. It assumes that the user knows what they want to learn - and how to make the first tentative steps. It also assumes that the content providers and designers are prepared to relinquish their long held controls on what shall be taught, and when and how it shall be assessed. One of the amusing sidelines to the increased use of computer technology in educational establishments is its use as an adjunct to the present programs, and not had developed curriculum and learning environment that will enhance the options available.
Computers appear to be limited at times, to single station tutorial instructions situations can occur, or small group work around one workstation. The present policy of computer labs, and defined spaces within classrooms (particularly primary schools) for computer use, reflects not only the financial situation of the educational institution but the understandings that those making policy have as to how this new technology will be used. There are only a few schools thus, who can accommodate, or have been designed with working alcoves of computers, readily accessible to all, and being seen as conversation points. (Stubings, 1994)
What is being presented here must be emphasised is not a plea for the return of the "Red Flag Act" or King Canute of Ancient Britain trying to command the waves off the Norfolk Broads, but a plea for a reflection on the direction and effects these changes are having on those involved. There still seems to be a need for the medium to be understood, both in what could be described as empirical terms, as well as within the context in which it is being used.
What makes this difficult is that the context isn't static, and should it be so. The knowledge politic of the developers and the 'major stakeholders' in the matter refuse to allow this to occur, as they are operating within a capitalist paradigm, in which the latest modification/advance means increased sales, and is in itself, a raison d'etre - a reason for existence. And we the consumer, with our varying degrees of understanding would be appalled at any attempt to restrain the development. Catch 22.
Thus we have developments, both in hardware and software, which are being sold to the computer user, in the form of 'improvements', without being provided with a rationale for the need to make such improvements other than to make the developer rich, and keep the right of communication within the global village to those who can afford it, rather than as universal right, as education is should be.
"From Distance Education, flexible learning encompasses the idea that education should go to people and not the other way around" (Moran and Myringer, as cited by Torrisi-Steele and Davis, 2000). Rather than being an impersonal source of textual information, Torrisi-Steele and Davis, continue that "the development of online materials is not simply a translation from one medium to another, but rather a transformation" (Torrisi-Steele and Davis, 2000) re-enforcing Clark's observation that the use of the technology must consider the concept of 'fitness for purpose' (Clark, 1990). If we are going to use the technology as we would use a book, why bother?
If the technology is to provide an effective form of communication through its 'flexibility' then it needs to be designed to do so. But to come back to the social elements of learning, what is presented through this technology is the conundrum of what actually constitutes "community", in this learning environment. Sims notes that the "conundrum exists because of the perceived advantage of interactivity in CEL (computer enhanced learning) is based on its equivalence to real life learner-learner or teacher-learner communication. But can (or should) computer based applications attempt to replicate this level of communication?" (Sims, 2000).
Rather than questioning whether computer interactivity should replicate the face to face human communication, it should be noted that this direction is part of the on going development of information technology, primarily governed by the needs of utility and output. The technology, both hardware and software, is in transition stage, and as such, is suffering from degrees of unmet expectations. The use of interactivity would be seen as something that flowed through from the developments in CD-ROM technology, which moved its "fitness for purpose" away from being a cross between a book and a video and to be a medium in its own right.
Sims, and others would suggest that this interactivity forms a human like presence, in which the learner can work with the material provided through this medium, rather than absorbing the material presented. Thus these types of communities develop, with no physical interaction other than through the available technology. (Sims, 2000)
However, with the development of such a learning community, there emerges a type of electronic nomad, where the "means of connectivity such as through the Internet are typically experienced as modes of travel of disembodiment, equating and substituting our corporeal identity with a cyberspace identity, portable information and communications technologies intensify embodiment" (Russell and Holmes, 2000). These comments were made in relation to a study of adolescents' use of computer and information technologies, but their observations could be applied on a wider level. Thus the learning community becomes a disembodied and non-geographically centred group, bound by common interest and access to the electronic communications facility. The community is therefore a matter of limited convenience and therefore the concept within this context may be questionable as such. (Katz, 1996)
Thus for the community of the learner to be more than just a point of call, the information being presented must engage in a manner similar to a face to face communication of meaningful proportions. Relevant interactivity would be seen as a first step in this process, and be followed up by other options.
After interactive assessment tasks, Chat rooms are a strategy which allows a construction of meaning to occur where the meaning is derived through the interaction, on both a synchronous and asynchronous manner. As McKenzie and Murphy observed in their recent paper, online discussion allows flexibility and reduces isolation of distance learning. They noted, with reference to Henri's (1992; 1993) framework for analysing the transcripts of computer conferences that in their study of an online discussion group as part of Graduate Certificate in Higher Education program, the success of such a venture on the operation of the program and the effective participation of those involved.
Henri's model focuses on the level of participation and interaction in the discussion group, as well as analysing the content of messages according to the cognitive view of learning. The discussion group was part of a highly structured learning environment, and the analysis of the transcripts showed that it was an effective part of the learning environment. They, note however, for this environment to work, that the discussion group "must be a key and integral part of the learning environment" (McKenzie and Murphy, 2000).
Interactivity cannot occur in cyberspace without effective and on going feedback. There must be a reason to proceed, and not to go somewhere else. Which returns to the nature of technology and the reality of expectations of those involved.
If one accepts that education is a right or perhaps, a necessity and not just a privilege, then the changing nature of how education occurs needs careful consideration. The new technologies are seeking to achieve is greater accessibility for those who want to learn. However a number of factors need to be accepted as being major impediments to this goal being reached in the immediate future. The rapid rate of unforced or commercially driven change in the nature of hardware design, whilst encouraging the lateral expansion of the use of the technology, fails to acknowledge, that in doing this, a type of commercial Darwinianism occurs, where only the rich and (perhaps) highly motivated survive. Meeting the criteria of increased accessibility as well as addressing the goal of greater equity ceases to be a reality, as these change produce a greater gap between those who know and those who can't afford to.
The question that needs to preface the changes would simply be - What do the changes do - and how much do they actually restrict the innovative and creative mind in the use of the technology? Is this a playing with new toys or is the latest change an enhancement on the utility and effectiveness of the product? And is it affordable to those who need it?
But, the main theme of these agents of change is the need to increase access to the information that is being seen as education. Education seems to be seen not as content, but in terms of medium and process. There is a move away from the knowing, to the knowing how to do. Whilst this reflects the journey that education philosophy has travelled, as it moved through its competency based phase of development, there seems to be number of competing forces working to 'assist', for want of a better term, education into the new century.
Technology is making - knowingly or unknowingly - the first steps to re-establish the educational or learning community. The medium however at present is simulating the past, whilst it establishes how it can do more than just simulate. The development process is very much an expensive trial and error exercise, with platforms trying to adapt and respond to the philosophical "flavour of the month" in an effort to both 'lead and respond' (this may seem somewhat tautological - but look at how web technology has had to cope with both constructivist and instructivist requirements).
Flexible delivery of educational information requires a complete re-think of how curriculum delivers, and in terms where the strategies develop multi-level chess board dimensions, with a beginning being one of a number of access points and the point (or points) of completion being seen within a learning context that accommodates the needs of the learner, rather than merely expecting technological literacy.
Learning, as referred to previously is something that can be seen as communal, and is in change state, with the use of these developing technologies. This communality allowed for a variety of learning experiences of which the content of the school was but an element. Technology is slowly re-establishing the community and re-shaping it. It is no longer limited to the immediate presence, both in time and space and is moving towards something of perpetual time continuum. Those who doubt this, should refer to Prof. Bill Mitchell's dissertation at LETA 1996 conference in Adelaide, about how a design team in scattered around the globe designed a building for the Barcelona Olympic Games. And the communication platform was "CU-SeeMe" - not the easiest piece of software to use, back then.
To conclude, will the deserted classroom become a reality - most possibly yes. Is that such a bad thing - possibly not. The vagueness in the conclusion arises from the change management processes that are required for the desired outcomes to the reached. Whether the technology, hardware, software and content developers' capacity to allow the media to work in with the basic behavioural nature of the way human being learn and interact will occur.
In this process, delivery flexibility is more than just individualised technologically supported instruction. Flexibility uses the developing learner centred approaches to understanding, knowledge and applying these to develop positive experiences. These encourage the mind to explore and develop. The present technologies are moving in positive directions, despite running into some of the shortcomings to which have been alluded to previously. What needs to occur is a more considered rate of change, allowing for the unforeseen changes as well as the capacity to develop effective uses of the new processes, rather than re-invent and 're-package the old ones'.
Issues such as the consideration of the physical space required, the development and creative capacities and the accountability processes that can demonstrate outcomes that justify the effort. The changes in educational philosophy, too effect how this will eventuate. The process is one that is ever changing - and thus creating as much frustration as excitement. What needs to be developed is the facility to effectively manage the change so that expectations aren't too high, and the users can achieve outcomes that both pushes the boundaries and meets outcomes.
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|Please cite as: Blakey, P. (2000). "The Deserted Teaching Space": Educational technology and the human interface - a personal reflection. In Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference. Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/blakey.html|