· Accelerating Change, Demand, Access, and Challenge
The demand for higher education is increasing – for more of it, and for more kinds of it. More colleges and universities are breaking ground for new buildings than are closing. New technology applications, that appear to have great educational potential, arrive from industry at an accelerating pace. While distance education isn’t catching on nearly as fast, widely, or cost-effectively as the zealots claimed and the technophobes feared, the majority of faculty, students, and administrators are rapidly embracing fundamental technology tools for communication and information management. An unprecedented foundation for educational change is being laid, but with no clear picture of the edifice that will arise from it.
Meanwhile, the “digital divide” is widening. Children of the poor have dramatically less access to computers and new information resources in their schools or colleges than the wealthy – just when more careers require information technology skills. Dozens of colleges are now requiring or providing computers for all students, faculty, and staff; and these institutions are exploring the educational potential of “ubiquitous computing.” However, on many other college and university campuses, the information technology resources available to faculty and students vary markedly between departments or divisions (with schools of education often among those with the smallest budgets per student for these tools). Many undergraduates who cannot afford their own computers have family and job obligations that make it inconvenient to use publicly available labs. Even with borrowing computers from friends and getting permission to use computers in the workplace for educational purposes, students who may need it most have less frequent, less comfortable access.
The economics of higher education are shifting in unpredictable ways. The clear old line between students’ paying tuition for courses and paying fees for course-related learning materials (books, etc.) is rapidly blurring. More faculty members are assigning instructional materials that students can find on the Web, more students resist buying required textbooks, and more students are comfortable going to the Web instead of to the library for reserved readings. Consequently, new financial relationships are developing among students, faculty, publishers, bookstores, libraries, and colleges. The publishers and bookstore managers are especially eager to understand or create viable new business models. Some of these might give a more significant role to faculty members who develop course-related “online” materials and find new ways of collecting fees from students or their colleges/universities.
The demand is increasing for college-level degrees and education aimed at other forms of certification. So is the demand for college-level education where no certification is provided (additional courses taken by people who already have college degrees and are NOT seeking another). People have greater need to learn in preparation to change jobs or apply new skills within a changing profession. As people live longer, many find that learning is a satisfying retirement activity. The demand for and acceptance of “anywhere, anytime, anyone” instruction is increasing – note especially books “for dummies,” spiritual/psychological self-help books and audiotapes, do-it-yourself videocassettes, etc..
“Anywhere, anytime, anyone” isn’t a new goal or capability. Having SOME valuable sources of information and learning available anywhere, anytime is a description of the way books have been used for centuries. One of the best examples is the familiar desire to have an encyclopedia and other useful reference books readily available at home – or at a nearby public library. The new power of the Web and related media makes it desirable and possible to have access to far more information and some forms of instruction at home, or anywhere else, convenient. That is NOT the same as access to education – especially the kind of education that takes greatest advantage of the unique qualities of face-to-face and distant but “synchronous” human communications.
Top-ranking academic administrators and governing boards no longer ask “Should we invest in academic uses of information technology?” Most of them believe that competition for students, faculty, and grants is now based in part on their institution’s apparent ability to use technology in support of teaching, learning, and research; and that they cannot afford to lose in this competition. They also hear the increasing demands from students and industry for better preparation in the use of technology – for defining and helping learners’ achieve “information literacy.” Unfortunately, most academic leaders are not deeply confident of the results of major technology investments.
These leaders cannot find compelling data, rely on experience from their own careers, or depend on trusted professionals to remove all doubts about the educational benefits of technology investments. The growing mountain of disorganized anecdotal evidence and collective judgment of individual faculty members committed to their own new instructional uses of technology isn’t quite enough. No one can be certain about how new technology applications will fit best with traditional educational practices, nor even how some educational goals might need to change. Board chairs, presidents, chief academic officers and others are often quite uncomfortable making major resource allocation decisions in support of educational uses of information technology.
Well-structured studies of the educational impacts associated with technology investments can reassure everyone that the intended educational results are being achieved – or not. Continuing evaluation and assessment programs can, at least, provide feedback to enable mid-course corrections.
· Patience and Gratitude for Progress, But No “Moore’s Law for Learning"
We must be patient. Human creativity and the achievement of excellence in the use of new media for communications, education, and the arts cannot be accelerated or guaranteed. After almost a century of movie-making, only a few new films each year offer genuinely new approaches to using that medium. And only a few are truly satisfying for those who made them and those who view them. We must be grateful to those who keep trying and for their occasional success. [Also, look at the low success rate for new books, TV series, …]
There is no “Moore’s Law” for learning. The speed of human learning does not double every 18 months, or 18 years. The pace and efficiency of human learning offered by educational institutions can be improved, but not at the speed or magnitude of change associated with organizations whose core business depends on the behavior of computer chips more than people.
After decades of mathematics education reform efforts in elementary and secondary schools, many students now begin studying algebra in eighth grade instead of ninth – one year’s “acceleration.” Only a handful of accelerated college degree programs are available in which students can earn bachelor’s degrees before they are 22 or earn medical degrees before they are 25. [Are you sure you want a surgeon operating on you who mastered his/her profession in half the usual time?]
However, a few people can and do learn some things much faster and better than others when given favorable opportunities. And most people can learn some things better and faster with some kinds of help (e.g., “ear training” in music education with computer-based practice; piloting with flight simulators; arithmetic skills with computer-guided individualized drill-and-practice; basic English composition and writing with network-based collaborative writing practice; any subject when the learner is more highly motivated by an inspiring lecture, a good book, an intriguing Web site, competition with peers, or the prospect of a job-related promotion).
The dramatic revolution in education, claimed or hoped for by many, never arrives. But a less visible transformation is well underway.
· Unrecognized Revolution
The unrecognized revolution in higher education is the growing use of word-processing, presentation graphics (PowerPoint), electronic mail, and the World Wide Web IN CONJUNCTION WITH TRADITIONALLY SCHEDULED AND STRUCTURED COURSES. [See Kenneth C. Green’s data about growth in course-related use of email and the Web in higher education in the last 5 years.] Many of the faculty themselves and the reporters who observe them have not noticed the significance of these changes. An observer looking in the windows of most classrooms at most colleges and universities doesn’t see anything very different from a few decades ago. The communication between faculty and students via Email outside of class doesn’t show. The increasingly common practice of putting some course-related information on the Web for student access doesn’t show. The frequent student use of the Web to reach that information or to do assigned research doesn’t show.
Something like half of all courses in colleges and universities in the United States already involve some Email communication among students and faculty. Many faculty members report two major changes: First, the volume of correspondence in the form of Email they exchange with colleagues and students has dramatically increased – and so has their workload. Second, they are also receiving course-related communications from students AFTER a course has ended. [Note: Less data is available about the widespread but un-publicized adoption of technology applications in academic departments where those applications have become essential for doing the work of the discipline; e.g., accounting, architecture, music, geography, health sciences.]
Many faculty members, beginning to use Email and the Web in these ways, would answer “No” if asked if they use information technology in their teaching. They don’t initially perceive these changes as significant. But they are.
· Irreversible Pedagogical Consciousness-Raising & Patience with New Media
Most people professionally committed to education (K-12 teachers, college/university faculty, academic support professionals, librarians, administrators,…) have had very little training, incentive, or opportunity to THINK about making choices among different combinations of technology, pedagogy, content, and educational purpose. However, many faculty members are compelled to think about such choices after they have begun to use commonly available new technology applications in conjunction with courses they continue to teach.
Many of these faculty members had no intention of changing the way they taught and the way their students learned. They were only using new tools that had become a comfortable part of their professional environment (e.g., electronic mail, word-processing, the Web). What they discovered was that the quality and quantity of their communications with students changed, and so did the ways in which they directed students to information resources. As they became aware of these changes, they became aware of pedagogical options.
This technology-stimulated “pedagogical consciousness-raising” may be irreversible and lead to further changes in the thinking and behavior of the faculty; and, consequently, to improvements in teaching and learning. At the same time, the development of the “scholarship of teaching” (encouraged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching) is providing a conceptual framework, institutional incentives, and the credibility of traditional scholarship to support faculty members’ efforts to improve their own teaching.
The current heated competition among companies supplying tools for Web-based online “course management” makes it ever easier, more popular, and more expected for faculty members to place some course-related materials on the Web for students. Most of these practices have so far been simple duplications or slight extensions of what was already being done in traditional classrooms. But that is always the way new technologies and media are first used. More widespread creative and distinctive uses can only emerge after more experience and after more opportunity to experiment.
· Combining New and Old Media -- Bring Back Audio!
Meanwhile, most educational uses of the Web consist overwhelmingly of digitized text created by reproducing text from a faculty member’s computer, print on paper, or notes for a classroom speech. The next most common step is adding pictures, diagrams, and perhaps some animation or video clips. This trend may reflect the belief that many of the younger (age 18 to 25) students are more visually oriented and comfortable with TV-like screens than with conventional print materials.
Many faculty members are concerned with the apparent growing reluctance of many students to read and learn from books. Many find that their students do NOT purchase assigned textbooks (new or used). It is well-known in the textbook industry that in the past 5 years the percentage of students who do NOT purchase textbooks has grown from less than 10% to more than 30%. Perhaps related, many reference librarians report that students doing research are too strongly attracted by the Web and don’t understand the comparative advantages of different research media. Too often students spend hours online finding information that is available from a book in a few minutes – and, more rarely, vice versa. Thus, “information literacy” is being redefined.
However, even though traditional-age students seem receptive to sound (at least to recorded music), the educational and communicative power of human speech is hardly being used in Web-based instructional materials. Centuries of practice in spoken communication are not yet being transferred to the Web, but the potential is great. “Early adopter” faculty are beginning to explore adding their own voices to the text they provide for their students in Web-based course materials.
· Overloaded, Overconnected, and Disconnected
Information overload is dramatically increasing. So is work overload. Having almost constant access to new varieties of communication tools means being almost constantly accessible to a growing flood of messages and information – personal, impersonal, and semi-personal. Many people are finding they can’t get their work done in the office. (“I’ve got to go home; I really need to get some work done.”) The overload has many people both “overconnected and disconnected”. They are recipients of more information than ever before. They don’t know how to manage and digest it. They don’t have much time or energy left for meaningful personal relations. [See the “human moment” in Connect by Edward Hallowell.]
Most faculty seem to have adjusted to the acceleration in knowledge growth in their fields, and so have most of the related support professionals. However, neither the faculty nor those who are responsible for supporting their teaching can keep up with the new acceleration in growth of instructional options. Many feel increasingly obliged to identify and understand their pedagogical and technological options and to make thoughtful choices among them. Many work harder and fall farther behind. Expectations outstrip resources. The signs of stress are abundant.
· Compassionate Pioneers
Many self-motivated faculty members who first explore educational uses of information technology – even beyond the use of generic “office suite” tools – are developing applications with great educational potential. Some of these often-under-supported experiments are likely to lead, eventually, to major new educational uses of technology. Their work is sometimes linked with the research and development efforts of their own educational institutions and/or companies in related industries.
On each campus, a few of these leaders are “Compassionate Pioneers” who feel a commitment to help their colleagues learn to use new technology/pedagogy combinations. Compassionate Pioneers can be among the most valuable resources for change at a college or university. Academic support services often benefit from the informal efforts of these unsung heroes. Unfortunately, at many educational institutions, some of them are getting tired and have begun closing their doors to colleagues. Academic support services should be re-organized to embrace and assist Compassionate Pioneers – and to take advantage of their energy and credibility with their colleagues. [At some institutions, Compassionate Pioneers are granted release time, appointed as “faculty fellows,” or given other incentives.] .
The collaborative inclinations and skills of the Compassionate Pioneers can also contribute beyond the walls of any one campus. Thousands of faculty members are beginning to build their own modest course-related collections of materials, activities, references, and links on the Web. Some of the Compassionate Pioneers could be instrumental in aggregating and focusing those efforts, to help avoid some of the wasteful duplication. That is, if the culture of colleges, universities, and academic disciplines will support the development and use of shared instructional resources. For some faculty members, it may be easier to collaborate for such purposes within their disciplines than within their institutions; however, collaboration within institutions must become more acceptable, rewarded, and supported.
· Collaboration vs. Support Service Crisis
At most colleges and universities the supply of resources available to help faculty improve teaching and learning with technology is simply inadequate to meet rising expectations. In addition, these resources are usually not well-coordinated – wasteful duplication is too common. The usual lack of coordination and collaboration among different parts of most educational institutions compounds the impact of the shortage of support service professionals and undermines the college’s or university’s capacity to adopt and adapt valuable new combinations of technology, pedagogy, and educational purpose. These combinations can only be developed and used effectively if the essential expertise and resources controlled by the “Constituencies for Change” [see below] can be focused TOGETHER on improving teaching and learning.
Attractive new technology applications keep arriving faster than colleges and universities can integrate them. As Mark Milliron suggested in a presentation in October, 1999 at the League for Innovation in the Community College annual technology conference: every six months, with the arrival of the next exciting application or the next significant update to the standard suite of office tools, everyone is a novice once again. Most novices ask lots of predictable questions which can be easily and quickly answered.
As faculty become more experienced users of technology, many of them need less help with new “introductory” questions. However, these veterans are likely to see how they might use it to achieve more sophisticated, educationally attractive goals. Their questions and support needs become more complex and require more expert, possibly lengthy assistance.
The variety of technology tools and applications used at most colleges and universities also exacerbates technical support problems. In many other industries, institutional standardization on certain hardware, software, and related tools can reduce support costs by restricting the variety of technical support services provided. Unfortunately, this kind of standardization may reduce instructional options and, thereby, conflict with some interpretations of academic freedom.
The availability of appropriately skilled professionals may be diminishing just when the demands for technical support on most campuses are increasing. Because the technology “support service crisis” isn’t limited to education, many of these same professionals are discovering they can get similar jobs in industry with much higher salaries and less stress. Fortunately, some still prefer the flexibility and variety in their work on campus; and they value opportunities to work with students, teachers, and researchers available only in academia.
One of education’s unique resources, the students, provide the most promising response to the shortage of campus technical professionals. Several colleges and universities are developing or expanding programs to train and engage students as assistants with technology and related support services. But so far, these programs have only slowed the rate of widening in the gap between resources and expectations; they haven’t reduced the need for professional staff – nor are they likely too.
The “Support Service Crisis” is most visible with respect to technology support personnel. Closely related causes have the same effects for librarians, faculty development professionals, instructional design and media specialists, etc. As more faculty and students use the Web, librarians’ advice and assistance are more frequently needed to help navigate this new information resource and evaluate the credibility of the sources. As faculty members shift from personal productivity uses of technology to instructional applications, they more often need the help of those with related professional expertise (instructional design, faculty development, pedagogy). As faculty members become more comfortable with the Web and more conscious of students’ different learning styles (visual, audio, …) many of them begin to explore the educational potential of new media and need the help of experts in their use.
Finally, fragmentation and the unintended overlapping of academic support services is getting more common in response to the new pressures just described:
- Librarians find they are providing technical support (“How do I print?” instead of “Where can I find information about X?”).
- Technology, media, and instructional design professionals find they are providing pedagogical support (“How do I use this tool to teach topic Y in my course?”).
- Pedagogy experts and faculty development professionals find they are providing technical training (“How do I convert my outline to PowerPoint slides?” “How can I use a Web-based discussion to support collaborative learning?”).
The gap is widening between the level of support services available and the expectations of faculty members, administrators, and students. Consequently, more coordination and collaboration among these service units may reduce, but not eliminate, the need for more academic support professionals. The Support Service Crisis is getting worse.
The use of information technology is clearly not an educational panacea – a cure for all problems.
Information technology can be the excuse and the means to move closer to educational goals that we have been unable to achieve for decades – and to some new ones.
With enough commitment of resources, thoughtful effort, patience, and luck, technology will help more than it hurts.