Illinois Online Education Report (1)

Posted to WWWDEV, 24 January, 2000.

I think that Rory McGreal's comments hit the nail on the head. He writes:

The protection of an elite structure and the fear of becoming irrevelant is the underlying theme of this report, not online learning.... There is room in the education sector as in the music sector for mass market and elite approaches....

Similar themes have been expressed in a variety of other publications, among them:

Brown, Gary. Where Do We Go from Here? Technology Source. January/February 2000.

Deflem, Mathieu. The Educational Cost of Free Lecture Notes on the Internet. Website. 2 October, 1999.

Perley, James and Denise Marie Tanguay. Accrediting On-Line Institutions Diminishes Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. October 29, 1999 (sic).

I would like to direct readers in the first instance to my response to Perley and Tanguay:

Downes, Stephen. Response to James Perley and Denise Marie Tanguay. The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. October 26, 1999.

I think it is unproductive to show that online learning cannot do what traditional learning does. First of all, it is hard to make the case without a long of convoluted argumentation and unsupported assumptions. But more to the point, we should not be trying to do the same thing in online learning.

For example: customization

We know that different people learn differently. Even if we agree that people do not have individual learning styles (and I think that the jury is still out on this one), we must agree that people have different schedules, different geographical locations, different prior learning, different educational needs, and different family lives. Personalized and customized learning has to be better than one-size-fits-all classroom instruction.

But if traditional (and online) learning is labour intensive, then customized learning is even more labout intensive. That's why we don't do it. We'd like to - everybody agrees, I think, that one-on-one tutorials are the best - but it's too expensive.

Online learning as it currently exists has barely begun to tap into customized and personalized education. Partially this is because the tools, like WebCT, are cut along a traditional in-class cloth. And partially because online instructors and course designers (not to mention registrars and administrators) prefer standardized classes.

But with the advent of new technologies (for example, online learning agents - see - and improved calendaring software, to name two obvious items, customization and personalization becomes a reality.

Or another example: just-in-time learning

In traditional education, fully-grown and potentially productive adults stop all other activities, travel to some designated location, and devote themselves entirely to learning. This learning may or may not be relevant (see customization, above) but it is most certainly disruptive.

We cannot afford to continue to teach this way. In many sectors of the economy - including the municipal sector, where I am plying my trade at the moment - we are faced with a significant educational need (because of pending returements) in a workforce where even a six-month hiatus is unreasonable. If you work in a small office, you can't just up and disappear for eight or twnty months. The family finances probably couldn't sustain it in any case.

We need to be able to deliver learning - in bits and bytes, as necessary - to these people in their homes or offices on their schedule according to their current need. Even such educational offerings are not top-quality (and that is debatable), they serve an important role in our educational landscape. And indeed, one wonders whether, given the *choice*, people wouldn't spend four or ten years on the job, earning an income and learning online in a focused and directed manner, rather than taking the time off, incurring an enormous debt, only to sample the nebulous benefits of 'instructor contact' and 'social milieu' offered in traditional settings.

For example: course teams

One of the great fears expressed by august university professors is that the advent of online learning will undermine their unchallenged authority in the classroom. As Rory accurately comments, this is already happening in any case - especially at the college and trade school levels.

Yet most online learning today still focuses on the professor- as-centre-of the-universe model, where designers, etchnicians and artists play no more than a supporting role. The professor - whether or not he has any specialized knowledge in pedagogy or course design - is 'the course author'.

This is beginning to change for a variety of reasons:

  • would expect, all other things being equal, a course designed by a professional course designer would be better than one designed by a well-meaning amateur

  • In fields where the basics are common knowledge (which is most fields, at the first and second year level) it is not necessary to hire a full PhD to write and teach the material (and a lot cheaper to hire a professional online educator)

  • In rapidly changing fields (especially computing technology) the best-qualified people are precisely *not* university professors. For example, there are *no* graduate (or even undergraduate) programs in my own field, information architecture (do a quick poll - go to your university's computer science department and ask how many professors are qualified to teach XML, XSL or XUL).

I think we have yet to see an evaluation of online learning, fully developed, in its own arena. I think such an eventuality is what is feared (or ignored) by more traditional academics. I think they'd better get ready for a surprise.

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