CYBER-HYPE: A CRITIQUE OF ONLINE INSTRUCTION
Barbara Walkosz, Daniel D. Gross and Shayne Cook
With the Western Governor's concept of a virtual university actually taking shape, many mandates, discussions and implementations have developed surrounding online pedagogy. Regarding mandates from our state's (Montana) office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, a learner imperative states that budgetary reallocations will be directed toward pedagogical methods couched in information technology. A sense of urgency characterizes most of the communications from our educational hierarchy suggesting if we do not move quickly the future will provide us with disaster, not opportunity. Academics' reactions to these imperatives and in particular online instruction range from indifference to unquestioning acceptance. The purpose of this paper is to offer a critical perspective on issues surrounding online instruction and proposals for a technological shift in education in general.
The tense discussions surrounding technology and education are not new. In fact, even Plato expressed strong negative feelings for a technology called writing. He felt that much is lost and confusion is certain when communicators turn to writing (Plato, trans., 1932). More recently, others have explored the merits of orality versus the technology of writing or literacy (Street, 1994; Finnegan, 1988). They conclude that gains and losses are experienced with all technological changes. So, it seems interesting that in the last decade both educators and legislators seem surprised by encroachments on educational turf by the new technological era, when in fact the problems of technology are premodern as well. A review of these ancient concerns may reveal interesting insights to current problems.
Nonetheless, though an ancient concern, current events regarding technology and education have come about so quickly that time has not permitted a careful analysis of the challenges from an historical perspective. We trust that this short paper will offer some relevant perspectives on the challenge of technology in the contemporary educational context. In this paper, first, we evaluate online instruction via the criteria of purpose or intended use. Second, we analyze online instruction with what system analysts and engineers call a feasibility study. We argue that Higher Education needs to place online instruction within on overall framework which includes methods that have proven to be effective for pedagogical purposes.
BACKGROUND AND INTENDED USE
Computer technology can fulfill several intended functions of online instruction including (1) replacing correspondence courses for students studying off-campus, (2) acting as a channel and/or supplementing in-class interactions between instructors and students, and, (3) providing additional course materials via the Internet and multimedia technology.
Regarding online degree programs/courses, Hoyle (1996) writes that "the old correspondence course has stormed into the high-tech age and it's proving to be a big hit" (p. 91). Currently, 75 universities and colleges offer online degree programs and approximately 4 million Americans are now enrolled in some type of distance learning course (Hoyle, 1996; Lord, 1995; Richardson, 1995). For example, Portland Community College in Oregon has instituted a "learn by modem program" in which 350 students were enrolled in the fall of 1996 (Holzberg, 1996). The types of courses utilizing technological applications include: (1) students simply watching videotapes of lectures; (2) interactive or two-way video; and (3) courses that make full use of the Internet with lectures online, e-mail, and bulletin boards. Such courses fill the needs of the professional seeking to attain a higher degree while employed full-time, of companies looking for alternative modes of training or retraining of employees, of students who require flexible course schedules, and for those living in remote locations with limited access to educational facilities (Holzberg, 1996; Hoyle, 1996).
A second intended goal of online instruction is to increase interaction between professor and student and between students themselves. E-mail has been used successfully in both on-campus and online courses to: promote discussions about research projects (Spillman, 1994); increase contact between instructor and student via electronic office hours (Holzberg, 1996); contribute to individualized instruction (Hoyle, 1996; Sain, 1994); and, encourage collaborative learning experiences in which students take active roles in problem solving (Keating, 1994). The use of e-mail initiates interpersonal communication in an electronic context -- and in fact, students often find this channel more beneficial than traditional office hours. For example, professors at Mesa have "set up interactive critique areas on the Web that get rave reviews. Students review anthropology articles and post their opinions and classmates can then read and respond to each other's work with ease" (Holzberg, 1996).
_RESOURCES FOR INSTRUCTION_
The use of technology in the development of course materials provides (1) a resource for students and instructors and (2) an aid to presenting material both in the classroom and online through multimedia and presentation technologies. The explosion of information on the World Wide Web can provide rich resources for instruction through the development of such applications as interactive graphics (Dylril & Kinnaman, 1996). The challenge facing educators is not simply logging onto the Web but providing a curriculum that allows specific courses to use the Web to its maximum potential for that subject material.
Multimedia technology can also enhance the delivery of material both online and in the traditional classroom setting. Instructors who used to rely solely on the chalkboard or overhead transparencies are now finding that the use of such presentation software as Powerpoint and importing images from the World Wide Web into classroom presentations has resulted in greater student learning and satisfaction with their educational experience. For example, Keating (1994) writes that economic simulations taught in business classes can now be done in "real time" as a result of easily demonstrated computations calculated by software applications. Further, courseware or interactive computer applications can also be used by instructors to guide students through course materials.
However, while all of the above-mentioned applications can be successful, this paper recommends that before the adopting this technology, each institution must consider the costs as well as the benefits. The next section provides a method for such analysis.
_SYSTEM DEVELOPMENT LIFE CYCLE_
System Development Life Cycle (SDLC) is a structured methodology applicable to almost all development efforts -- systems, hardware, software, products, etc. It is scaleable to projects as small as a software sub-routine development or as large as an aircraft carrier development. SDLC provides a linear seven step path of activities from original problem recognition through sustained maintenance of the implemented system.
The goal of SDLC is to increase the probability of development success, measured both in terms of containing development costs and having successful and usable products at the end of the development. A conceptual model of SDLC is shown below. Most of the steps seem fairly straightforward, but it is the first three steps of SDLC -- problem definition, feasibility study and analysis -- that are the most critical and the most overlooked in most technology developments. Too often there is a rush to the design phase without considering whether the proposed solution actually can resolve the problem. In many cases, there is an incomplete definition of what the problem really is. Rushing to implementation can lead to disaster. A recent _Wall Street Journal_ article titled "When Things Go Wrong" chronicled just such a disaster. A study in the article indicated that only 25% of computer technology application developments actually meet their original problem resolution targets. The 75% failures were about evenly split between outright failures and those developments that were considered challenged -- meaning they either greatly overran budget and time constraints or ended with performance substantially below expectations.
The problem definition step seems to be the most obvious and easiest do deal with. In fact, it is the most critical and most often overlooked step. For purposes of our discussion, any particular application of computer technology and the Internet to education should be designed to either increase the quality or availability (quantity) of education, or both. The key aspect of the problem definition step is to isolate the problem first and then consider whether technology and the Internet can be all or part of the solution. Too often the technology seems so compelling that it is automatically deemed a solution -- for which a problem must be invented.
The feasibility study is the early effort to evaluate the proposed solution -- computer and Internet technology -- in terms of its viability in solving the problem defined in the first step. The considerations of the feasibility study are the primary focus of this paper and, in this section in particular, the costs. Our intent is to provide a basic understanding of the considerations of the feasibility study in order to assist educational decision-makers in evaluating their proposed technology solution.
There are three main considerations to a feasibility study -- the technical, cost, and operational/maintenance characteristics of the proposed solution. If all three characteristics meet the requirements of the problem, the proposed solution can be processed.
The analysis phase is required to detail the final system characteristics. The most prominent result of the analysis phase is a design specification. The purpose of the specification is to allow all of the design team to have a documented target for their design efforts and to ensure that what results from the design effort still meets the original problem.
Subsequent steps in the SDLC -- design, construction, implementation and maintenance -- deal with the technical aspects of the system development. The solution is designed, materials procured and the system is placed in service. The maintenance aspect provides for the long term health of the system and the ongoing ability of the system to be a solution to the original problem instead of becoming just another problem.
Graph 1: System Development Life Cycle Model
The purpose of the feasibility study element is to recognize all of the costs associated with a system development. This step must address both the initial design (non-recurring) costs and the ongoing support costs. While a substantial part of the Internet infrastructure costs are borne at the federal level, local implementations within a school district, university coverage area or other educational organization coverage area must be cognizant of their share of the costs and whether those costs can truly be justified.
The real costs of getting connected are enormous and should be evaluated rigorously prior to making a decision to go on-line. One study indicates the actual costs of personal computer ownership (Ubios, 1996). The data indicates that the five year cost for a single PC (assuming eight application programs installed) is approximately $44,000 -- approximately $65,000 if the PC is networked. That assumes $6,000 for the five year capital cost (hardware and software) and the balance for administration, support and management of the installed PC. Supporting data is available from the 1997 Robert Half International Salary Guide. National average annual salary range for an information systems director (in small organizations) is between $57,000 and $80,000. A chief information officer or other senior information systems manager in large organizations (more than 50 technical positions and mainframes, clustered minis or PC-LANs) command annual salaries well in excess of $100,000. Support staff (programmers, analysts and technicians) salaries range from $24,000 to $90,000 per year. For any organization, public or private, getting connected drives the need for additional expenditures for ongoing support facilities and staff that represent an enormous cost. The implications are far more involved than just the budget drain.
For educational institutions, an appropriate cost evaluation mechanism is what economists refer to as opportunity cost -- the highest valued forsaken alternative. If an academic institution is proposing a million dollar expenditure on Internet access, for what will that money not be available? Could it have been used to purchase more professors or facilities or applied to any number of other uses to enhance the quality of education? Providing realistic answers to such questions is the essence of opportunity cost evaluation. It is interesting to note that a professor at MSU-Billings who is extremely impressed with today's computer and Internet technology also has some idea of how truly costly Internet-based distance learning can be. The university looked at providing Internet-based classes by having a professor teach a live class at one location and providing two-way interactive audio and video to classrooms in remote parts of the state.
The opportunity cost perspective was evident in the fact that the university discovered it would be cheaper to fly the professor from town to town for live classes than it would be to implement such an Internet based system. Educational institutions may be concerned with education availability or education quality or both. A computer technology and Internet access expenditure may be projected to improve the quality of an education service, but the real question is whether it will provide as much or more improvement than an alternative use for the funds.
Again, the purpose of the cost portion of the feasibility study is to provide a sober and thorough evaluation of all of the costs of a proposed technology based solution. Local implementations may be technically feasible but may be far more expensive than providing more conventional classroom instruction. The issue for educational decision-makers is whether their local budgets can support the proposed technology solution. What if that same budget could used in some other manner in order to solve the problems or meet the intended goal?
The decision to introduce online instruction into higher education curricula is a direction that can provide benefits for both students and faculty. Such benefits include a focus on learner-centered education and the provision of a flexible schedule of classes to a wide range of students. However, we suggest the following caveats:
First, access to equipment for all students is critical for program delivery. If a student is interested in online instruction and lacks ownership of the necessary equipment, such instruction becomes exclusionary. As a possible solution to this problem, part of the student's cost of education could be directed toward providing multimedia equipment, training, and service as part of the tuition fee. Or schools could develop a"loaner" program such as the plan that was instituted at Temple University. Second, along with access for students, faculty are placed in the position of providing quality evaluation of student work. With an explosion of students taking online courses, steps need to be taken to assure that faculty can provide the necessary feedback for required course work. Thus, the number of students per course needs serious consideration. For example, processing hundreds of e-mail messages differs considerably from holding in-class discussions, and such time allotments require study and consideration.
Third, financial planning per course must be taken into account. The average professor may not be as expensive as creating the technology -- in other words, to put all classes online may be cost prohibitive. Fourth, maintenance and upgrading of equipment is rarely considered during the planning and implementation process. Universities may face unforeseen costs in the future due to this lack of foresight.
Fifth, the medium may not necessarily be the message in the context of education (Erhmann, 1995). In other words, sound teaching methods are at the core of a successful learning experience, and planners must assess if a particular technology can support specific methods. As Erhmann (1995) suggests, "too many observers assume that if they know what the hardware is they will know if learning occurs" (p. 24). Thus, the interaction of teaching strategy and technology must be evaluated. The use of a feasibility study incorporating the above caveats can assist educators in the planning of effective delivery of online instruction.
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