ON-LINE AND TRADITIONAL COURSE PREPARATION AND DELIVERY: WHAT A DIFFERENCE THE WEB MAKES!
In the classroom, where I have worked on and off for 35 years, it wasn't until I discovered computers in 1981 that I had a tool at my disposal which had broad-based applicability to my role as a teacher. Since then, I have increasingly used the computer as a repository (a filing cabinet, if you like) for word-processed and graphics materials of all kinds, as well as an on-line resource center which have transformed my course preparation and delivery in a multitude of ways. But especially since 1998, when my university subscribed to Blackboard.com's CourseInfo product, I have created an on-line presence which significantly enhances my courses. In this paper I examine how computer-based technologies are transforming teaching and learning in fundamental ways.
The mind, stretched by a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894). The Internet is a phenomenon which is transforming our lives. Most people already shop on the Internet, more and more are doing their banking on the Internet-paying bills and so forth. They are also getting their news from the Internet, enjoying friendships over the Internet, and accessing data from the ever-expanding libraries of digital information on the Internet. There are those who are convinced that this "information superhighway" will bring major benefits to us all. There are others who believe that the Internet is far from being an innocuous phenomenon. Should we be concerned about this unstoppable roller-coaster of a ride that our society is on? In the context of education, does the Internet have a downside? A recurring dream is shared by administrative bodies in all walks of life. They dream that technology will increase productivity and improve efficiency and effectiveness. So they buy computers, put them on people's desks, connect them to the Internet, and wait for productivity and efficiency to somehow magically manifest itself. But, as all too many administrators have discovered to their dismay, the objectives of increased productivity and improved efficiency and effectiveness often remain a dream, and sometimes become a nightmare... Computers are just dumb machines--tools, if you will. They are only as productive and efficient and effective as the people using them. From the perspective of teaching, the users of technology-teachers, instructors, professors, the folks who have the challenging job of guiding students to the fount of knowledge in their respective disciplines-must be quality teachers first. As the author Eleanor Doan quipped: "Good tools do not make a good teacher, but a good teacher makes good use of tools."
TEACHING IS KEY
A common theme emerging from studies of learning, Kindergarten through college and beyond, is that teaching is key. Not teaching where the teacher is the source of knowledge, but teaching where the teacher prepares the environment in which learning will most likely occur. The better the teacher is trained in the use of technology for instruction, the more effective computer-based learning will be. It is tempting to say that the computer is the chalkboard of the Information Age. But as Sivin-Kachala (1998) observes, "it's not just the technology that determines the quality of a learning situation; it's the whole mix-what the class does before they use technology, what the teacher does while students use technology, how the students are grouped, how prepared students are for technology-based learning experiences, and what the class groups or individual students do as a follow-up to using the technology." All these variables need to be considered, and they are considered by the well-trained and well-prepared technology-using teacher. Fraser (2001) goes one step further. He questions the value of on-line technology as compared to traditional teaching methods and tools, asking whether anything has really changed in the way teachers teach. "Rather than being pedagogically significant," Fraser points out, "our instructional use of the Web is primarily for course administration and distribution. But what we administer and what we distribute remains essentially unchanged." Fraser points out that the Internet can and should be used to "move forward". Earlier, in Fraser (1999), he enunciates his rule against which we should judge whether the Internet is transforming teaching and learning: "The extent to which a student gains the same pedagogical benefit from a printout of your Web resources as from the resources themselves is the extent to which one has accomplished nothing of pedagogical value by using the Web."
The on-line computer can be a valuable tool in support of teaching and learning Netiva Caftori (1994) counsels that "software systems should come bundled with the teacher." Students, even at the college level, need the teacher to help them manage the learning process and take advantage of learning opportunities. After all, the teacher's goal should always be to foster quality lifelong learning. The Internet is an ever-expanding data resource with increasing significance at all levels and in all areas of education. Students cannot only tap the Internet for encyclopedic content from A to Z; they also can use the Internet to communicate with other students and other teachers, as well as other subject-related "experts" both locally and around the globe. Further, on-line environments provide an opportunity to visualize and simulate real world data that may often be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a traditional classroom. Digital media are high speed channels for new discovery. Students in all academic disciplines are pursuing digital investigations of current understanding, from fractals to foreign policy, quick sands to quick freeze, shrimps to Shakespeare, video compression to volleyball, and beyond. Lemke (1998) notes that digital media are a "reflection of our society-they are instantaneous, interactive, up-to-date, just in time, often visually stimulating and accessible round the clock." This reality of our modern world inexorably must be reflected in our schools if those schools are not to become anachronistic. Lemke (1998) again therefore advocates that schools should "create a learning culture which actively engages students in relevant, meaningful work within the study of the vast knowledge base that is constantly being reshaped by emerging technologies."
Technology enables a teacher to duplicate excellence At one time or another all teachers have those magic moments when they touch the hearts and minds of their students and thus, as the saying goes, "touch the future." But even the best teachers in the world find it difficult to operate at their best all the time. We all have our professional ups and downs. As long as we have to rely solely on our own devices to manage the educational process, we inevitably subject our students to something of a roller-coaster educational experience. Thoughtful integration of appropriate computer-based learning can take some of this pressure off teachers, enabling them to provide, from their own stock of teaching materials as well as that of others, consistently excellent learning experiences both in their classrooms and in their students' homes. In recent years we have seen a truly amazing growth in Web-based services for educators where dedicated teachers, education organizations, local, state and federal government entities, and even companies, have invested time and effort (and money) in developing rich portals or gateways to learning resources that are, for the most part, freely available for teachers and students to use. At my website, for example (http://www.pitt.edu/~poole/edmenu.html), I have mined the Web for educational content and indexed it so that teachers and students can more easily find what will serve their educational needs. This Web site also includes other on-line resources such as tutorials and workshops, as well as links to close to 150 "Other EdIndexers." Inspired and dedicated teachers around the globe have developed learning environments which they have then shared with the rest of us by making them available on the Web. There are already myriad examples of this duplication of excellence and, as the saying goes, "We ain't seen nuthin' yet!" Relatively speaking, the present state of the Web is way short of its full potential compared to what it will become over the years ahead. As Caftori (2001) notes: "For the time being at least, the logic behind the concept of the Internet is way ahead of its implementation as a technology. This is because the Internet suffers time and again from its own success. It is such a beautiful concept--providing global access to all on-line data--that everyone everywhere wants to use it!" I like to quip with my students that telecommunications networks in general, and the Web in particular, sooner rather than later inexorably degrade into "notworks!" because of this phenomenon. If they did not fulfill a much-needed function in society, they wouldn't be used. But as it happens, telecommunications systems invariably become saturated and deteriorate to the point where they have to be upgraded or replaced with new technology. Caftori (2001) again reminds us that " the state of Florida has recently passed a Bill that will fund a fiber optic internet connection statewide [effectively replacing the copper wire] so as to ensure high speed internet access for all businesses, homes, and schools." Yet the Web is already a rich source of excellent learning content. Given time, data access speeds will increase by leaps and bounds, page design and usability will become more standardized, as in the publishing industry in general, making a widespread reality of on-line learning environments that are currently closeted and arcane.
Virtual reality promises to bring simulation into real time. The user in a virtual reality simulation often dons headgear that enables one or more monitor screens to be suspended in front of the eyes. Computer-generated images of some pre-determined simulation (such as a voyage to the bottom of the ocean) are displayed on the screens. A tiny camera inside the hood of the headgear tracks the users' eyes as they look around the scene that unfolds. The computer pans across the scene in response to the user's eye movements, thus creating the illusion that the user is immersed in the scene as if really there-"virtually" there. To add to the illusion, the user often wears a pair of gloves that are wired to the system. This allows the user to reach out into the simulation displayed inside the headset, pick up objects to examine them, or otherwise interact with the scene. There is no doubt that educational computing has barely scratched the surface of potential applications for rich learning experience of a simulated nature. But true virtual reality systems are expensive, and for the time being they will not be seen in most schools. Once the technology-hardware and software-has been refined and adapted for educational applications, however, it should attract considerable educational interest. Imagine, if you will, becoming a sailor in the crew of the Santa Maria accompanying Columbus to the New World; or, perhaps you want to explore the vascular system of the human body by becoming a cell in the blood stream. Virtual reality systems such as this, perhaps fictional now, will soon make it possible for you to become immersed in more or less any simulated scene.
Blackboard's CourseInfo on-line course management tool is a potential gateway to learning environments such as those described above. I have prepared a PowerPoint presentation which reviews the ways in which I use CourseInfo to support my work with students. The presentation can be found at http://www.pitt.edu/~poole/TCC2001.htm. Conference participants are invited to continue their reading of this paper there. The presentation shows how CourseInfo is designed and gives the reviewer some idea of the look and feel of the product. As stated above, CourseInfo is simply a tool. What the teacher does with it determines how effective it is in supporting teaching and promoting learning. Gilbert (2001), in his review of the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtable (TLTR) program which he leads, asks two fundamental questions which should guide educators as they incorporate information technology into teaching and learning.
1. What are one or two important results that you most want to gain in the future from educational uses of information technology? What do you hope will be transformed for your students? Your institution? Yourself?
2. What do you most cherish and want not to lose (for your institution)? What do you hope will be preserved? Gilbert then goes on to express the hope of all constituents in education "that information technology will be used to sustain or increase the quality and frequency of communication between students and teachers-and within those groups." One of the most powerful benefits of CourseInfo is its potential to foster communication between teacher and students and between students and their peers. As of now, I use the system to enhance and enrich one-way communication-from me to the students- for the purpose of making available syllabi, schedules, rubrics for assignments, study guides, even whole textbooks that I have written and published on-line. In this sense, I have to admit that I break the rule enunciated by Fraser (1999) and quoted above. I do, however, use other on-line tools outside the system (regular e-mail, for example) to encourage communication between the students and me, and amongst the students themselves. CourseInfo does have built-in tools for e-mail and chat rooms which enable all kinds of other possibilities such as on-line office hours, on-line peer tutoring, teacher- or peer-guided on-line discussions and so forth, all of which have been experimented with by my colleagues at UPJ. An overriding consideration and concern for teachers who get involved in developing on-line extensions to their classrooms is time. "It takes a lot of preparation to teach just a little," Eleanor Doan again advises, and this is no less true when introducing an on-line component into a course. The secret is to go slowly. Don't try to do everything at once. This, by the way, is my excuse for not yet escaping the embarrassment of breaking Fraser's Rule! I'm carefully going from the known to the unknown. I started working with CourseInfo a year ago and I'm still barely scratching the surface of what it will enable me to do with my students. But I'm very excited about the direction in which I'm headed as a teacher and hope I can stay fit and active for many years to come so that I can experience first hand where on-line teaching and learning leads.
Caftori, Netiva. "Educational Effectiveness of Computer Software." In THE Journal, August, 1994.
Caftori, Netiva, Bernard J. Poole. "High Speed Access to the Internet." Submitted for publication to Salem Press: Pasadena, CA, 2001.
Fraser, Alistair B. "Colleges Should Tap the Pedagogical Potential of the World-Wide Web" Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, 1999, section B, p.8.
Fraser, Alistair B. "Web Visualization for Teachers." Syllabus, New Dimensions in Education Technology, March, 2001, vol. 4, no. 8, pp.18-20, 36.
Gilbert, Steven W. "No Moore's Law for Learning." Syllabus, New Dimensions in Education Technology, March, 2001, vol. 4, no. 8, p.28.
Lemke, Carol M. "Taking Stock: What Does the Research Say About Technology's Impact on Education?" Interview with Judy Salpeter, Technology and Learning Magazine, May, 1998.
Sivin-Kachala, Jay. "Taking Stock: What Does the Research Say About Technology's Impact on Education?" Interview with Judy Salpeter, Technology and Learning Magazine, May, 1998.
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