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History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Prometheus Unbound Again: More Questions than Answers

Vice-President, Education and Television,
Open Learning Agency, Burnaby, B.C.

I'm going to try and pose questions for you that I think have some implications for education over all and certainly, in my mind, have implications for culture and society.

"A trickster and a troublemaker" like Prometheus — are information and communications technology setting us up for centuries of suffering?

The question of implications of the rate of penetration and application of information technologies is of critical importance to society, business, government, and, of course, education.

However, is the question one of impact, or is it one of how we manage the effective use of technologies to promote and sustain our culture, our sense of community, and our sense of self?

In her book, The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin argues that "technology, like democracy, includes ideas and practices; it includes myths and various models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the social and individual relationships between us. It has forced us to examine and redefine our notions of power and of accountability."

She goes on to speak about technology as practice, about the organization of work and of people. And she sees technology as a system; technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.

This morning I won't be speaking about wires or boxes, either. I hope to speak about that process that is so important to us in our world.

The focus of this presentation will be to shed some light on why educators are being asked to embrace information technologies; some of the assumptions we're making about the changing nature of the learning process, and some of the concerns as they relate to this fast-paced change in education.

There is no denying that at this stage of the application of technology in education, there are many issues to be resolved, including access, costs to the learner, the implied or required role of teachers and institutions, and, most importantly, the guarantee of quality outcomes in learning.

Educators are at risk of embracing technology as an add-on to their existing practice, without reviewing the roles and the relationships that will change in the learning process.

As a distance educator and an individual who has been working in the field of open learning, my remarks will be presented from that perspective. But in order to give you the context in which I work, I feel I owe you the right to hear my definition of distance education and open learning.

I define distance education as an educational process in which a significant proportion of the teaching is conducted by someone removed in space and/or time from the learner. Open learning is an organized educational activity, based on the use of teaching materials, in which constraints on study are minimized in terms of either access or of time and or place, pace, method of study, or any combination of these. And that includes issues of prerequisites, access to registration in institutions, portability of credits and portability of credentials.

I'd like to say a bit about the organization in which I work.

The Open Learning Agency is an integrated educational institution and telecommunications organization serving the population of British Columbia.

Our programming ranges from schools curriculum, adult basic education and English language training, to university and college degrees, diplomas, and certificates. In 1988, the mandates of an existing, print-oriented, distance education institution and the provincial educational broadcaster were merged and renewed through a new provincial act. We were created to push the boundaries of conventional public education approaches and to enhance access to learning.

Our legislation established us to operate the B.C. credit bank; deliver educational programs, both formal and non-formal, develop courses and programs, to develop and operate telecommunications systems, and, most importantly, to conduct research in technology and open learning.

We're organized in six branded operations:

  • The Open University of British Columbia, which offers programs of study leading to university degrees.
  • The Open College offering programs leading to college or professional certificates and diplomas.
  • The Open School, which provides technology-enhanced delivery to K-12 learners; many of whom are located in remote schools, others are in large urban schools or are home schoolers.
  • Our Workplace Training Systems provides analytical, technological and instructional services designed to help people improve their performance in the workplace.
  • And a new service, the International Credit Evaluation Service, ICES, is designed as an educational assessment service for new Canadians, or former B.C. residents, to facilitate entry into their professions, entry in institutions for upgrading, or to top up educational requirements.
  • And, of course, my favourite, the Knowledge Network, which is the educational broadcast service that carries educational programs on behalf of the Open University, the Open College and the Open School, as well as programs targeted at the general public and where we believe, we begin to speak to the citizens at large.

In addition to that, we operate the B.C. Credit Bank, which is a service that allows learners to "bank" the credits they have earned and apply these to a credential. The credit is also awarded for demonstrated learning not earned through formal studies.

We operate the Electronic Library Network, which links institutional libraries to improve learner access to all library resources in our province.

We have agreements with 21 First Nations Learning Centres, providing learning options for learners in their own context.

And we operate a Centre for Educational Technology, and this is where we allow the marketplace to drive some of our agenda, because we do work across brands and we work with other institutions on a fee for service to help them integrate applications of technology, using satellite video conferencing, computer conferencing, audio conferencing, compressed video conferencing, and, of course, we feel our consultancy services are matched by none in our province.

And we market our products and services worldwide.

Our vision for the future is that every citizen should be able to obtain the education and training that they need, at any time in their lives, when and where they need it.

We believe this goal is realistic with the effective use of telecommunications and information technology and the independent life-long learner of the future, whether working alone, interacting with tutors, peers, or subordinates, will require the following support:

  • Access to pre-produced materials
  • Access to information and data.
  • The selection, storage, restructuring, and creation of information, including incorporation of pre-produced material.
  • Direct communication.
  • Ability to access, combine, create, and transmit audio, video, text, and data as necessary.

Our biggest challenge in this changing environment is the application of technology and telecommunications to encourage and promote a learner centred educational model.

If we look at the old model, where we work or we begin in the area of classroom lectures and we look towards a new model of individual learning. We know that the implications of technology will require us to have networked computers.

[Shifting] the old model of passive learning to a new model of active learning will require skill development and simulation to which we look to technology to help. The old model of working individually to working in a team and learning through a team will require collaborative tools and electronic mail and conferencing systems.

The old model of stable content moving to a fast-changing content area will require networks and publishing tools. And the omniscient teacher, moving to teacher's guide, will require access to experts via the networks.

Finally, the old model of homogeneity will be replaced by diversity and we will require a variety of access tools and methodologies.

We are determined that the adoption of a single technology is not appropriate if we are to succeed. Further, we must consider the rate of penetration and the adoption of technology if we migrate to new technologies.

We're not prepared to disenfranchise learners because of too rapid a shift and so you will see our organization often referring to and using what we might talk about as old technologies and feeling very comfortable with old technologies, as well as new technologies.

There are many implications for educational institutions and I will touch on just a few of them.

The distinction between distance education and conventional education is quickly disappearing. We will see institutions providing services in a multiplicity of alternative forms. The concept of a "home institution" may be less of a concern for the learners, as they can access their learning needs from the best sources in the world.

The critical roles of an electronic educational institution will include:

  • Providing information on education and training opportunities.
  • Providing accreditation through independent assessment of learning, perhaps not providing the direct instruction.
  • Brokering and validating products, whole courses, and programs.
  • Enabling learners to import and export multimedia learning materials easily.
  • Networking the learners with instructors.
  • Providing quality control and, obviously, providing high quality materials.

The risk of embracing technology for education is high, but I believe the risk of non-action is higher.

At the Open Learning Agency we know that success depends on high consumer access, acceptance, and use of the information technologies. However, without a high penetration we will have no way to deliver new, different learning experiences.

Course and product development processes will need to be restructured and our instructional designers will need to be retrained.

Student fulfilment obligations will shift radically from registration and tutor support to advising, technical support, facilitation and interaction and communication, and quality control. Of course, tutor and faculty roles will change. In particular, the piecemeal method of payment, to facilitation and guiding of the learning process. Training and retraining for this group of people is critical.

Using information technology to complement conventional teaching methods will not suffice. It is critical that a sense of purpose be articulated, and that a practical picture of the shape of education resulting from the use of technology be created. Educators are prisoners of their own experience and this experience is based on the classroom environment.

Educators are being asked to change the way they work with very few benchmarks to show them the way.

An interesting consequence of the introduction of technology and informatics to education has been the recognition of the need for partnerships with organizations not common to education. The intersect of the culture of education with the cultures of telephone companies or cable companies, software and hardware manufacturers, and network providers has underscored the frustration of crosstalk, the use of the same words with different meanings, and the exaggeration of the anticipated outcomes.

Educators do not have extensive experience in the structuring of business partnerships, often not understanding the implications of the commitments made and often misinterpreting partnership as donations.

I want to move now to some implications for policymakers, beginning with the issue of universality.

Suppliers of services should be able to deliver their services to all points on the Information Highway. And this is of particular concern and an issue for us. For us, it means interconnection and interoperability. And this, in turn, means common technical standards. Users need to be able to choose audio, data, video, or multimedia services within a single technical environment.

And copyright laws, as they pertain to education, continue to be based on conventional classroom teaching where the teachers and faculty members control the flow of information and the usage by students. Little consideration is being given to the electronic institution of the future where materials will be re-purposed, integrated with new materials, and accessed widely through a variety of means.

We are obligated to reconsider the ways in which we acknowledge intellectual property rights to preserve the rights of the creators, while at the same time opening access to users. Finally, ownership and control. The high costs and rapid changes in information and communication technology have the potential to keep out the "small" players. In observing the keen interest of the private sector in providing educational opportunities, it is obvious that education is being considered to be big business. These companies are vertically and horizontally integrated — sometimes through strategic partnerships — and if they control the utility, they control the access to the learner.

If public education is to survive and to fulfil its intended mandate of preparing a society for economic, cultural, and responsible citizenry, consideration will have to be given to ownership of pathways, costs of access, and ease of access.

I want to conclude with some of our beliefs about organization.

We believe that learning is a process, a part of human development that begins at birth and, in principle, never ends; it occurs in formal and, more importantly, informal ways.

We also believe that technology is part of the future, but we must ensure that we manage the application and integration with respect to the learner.

We believe that our role is to reduce and eliminate barriers to learning, including how people access us and how they learn best.

However, information technology will impose change on education, on business, and society overall. The information technology is not about information — accessing and processing of data — so much as it is about communication.

The challenge is to ensure easier access to information, easier ways to deal with the information. Information technology can allow us as educators to do different things well, but, more importantly, it can allow us to do things differently.

The implications are numerous, the agenda is complex and interrelated, and we are at risk of having the infrastructure in place with few quality products and services available.

Although I am an enthusiastic supporter of the opportunities of information technologies, I do not see a balance in the desired impact. The frenzy around technology at the expense of a clear purpose or application is a mistake.

To date, I've observed that the development of information technology has focussed on improving economic prosperity and creating cheaper ways to deliver education. However, I do not see or hear much discussion regarding personal development and personal growth of the individual as a responsible citizen.

Have we unleashed a force that will change the educational system? The answer is yes.

Whether the outcome will be positive is still to be determined. However, as an educator who is a supporter of information technologies, I believe that we are obligated to manage the development and applications of technology in a manner that promotes access, changes and enhances the learning process, and that results in a trained and educated population that can learn when they need to at different stages of their lives and their careers.

We do have examples of "trickery." Or, perhaps our infrastructures have not yet caught up to our needs or our ability to pay the rates of access. Many educators would suggest that the introduction of technology to education is troublesome and worrying. But, to support the status quo in public education is to suggest that there is no role for public education in the future. The changes are underway, and we are obligated to rethink how we work and to make technology work with and for us.

In closing, I would like to leave you with a quote by James Burke, author of the best-selling book, The Day the Universe Changed, [who] wrote: "A late twenty-first century complex, individualistic, networked, informed community may look back and smile at the way that up to the end of the twentieth century we simple hicks with our closed institutionalized, inflexible, traditional monolithic, hierarchical, slow response bureaucratic way of doing things never seemed to know what was happening until it hit us."