Being Digitally Educated, Dewey, Technology, and Distance Learning

Michael Brint
Associate Professor and Director, Integrated Program in Humane Studies
Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio

I. The Experience of Education in Digital Life

In his 1995 book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte signals what many believe to be a paradigm shift from “atoms” to “bits”–from an “atomic” orientation to the world consumed by material interactions to an orientation unburdened by such impediments as space, time and atomic weight. Racing unfettered at blinding speed over vast distances of space, the bit, the smallest unit in the “DNA of information,” [1] has done more than help usher in the post-industrial age of information. According to Negroponte, it has become the basic commodity of interaction in the post-information age–an age in which the possibility of digital living has become increasingly viable:

The industrial age, very much an age of atoms, gave us the concept of mass production, with the economies that come from manufacturing with uniform and repetitious methods in any one given space and time. The information age, the age of computers, showed us the same economies of scale, but with less regard for space and time… [By contrast,] in the post-information age, we often have an audience the size of one. Everything is made to order and information is extremely personalized… The post-information age is about machines’ understanding individuals with the same degree of subtlety (or more than) we can expect from other human beings.Such customized digital living entails more asynchronistic communications (like e-mail), billions of bits of information on demand (in such forms as TV programs, videos, music, and news), and less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time. [2]

In examining the educational implications of living digitally, Negroponte captures many of the central pedagogical points now being advanced by prominent policy analysts urging the development of distance learning opportunities. [3] In most instances, such approaches consist in the creation of highly individualized asynchronistic learning programs accessible on demand. This form of delivery is said to particularly aid the growing numbers of non-traditional students whose lives require that learning be less and less dependent on one’s ability to be in a specific place at a specific time.

Whether delivered to a classroom, laboratory, workplace or home, learning digitally as an experience is said to be one of individual exploration, experimentation, and expression. Emphasizing the benefits of computers as learning tools, Negroponte notes that

While a significant part of learning certainly comes from teaching–but good teaching and by good teachers–a major measure comes from exploration, from reinventing the wheel and finding out for oneself. Until the computer the technology for teaching was limited to audiovisual devices and distance learning by television, which simply amplified the activity of teachers and the passivity of children. The computer changed this balance radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing became the rule rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with frog-like behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog. By playing with information, especially abstract subjects, the material assumes more meaning. [...] Anecdotal evidence and careful testing results reveal that this constructivist approach is an extraordinarily rich means of learning, across a wide range of cognitive and behavioral styles.[4]

“Learning by doing,” “finding out for oneself,” “playing with information,”–Negroponte’s orientation sounds a lot like an updated version of John Dewey’s educational approach. Stressing similar ideas, Carol Twigg, a senior analyst for EDUCOM and one of the leading advocates of distance learning, claims that “what we know about high-quality learning, cooperative learning, and discovery learning-implies a learning-by-doing model rather than the passive, classroom-based model that typifies the teaching infrastructure.”[5] Against such passive learning, Dewey notoriously stressed the importance of experience as an active process. “To ‘learn from experience’ is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequences. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction–discovery of the connection of things.” [6]

In a similar vein, discovery labs for physics and other natural sciences (like the CUPLE program developed at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) stress the experience of discovery through exploration and experimentation. By using a studio approach to learning, computer simulations allow students to discover scientific principles through their own active engagement. Jack M. Wilson, Director of the Anderson Center for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, explains the basic premise underlying such initiatives: “The focus is on student problem solving and projects,” he tells us, “and not on presentation of materials. The emphasis is on learning rather than teaching.” [7]

While the CUPLE program uses multimedia tools authored by experts for student use in the discovery, experimentation and exploration of science, multimedia offers new domains of student expression as well. “We are entering an era when expression can be more participatory and alive,” Negroponte tells us. “We have the opportunity to distribute and experience rich sensory signals in ways that are different from looking at the page of a book and more accessible than traveling to the Louvre.” [8] Rather than simply interacting with a designed exercise, students can become their own authors–designing and architecting multimedia projects that integrate both different disciplines and media.

CITYSCAPES at Kenyon College is just one example of a course developed to focus on the student as the creative agent of learning.[9]From a literary walk through the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to an analysis of the role of women in the agricultural economy of Nairobi, students in this course become authors of multimedia projects that focus on specific themes related to particular cities or regions of the world. In addition to the Internet and library resources, these projects, currently produced as a CD-ROM, combine videos, photographs, recordings, interviews, and journals made by the students themselves. As authors guided by both local scholars and distant experts in various fields related to their study, students become increasingly fluid in coherently drawing together and creatively comingling function and form, method and subject, narrative and design.

Along with their expressive and experiential potentials, many see the greatest advantage of computer learning environments in terms of their potential for customization. Course materials can be delivered to fit the different learning styles of students and developed to help students realize their unique potentials and capacities. According to Massy and Zemsky, the two most fundamental advantages of information technology are the new “economies of scale” it offers and its ability to provide what they term, “mass customization.” “Technology allows faculty to accommodate individual differences in student goals, learning styles, and abilities, while providing improved convenience for both students and faculty on an ‘any time, any place’ basis.”[10]

In the post-information age, most surmise, the advent of sophisticated and customized simulations across the curriculum will increasingly provide the basis of experience for engaged learning. Many who are helping to lay the foundation for the future of information technology and education advocate the creation of a National Learning Infrastructure that could deliver these sophisticated simulations “anytime, anywhere, to anyone.”[11] If these trends continue, the experience of education in digital life may well be one of more convenient asynchronistic communication, customized educational services on demand, and less and less dependence on being at a specific place at a specific time. Yet, for all of the Deweyean-sounding practices that are supposed to accompany these educational delivery services–learning by doing, exploration and experimentation, play and discovery–I doubt it is time to begin celebrating the realization of Dewey’s educational philosophy in the post-information age.

II. Learning as a Social Environment

If many proponents of distance learning follow Dewey’s lead in emphasizing experiential and constructivist models of education, few follow his views regarding the inexorably social and relational nature of learning. Most of their accounts portray distance learning (at least at the level of higher education) as a highly individualized process of self-development, driven by the student’s own initiative toward the successful acquisition of specifiable skills.[12]

For Dewey, no matter how individualized or customized the material that is being explored, learning is not an isolated enterprise that takes place within the self or between the individual’s mind and the material it confronts, but a social activity that takes place within the context of a social environment. “As matter of fact,” Dewey tells us,

every individual has grown up, and always must grow up, in a social medium. His responses grow intelligent, or gain meaning, simply because he lives and acts in a medium of accepted meanings and values. Through social intercourse, through sharing in the activities embodying beliefs, individuals gradually acquires a mind of their own. The conception of mind as a purely isolated possession of the self is at the very antipodes of the truth. The self achieves mind in the degree in which knowledge of things is incarnate in the life about him; the self is not a separate mind building up knowledge anew on its own account. [13]

From Dewey’s point of view, even the ideal of education as self-development must be understood as a social process achieved through interaction and relation with others. Rather than fostering this ideal, advocates of distance learning, particularly those who stress self-paced, independent study, tend to reinforce individual isolation. “The effort at isolated intellectual learning contradicts it own aim,” Dewey claimed, for it “precludes the social sense which comes from sharing in an activity of common concern and value.” [14] In examining the economic efficiencies gained by computer innovations, Massy and Zemsky tellingly report that without a supportive social environment, “the students who would most benefit from self-paced learning have the least motivation to do so.”[15]

The prevailing attitude toward teaching is also particularly telling on this point. In Twigg’s words: “Because of the widespread availability of self-paced learning materials, direct faculty intervention throughout the learning process will lessen.”[16] Like a small country being invaded by a foreign power, the idea of faculty interaction is not said to be condemned simply because of the enormous costs of the labor involved (although one suspects that this is the most significant issue). Rather advocates of information technology assume a notion of independent learners at the center of the enterprise who simply do not depend on faculty as the primary source of their learning. While Dewey was among those to argue against a teaching-centered model of education, he would certainly reject the radically asocial dimension of distance learning as it is currently being discussed. [17]

Once again, Dewey’s position is that the social environment–the interdependence and engagement of individuals in the performative acts of learning–is a necessary condition for developing the unique capacities of individuals. Even if such a model as the National Learning Infrastructure could develop an individual’s dispositions for distance learning; in its current direction toward individualization, it would be difficult to account for the experience of sharing in a common activity that is central to Dewey’s understanding of both the social environment of learning and the social aims of democracy.

In contrast to Dewey’s concentration on the social functions of education, the individual ends of distance learning are most frequently described in terms of the acquisition of definable skills. “It seems to me,” Carol Twigg writes,

that our definition of learning is changing in a number of ways… Increasingly, viewing a college education as mastery of a body of knowledge is becoming outmoded. Instead we recognize that graduates need to have acquired skills… along with such abilities as finding needed information and working well with others.[18]

With this emphasis on acquired skills, we are also beginning to see more stress placed on educational outcomes. “Because of its capacity to focus on individual assessment,” Massy and Zemsky note, information technology “will make the teaching and learning enterprise much more outcome-oriented.”[19] In large measure this growing emphasis on skills and outcomes is related to a greater consumer orientation to education. Increasingly students are looking “for increased competition between higher education providers to work to their advantage as consumers.”[20]

While Dewey too understood the importance of acquiring skills, he would no doubt be disturbed by the instrumental and pecuniary ends of distance learning. In his essay, Individualism, Old and New, he claimed that “the development of a civilization that is outwardly corporate–or rapidly becoming so–has been accompanied by the prevailing mentality of the ‘business mind’” and the prevailing standards of value derived from pecuniary success alone.[21] On the educational front, the ability to buy economic success is understood in terms of the acquisition of skills of technical mastery sold at the best price. Yet paradoxically, Dewey argued, even if these skills are quite broad and fluid, such narrowly conceived individualist attempts to find economic security in an increasingly insecure economic world produces the conditions under which individuals become increasingly lost, unable to “find support and contentment in the fact that they are sustaining and sustained members of a social whole.”[22]

For Dewey, a highly individualistic or libertarian model of learning severely narrows and restricts the meaning and practical effects of education’s social function. In his view, the purposes of education in a democracy are necessarily both individual and collective in nature. They consist in developing individuals’ natural capacities and acquisition of skills in concert with their preparation for the activities of engaged citizenship and reflective thought. Indeed, without pathological effect, the growth of the individual–the unique development of the individual’s talents and skills– cannot be separated from the social environment of shared activities, values and common interests within which the individual is sustained and grows.

Although information technology has the potential “to increase learning productivity in the areas of codified knowledge and algorithmic skills,”[23] it may not serve these larger social purposes. Indeed, even if one could argue that sharing in common activities that are primarily non-algorithmic can take place within the social environment of distance learning, Dewey would strongly criticize the disembodied nature of such a “social” environment.

For Dewey, learning digitally may well push Cartesian dualism to new heights as minds connect over vast distances without the inconveniences of time, place and body. In his view, the separation of body and mind culminates “in a sharp demarcation of individual minds from the world, and hence from one another… [This] dualistic philosophy of mind and the world implies an erroneous conception of the relationship between knowledge and social interests, and between individuality or freedom and social control and authority.”[24] In educational practice, it often assumes the form of a body of knowledge distinct from its social purposes and a mind free from its social context and physical constraints. As Sidney Hook explains, a dualistic theory of mind and body, according to Dewey, “converts functional distinctions in the ‘moving unities of experience’ into separations of existence. Thus mind is considered separate from the body, whose activity is viewed as an alien influence on how the mind learns and the self is divided from its environing physical and social world.”[25]

Even as a real time-interactive-talking heads-model, being digitally educated decontextualizes the experience of learning and realizes in practice what Descartes only separated philosophically: Minds communicate through bits, bodies move through atoms. The most elemental dualism of the post-information age is thoroughly Cartesian. Detached from the motion of our bodies and disengaged from our local physical and social surroundings, education in the post-information age does not connect, but separates the self from the world, and thus from others. Rather than fulfilling its promise, learning digitally seems only to compromise the most significant elements of Dewey’s educational philosophy.

III. Learn Locally, Think Globally

Although information technology, like the printing press, opens up radically new options for education, Dewey would remind us that computers are, after all, tools. And, like all other tools, they provide ways of getting around and fulfilling one’s purposes in one’s environment. The question is how can we best use the tools of information technology for our educational purposes and aims?

In terms of delivery, advocates of digital learning often argue that information technology provides a better option than the traditional university. With its relatively fixed economy of scale and centralized location, the university has become a legacy of the industrial age. In Twigg’s words: “Our institutions of higher education are reminiscent of other kinds of industrial age organizations such as the factory and the department store–characterized by size and centralization–in contrast to the distributed, networked organization and mail-order shopping services of the 1990s.”[26] Twigg predicts that the ability to transmit through networked organization high quality learning tools customized for the individual student will begin to replace the traditional (teacher-centered) functions of the university. While there will still be a role for faculty and institutions of higher education in terms of certification, student services, and some collaborative experiences, she suggests, its centrality in the process of learning will significantly change as students become more independent and self-reliant and as physical contact becomes “less important to them.”[27]

Although Twigg may well be correct in arguing that the industrial designed university no longer provides the best option for educational delivery, her vision of the future predicated on independent learning, as we have seen, is not without its serious defects. In analyzing the profound implications of the printing press in America, Dewey noted that localism with its infinite variations and specific contexts tends to become stronger as the world (or at least information about it and our connection to it) grows closer.[28] And just as industry and politics are witnessing a tendency toward both decentralization and globalization, the best option for educational delivery may well be the more local community and small college system with new neighborhood and workplace learning centers further developed to meet the educational needs of both traditional and non-traditional students. Within these small colleges and decentralized institutions, the physical proximity of students and faculty would help to embody learning and knowledge as a social process.

To learn locally and think globally, students must have access to the tools of technology. Information retrieval, communication systems, and independent and collaborative learning tools are now necessary and even elemental parts of learning. But they are not sufficient. They must be contextualized within a learning environment. As most agree, learning tools can “stand in” for a physical and social environment, but they cannot replace it. One simply cannot replace the direct and palpable gravity of social interaction that is intrinsic to the atomic weight of learning with weightless bits traveling at blinding speed through thin fine fibers of glass.

As global communication systems eviscerate time and space, digital learning may transform the mode of educational production and delivery. It may even make the traditional university and large state institution obsolete. But as our access to the tools of technology become less dependent on space and time, as distance learning increases, the proximity of social interaction in the process of learning should increase proportionally: The more distant the means of delivery, the more proximate the learning experience should be in terms of the intensity, relation, and quality (if not quantity) of interactions between faculty and students. Rather than becoming less so, the physical and social environment may become more important as distant learning tools become more available. As in the case of localism and globalism, physical proximity and intensive social interaction may both compliment and counterbalance distance in learning. Although learning digitally may promise to make us less dependent on time and space, it is only within a social environment of learning that we can begin to celebrate the experimentation, exploration, and expression–the idea of learning by doing–central to the spirit of John Dewey.

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Endnotes

[1] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, (New York: Borzoi-Knopf, 1995), 14.

[2] Ibid., 163-65.

[3] For example, see William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity” 4.

[4] Ibid., 199f. Return to text

[5] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure” 5.

[6] Dewey, Democracy and Education, in John Dewey, The Middle Works, 1899-1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 147.

[7] Jack M. Wilson, “The CUPLE Physics Studio,” The Physics Teacher.

[8] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, 224.

[9] A description of CITYSCAPES can be found in “Strengthening Teaching and Learning in the First Two Years,” PEW Charitable Trusts (Number 9, January 1996), 4.

[10] Massy and Zemsky, Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 2. (www.educause.edu/ir/library/abstracts/nli0004.html)

[11] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure.”

[12] Although one of these skills may involve collaboration, it is nevertheless described as a kind of “pull yourself up by your own boot straps” social environment of independent learning.

[13] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 304.

[14] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 44.

[15] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 4.

[16] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” 8.

[17] On the role of the teacher and the social purposes of education, see Dewey’s The School and Society in The Middle Works, vol. 1.

[18] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Infrastructure,” 1. See also, Jeremy Shapiro and Shelley Hughes, “Information Technology as a Liberal Art,” Educom Review (March/April):31-35.

[19] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 3.

[20] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Infrastructure,” 4. Return to text

[21] Individualism, Old and New in John Dewey: The Later Works, vol 5, p. 67f. Return to text

[22] Ibid. Return to text

[23] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 2.

[24] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 300.

[25] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” x.

[26] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” 5.

[27] Ibid., 8.

[28] See “Americanism and Localism” in John Dewey: The Middle Works, vol. 12, p.12-16.

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Women: Lost in Cyberspace?

Laurie Finke
Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies
Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio
Date of publication: 1997

The Culture of Virtual Communities

In one passage from A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s fictional narrator finds herself walking across the grounds of an Oxbridge college deep in thought, contemplating an essay by Charles Lamb on Milton’s “Lycidas.” She remembers that the manuscript of that famous poem that Lamb cites in his essay is housed in the library of the very college whose grounds she walks. She imagines herself literally retracing Lamb’s footsteps “across the quadrangle to that famous library where the treasure is kept.” Finding herself at the door of the library,

I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel, barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. (Woolf 7-8; emphasis in original)

The narrator’s response shows how quickly alienation follows from exclusion, how quickly intellectual curiosity can become indifference: “Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe and locked within its breast, it [the library] sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep forever” (Woolf 8).

I found myself returning to this scene again and again when I was asked to think about the consequences of emerging information technologies for the teaching that I do in a Women’s and Gender Studies program, particularly in relation to the kind of student-centered pedagogy that we, for the purposes of this project, are calling “proximity learning,” and opposing to the “distance learning” so often extolled as information technology’s future (Twigg, Alley). Surely such scenes of exclusion as Woolf describes in 1928 could not be repeated in an American university at the end of the twentieth century? No student of ours–female or male– would be turned away at the doors of our colleges’ libraries by kindly silver-haired librarians guarding the doors and rebuffing the unwelcome. Yet the refrain heard constantly among cyber-touts these days is that the locus of the library is rapidly changing. Soon the “treasures” about which Woolf writes so eloquently will reside not in atoms–in weighty volumes stored on scores of shelves in monumental stone buildings–but in ethereal bits, floating around in a non-place we’ve come to call “cyberspace,” capable of being disassembled and reassembled at our merest whim in any format we desire (Negroponte). Knowledge–or at least information– will no longer be “locked away” and apportioned out by the gatekeepers of culture, but will be available anywhere, anytime at the press of a button or the click of a mouse.

This enthusiastic assessment of the democratizing potential of information technologies, however, merits closer scrutiny. What will the effects of this dematerialization–this transformation of information from atoms to bits–be? In particular, we ought to pay close attention to the rhetoric of the sales pitch through which the benefits of cyberspace are being promoted. While the term is often used rather loosely to refer to everything from computer games to the World Wide Web, “as though each computer screen were a portal to a shadow universe of infinite, electronically accessible space” (Markley 2), it is worth noting how the experts talk about the concept. Michael Benedikt defines cyberspace as “a globally networked, computer-sustained, computer-accessed, and computer-generated, multidimensional, artificial, or virtual’ reality” (Benedikt 122). Marcos Novak characterizes it as “a completely spatialized visualization of all information in global information processing systems, along pathways provided by present and future communication networks, enabling full copresence and interaction of multiple users, allowing input and output from and to the full human sensorium, permitting simulations of real and virtual realities, remote data collection and control through telepresence, and total integration and intercommunication with a full range of intelligent products and environments in real space” (Novak 225,226). What both definitions have in common is their thorough erasure of human agency in the transition from a material to a virtual reality [1]. In both definitions machines are remarkably lively and intelligent. They “network,” “sustain,” and “generate.” They provide access; they “enable”interaction, “allow” input and output to circulate, and “permit” simulations. Humans, on the other hand, have almost entirely disappeared or are completely passive. Indeed we no longer have people attached to computers at all, but “human sensorium.” People have become little more than inert receptacles for “input” and “output.” As Donna Haraway writes, “Our machines are disturbingly lively and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (Haraway 152). This way of talking about computer technology is not limited only to VR visionaries. Most educators writing about the benefits of information technology use the very same rhetoric:

  • IT will change teaching and learning profoundly, no matter what the response of traditional higher education institutions. (Massy and Zemsky 2)
  • IT enables students to work at their own pace with continuous assessment, in contrast to the traditional post-secondary education method which can be described as batch-processing with episodic assessment. (Massy and Zemsky 4).
  • For not only will information technology accelerate the move toward a process focus and collaborative learning, it may change the fundamental relationships and understandings we’ve developed during the era when most information was stored on paper. (Batson and Bass 44)

In the first sentence, information technology is characterized as having the power to transform higher education in spite of whatever paltry resistance its institutions might mount (notice it isn’t educators, but only institutions that resist). Human agency can amount to little more than a pallid and ineffective imitation of computer efficacy (“batch-processing with episodic assessment”). In fact, in the technological determinism that marks most writing of this kind, human actors appear only as obstacles to the electronic transformation of higher education. Faculty and administrators who resist the inevitable digitalization of the university are seen as the problem to be solved: “faculty will have little interest in IT’s capacities to boost academic productivity to the extent that they lack an appropriate vision of learning productivity” (Massy and Zemsky 6). Sentiments like this are so common nowadays that they fly by unnoticed. But their consequences for how we think about information technologies and for the problems we gloss over are profound.

The effect of this discursive logic that endows machines with agency while erasing human actors is to write out of existence a whole host of material and cultural institutions and practices that create and sustain information technology, but which also determine who is allowed access to this information. Gone from the analysis are the programmers, designers, factory workers, sales workers, service technicians, patent and copyright lawyers, policymakers, executives, college faculty and administrators, as well as the hardware, software, electricity, and raw materials necessary to keep the production line moving. A whole host of technoscientific, economic, social, and cultural practices that regulate both knowledge of and access to information technology simply become invisible. Those who extol the democratizing potential of new information technologies rarely talk, for instance, about the complexities of copyright law, the economic costs of access to this information, or the inevitable pattern of breakdown, repair, and obsolescence involved in maintaining electronic equipment, all material practices that involve human actors who serve as gatekeepers, determining who will have access and who will be denied.

Even the most superficial examination of the material practices that sustain the illusion of “cyberspace” reveal that far from being a cultureless and egalitarian meeting place in which “status, power, and prestige are communicated neither contextually. . .nor dynamically,” in which “charismatic and high-status people may have less influence and group members may participate more equally” (Taylor et al. 18), emergent information technologies, because they are situated in networks of material and cultural practices, institutions, and economies, replicate all of the inequities and hierarchies that currently plague academia and the larger world of which it is a part. As colleges and universities celebrate the
promise of brave new technologies that will fundamentally change the ways in which faculty and students interact, it is important to keep in mind the very real danger that some of our students, because of where they are situated in these networks, may, like Virginia Woolf, find themselves locked out of the technological campuses of the future.

I believe that both faculty and students can use computer mediated communication (CMC) and IT to teach and learn in new ways that are more collaborative, interactive, and ultimately more effective, but I am also wary of the very real possibility that gender, race, and class hierarchies will (and have) all to easily become part of the “circuitry” of the new information technology on our campuses. I worry that these technologies could have unforseen and undesirable consequences for the politics of gender, race, and class in academia. The question I want to pose is, as teachers, how do we responsibly integrate new information technologies into our classrooms without excluding or alienating the very students we want to empower? My answer is that we can do so only when we pay attention to the material and cultural practices that accompany the adoption of new technologies.

The cultural practices that have sprung up around computer mediated communication (CMC) and information technology (IT), far from being gender-neutral, are, if anything, more male than the culture they mirrors. By almost any measure we might choose, men dominate the computer world through sheer numbers. 87% of all doctorates in computer science go to men (and two-thirds of all bachelors degrees); 92% of all computer science faculties are male (and 97% of all tenured faculty) [Shade, Simmons]. These numbers suggest that those who are designing hardware, software, and networks, supporting and servicing them, and teaching about them are most likely to be men. This is not to suggest, however, that women have nothing to do with computers. Women figure heavily in the global production lines of the computer industry (Taylor et al., 15), in data entry, and in secretarial positions. In other words, they cluster disproportionately in those areas of computer technology that are low-paying, repetitive, and routinized, those areas that are least likely to influence decisions about how CMC and IT will be used and who will have access.

On the internet, the heart of the revolution in information technology, depending on how you count, men outnumber women in proportions that range from 2 to 1 to 9 to 1. If you measure access men outnumber women only by two to one. If you measure actual use the disparity can be as high as 10 to 1. A survey conducted in 1994 by the Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center (GVU) at Georgia Tech showed that male internet users outnumbered female by a ratio of 9 to 1. A year later, the same survey showed that , at least in the U.S, the disparity had begun to shrink; women accounted for 29.3% of users in the 4th Annual GVU Survey. However, to be counted in a survey of this kind a user would have to find the GVU web site and complete the questionnaire. To avoid the potential biases that might result from self-reporting, Matrix Information and Directory Services (MIDS) and Texas Internet Consulting sent electronic surveys to the domains representing organizations on the internet. These surveys counted the numbers of men and women who could send e-mail outside the domain. In 1994, this survey showed only a two to one discrepancy between men and women who had active email accounts (64% to 36%, MIDS Survey). John Quarterman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell suggest that the proliferation of email on college campuses explains the smaller gap between male and female users in this survey. Students have become the largest proportion of internet users and the average university student population is pretty evenly divided between men and women. But the MIDS survey still leaves a 2 to 1 “gender gap” even for relatively simple electronic technology like email. Collectively what these studies suggest is that while men and women are becoming more equal in opportunities for accessing the internet, there are still wide disparities in how men and women use electronic media.

The reasons for this disparity, I believe, are not all that well understood. Much of the research on women and computing, even the feminist research, begins with the assumption that women are disadvantaged and even deficient users of computer technology. Such analyses locate the problem in the resistance of users rather than in the technology they are being asked to use, or better in the network of material and cultural practices that sustain the technology. Women, in this view, are intimidated by the technology and the communicative style of the internet because they communicate differently from men: men are comfortable with the kind of adversarial exchange characteristic of the internet, while women prefer a more supportive communicative style (Herring). Indeed, women’s and men’s communicative strategies are
so different that they inhabit different cultures (Mulvaney). Such views, however, are based as much on stereotype as on any empirical evidence. Michele Evard’s research on fourth and fifth grade children using a netnews-like forum in a classroom setting suggests that, before they encounter the culture of the net, boys and girls act in CMC in almost identical ways: girls speak as often as boys, they give instruction in equal numbers, and they flame just as often as boys (Evard). This study suggests that what ever discrepancies exist between men’s and women’s use of CMC and IT result less from profound psychological differences between men and women than from the practices, values, and institutions that
constitute and are constituted by the virtual communities that have sprung up on the internet.

To understand the discrepancies between male and female computer use and their implications for classroom use of CMC and IT, we must investigate the material practices that discourage women from participating. These include:

  • Economic barriers. Access to information technology requires hardware, software, and, increasingly, internet access, all of which require a significant financial output. Since women on average make less than men, they may be more disadvantaged as buyers of computer services (Shade, Simmons). Cost may have less impact on college students as the cost of some (though certainly not all) of these services are borne by colleges and universities. Nevertheless, as educators we must constantly remember that the increasing dependence of higher education on electronic technology will always work to the benefit of more advantaged students who can afford the cost of cutting edge technologies.
  • Lack of familiarity with computer technology. As children, girls are often have less access to computers than boys. When they do, their use of the computer is almost exactly the same as boys (Evard). The computer game industry, however, is notoriously male-oriented, producing few titles that would appeal to girls.
  • Learning styles. While the literature on infotech frequently promotes the potential of technology to appeal to a variety of learning styles (Negroponte, Batson and Bass, Alley), it is not always clear that training in the use of infotech accommodates a variety of learning styles, especially when the learner in question is resistant to technology or anxious about it. For some users (and here I would include myself), the rapid obsolescence of technologies once learned can be quite daunting and a disincentive to investing the time required to learn still newer technologies every six months.
  • Harassment and pornography. Information resources like the internet are not always friendly places for women. The kind of harassment that often plagues women in face to face communication  has, not surprisingly, become perhaps too frequently a fact of life in CMC (Anderson, Brail, Kendall). The libertarian, anything goes culture of the Web has made it an attractive place to sell and disseminate pornography. Without advocating censorship or indeed any reigning in of the Web’s decentralized (non) organization, I would point out that the climate for women on the web can be chilling; one need not actively look for pornography to find it. Recently I logged onto a popular search engine, looking for information on “women and the internet” for this piece. My query
    yielded some fifty entries, half of which advertised “the hottest women on the internet,” “lingerie lounge,” “Asian playmates,” and “SEX PORN XXX FUCK ADULT GAY WOMEN VIDEO.XXX.COM” repeated over and over in capital letters (the electronic version of shouting). My students have reported similar experiences. Women on the internet are both subjects and sexual objects.
  • Discursive inequalities. Although CMC was supposed to eliminate status markers like race, age, physical appearance and physical abilities, empowering those in low status positions,(Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler, Taylor et al. 54, Stone), gender seems to be a status marker that persists even in  electronically mediated situations[2]. Recent studies of usenet groups show that, even when the subject matter focused on women’s issues, in mixed sex groups men contributed significantly more posts and that when women’s participation rose above 30%, they were perceived as dominating the discussion (Taylor et al. 17, 55, We). In a study of the relative participation of men and women in usenet groups devoted to women’s issues (where we might expect women’s interest, and hence their participation to be higher than elsewhere), Gladys We reported the following discrepancies between men’s and women’s contributions:
Newsgroup #responses %female %male %unknown
Alt.feminism 303 11% 83% 6%
Soc.women 292 13% 78% 9%
Soc.feminism 47 53% 40% 7%

These findings validate the experiences many women have had in internet discussion groups and raise questions about the consequences of their use in a classroom setting.

The Pedagogies of Virtual Communities

As colleges and universities invest more heavily in information technology and as IT becomes more integral to our teaching, educators need to think about those we may be leaving behind. And yet such discussions seem to me to be precisely what is missing from the literature on information technology’s pedagogical potential. Although much of this literature discusses forms of faculty resistance to classroom uses of IT (Twigg, Massey and Zemsky, Gilbert), rarely does it acknowledge that student resistance will also be a barrier to the successful integration of electronic media into our teaching. In fact, students will show the same diffusion curve in adopting IT that experts predict of faculty; there will be a small group of early users, the majority will only follow once a critical mass is reached, and the resistors are in real danger of being left behind altogether (Green 29). It would be useful to have some information on, for instance, how gender, race, and socioeconomic class affect these categories. Are men really more likely to be among the early adopters of IT? Are economically privileged students with access to the resources required to access cutting edge technology more likely to be represented among early adopters? Are women more likely to resist the change to electronically mediated classrooms? Are there students or even entire institutions who lack the economic resources to participate in the IT revolution? It would be preferable to rely on some empirical data to answer these questions rather than on stereotype. Once patterns of student use have been established, educators have the more difficult task of determining the causes of resistance. As I have tried to suggest above, resistance to IT among women students (and faculty) may result less from deficiencies in the individuals than from their resistance to the culture they are being asked to enter. Overcoming this resistance will require paying attention to the developing cultures of virtual communities.

We must also pay attention to the pedagogies we adopt within these virtual communities, and the assumptions that underlie those pedagogies. Enthusiasts of IT will often point to the shift electronically mediated learning requires from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered one (Twigg, Alley). As Carol A. Twigg quotes Alan H. Leader, dean of the School of Business at Southern Connecticut State University:

The purpose and outcome of our educational enterprise is learning, not teaching.
Teaching is what we do. Colleges do not exist in order for us to teach but so that
students can learn. . . .The focus must be on the student, not the instructor (Twigg 13).

The pedagogical writing about IT and distance learning extols the advantage of student-centered learning, but what is its vision of student-centered learning? Critiques like Twigg’ s of the traditional teacher-centered classroom, in which the scholarly expert, having distilled the truth from the best minds in the field, transmits it to students, identify real problems in traditional teaching methods. But what do they offer in place of what Paolo Freire has described as the “banking method” of teaching in which teachers
make deposits of knowledge in their students’ minds (Freire 1968)?

Even the most sophisticated writing on distance learning and the pedagogical applications of IT, as, for instance, Twigg’s call for a national learning infrastructure, views the primary goal of education as the delivery of information transplanted from the teacher’s brain into the student’s (Freire’s “banking method” of teaching under a slightly different guise–the scholarly expert has been replaced by a
computer). Such transfers, educational analysts like Massey and Zemsky or Twigg claim, may be more efficiently accomplished with greater convenience to students (who may even be able to learn in the comfort of their own homes) by computers in an individualized, asynchronous learning environment, which is an elaborate way of describing a student sitting in front of a computer terminal. (see “Being Digitally Educated: Dewey, Technology, and Distance Learning“) And if this is all education is about, they are undoubtedly correct. Computers can more efficiently convey information than human instructors. They can store, search, sort, transfer, transport, organize, replicate, and compute information much faster than any human can.

But do these enthusiastic claims about information technology confuse knowledge and information, transmitting with educating? Does student-centered learning refer only to students’ passive assimilation of data or does it require more active participation from them, more interaction both with their teachers and with their peers? Perhaps we cannot substitute a computer for the social interactions we claim occur in
proximity learning anymore than we can create a computer program to parent or an electronic therapist. Like parenting or therapy, teaching (and learning) does not involve a simple exchange of information. Information gathering is not the central activity. Like parenting or therapy, education integrates students into particular social networks–in the case of education we call these social networks disciplines. These social networks have customs, rules, procedures, and specialized languages. Some
of these are explicit, but many are unstated, taken for granted by those who have already been integrated into the social network. These rules, procedures, customs, and languages dictate what questions can be asked, what counts as an answer, what counts as evidence or explanation, who may speak at any given time, whose answers count, and how information is gathered. Students learn the customs, rules, and procedures of their chosen social networks or disciplines by acting as participant-observers, by learning the “culture” of their discipline, and not simply by acquiring the discipline’s content. A students become a member of the social network as she learns to create new knowledge, not as she learns to regurgitate information ( Brown and Duguid). The goal of higher education then only partly the transmission of knowledge; it also requires the creation of new knowledge.

Missing, then, from discussions of the technological classroom is a sophisticated analysis of pedagogy that unpacks the social networks students must learn to navigate during their college years. Those pedagogical discussions are, however, available in many other places. Feminist scholars, for instance, have explored these issues and their impact on women for nearly two decades. For two decades they have mounted a challenge to teacher- and information-centered models of education which has been remarkably successful at many institutions. That challenge has gone unnoticed in the literature on classroom uses of IT, this despite a virtual explosion of information on the subject. In the 1970s, feminist teachers, convinced that a female-friendly education required not only a transformation of the content of higher education but of its method of delivery as well, began to explore new teaching approaches. They found useful strategies in many different sources: the consciousness-raising practices of the early women’s movement, the progressive tradition in American education created by John Dewey (see “Being Digitally Educated: Dewey, Technology, and Distance Learning“), and the liberatory teaching promoted by Paulo Freire and others. What makes feminist pedagogy unique, however, has been its attention to the particular needs of women and its grounding in feminist theory as the basis for its multidimensional view of how classroom knowledge is constructed through the formation and maintenance of social networks (Tetreault and Maher). This information is voluminous and readily accessible [3].

Yet, despite this wealth of information, discussions of both feminist pedagogy and information technology’s impact on the women who constitute upwards of 50% of our students are notably missing in most mainstream discussions of the IT revolution, which tend to treat students as largely featureless and interchangeable cogs.

Obviously I believe that IT and CMC can and utlimately must have a place in a feminist classroom. I have use these tools–e-mail, electronic discussion groups, the internet, multimedia programs– on a daily basis in my own classes. And my experience has taught me that these tools, along with the networks of social, cultural, and material practices in which they are imbricated, will change how we teach. But finally it is up to us as teachers (and as members of our own social networks) –and not the technology–to determine the nature and extent of these changes. It is my hope that by understanding the particularities of our students, the nature of the social networks to which they seek access, and the nexus of material and cultural practices that IT both embodies and sustains, that we will not, to paraphrase Anne Fausto-Sterling, create an electronic academy in which cyberspace seems an illegitimate place for women and gender issues seem an inappropriate enterprise for the gatekeepers of infotech.

Bibliography

Albright, Julie M. “Of Mind, Body and Machine: Cyborg Cultural Politics in the Age of Hypertext.”

Alley, Lee R. 1996. An Instructional Epiphany. Change. Mar: 48-54.

Anderson, Judy. 1996. “Not for the Faint of Heart: Contemplation on Usenet.” In Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired_ Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle, WA: Seal Press.

Brail, Stephanie. 1996. “The Price of Admission: Harassment and Free Speech in the Wild, Wild West.” In
Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired_Women: Gender and the New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle WA: Seal Press.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid. 1996. “Universities in the Digital Age.” Change. July/August: 11-19.

Cherny, Lynn and Elizabeth Reba Weise. 1996. Wired Women:Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle: Seal Press.

Evard, Michele. 1996.”‘So Please Stop, Thank You’: Girls Online.” In Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba
Weise, eds. Wired_Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle WA: Seal Press.

Finke, Laurie A. 1993. “Knowledge as Bait: Voice and the Pedagogical Unconscious.” College English 55:5-25.

Finke, Laurie A. 1994. “Pedagogy of the Depressed: Feminism, Poststructuralism, and Pedagogic Practice.”
Teaching Literary Theory, eds. Dianne Sadoff and William Cain. MLA: 154-168.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder, 1 968

Gilbert, Steven W. 1996. “Making the Most of a Slow Revolution,” Change. March/April: 10-47.

Green, Kenneth C. 1996. “The Coming Ubiquity of Information Technology.” Change. March/April: 24-29.

Grusin, Richard. “What is an Electronic Author? Theory and the Technological Fallacy.” In Robert Markley.
Virtual Realities and Their Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996: 39-54.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991 “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Herring, Susan. “Gender Differences In Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage To The New Frontier.”

Kendall, Lori. 1996. “MUDder? I Hardly Know ‘Er!: Adventures of a Feminist MUDder.” In Lynn Cherny and
Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired_Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle WA: Seal Press.

Kendrick, Michelle. “Cyberspace and the Technological Real.” In Robert Markley. Virtual Realities and Their
Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996:143-160.

Maher, Frances A. and Mary Kay Teatreault. 1994. The Feminist Classroom: An Inside Look at How Professors are Transforming Higher Education for a More Diverse Society. New York. Basic Books.

Markley, Robert. Virtual Realities and Their Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,
1996.

“History, Theory, and Virtual Reality.” In Robert Markley. Virtual Realities and Their Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996: 1-10.

Massy, William F.and Robert Zemsky. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.”

Milroy, L. 1980. Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Mulvaney, Becky Michele . “Gender Differences in Communication: An Intercultural Experience.”

Negroponte, Nicholas. 1995. Being Digital. New York: Vintage Books.

Quarterman, John S. and Smoot Carl-Mitchell. “Is the Internet All Male?”

Shade, Leslie Regan. “Gender Issues in Computer Networking.” ftp://cpsr.org/cpsr/gender/leslie_regan_shade.txt.

Simmons, Susan. “Democracy, Women, and the Internet.”

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne.1991. “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures.” In Benedikt, Michael, ed. Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Taylor, H. Jeanie, Cheris Kramarae, and Maureen Ebben. 1993. Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship
(Taylor et al.). Urbana, Illinois University Press.

Twigg, Carol. “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure.”

We, Gladys. “Cross-Gender Communication in Cyber-Space.” ftp://cpsr.org/cpsr/gender/we_cross_gender.

Woolf, Virginia. 1929. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Endnotes

[1] I am indebted to Richard Grusin for this point (see Grusin 1996, 40-41).

[2] Though “computer crossdressing” in CMC is by no means unheard of and given the lack of bodily cues, relatively easy to achieve, it is not at all clear whether such behavior has challenged or simply reinforced traditional gender stereotypes, see Stone, 82-85, Kendrick 155-159, and Kendall.

[3] A gopher site maintained by the Women’s Studies librarian at the University of Wisconsin contains a searchable bibliography on women and information technology with seven hundred entries. (gopher://silo.adp.wisc.edu:70/00/.uwlibs/.womenstudies/.infotech/.infofull)

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Technology in University Education

The incredible growth of online learning resources has been written about here and just about every education website in existence.  However there’s another important factor that these course bring those in traditional University and college education too.

Most higher education establishments in the UK now make extensive use of online courses even for residential students.  In doing this they are building up a huge amount of information about their student’s learning activities.  This data is normally generated from some sort of virtual learning environment which is an internal facility designed to store learning resources such as guidance and digital courses.

Education AI - the Future

The advantage of a VLE is that it is simple to monitor and analyse student’s learning activities in this environment.  For example it is simple to monitor how often a particular students logs on and how long they spend actively participating in the online component of their course.  This information can be easily collated automatically and sent to their respective tutors. In tests conducted by the University of Bedfordshire using a similar system the use of the VLE increased significantly whilst the updates where in progress.

Of course this is technology and there are bound to be some sort of risks behind relying on this completely for student development.  Of course, it will not be long before some  start using technology like this - to fool and mislead such automated monitoring.   As such the traditional tutorial sessions will unlikely be replaced completely but still it does represent a much better use of an academics time rather than monitoring or relying on registers for such students.

The technology being developed currently is something similar to that used by big online companies like Netflix or Amazon.  That is they trace, monitor and recommend different courses and study goals based on participation in the virtual learning area.   It marks exciting possibilities of perhaps helping a student choose the best study path based on interests and highlighting early intervention for students who may be struggling in certain areas.

There are just like with most online retailers, a certain amount of confidentiality and privacy issues. Certainly the information gathered must remain highly confidential especially with it’s obvious interest to potential employers seeking to analyse a graduate’s potential.   I have to say that I would have some reservations about how the data would be stored, managed and transmitted.  Especially as I have seen the sheer number of misconfigured proxies and server in University departments across the world – great for watching the BBC iPlayer when abroad (see here) but not so good for reassurance about data security.

What Languages Should Our Kids Be Learning?

I don’t know how it varies across the world, but I’m rather worried that children in the UK are learning entirely the wrong foreign languages.  Traditionally, UK schools tend to look at French as the first foreign language to be taught, and if you’re in Wales your children have to learn Welsh too.

Now for an Englishman living in Wales, I suspect these two languages are not the best two to learn to enhance your children’s work prospects in the future.  After all that’s what it’s all about isn’t it.  I get the Welsh Nationalist’s opinion that we need to protect the Welsh language, but in a global economy and a digitally connected world – learning Welsh makes very little sense to me.   But still I chose to live in this country and to be honest it’s a small price to pay I guess.

Croissants

Which moves me on to French, not a difficult language to learn perhaps although I never completely mastered it myself, despite convincing myself I’m fluent after a few glasses of red.  But how much logic is there behind learning this language, what great opportunities world wide are there, is there a great commercial opportunity across the water?   The answer is definitely – NO, on both counts.

For anyone who isn’t French, you ‘d have to be utterly mad to go and set up a business in France.  In fact if you’re French, speak French and live in France – it’s still a mad place to set up a business.  The red tape is incredible just trying to do anything involves paper work and charges like you’d never believe.  You need to take exams to try anything,  and I mean anything – three years to learn how to work in a shop – I kid you not.  A role learnt when I was 16 in my holidays, it really isn’t that difficult.

Of course, France is a fantastic place, it’s beautiful has loads of great towns to visit.  Lounging around a French cafe or a meal in a classy French restaurant is one of life’s delights.  The food is incredible, the wine beautiful and the people outside Paris are very friendly.   But there is little incentive to go and seek your fortune there, and even if you did – you would have to hand it all over to the Government under a 75% tax rate.  As for learning the language properly I found the fact  that I could now watch my the TV stations I want over the internet to be a powerful disincentive too – check this video for details.

I think it’s time for an overhaul of what languages we teach our children at school, after all how many more doors would Mandarin open, or perhaps Spanish for the booming South American economies sort of a Brazil proxy entry.  Having said that I could even make much more of a case for even Russian or Japanese.

It just seems that our education system just favors the status quo rather than what it genuinely beneficial for our children’s futures.  In some senses it’s much easier for many other countries you decide – they generally will teach English without hesitation.

Do Our Children Need Lessons in Concentration?

There is a growing belief among educators that children are increasingly suffering from short attention spans.   Much of this is blamed on the highly connected and available world of technology and the internet.  It is even suggested that certain social media applications could be responsible for a negative effect on our children’s basic brain development.

Although it’s often an easy solution to just blame the internet or some social application, I think many parents may be nodding their heads in approval.  One of my greatest hobbies when I was young was the Airfix model, a selection of various vehicles like tanks, planes and cars which came ready to be assembled from their component parts.  It was extremely time consuming and required quite a level of patience to complete even the smaller sets whereas many of the bigger sets would need literally months to complete (and often the assistance of an engineer!).

socialmedia

I was not terribly good at them, but did find them a great way to fill up a boring, wet Sunday afternoon and I was keen to encourage my kids to try them too.  However despite investing in a large range of various models, my off-spring have yet to complete a single one, they start but after a few minutes wander off to try something else.  It seems Airfix sets do not provide the instant gratification that children of today require, well at least not for mine anyway.

There is so much to do now, children are seldom bored as their parents where when we were young.  We had a couple of TV channels, they have literally hundreds of them, mine even use proxy servers, like these to access them and social media through their school firewalls.  There is no end to the online entertainment available to them even via their mobile phones.  Even then there is sometimes more to watch – see this video entitled Watch US Netflix in Canada to see just some of the possibilities.

The teachers seem to agree, in the UK a study found that 70% of teachers believed that children were too obsessed with social media and 50% thought that this affected their ability to concentrate.  This was in 2010, which was many years ago in the context of the world of Facebook and Twitter, their use has increased exponentially in that time.

Spending on Education Rises in USA without Results

There are not many areas for common ground between Republicans and Democrats but the importance of the education system in the US is perhaps one of them.  Spending on education in the USA has increased dramatically over the last few decades but there has been little increase in standards to justify this expense.

The cost now of the US education system is over $600 billion a year, a rise of 350% and yet achievement levels have barely changed.  There are numerous suggestions about how you can spend so much extra for so little gain but a definite theme across all of them.

school-costs

Not enough of these education dollars actually get into the classrooms. Bureaucracy and administration is where a lot of it ends up, paper work and form filling costs money but does little to benefit our children.

There are always going to be additional costs in education, but there is little excuse for inefficiency.  Costs have been sky rocketing in areas like energy and transportation with little benefit to the education of our children.  There are signs of change however – Pennsylvania saved over $7 million by introducing a variety of energy saving measures like turning off lights, lowering shades installing thermostats and other fairly basic measures.  Other states have cut similar amounts from transportation budgets by amalgamating their transport needs into bigger more efficient organisations which provide transport to lots of schools rather than arranging this individually.

The measures are achieving great popularity and you can catch up with the coverage on most of the local and national media, if you’re outside the US you may need to use a proxy like this to access these sites.

One of the most pro-active initiatives in this area is being taken in Texas where they are in the third year of a project called FAST (Financial Allocation Study for Texas) this studies how school districts and college campuses spend their money and how that is related to the student achievement levels and education.  It tries to identify which schools and the related strategies are paying dividends in both achievement and the efficient allocation of resources.

There is talk of some sort of further project to analyse the results of these findings nationally and applying best practise across the nation.  Similar projects have been successful across the border and Canada has a much more efficient education system than the US as a result.  For similar access to the Canadian media as specified above you can use this proxy method to access – watch the video.

 

Development of E-Learning in Africa

If there’s one place that e-learning has the potential to transform lives, then that has to be Africa.   The continent has always struggled with education – poorly resourced schools, colleges and Universities are very much the normal state of affairs.  In many areas there is virtually no provision for education at all, especially for poorer families.

children-africa

Of course e-learning can cover all sorts of areas, but one of the most popular is the chance to develop language skills particularly English which opens up many doors for students.  In many parts of Africa though there is little chance for students to meet and talk with English speakers in order to develop their language skills.  Interactive software is one area where hopefully ICT can bridge this gap.

There are of course a huge number of online resources already available, however there are extra difficulties in Africa.  The network infrastructure is not too bad now, having been developed extensively over the last decade but there is some need for people to use the resources available and actively bring technology into the classroom.  Some resources are actually not available in Africa due to restrictions although you an always buy proxies like these to bypass these restrictions if needed.

Organisations are however actively involved in projects to try and help with these issues often proactively working with NGOs in deprived areas.  Some organisations like Clarity English have a range of projects being implemented in Africa.  One such initiative is sponsoring the education of 25 vulnerable girls in East Africa  - the aim to help them complete their secondary education, something that is often not completed.

They have also developed a tools called the Clarity Course Builder which helps teachers develop a curriculum and lesson plans made up of their own materials and digital resources available online like YouTube videos, web sites and academic resources.

This has great potential to help teachers find and use materials that could help in the classroom and using the technology to the best benefit.  It also means that children will develop some ICT skills as they learn which is becoming a prerequisite for employment in the modern world.

There is certainly less reason for the continent to be as disadvantaged as it has been previously especially in the education sector.  As always there are some barriers, however just as I have a block to stop me watching BBC Iplayer in France, there are ways and means to level the playing field and bypass these – here’s an example.

The Flipped Classroom Model – Digital Learning

As reported in this site, digital learning is transforming education in the 21st century and it’s happening across the world.  The globalisation of the learning experience has got to bring benefits especially to students who suffered from lack of access to both teachers and teaching materials.  When you’ve seen a class sit and watch a world class professor deliver a lecture from a classroom on the other side of the planet, you can’t help but feel that education is entering a whole new exciting phase.

students-classroom

There are of course still problems and challenges to overcome, many worry that the latest drive towards huge online courses will ultimately be controlled by the pursuit of profit and fees.  Currently tens of thousands of courses and lectures are being made available free of charge by the world’s top colleges and universities.  Will this remain the case is unsure, already we’re starting to see some restrictions being put in place.

Several colleges have started putting up restrictions on who can access some online content.  Just like the big media firms who initially allowed their content to be screened world wide but now put filters and blocks.  Most of these were based on location meaning that you’d need some sort of IP changing software like this, in order to change your digital location.  Hopefully this is a temporary measure and not where the industry is heading.

The other big challenge is of course for teachers, using digital learning methods means that traditional teaching methods are not always suitable.    For example one method that is being used in many US classrooms if the ‘Flipped Classroom Model’.  This model is a method of teaching that allows people to complete notes when they’re out of class or at home.   This helps to free up classroom time for discussion and application of the subject matter.

In practice, the teacher or lecturer would record small 10 minute screencasts of their lesson which the students could watch at home.  These are primarily summaries of the lectures which the students can then take notes from in their own time.  These videos can be viewed after the lesson as a revisions aid but are more commonly watched before hand.

The idea is that the students get an idea behind the lesson beforehand and then come to class ready to apply the content.  The teacher can then design their lesson on application and reinforcing the concepts or ideas without the standard lecture format.  Obviously this also gives a teacher more free time in the classroom and hopefully more interesting lessons.

There are in fact many examples of these subject and concept videos already produced and available online.  If you check out most of the big US and European Universities and digital learning groups you’ll find many that can be used.  Again there are some restrictions at some of the sites but these are normally only location based blocks which as mentioned above can be bypassed by using a fake ip address – check here.

Let’s Teach Our Kids Technology

The largest learning technology and computer show has just started in London, with Education Secretary Michael Gove assuring a more challenging computer science program in schools in England. He says students as young as six will get the chance to learn to program and code – but having said that many kids already do.

Amy Mather’s remembers well her first experience of coding was at a science festival, when she was just 11 years old.

Nowadays, she writes her very own applications, designs and codes games, still at the very young age of 14 and has recently been named the European Digital Girl of the Year in 2013.

You might be surprised to learn that she even talks at business events,the reason? Simply to try and encourage other kids to give it a go.

“Everyone has thoughts and ideas that could make our own lives easier,” she says.

“Coding provides you with the power to achieve that. The sky’s the limit.”

Her dad, an engineer, gave Amy a very first taste of coding when she was just old enough to attend school.

But this is not an experience shared by many youngsters in the UK currently. Technology and computers are taught under the guise of ICT which seems to mean endless lessons on simple word processing, spreadsheet and database assignments – in truth these are now merely routine office tasks. Most secondary schools in Wales for instance have no-one really trained in teaching coding – it certainly doesn’t feature in the curriculum currently.

It is important that our children experience these skills, particular technology and computer programming. It is not only important due to the demand on these expertise in our modern world, but also the increased chances we give our youngsters. Often you will find aptitude in computer coding in the less academic children which is a fantastic opportunity for them, sadly many don’t get the option because of the lack of opportunity in modern secondary education in the UK.

The demand is out there, from games programming, security opportunities where programmers are need to help design online surf protection for applications. There are a myriad of opportunities, learning to code gives youngsters the same sort of opportunities as learning a second or third language. What’s more while we are messing around trying to figure out how to set up a VPN on an iPad (it’s here if you are interested!) if we point our children in the right direction then they’ll be able to help us in our later years!

So Does Technology Enhance the Learning Experience?

There’s no doubt that society is changing rapidly, every day another aspect of our lives moves into the digital realm.  Communicating, finances, shopping and the learning experience are all found online, often with excellent results.  But the reality is that specific skills still need to be taught, the challenge is how they can best delivered using a digital medium.

Technology has potential from both the pupils and the teachers perspective.  Computer software for example can often reduce the amount of time a teacher needs to pass on knowledge whilst still maintaining quality.  If well designed it can even feedback and help teachers to refine their tuition based on pupil’s experiences and opinions.

In medicine for example, costs and effort can be reduced hugely in many areas with virtually no affect on overall teaching effectiveness.  A project called hapTEL has designed a virtual dental workstation which allows students to practice their skills.  Previously this would be done using plastic teeth to practice on, the costs of these teeth was substantial approaching £15, ooo – virtual teeth are much, much cheaper.

There are also many, many online courses and resources with less specific value already available on the internet.  The huge expansion of MOOC (massive open online courses) are bringing incredible benefits to areas where such teaching facilities simply didn’t exist.  Hopefully this model will stay on track and stay accessible to all, however it is expected that this area will become increasingly commercialised in the future. Already some course and delivery mechanisms are being restricted based on the subjects IP address – this video here shows how they can be bypassed at least for now.

Hopefully this will not become widespread and the benefits of expanded learning will outweigh the commercial gains. These are exciting times in the world of online education and learning but not only for the education itself. Research is also likely to benefit greatly from the increased opportunities of development and social research. Web technology exists for conducting anything from simple questionnaires (on a vast sample) right through to the ability to conduct more in depth research.

 

Ask About Ireland Project

In these tough economic times, it is generally agreed that certain areas should be protected from the cuts in Government spending.  In the UK those areas are normally education and health, of course this makes perfect sense – to slash the health or education budget is to sacrifice people’s futures.  Without education our economies become left behind as business and industry flock to areas where there are well educated and skilled people to work for them.

Ironically though these cuts often end up cutting areas that are very tightly linked with the education sectors, particularly things like museums and libraries.  It may be that the internet and digital technology have superseded the humble library in some areas but they often supply a hugely important focus for education and development particularly to those outside full time education.

Even as somewhere to simply go and study, the library is a vital service to many thousands.  But many library services have also developed other learning resources which are bang up to date.  Why use a cyber cafe, most libraries provide a superior service at a minimal cost?  You can usually either connect using your own device or use a library PC instead.  I have happy memories of watching the BBC Iplayer Ireland (in a library in Dublin), whilst trying to complete my dissertation a couple of years ago.

reading-lamp-ireland

But it’s more  than the just the services and environment, libraries often are behind far reaching initiatives that can make a real difference.  They are trusted to be able to use and supply copyrighted material which may otherwise be inaccessible to most individuals due to cost.  In Ireland at the moment for example there, is an initiative called Ask about Ireland  which was started by the public libraries and museums of Ireland to try and digitize and make avialble online all the unusual and unique material from their collections.

To just think about this, this one project is bringing information and documents stuck in hundreds of libraries and museum and opening them up to people all over the world.  If you flick through the contents all available on the website you’ll find sections dealing with Arts and Literature, Life, Society and History to name but a few.  All neatly classified and arranged like only a librarian can !

Obviously it’s a big project, and one that will be ongoing for many years, but it illustrates perfectly the value museums and libraries bring to communities.

For reference above (BBC Iplayer is normally not accessible outside the UK without using this technique)

Digital Learning Will Change Education Forever

How do you choose the best education for your children?  For most of us in the UK, we look around at local schools, check gradings, maybe visit and speak to a few parents – then apply to that school a year in advance.   The next five years of our children’s formative years is then entrusted to that school.  Some motivated parents with time and resources may actually look further afield and perhaps move into the catchment area of a high performing school in preparation, this is of course not possible for everyone.

If you have the money of course there are even more options, private education sector in the UK is very strong and there are some wonderful independent schools if you can afford them. Money doesn’t buy your children success but it does give them a distinct advantage to someone who is forced to send their child to a failing inner city school.  But perhaps it doesn’t need to be this way, why should we be stuck in the 20th century with this restrictive model.  The internet has changed all this and digital learning opens up a myriad of new options if we can just break away from this model.

Online Education

At this moment there are literally thousands of courses and lessons available online in all manner of subject areas, most are free and accessible to all with a half decent internet connection.  You can sit courses from the world’s greatest centers of learning whenever you need. At first these courses were more advanced learning driven from higher education Universities and colleges, but that too is changing. In the UK we have had the Open University delivering distance learning for many decades, but this area is now exploding with the rise of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

These mean that a lecturer or teacher no longer has to deliver  a lesson to a select few, it can be delivered online to tens of thousands using the internet.    Just like a few of us Expats sunning ourselves in the Costa Brava can use techniques like this – http://www.iplayerabroad.com/bbciplayer-in-spain-uk-proxy/ to watch the BBC in Spain online, so can students access an Oxford or MIT lecture from anywhere in the world.   The choice is in our hands and the world’s best educators can lead a generation of children in their education.

Imagine instead of choosing the best school out of a small choice located near where you live, you could pick and choose an entire curriculum from a selection of the world’s best teachers.  Does your son or daughter prefer science or languages? No problem you could individually tailor your own curriculum.  In Wales currently, technology is very poorly taught usually because the teachers have few relevant skills in order to teach much more than spreadsheets and desk top publishing.  But in a digital classroom that wouldn’t matter, technology could be taught by an expert not by Mrs Williams the Business studies teacher, or Mr Jones the Maths supply teacher.

There are dangers of course, in the same inequalities expanding from traditional education to the digital learning categories. Money is obviously going to be a driving force too, and slowly we are seeing some commercialization of these MOOC.  Also just like many other areas of online content, barriers are being placed up based on your location, although these currently can be bypassed by using some sort of ip address changing software like this.  Hopefully education can steer a different path than some of the other online resources, simply because the value to the planet is potentially huge with bringing high quality education to every child on the planet a possibility.  In reality this won’t happen of course, even something as basic as infrastructure required to deliver video to a PC is a long way from many countries – but as the world become more connected then it’s a goal worth aiming for!