1996 Reflections on Technology and “Distance Education”

This post is an excerpt from Liza Loop’s story on the HCLE Wiki

My greatest professional frustrations occur when I encounter narrow interpretations of ideas. For example, many people assume “technology” means electronic gadgets. I think technique is “know-how” and technology is the study of know-how. Certainly there has been an explosion of know-how around designing, building and using electronic devices. But learning to use a pencil and alphabet is just as much a case of mastering techniques as learning to use a word processor. In many circumstances, a pencil is a better tool than a computer for the task to be accomplished. I lose patience with people who fall so in love with the complexity of the tool that they fail to assess its appropriateness for the job within its surroundings.

Here’s a little triumph I experienced at the end of a workshop for teachers who were introducing computers in their classrooms. One of my students approached me and said, “Now I know how to operate my computer, but you didn’t explain how it would solve teaching problems.”
“Wonderful,” I replied. “You have learned that the computer is only a medium of communication between teacher and student. It can never replace the teacher. Solve teaching problems yourself. When you do, the computer may be one tool you use.” When assessing technology, it’s important to remember that it’s people who achieve. As we use electronic and communication technologies, we will open up new ways to distribute know-how, new ways to teach and to learn. I expect to contribute most in distance learning and schools.

Moving electrons is more efficient than moving people.

Distance learning involves learners led by live or recorded teachers who can reach their students regardless of location. Every time we turn on a radio or TV, open a book, magazine or newspaper, receive a telephone call, fax or e-mail message, or play a video game, we use distance education tools. If we are changed by the experience, we have been educated. Today, distance learning is market-driven by consumers willing to pay for receiving messages. Only a small portion of distance education is part of a conscious teaching effort in schools.

However, by 2000, I expect a few struggling organizations will take up the mission of delivering teaching to students wherever they are. The effort will be led by transnational corporations that have learned that any data or information that can be squeezed down a wire or transmitted on the waves, should be. Moving electrons is more efficient than moving people. Traditional schools will compete with new institutions offering quicker, cheaper, deeper, more varied access to know-how in mediated form. We will be trying to figure out how to redeploy physical plants built for an industrial era in an information age. Perhaps 2005 is too soon to expect social acceptance of the paradigm shifts brought about by radical developments in information transfer technology. We may still be mired in the illusion that copyright can be preserved. We may not have discovered that information is only valuable when it is disseminated and does not obey economic laws of scarcity. We may have failed to sort out critical aspects of face-to-face encounter as compared to distance communication. But we will be learning.

This is an excerpt from a longer article. Enjoy



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