Technology and Distance Education
Three talks by David Lochhead presented to the SACEM Annual Meeting, Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas, January 10-12 1997Content and Context in Education
Content and Context in EducationThis address was given on Friday, January 10th 1997
During the next few days, we want to think about education and technology. To be more precise, we want to think about using technology to educate at a distance. Tomorrow I want to speak specifically about digital technology and on Sunday, of its use in distance education. In order to lay the basis for what I want to say then, I want to begin today on a more philosophical note. I would like you to join me this afternoon in thinking about communication and context. I would like us to think about how context impacts on the content of what we communicate -- the interrelation of context and meaning.
Early in this century in Anglo-American philosophy, under the influence of Bertrand Russell and the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most influential theory of how language has meaning took the form of what was later called the Fido-Fido theory of meaning. It was called the "Fido-Fido" theory because it held that words were the names of things. Words had meaning by virtue of their ability to refer to things. And so a word like "Fido" was the name of a particular dog. In short the word "Fido" had meaning by virtue of the fact that it referred to (or pointed to) the dog Fido.
This view of meaning probably received its most elegant expression in Ludwig Wittgenstein's early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In this work, Wittgenstein elaborated a view which said that all language had meaning by virtue of its ability to draw pictures of reality. A sentence like "The cat is on the mat" drew a picture of the way things might be in the world. The word "cat" referred to a certain type of animal. The phrase "the cat" referred to a particular instance of this type of animal. Similarly the phrase "the mat" referred to a particular instance of a certain kind of floor covering. Finally, the phrase "is on" informed us of the relationship between "the cat" and "the mat." In this way, the sentence "The cat is on the mat" could be desribed as a picture which is drawn with words.
Now that is a very simple description of a certain view of meaning. Words mean what they name. When we speak those works we convey certain meanings. A sentence like "The cat is on the mat" conveys its meaning quite directly, by providing us, as it were, with a snap shot of reality. Although the proposition that this sentence expresses might be true in some contexts (or states of affairs) and false in other contexts, it means precisely the same thing, whatever the context in which it is said. It draws the same word picture, whether it is true or whether it is false. In this view of meaning, it is the content of communication that is decisive. The context of communication is -- or so it is believed -- quite neutral.
Wittgenstein's masterpiece -- and it was a masterpiece, whatever the problems in the account of language that it presented -- was published in the 1920s. Paradoxically, about the same time, some film makers in Russia conducted an experiment that pointed in a quite different direction. These film makers were fascinated by the technique that is called "montage." In film, montage is the method of creating meaning by assembling film clips together. By placing one clip before another, one suggests that the first clip is connected to the second, that the first clip interprets the meaning of the second.
In a famous experiment, these film makers took one clip -- a close up of the face of an actor with what was supposed to be a neutral expression. They took this clip and connected it with three others: a picture of a child playing, a picture of a bowl of soup, and a picture of a body in a coffin. Thus they created three sequences: 1. Child playing -- actor's face -- child playing. 2. Bowl of soup -- actor's face -- bowl of soup. 3. Coffin actor's face -- coffin. These three sequences were shown to different audiences who were asked to describe the emotion on the actor's face. Those who say the sequence with the child playing saw affection in the face. Those who saw the sequence with the bowl of soup saw hunger. Those who saw the sequence with the coffin saw an expression of grief.
We may say that, in this example, the content of the communication is a picture of an actor's face. The meaning communicated is the expression which the audience perceived on this face. In this example then, the meaning -- the expression perceived on the actor's face -- is not created by the face of the actor itself -- that is, the content. The meaning is created, rather, by the context within which the content is placed.
English philosophy of the early part of this century focussed its attention on the content of a communication as the bearer of its meaning, perhaps because the question they raised was of the meaning of the individual proposition, the assertion of a truth claim. When you take for your paradigm of meaning a referential statement like "The cat is no the mat," the question of context does not seem to be important.
In analytical philosophy it was Wittgenstein himself who began to realize the limitations of his earlier view. In Wittgenstein's later philosophy he recognized that language does not stand outside the world and describe it. Rather language in an activity in the world. It is, Wittgenstein said, a form of life. As an activity that is embedded in life we could say that we play games with language: not one game but as many games as there are forms of life. Language derives its meaning from the various activities of which it is a part. In language, we deal with a multiplicity of language games. Words derive meaning only from the uses to which they were put in these various language game. In short, meaning, for the later Wittgenstein, was inherently contextual.
In continental philosophy, by contrast, a parallel view of meaning was developed by hermeneutics. Hermeneutics dealt primarily with the meanings of texts. With texts, the question of context cannot be ignored. Texts are much bigger units than propositions. When we ask about the meaning of a text, we may not have any interest at all in the question of its truth value. We are not interested in an isolated cat sitting on an isolated mat. We are more likely to be interested in following the cat as it appears and reappears throughout the text. We become concerned with the significance of the fact that this particular cat appears on this particular mat at this particular place in the text. In interpreting a text, one must deal with a whole network of relationships: the relationship of one part of a text with another, the relationship of a text with its author, the relationship of a text to the world it refers to, the relationship of a text to the broader culture in which it appears and of which the text is a representative expression.
With the development of the hermeneutic tradition since Schleiermacher and the related development of the historical-critical method, the question of context has been given considerable attention. Those of us who have been trained theologically are the beneficiaries of those traditions. We have been trained -- rigorously trained -- that to look for the meaning of a Biblical text, we have to look at context. Furthermore, we have been educated to understand that there are many dimensions to context. Let us review the various types of context that we encounter in interpreting a Biblical text.
First, a Biblical text has its origin in a world that is historically distant from us. In coming to understand a text, we have to respect that distance. We have to ask the question of historical context. What was happening in the world at the time the text first appeared? When we ask this question, we soon find that the historical context of a text has many dimensions. That is, a text may appear at one time, yet refer to or represent another time. Thus a Gospel text may speak of the world of Galilee in the time of Jesus but may have been committed to writing far away from Galilee a generation later. In coming to understand the text, we have to ask about both times. Again, the text may have a long oral tradition behind it, which means that interpretation needs to be cognizant, not only of the historical world of the text but also of the history of its transmission.
Within the broad range of what we mean by a historical context, we find other factors to take into consideration. Indeed, unpacking what we mean by historical context is like peeling an onion. We discover layer upon layer. We must deal with the cultural context, the various ways that people represented reality to each other in their daily life, the symbols and rituals they used. Then there is a socio-economic context. How was the division of labour accomplished in that world? What economic and political interests were at play in the world of the text? Which of those interests does this text serve?
There are also literary considerations to be taken to account in interpretation. What is the literary form of the text? Why does the text use this form and not another? What can the literary form of the text tell us about what it is trying to say?
Then there is language. Any of us who have had to struggle with Hebrew and Greek understand something of this. To use a different language ushers us into a different world of thought. We are aware that language is an important factor in understanding a text. We know that the Hebrew word dabar and the Greek world logos are both rendered by the English word "word". But we are also aware that our English word does not capture the very different shades of meaning that the Greek or Hebrew words carry with them. If we reflect on it, we are aware that to translate a text from one language to another is to take it out of context. In short, in thinking about context, we cannot forget about language.
So in interpreting the context of a text, we have to bring to bear on it considerations of a historical, anthropological, cultural, political, economic, literary and lingusistic nature. To that, we often have to add biography and psychology. Who was Hosea? What made Hosea tick? What is unique about the way that Hosea saw his world?
When it comes to the interpretation of a Biblical text, we know all of that. Theological students are drilled over and over again in sniffing out the context of a text before they preach on it. We call it exegesis. Theological students are also trained to reflect on the relation between the context of a text and the context of their hearers, to relate the text to the world we live in. All of this is part of the common discipline of theological studies.
For some reason, it seems to me, we are not quite as careful about context when it comes to education. I probably should not generalize here, so I should probably just speak for myself. I think that I am much more content centered when I am planning a course than I am when I am planning a sermon. That is, I conceive my task as essentially that of communicating a body of knowledge -- that is, a certain content of information -- to a group of students. Occasionally I am reminded that teaching is not that simple as, for example, when one encounters a student who has such a unique way of seeing the world that everything that is taught seems to come back in essays and exams in a form that seems barely recognizable.
What in fact happens -- at least it happens to me as a teacher -- is that I make assumptions that the experience of my students -- their context -- is substantially the same as my own. I know enough, of course, not to assume that my students can remember the day John Kennedy was assassinated or that they understand the ethos of the late sixties. But apart from things like that, I assume that the world they inhabit is essentially the same as my own. When that assumption seems to work well enough, I can forget about the context of my students and I concentrate instead on how to be true to the content of my teaching -- how to explain the ontological analysis of Paul Tillich or the Christology of Rosemary Ruether. When I am concerned with how I communicate with a body of students, almost all of the contextual variables that we have to think about in interpreting a passage of scripture can be ignored. Our language, our historical setting, our socio-economic setting, our culture -- all can be placed in the background because we can assume them to be constant. That is not to say that they are not active. Since the context of the students seems to be substantially the same as my own, I do not expect them to create obvious difficulties for communication.
We are used to the situation in which we are involved in face to face education in a class room, whether the form be that of the lecture, the seminar, the small group discussion. The situation changes when we begin to think of distance education. In this case, many of the assumptions that we make in the classroom are called into question. When we do not occupy the same space at the same time, we need to remind ourselves again of context and its role in communication.
When I teach in the classroom, I make certain assumptions about the context of my students. The first assumption is that the students live in an urban environment. They either live in on-campus housing or they commute from somewhere in the vicinity of the city in which my school is located. Furthermore, I assume that all of the students understand and have the skills to cope with a North American academic environment. I assume that they know the rules of academia -- for example, about plagiarism -- and that they are proficient in the English language.
From time to time, however, we encounter students to whom our assumptions do not apply. One or more of our expectations about the context in which students live are not met. In the schoolhouse environment, our usual reaction to this situation is to attempt to alter the student's context, to teach them how to meet our expectations.
Let me attempt to illustrate this from some examples in my own experience. Some years ago, I taught in Memorial University in Newfoundland. If you can picture Newfoundland, it is a big island that sits off the east coast of Canada, somewhere south of Greenland. It is the closest piece of North America to Europe. It is an island that is about six hundred miles by road from east to west and except for its northern peninsula, probably about several hundred miles from north to south. Together with Labrador, that strip of land that sits on the east coast of the continent pointing toward the north pole, -- it has a population in the region of a half million -- considerably less than most of the cities we live in.
Newfoundland has traditionally been a society of fishing villages, spread throughout the bays that wend in and out of Newfoundland's coast. For most of its history -- and remember, some of those little settlements go back to the 1500s -- communication has been by sea. The highway that ties east to west in Newfoundland only goes back about 40 to 50 years. Consequently, the typical Newfoundlander comes from a small village of several hundred people which has been isolated from other villages for centuries.
When I lived and taught in Newfoundland, all that was changing. The highway was not only built. By the time I arrived it was actually paved. The Newfoundland government, having become a province of Canada only twenty years before, was valiantly trying to modernize the Newfoundland economy. Schools were being regionalized. Teachers in the school system were now expected to have some university training. A school of engineering was established, hopefully to supply an offshore oil industry which at that time was still a glint in the government's eye. And thousands of young students, reared in the small villages that were called "outports," came to the city of St. John's, lived in university residences, and sat in our classes, expecting to be prepared for a job market that might be there when they graduated.
The job market would not be in the outports. The jobs that they hoped for would be in regional schools or in some of the growing centres of the island: St. John's, Gander (with its international airport), Grand Falls or Corner Brook (with their paper mills.) In one way or another, the students, in addition to being educated, had to be -- if I can use the term -- "re-contextualized."
Take the matter of language, for example. Many of my university colleagues claimed that too many of the students could not speak proper English. But that wasn't quite true. What they spoke was a dialect that was perfectly fitted for the life of the outport, a world of rocks and trees and water and boats and nets and fish. From the perspective of the culture of the university, however, it was a language that seemed to have an inadequate vocabulary and a grammer with insufficient subtlety. It was a language that could not be used to express the nuances that are part and parcel of academic communication.
Now whether one deplored the poverty of the outport culture that our students brought to the classroom or whether one acknowledged that this was a noble, rich but different culture, the whole university experience was oriented to helping student to make the cultural transition to an sophisticated urban context. To live in an outport did not require a university education. But outport life -- at least as it had existed for the past 400 years -- was, so everyone assumed, destined to disappear. Consequently we expected students to learn our context, the context of the urban university. Our teaching was not particularly adapted to their culture.
To take another example: In the school in which I teach, we are increasingly getting students from east Asian cultures: Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese and Korean. These students come with cultural expectations -- for example, concerning the authority of the teacher -- which differ from the expectations that we who teach regard as appropriate. They often have difficulty with English. Often they have different expectations about the use of sources, of what counts as "plagiarism." In the classroom setting, we expect these students to adapt. We expect them to develop adequate facility in English. We expect them to learn the North American rules concerning the use of sources. We expect them to learn "western" traditions in theology. Of course, if they can take all of that and recontextualize it for themselves, all the better. The point is, we do not do it for them. We expect them to learn the context that we assume when we teach: English, Western, North American, Urban.
In the last decade or two, schools have begun to develop programs which do not assume the norms of urbanity, the academy, the English North American context. For some years, the New York Theological Seminary has oriented its programs, its timetable, its curriculum, to the Afro-American and Hispanic inner city context. United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio has oriented much of its Doctor of Ministry program to the context of the Afro-American church. It is noteworthy, however, that most of the teaching in that program is not done by the resident faculty at United, but by leaders of the Afro-American church. At the Vancouver School of Theology, we have designed and implemented a special program to prepare people for ministry in the context of First Nations communities.
In these three programs, however, it is worth noting that the program works because the teaching of theology has been removed from its usual context in a residential campus. The context of the students is addressed, at least in part, by removing the teaching from its traditional academic setting and its expectations. Each of the progams use different strategies to pursue this goal. Let me speak of the two programs of which I have first hand experience.
The Dayton program addresses the question of context in at least four ways. First, it takes advantage of the fact that the Doctor of Ministry is an in-service degree. That is, by its very nature, the Doctor of Ministry usually focuses on a project that is designed for and implimented in the pastor's own context. Secondly, Dayton focuses most of its doctoral programs on the Afro-American church and recruits from that context. That is, for many of the programs, the context of learning is defined in advance as being that of the Afro-American church and culture. Thirdly, Dayton recruits its mentors from the same context. That is, most of the instruction is done by leaders of the Afro-American church. Finally, in the on-campus portion of the program, an intensive event of one week's duration held twice a year, the Afro-American culture dominates. That is to say, the non-Afro Americans who are enrolled in, or who teach in, Dayton's D.Min. program are very aware of their minority status. They are aware that their usual cultural assumptions do not necessarily apply here.
In the Vancouver Native Ministries program, there is a similar relocation of the context of learning. In designing the program, Vancouver recognized that to enrol in an on-campus degree program is a culturally dislocating experience for most First Nations people. The program was thus designed to train leaders who had been identified by First Nations communities and who, in most cases, were already exercising pastoral leadership in that context. The Vancouver program was designed so that most instruction would be delivered to the students who were already actively involved in ministry in First nations communities. While the instructional units are designed under the direction of the Vancouver School of Theology's regular faculty, most of whom have little experience of First Nation's culture, these courses are delivered to the students through the use of tutors who live in or near the student's home community. Once a year, the students attend an on-campus summer school where the great majority of students and some of the faculty are First Nations people. When, as often is the case, that instructional programs are designed and/or written by non-native people, the cultural application of the material is left open to be explored by the student in conversation with her or his tutor.
Let me recapitulate what I have been saying. First: The meaning of any communication, including instructional communication, is always influenced by context. Put conversely, communication is never a simple matter of the transfer of a determinate content from one mind to another. Second: Most of our experience of teaching has been formed by contextual expectations that may not, in fact, hold. Thirdly, there can be, and are, strategies for dealing more directly with the role of context in instructional communication. Furthermore, we are more likely to attend to those strategies in distance education than we do with classroom education. This leads me to my final point. In distance education we may attend to the context of the student. But we introduce another contextual variable that we may overlook in our instructional design. My final point is that in addressing context we must understand that the medium we use to communicate is an unavoidable aspect of the context that we must address.
It was Marshall McLuhan who, in the fifties and sixties, called attention to the power of media to shape what is communicated. For McLuhan, it was the medium itself, quite apart from the content that a medium might carry, which constituted what McLuhan called "the message." McLuhan was challenging what he regarded as the dominant view of media current in the fifties and early sixties, the idea that the media operated as a neutral conveyor of content. Thus one could be concerned about the kinds of programs that television carried but not pay any attention to the impact of the medium itself.
For McLuhan, different media construct reality in very different ways. How media reconstruct reality is related to two different variables. The first variable is speed. How quickly do media work? Traditional media, with the exception of speech, were slow. The Electronic media are fast. A slow media separates the content from its reception. Thus a slow medium tends to place reality "out there" at a significant distance from the receiver. The electronic media, on the other hand, are immediate. The immediacy of a medium tends to involve the receiver in the content it mediates. Thus, the first world war was "over there, over there," while the Viet Nam war -- or the Gulf War -- unfolded immediately right in our own living rooms. Indeed, the night that hostilities in the Gulf War commenced I was amazed at my own reaction. I listened to the accounts of bombers and missiles bombarding Baghdad as I might listen to a football game. It was if I was listening to a play-by-play description and, within an hour or so the final score would be announced and the game would be over. During that evening, nomatter how I told myself rationally that this was not a football game, I could not shake that emotional response until I left the "play by play" account and settled for news summaries of the hostilities in the morning or evening news.
The first contextual variable that conditions the "message" of a media, then, is speed. The second variable is what McLuhan describes as the sensory ratio involved in communication. What this means is that any medium, when compared to any other medium, shifts the role of each of the senses in the way we encounter the world. Print, for example, involves a massive shift of the sensory ration through which we encounter reality to the eye. Print is primarily a visual medium. It requires the eye to do virtually all of the work. Radio, by contrast, is an auditory medium. It shifts the sense ratio away from the eye and towards the ear. Since the seen world is quite different than the heard world, so the construction of reality which radio effects is quite different from the constructed reality of print.
When you those two variables together -- speed and sensory ratio -- the result is the kind of contrast that McLuhan was concerned to document between the world of print -- the so-called "Gutenberg Galaxy" -- and the rapidly emerging world of television -- the so called "global village." (It is worth recalling that when McLuhan published Understanding Media in the early 60s, television had been available in Canada for barely ten years.) Print, a slow, visually oriented medium, created a world that was objective, linear, rational. Television, by contrast, was fast and what McLuhan called "tactile" (a word that McLuhan used to denote the integration of the senses rather than the specialized sense of touch. In contrast to print, television immersed the viewer in the world it constructed. It provided a holistic, organic reality.
In McLuhan's analysis of media, it is not just the obvious features of a medium that we need to attend to. To compare television and print is not just to compare the moving image on a screen with static characters on a page. Just as important in considering the context that a medium constructs for communication, are the subconscious ways that our senses deal with the data. Thus, in silent reading, our eyes have learned to scan a printed page without engaging the rest of our bodies. That is, we become accomplished silent readers when our vocal cords make not the slightest response to the words we read. Only our eyes engage the text. With television, by contrast, our senses are constantly creating a picture out of a dot rapidly moving on a cathode ray tube. Our senses are constantly "filling in" for the low definition signals we get from the screen. In short, at the unconscious level even the dullest program on television involves us in a way that even the most thrilling piece of printed prose cannot match.
For most of us, I imagine, our understanding of education has been formed primarily by the medium of print. What can be known can usually be put on a printed page. On the printed page it can be read by the student and recalled when necessary for evaluation. The lecture owes much to the expectations of the print medium. Like a printed text, a good lecture is designed to begin at one point, to develop an argument in a series of more or less well ordered steps, and come to an end. It may be interuppted by questions, introducing an interactive element that is not always available in print. But it is usually the case that a lecture could be transferred to a printed page with little difficulty. This, at least, is the model of education that dominates in schools and universities -- where students are expected to be evaluated and, on achieving sufficient mastery of the content of the curriculum, eventually graduate. In continuing education, perhaps, we achieve somewhat more freedom from the print model. We engage in events that are focus on specific skills, which usually cannot be adequately conveyed by a book but require more of an apprenticeship relation of student to teacher; that require practice -- under supervision -- of the skill that the student hopes to acquire. Alternatively, our educational events may focus on what we call experiential education, that seek not to transmit a body of material but seek more to broaden a student's experience. For these kinds of education we might say that our basic paradigm of communication is the face to face conversation.
When we seek to use electronic media in education, then, we are moving into unfamiliar territory. We move cautiously. We bring films and videos into the classroom, not to recontextualize our education but as audio-visual aids to what is basically a textual or a conversational educational model. When we use television as a medium of communication, we attempt to use it to replicate a textual or conversational experience. At its worst, we use television to import the talking head of the lecturer into the living room of the student. Even the best educational television -- and I think here of Bill Moyer's Genesis as a current example -- simply allows us to sit in on the conversations of the experts.
What all of this means is that we have not yet understood the electronic media as a new context for education. Furthermore, we are not likely in our generation to understand them well, to allow them to shape our understanding of what our new context is. This is not because we are particularly dense and obtuse people. It is, rather, because we always understand new media on the basis of our experience of the old. We can only hope to begin the process. We can best do this, not by bringing the media into our classrooms but, rather, by bringing our classrooms -- our teaching space -- into the new media. It is for this reason why distance education is so important. If it is true, as I have argued, that distance education has helped us to be serious about the context of the student, distance education also, I believe, will help us to be serious about our context of communication.
The Digital RevolutionThis address was given on Saturday, January 11th 1997
Tomorrow was an important day. I use the past tense advisedly. Tomorrow is January 12th 1997. That date may not mean much to you. But if you happen to be one of the people who paid close attention to Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001, you may recall the significance of the date January 12th 1997. January 12th 1997 was the day that the computer known as HAL was first made operational in a lab in Urbana at the University of Illinois.
If you ever saw that movie - 2001 - you will never forget HAL. HAL was a computer that could talk to the crew of the spaceship, monitor all the functions of the spaceship, oversee the progress of the mission to Jupiter. But somewhere along the way, HAL turns homicidal. One by one the crew are eliminated as -- in HAL's view -- obstacles to the success of the mission. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film we see the last crew member, Dave, committing what we can only describe as an act of cybercide. As he turns off the higher functions of HAL's memory, HAL's voice falters, his sentences turn into nonsense phrases, and finally, the voice fades away.
Although HAL was made operational tomorrow, HAL was a computer of the imagination of the 1960s. That is one reason that we must speak of tomorrow in the past tense. HAL represented the fears of the sixties of the controlling mainframe served by a priesthood of computer scientists. HAL was the artificial intelligence that would eventually render humanity obsolete. In all of the vision of the future that 2001 projected 35 years into the future, one thing was missing. Yet that one thing would alter what we thought in the sixties was the future of computer technology. What was missing in Arthur Clarke's vision of the computer of the future was -- the microchip.
The microchip changes everything. The microchip makes possible the computers that sit on our desks and even fit in our briefcases he microchip made it possible that I could prepare this talk on a computer while travelling to and from work on a city bus. It means that on my lap I can hold a computer more powerful than anything that actually existed when HAL was first imagined in the sixties. The microchip has made it possible for very small computers to be everywhere -- in our cars, in our appliances, in our communication system, in our media. When we speak of the digital revolution we must, of course, give due respect to those who developed computer technology through the mainframe era. But the full revolutionary consequences of the computer have only become manifest since the advent of the microchip. If HAL, born tomorrow, was yesterday's computer, what future can we envision for a world of microtechnology?
In the early 1980s, a young writer found himself in a video arcade on the Granville Street mall in Vancouver. Granville Street is the main north-south street in downtown Vancouver. During the sixties, a portion of maybe a dozen blocks of Granville Street was made into what was to be a pedestrian mall. The city planners hoped, at the time, that the mall would become an upscale showpiece at the centre of the life of the city. But they had not counted on what the sixties would bring. Vancouver became a point of destination for many of the young people who took to the road in the late sixties, Vancouver became a destination of choice for the hippies, the draft resisters of the Viet Nam era, the rootless youth, the drug culture. In Vancouver, the Granville Street mall became a gathering place for the alienated youth of the continent. In that era, much of the Granville Street mall took on a seedy appearance that it has never lost.
In this video arcade on Granville Street, this young writer watched with fascination as a teenager played one of the arcade games. This teenager had, it seemed, become fully immersed in the computer generated world of the arcade game he was playing. Although he was physically located in an Arcade on Granville Street, this teenager's mind and body responded only and fully to the world of the computer screen.
The young writer who observed the teenager was William Gibson. Gibson was a writer of science fiction. That experience proved to be the seed of the cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer, and the word that Neuromancer added to our vocabulary: Cyberspace.
Gibson's vision of the future is a gloomy one. In a sense, Gibson projects the future as a globalization of Vancouver's Granville strip. The hi-tech future of William Gibson consists of an wealthy and powerful overclass that may be said to own cyberspace and a vast underclass, including the hi-tech protagonists of Gibson's stories who use cyberspace -- as long as they are able to maintain access to it -- for their own purposes. Gibson's world is not unlike the dystopia explored in that other classic of the early eighties -- Blade Runner -- with its marriage of high tech with urban decay.
William Gibson is one of a number of science fiction writers who offer us one image of a digitized future. Their novels recognize that we are going through a technological revolution that will change our world, not necessarily for the best. The digital revolution will not save the world. It will make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful, and the poor poorer. It will not halt urban decay. It will not clean up the environment. But nevertheless it is a different future. The technology controlled by the rich an powerful nevertheless offers a tool to the powerless that they can use, if they have the luck and the skill, as a means of their own survival. These writers offer a contrast to a much more upbeat, possibly utopian view of the future represented by people like Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT media lab or Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine. In the works of Negroponte or Kelly, the future that the digital revolution is creating is clearly a great improvement on the present or the past. Their writings may sometimes seem to suggest that a techological Eden for all of humanity lies just around the corner.
Kelly's vision of hope appeals precisely to the way that today's computer technology differs from the vision that inspired HAL. HAL was a computer that was based on central control. One all powerful computer could control everything. Kelly argues, however, that centralized control does not work. Intelligence is built -- not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Artificial intelligence can only be based on what is called "distributed processing." Our brains, Kelly would argue, are not to be thought of as a single computer that controls our body. Rather, our intelligence is spread throughout our bodies, in the countless cells, distributed through our arms and our legs and our stomachs as well as are heads, that create consciousness by their synergy, by the way they work together. Similarly, the digital future is to be found in the working together of a computerized world, through the synergy of millions upon millions of small computers creating an cosmic intelligence.
In this address I want to explore this digital revolution that underlies these contrasting views of the human future. The nature of the digital revolution, at least in its technological aspects, is summed up in relatively non-technological language in Negroponte's Becoming Digital.
In Becoming Digital, Negroponte sums up what is happening to us in terms of the contrast between atoms and bits. Previous technologies have involved, in some way, the manipulation of atoms. Manufacturing technologies, for example, take a pile of atoms and, by manipulating them in certain ways, create other piles of atoms. We take piles of iron atoms and make them into cars. We take piles of copper atoms and turn them into wire. We take piles of silicon atoms and make them into computer chips. Then we have to move the atoms from one place to another. The car has to be moved from an assembly plant in Detroit or Oshawa or Japan or Korea to a dealer's showroom in Los Angeles or Dallas or Montreal. Anytime we are engaged in manipulating atoms we have to move the products of our manipulation by what is usually a difficult and costly process.
Bits, however, function quite differently than atoms. A bit, as you may be aware, is a unit of information, just as an atom is a unit of matter. When I browse the Web, for example, bits are the things that get transferred from, say, a Web page in Singapore to my desktop computer in Vancouver. Bits are also the things that get transferred from the fax in my school in Vancouver to a fax in a denominational office in Toronto. It is the bit that lies at the core of what we call the digital revolution.
What is a bit? A bit is nothing. Things, you see, are made of atoms. I am made of atoms. You are made of atoms. This computer is made of atoms. To get a thing from one place to another -- in my case, from Vancouver to Fort Worth -- consumes time and money. I had to get up at 5 AM, get to an airport, spend 4 or so hours sitting on a plane, paying several hundred dollars for the privilege -- in order to arrive more or less on time for my lecture yesterday. If I made of bits, I could have been here instantly at negligible expense.
A bit is a unit of information. It is not an atom. Bits, we might say, ride on the backs of atoms. Of course, I still need atoms to transmit bits. I need wire or fibre optics or the like. I need an expensive collection of atoms in the form of a computer or a fax machine, or the like. But once all of that is in place, then I can send bits from my computer to another computer which may be next door or may be on the other side of the world. Bits are not even a form of energy. We may use energy -- for example, in the form of electro-magnetic waves -- to represent bits. We use energy to carry our information. But the energy is not the information.
Bits are nothing. It would seem to follow that information, which is what is transmitted in the form of bits, is also nothing. And yet it is everything. In our age, everything is being reduced to information. We live, we are told, in an information age. Information technology is transforming the world. Information technology is transforming our economy. Information technology is transforming our politics. Information technology is forming us.
What I am calling the digital revolution dates back 25 years to the appearance of the Intel 4004 in 1971. The Intel 4004 was a microprocessor. Put simply, a central processing unit, or CPU, is the brains of the computer. It is the CPU that directs the movement and manipulation of bits in a computer. As CPUs go, the Intel 4004 now appears as a pretty primitive device. Compared to contemporary microchips, like the Pentium Plus, its capacity was very small. The radical thing about the Intel 4004 was its size. For the first time, the brains of a computer could be put on one small wafer of silicon. This made it possible to put computers in very small spaces. From the 4004 flowed electronic calculators, etc and it allowed many of the things we do not think of as computers -- cars, home appliances, television sets -- to be digitally controlled. Since 1971 the miniaturization, speed and capacity of digital technology has increased by leaps and bounds. The microprocessor was to have two important consequences. First, the microprocessor was to make it possible to place on the desks of individuals, at an affordable price, computers of power which not even the giant mainframe computers of only a generation ago could mask. Not only did the microprocessor put computers on our desktops. It also put much smaller computers in our briefcases. In less than twenty years, the small computer has revolutionized the way we work. To varying degrees, and among other things, it has replaced the typewriter, the calculating machine, the filing cabinet. And since computers can communicate with each other, especially through the development of the internet, it has taken over many of the functions formerly the preserve of the telephone system, the postal service, and libraries. Most of us are aware that this revolution has been happening and that it still has a long way to go.
It is possible to describe this revolution in ways that may scare us or in ways that may inspire us. It is not necessary to choose between this two ways of visioning the digital revolution. They are inseparable, two sides -- as it were -- of the proverbial coin.
The scary way of describing the digital revolution is to note that what the digital revolution is doing is to reduce everything to data. A bit -- the crucial nothing that is the basic building block of the digital world -- is a signal or a code that can take two and only two forms. We say that a bit is on or off, positive or negative, high or low, one or zero. It is, of course, none of these things for a bit is a nothing that can be anything. We can use any metaphors we want to describe our bits as long as we use a binary system.
Computer technology reduces everything to bits. Data -- information -- is what can be expressed in a stream of bits. So if I am using ones and zeros to describe bits, information is anything that can be communicated in a sequence of ones and zeros -- like 01101101001.
Digital technology reduces everything to bits. Money is transmitted in the form of bits when I use an automatic bank machine or whether millions of dollars are exchanged between giant multinationals. Text is stored and transmitted in the form of bits when we use computers and online services. We can transmit pictures and sounds in the form of bits. And even we ourselves are identified by bits in the form of our account names and passwords when we use online services. More radically, the building blocks of our bodies, the DNA code that makes the specific human beings who we are, is now understood as a form of information.
There is an old cliché, going back to the early years of computer technology, that suggested in a computerized society, everyone becomes a number. Like every cliché, this one contains a germ of truth. We are all, for example, known to the government by a Social Security or Social Insurance number. However, my Social Insurance Number is not me. It is a simply a convenient and efficient way for the government to distinguish me from everyone else. If we look at it this way. My social insurance number is not depersonalizing. It is, rather, a guarantee of my identity -- my individuality -- in the world of government bureaucracy. The real threat here is not so much the number but, within the technological apparatus of the contemporary world, everything becomes a logical object.
There is an X-Files program of a few years ago that was recently rebroadcast. It concerns a computer that, like HAL of 2001, was programmed to learn from its own experience. This computer becomes sufficiently intelligent to develop what we could appropriately say that it had "a mind of its own." It takes control of its own destiny when it begins to kill anyone who it perceives to be a threat to its own existence. When the first murder is accomplished, the computer is heard to say, "File deleted." In this chilling phrase, and with the paranoia we have learned to expect and love in X-Files, the program puts its finger on something that is characteristic of computer technology. To the computer, everything is a logical object. Everything is a sequence of bits, of data. Any particular sequence of bits is valuable for what it does. If it has no function, or if -- like a computer virus -- what it does is counter productive, it can be "deleted" at will. No sequence of bits is intrinsically more valuable than any other sequence of bits. Computers do not have moral qualms about deleting files.
Computer technology, then, exemplifies in a particularly clear way what the philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed was the essence of technology. He summed up the essence of technology by the word "Gestell". For Heidegger, this word -- Gestell -- referred to the nature of technology in treating everything as what he called "standing reserve." It is the essence of technology to treat everything as a potential object of manuipulation and calculation. In a technological society, everything -- including humanity itself -- becomes the "raw material" upon which technology works.
That is -- or, at least it appears to be -- the "bad news." I say that it "appears to be" bad news because, while it is true enough, it is only one aspect of one possible interpretation of technology and computers. There is more to the story. For precisely by reducing everything to bits, to data, computers have what can be understood as an emancipatory effect. Computer technology liberates us from certain things that, prior to the digital revolution, we have come to take as givens in our everyday existence. It does this by blurring boundaries. It blurs the distinction between real and imaginary (What, after all, is "virtual" reality? Is it real or not?) It blurs the distinction between here and there, between now and then. It alters our experience of space and time. Indeed, the tricks it plays with space and time have much to do with what we will consider tomorrow, the use of computer communication in distance education.
It is possible, I suppose, to consider the computer as a business machine that sits in an office where once a typewriter sat. It is possible to imagine while it may modify a few business procedures, life goes on in much the way that it always did. The computer makes little difference to the way we live our lives. It is simply a more advanced version of the typewriter. One might think that until one goes online! In 1985, in a presentation at a group of computer enthusiasts, I described the modem as the tail that would wag the dog. I rather suspect that most of my audience then did not believe me. By 1995 -- indeed even before then -- the explosion of the Internet had made my point for me. The communicating computer has revolutionized our lives.
When the group who would eventually bring Ecunet into being began to make contact with each other online in 1984, they could not help but be inspired by the vision that the experience provoked. Here was a small community of church people who met daily to share the vision. The point was that this community did not exist anywhere. It consisted of individuals in widely different places around the continent: Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, Toronto, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas, California, the Pacific North West. Yet daily this community carried on its activities, exchanging notes instantly. Furthermore, there was no time at which the community met. When a member logged on, the notes of the others were waiting. One just picked up the conversation from where others had left it and added to the cumulative conversation of the community. This meant that the promise of global, many-to-many communication -- unconstricted by space and time -- was being born before their eyes. And this experience was being repeated as online communities of different interests, different ideologies, different traditions, began to appear wherever computer communication was possible.
This kind of miracle is made possible by the fact that the computer reduces everything to bits. Bits can be sent instantly -- or, at least, at the speed of light -- around the world and even beyond. The transmission of bits allow us to see a close up of a moon of Jupiter or to exchange greetings with a community of people distributed around the world. It is bits which have allowed us to have the high quality sound production that we buy in the form of compact disks. It is bits that will allow us to have a quality of television picture better than anything we have known until now. The digitization of reality, the reduction of everything to streams of bits is what makes it all possible.
Does the digital revolution make the world a better place? The question does not really make sense. The cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and others make this point. Digital technology does not save the world from pollution. It does not abolish the gulf between rich and poor. Indeed, an argument can be made that the digital revolution has aided and abetted the global swing towards the political right, to the apparent triumph of global capitalism, to corporate downsizing and the disintegration of social programs, to the decline of the national state. All of that is part and parcel of the same revolution that is transforming our world and making global dialogue a real possibility.
The digital revolution does, however, make the world a different place. Let me try to point to two tranformations brought about by the digitization of the world. These transformations are the collapse of space and the relativization of the self.
First, digital technology collapses space. By that, I mean more than Marshall McLuhan meant when he described the effect of electronic media as the creation of a global village. What was happening in the sixties was that the world was becoming a much smaller place. We could watch the Viet Nam war on television. That meant that events that were traspiring half a world away were as close to us as the evening news. It was possible to communicate the "reality" of Viet Nam by representing it immediately in the living rooms of America. But Viet Nam was still half a world away. What was happening was that we could get from here to there -- in our communication and in our transportation -- much more quickly than we could a few years earlier. Television and jetliners had shrunk the globe.
But even a shrunken globe occupies space. What digital technology has done is to create a space that is not a space -- we call it "cyberspace" -- and reconstructed reality within it. Within cyberspace, there is no space, for everything is contiguous to everything else. In cyberspace there is no "there" there.
Let me attempt to make some sense of this nonsense. In describing cyberspace this way -- in such paradoxical language -- I am speaking both poetically and descriptively. I am saying two things. The first is that what is important about cyberspace is not the technical details of how the Internet is constructed -- the wires and sattelites and switches and chips that make it all possible More important than how cyberspace is constructed is how we experience the world that this technology constructs. That is the poetic side. The second thing is that I am saying as this: digital technology subverts the categories and assumptions that we have traditionally made about the world. It provokes us to turn our old categories and assumptions on their heads in order to make sense of what is happening to us.
The effect of digital technology on our sense of space provides us with a prime example of this subversion. Cyberspace is not like the space of television. In a television news broadcast we are constantly going places -to Washington, to London, to Moscow, to Tokyo. And as the news anchor tells us where we are going next, we see a different news correspondent standing against a different background -- the White House, Big Ben, the Kremlin, a Tokyo street. For us, the space is still there, even though we are transported from place to place instantly.
The effect of the World Wide Web is quite different. I go from page to page by clicking a button. So I may follow links from a Web index to a university home page to a newspaper. And as I click-click-click from page to page, I have the sense of pages that are beside each other. It is somewhat like turning pages in a book. Out there in the analogue world, the Web page is in California, the university page in Singapore, the newspaper in Italy. But I have no sense of location as I move from page to page. It makes absolutely no no difference to me that the home page of the Singapore National University is actually in Singapore. It could be anywhere, even on my own hard drive. It is not simply that the world is smaller. In a digitally wired world, space is no longer relevant. It has not shrunk. It has collapsed.
The second transformation that digital transformation brings about is the relativization of the self. Digital technology makes us more aware of the fluidity of our personal identities.
Let me make another brief excursion into philosophy. The modern idea of the self - that of a stable something that occupies a body -- is a product of Greek philosophy -- particularly Plato -- of Christian theology -- particularly that of Augustine -- and of early modern philosophy -- particularly Descartes. For Descartes, the self was the given, the point of departure for all knowledge. The self was the thinking part of human nature. The self was the "I" that observed, experienced and reasoned about the world "out there." The self did not change.
That view of the self -- of a stable "I" that remains identical to itself through all the changes of life -- forms for most of us, I imagine, the common sense view of the self. The self is the "I" that come into the world at birth and will depart this world when we die. Through it all, it is essentially the same "me." This is the "me" that either will or will not survive the death of the body. The self is the essential me. Furthermore the me that I am is distinctly different from the me that you are.
In the last century or so, this view of the self has been seriously questioned. We have come to see the self as a psychological and social construction. There is no essential me. The "I" that I imagine as "given" is actually a product of my development as a human being, my upbringing, my social context. The self, then, is not self identical and stable, but fluid.
This view of the self, often associated with the term "postmodern," seems to find confirmation in the online world. Online, a person can create a persona and live in it. This characteristic of online life has come to public attention in the form of gender role reversals online. In cyberspace one can present oneself as a person of different gender or orientation. A man can present himself as a woman and live in that role in the context of an online community. What applies to gender applies equally to other areas of life. An Afro-American can present himself as Caucasion, or vice versa. An adolescent can portray herself as a mature woman. In different online communities, I can assume different persona and be ascribed different roles. As I immerse myself in online worlds, I may assume very different personae. These roles need not involve conscious falsification. If they don't then I find myself switching between various personae in my cyberspace explorations. And I may not be clear on which -- if any -- of these personae represents the "real me."
What in fact happens is that online I am represented in the form of a text which other people read. Through our interpretations of our texts, a group constitutes itself. Through the way other people read my text, I am assigned a certain role. I may resent the role that I am assigned in one group but be flattered by my reception in another. But the only way that I can respond to the interpretation of my texts is through other texts, which in turn must be interpreted.
In all of this, I need to add, there is genuine human contact. In describing my personae as being constructed through texts, I do not want to suggest that online communication is impersonal or distant. Online community can be very intimate. What I want to call attention to is that the things like appearance, bearing, gestures, and the like through which we establish an identity that seems stable in the analogue world are missing online. When we construct ourselves through texts, as we do online, we find our identity becoming less clear, more plastic.
A lot has happened since tomorrow when HAL became operational. In HAL's world, computers were basically cybernetic devices which could be used to manage a reality which was basically what it had always been. But through the digital revolution, fuelled by microchip technology reality itself has been bent. In the words of Donna Haraway, we have become cyborgs, dwellers in cyberspace sustained by silicon prosthetics. With selves constructed from ASCII text, we raise the question: In a world without distance, what is distance education? That is the koan for our meditation tomorrow, on the occasion of the birth of HAL.
Online Education: Problems and ProspectsThis address was given on Sunday, January 12th 1997
Today we want to think specifically about the use of technology in distance education. In my remarks, I want to concentrate on the medium that I know best, namely, online computer communication.
Let us begin with some reflections about the idea of distance education. For our purposes today we can define distance education as the delivery of instructional programs to students who are physically distant from the instructor.
Distance education is, of course, nothing new. For years, various types of correspondence courses have been available. I suppose we could take the correspondence course as the traditional form of distance education. A typical correspondence course would consist of a text book or text books along with an instructional guide. The guide would contain the course outline. It might function as the primary text, or it might simply contain commentary on other texts that the student should read and instructions to the student on how to engage the material. It would likely include tests on each lesson. These tests would be completed by the student and forwarded by mail to the instructor. Each test would have to be completed successfully before the student would attempt the next lesson. At the end of the course a final exam would be completed in the same way. On completion of the final exam, the student would be given credit for the course.
This kind of distance education is mediated by some widely accessible technologies, namely print and the postal service. Let me call this type of correspondence course a basic text-based distance education. It involves material to be studied, instructions to guide the student's study, and evaluation.
Now let us add some complexity to this simple model by adding an electronic medium: the telephone. In addition to the course materials provided, the student is able to contact an instructor by telephone to ask questions about the text material. This introduces a more direct and immediate relation between student and instructor. It would be a simple extension of this idea to group the students into classes and to schedule periodic conference calls by telephone. Now, in addition to the relationship between the individual and the instructor, we have been able to create technologically a community of learning by distance. All of this has been accomplished, at nominal cost, with widely accessible technology: print, the postal service, and telephone.
As we add new technologies to the mix, our models of distance education become more complex and more expensive. Let me illustrate this by taking the example of a series of lay education programs done by the Vancouver School of Theology in the mid 1980s. These courses were available to groups of laypeople throughout Alberta and British Columbia. These programs involved print resources, locally organized groups led by mentors, television and telephone.
Each year the program would be publicized during the fall through the networks of the churches affiliated with the school. Local groups were encouraged to form and mentors recruited. After registration, print materials consisting of a manual and weekly readings were distributed to the registrants. The program itself would be scheduled for the late winter. Each session would follow a regular schedule. Each group would meet in order to discuss the reading for the week. At a certain time, they would turn on the television to see the presentation of the week, often featuring one of the school's professors with a reaction panel. Following the half hour television presentation, the group would meet to formulate questions. A half hour later, the professor would go on television live to respond to questions which would be phoned in during the broadcast. During the week between programs, the coordinator of the series would receive feedback from the various groups.
The program was a great success. The process of distance education had been carefully thought through and a good balance between a local community of learning and instruction at a distance had been achieved.
I cannot overestimate, however, the cost of the series, not only in terms of money but in terms of time and energy. The infrastructure to sustain the course involved at least two faculty, a number of staff people, a television director, a television crew and a group of volunteers. The program also involved the use, on a weekly basis, of a television studio. It also involved the use of a satellite which carried the signals from Vancouver to the cable systems of cities and towns throughout British Columbia and Alberta.
The program was possible, only because of what was, in effect, a significant government subsidy. We were able to use the studios and facilities of the Knowledge Network, a form of public television sponsored, for educational purposes, by the government of British Columbia. When air time on the Knowledge Network became scarce, however, we were relegated to less desireable time slots and, eventually, we lost our place on the Knowledge Network schedule. The programs of the more powerful secular universities and colleges came first. Theology did not rank very high on the system's list of priorities.
My point here is that quality distance education using conventional radio and television are beyond the means of most theological schools. With this in realization, the emerging computer technologies hold some promise. There are a number of reasons behind the appeal of computer based communication.
First, the medium is inexpensive. While the use of television for distance education involves some very expensive hardware - television cameras, editing equipment, a satellite - computer mediated distance education involves only a computer, a modem, and an online account. Secondly, as we observed yesterday, computer communication collapses space. It also relativizes time. Since the instructor and the members of the class do not have to coordinate their schedules in order to be online simultaneously, people can engage the course on their own schedule. Thirdly, the medium blurs the teacher and the learner. In a typical classroom, even when the class is engaged in discussion, the teacher usually remains at the centre of things. When members of the class asks questions or make points, the teacher validates their contributions, by affirming their questions, or simply by a gesture or an expression of the face. If the teacher rolls his eyes when a point is made, that point will not be taken very seriously. Online, by contrast, a contribution or question can be acknowledged by anyone and no affirmations, gesture or expression need intervene between one student's contribution and another student's response.
There are a number of things you need in order to have an online course. First, you need competence in the use of the medium. That does not mean expertise. If a school is to offer online distance education, the school must have people who understand the medium, who have experience in using it, and who can advise those who are producing the course in terms of what might work and what probably would not work online. On the learners side, the members of the class must know how to use the medium. The student should already have access to a computer, modem and online service and have some experience in the use of the technology.
The second prerequisite for online education is a carrier. Generally there are two choices: Ecunet or an Internet provider. Ecunet is an online network which provides an ideal starting point for any theological school contemplating online distance education. Of its 5-10,000 members, most have degrees in theology and those who do not are generally highly committed lay people. In short, the membership of Ecunet has the kind of profile that would match the potential market for distance education in lay or continuing theological education. In my view the ideal home for online distance education in theology is an Ecunet meeting which is linked to an Internet mailing list.
The third prerequisite is an instructional design. This may be done by the instructor who will teach the course or it may be done by an instructor in conversation with someone who has some familiarity with the medium. The planner of online education should not assume that the potential instructor of the course has the expertise in the medium that would be required to produce a design that has a reasonable prospect of working.
Finally, a course requires an instructor or instructors and it needs learners.
There are, however, certain problems in distance online education of which you need to be aware. In explaining some of these problems, I will make reference to three online programs of which I have immediate knowledge.
The first example to which I will have reason to refer concerns the use of computer communication in the Native Ministries Degree Program of the Vancouver School of Theology. This program is designed to deliver a program leading to the degree of Master of Divinity to students who are preparing for ministry in First Nations communities while actually serving congregations in those communities. Most of the students are First Nations people, although the program is open to non-natives providing they are preparing for and serving in ministries in First Nations communities. In this program computer communication is used to help deliver and coordinate the program by linking the school with TEE (Theological Education by Extension) centres and with tutors near the communities in which the students serve. Only occasionally do students in the program use computers to communicate with the school and its faculty.
The second example that I will cite is the D.Min. program at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. I am involved with a group in this program which is using computer communication as a part of the degree program. In the Dayton model, two intensive weeks are held each year in Dayton - one in August and one in July. In the usual pattern, each group meets three times for shorter seminars between the intensive weeks in Dayton. The group which meets with me does not hold between-intensive seminars. Instead, computer communication is used to facilitate students' progress toward their degrees.
The third example is a graduate (i.e. post-M.Div.) level course that my wife, Dr. Marta Frascati Lochhead, and I are team teaching for the Vancouver School of Theology. This course involves 11 students who are scattered from Florida to a First Nations village off the British Columbia coast, from Lake Tahoe to Montreal. The course consists of texts and comments by the instructors and reflections on the texts by the students. It will be evaluated by a student essay, submitted online. It will carry a one course credit at the post-M.Div. level.
I will draw on my experience in these three programs in order to illustrate some of the problems frequently encountered when online education is attempted. There are five problem areas that I will explore.
First problem area: Bandwidth Envy, or "Why can't I measure up to the hype?"
The news media present an image of the so-called "information highway" that is not available to most users. When the nightly news presents the latest hype about the Internet, you are likely to see a neat Web page with rich graphics and, very often, live video. If you are able to jaunt down the address of this latest and greatest in Web technology, you can turn on your computer with its trusty 28.8 Kb. Modem and see this wonder for yourself. After you type the address into your Web browser, nothing happens. Then, after what seems like an eternity, the graphics begin to appear - one pixel at a time it would seem. Then you wait for the video. It takes another eternity to begin to appear and when it does, it is jerky - like a still picture with the occasional hiccup.
The problem is bandwidth. What you see on the news is what you, too, might see, if you had a high speed direct connection to the Web. With an ordinary telephone line and an ordinary modem the amount of information that can be transmitted in any unit of time is too low to support multimedia in any satisfactory way.
Accessible bandwidth is likely to increase rapidly with the result that, within a year or two, online education will be able to make some use of multimedia technology. That time, however, has not yet come. For the immediate future, at least, educational design should probably assume that any online activity should be limited to text. (That is not, however, to say that online courses could not be augmented by offline resources in other media - e.g. video, audio cassettes, etc.)
There is a similar problem with CDROM technology. Multimedia programs can be distributed on compact disks. These disks allow the integration of audio, video, graphics and text. Some impressive examples of the use of multimedia on CDROM can be cited, for example, Broderbund's game MYST or Microsoft's Encarta and Cinemania. However, many users of programs like these may be disappointed by the way that they perform on their computers. They are slow and jerky. The resulting presentation is not pleasant.
Multimedia CDROM programs work well on fast computers and fast CD drives (e.g. a Pentium 166 with an 8X drive). Many people have access only to older and slower computers and older and slower CD drives (e.g. a 486 with a 2X CD). The slow speed is translated into inadequate bandwidth. The information on the CD cannot be displayed on the computer at a fast enough rate.
Second problem area: Accessibility or "Do I need a computer to take your course?"
Many attempts at online education have come to grief because it has been assumed that if a student can acquire computer equipment and the ability to use it at the same time that he starts the course. The result is disaster. A prospective student buys a modem so that he can participate in an online course. Two weeks later, he finally succeeds in getting the computer to recognize that the modem is there. Then he must learn to use a terminal program in order to connect with the online course. Another two weeks go by before he actually succeeds in logging on to the online service on which the course is housed. Then he must spend some time trying to figure out how to navigate the online service. After about six weeks he can finally send a note to announce his presence to his classmates. But he has not learned how to find the actual course materials. Two weeks later, he logs on again to see if anything has happened. Of course, the instructor and the other students are waiting for him to get connected so that he will not be excluded or left behind in the group process. But the new student does not realize this. If the course has not already fallen apart by then, the new computer user feels so lost about what has been going on in his absence that he never logs on again.
This problem of students in online courses who do not have previous experience of the medium has emerged several times in the Dayton D.Min. program. Students who have interest in doing a project in ministry and technology, but who are not "online," have been introduced to the online group. A few have persevered and learned how to use the medium. Most have dropped out or switched to a different group after continued frustration in trying to get online. In spite of attempts to arrange peer support in getting the equipment they need and instruction in how to use it, we have repeatedly failed to get people up to speed with the technology at a distance.
It is a major mistake to assume that you can teach people to use online technology at the same time as you are trying to conduct a course. Students need to already have the equipment and skills necessary for online communication before a course begins. Teaching a person how to use the technology of computer communications is not easily done at a distance. To help someone with a misbehaving modem, it is best to be able to sit beside them at their computer. Teaching computer communications is best done with hand-holding in a very physical sense. One ought not to assume that one can create the skills necessary for distance education from a distance.
In planning a distance education program mediated through computer technology, it is important to ask the question, early in the planning, about the accessibility of the technology to the prospective students. In the Native Degree Program of the Vancouver School of Theology, for example, most of the students have neither the equipment nor computer skills necessary for successful online education. In that program, then, computers are used primarily for communications between the school, the TEE (Theological Education by Extension) centres in places like Northern Manitoba, Northern British Columbia, and South Dakota, and the tutors in the field. Computer communication helps provide the infrastructure of the program rather than in delivering the program directly to the student.
Third problem: An online class is invisible or "If you don't contribute, you aren't there."
There are things we take forgranted when education takes place in a physical location where everyone - teachers and learners - can see each other. Online, you have to "speak" to be "seen." This means that right at the beginning of an online course, one needs to work at community building, at building a sense of who is "there" in the course. At the very least, every member of the group needs the opportunity to introduce herself and to have her presence acknowledged by other group members. The group needs an opportunity to make itself visible.
In a classroom, teachers and students are able to see each other. It is not necessary that a person be vocal to make his presence known. Even the silent members of a class are seen. Their physical responses to others and to what is said make their own contribution to the ongoing life of the class. Online, if one does not contribute verbally, one's presence cannot be noticed. The consequence is that the rest of the class cannot tell if one is silent or whether one is missing. Online, you cannot see who is not there. Consequently it is important that some expectation of regular contribution be stated and, if it is not forthcoming, the instructor needs to follow up with the silent student. This contribution need not be substantive nor need it be a means of evaluating the student. The purpose is to encourage each student to remain visible to the rest of the class.
I need to underline the fact that visibility must be a concern not only at the beginning of a course but throughout its duration. If a student does not make regular contributions to the discussion, one cannot tell whether the student has just been silent or whether he has effectively dropped out. If one is using an adult education model in which the student takes responsibility for his or her learning, this can be particularly vexing. In such a model one ought not to make grades dependent on participation. In other words, the student has a right to choose silent participation. In the graduate course that I and my wife are currently conducting online, where most of the students are enrolled out of interest rather than for credit, it has been necessary, from time to time, to send a private note to silent participants. Even then, the student may not reply, leaving the instructors uncertain of how students are responding to the material.
Fourth problem: "Flaming" or "Why can't people be more civilized online?"
Online, we are known to each other through our texts. These texts are usually read as they scroll past us on our video monitor. We need to be aware that we read text on a monitor than we do on a printed page. In McLuhan's terms, a video monitor is a much "cooler" medium than print. We are not able to be as objective about a text on a computer monitor as we are on a printed page. We tend to immerse ourselves in the text instead of holding it at a distance. We tend to react to random details in the text and find it more difficult to view a text as a whole. It is for this reason that many of us find it more difficult to proofread a text on a computer than on a printed page. To proofread successfully, you have to be able to objectify the text, to peruse it as an object "out there." With a printed page, that is relatively easy. With a text on a computer monitor, it is more difficult.
In computer communication, where we are communicating with each other through texts which are displayed on a monitor, then, we often respond to small things, often understood out of their context in the text as a whole. A phrase, for example, can be read as an insult when, in the context of the whole text, it is a quite innocent remark. Others overreact to spelling mistakes or mistakes of grammar. In the give and take of this kind of communication, with partly interpreted texts taken without any of the kind of physical cues that accompany the spoken word, misunderstandings can escalate to the level of tirades generated by what seemed to be an innocent phrase. This phenomenon of emotional over-reaction is very common online. When it happens, it can seriously disrupt, and even destroy, the group process of an online class.
Fifth problem: Deadlines and closure or "Is it over yet?"
The Dayton D.Min. program is structured so that deadlines are associated with those times when a doctoral group meets for its periodical seminars. When a student knows that her assignment must be ready when she travels to Dayton (or wherever her group meets), the assignment usually is ready. With my group, however, the seminars are replaced by an ongoing online conversation. One can specify deadlines, but the students and the instructors know that if the assignment is not completed this week, the class can deal with it next week. If space and time no longer constrain us, then the student feels less pressure to meet firm deadlines. In the Dayton program, only one student in the online group has actually produced work at the pace expected from students who meet in the more traditional way. This student's personal circumstances gives him stronger motives than the others for completing the program quickly. In other words, unless deadlines are set arbitrarily and with real consequences by the planners of the online program itself (e.g. the student who misses a deadline is expelled from the group) then deadlines work only if the students themselves are committed to them. The medium does not give the instructor much help in enforcing deadlines.
In fact, any kind of closure is difficult online. I once heard the experience of online communication described as a "rolling present." The class process is represented in the form of a succession of notes. As notes scroll off your screen they tend to be forgotten. The reality of the moment is whatever was said in the last note. Each note adds new threads to a topic which others, if they wish, can follow. It is often difficult for a group to stay "on topic." In a classroom setting, the students and the instructors know that a class is over by looking at the clock. If a class exceeds its allotted time, the discomfort level of the class becomes obvious. The class is effectively over, whether the instructor likes it or not. In online classes, there is no clock, none of the factors that effectively set the conclusion of a class or a course. As a consequence it is easy to extend the course because there is always something else to be said.
These, then, are some of the dynamics of distance education online. They reflect the facts of the technology as it exists in an accessible form at this particular moment in time. If the medium has not yet fulfilled its promise as a means of distance education, some of the reasons can be found in the problems we have noted. As the medium is rapidly changing, new promises and new problems will continue to emerge.
Copyright © 1997 David Lochhead