ALISTAIR B. FRASER
A few months ago, I was in a meeting with a man who was both a director of his university's distance-education program and an adviser to a teaching institute on the campus. We were discussing the future of on-line learning. I discovered, to my fascination, that we had very different visions.
He stated categorically that all of the pedagogical material necessary to deliver resources through a computer was already in hand; our task was merely to translate the material already assembled for various courses into the appropriate format for electronic delivery -- say, over the World-Wide Web. To him, the only issue raised by the Web was that it changed the way a student gained access to material; use of the Web had virtually no pedagogical implications for the nature of the material.
I was horrified.
Is that all that the new medium of the Web has to offer us as teachers: translation and redistribution; new access to fundamentally old stuff? Surely there is something more to this revolution. Alas, the typical response of the majority of faculty members and university administrators I have encountered in my wanderings is the same as that of the director of distance education: The Web merely changes access, not pedagogy.
Curiously, that is just a fresh face on an old issue: How do people react to the opportunities presented by each new medium of communication? Indeed, the behavior we are seeing now was described back in the 1960s by Marshall McLuhan, who noted that new technologies are always used to do old tasks at first, until some driving force causes those technologies to be used in new ways.
When the motion picture was invented around 1890, early filmmakers saw it primarily as a means of distributing existing material, such as stage performances. It took some time -- about 20 years -- before movies were recognized as a new medium with expressive possibilities that, while they overlapped with those of existing media, went far beyond anything previously attainable.
As a measure of the distance we have traveled with motion pictures, try moving backward. Consider any one of the last 10 movies you watched, and imagine transforming it into a play for presentation on a live stage: What aspects of effective communication would have to be sacrificed?
When the CD-ROM was developed for computers, publishers demonstrated a similar lack of vision as they pressed it into service as a distribution medium for existing books and encyclopedias. Indeed, that behavior prompted reviewers of CD-ROMs to coin a derisive term to describe the products of such tunnel vision: shovelware. Now used more broadly, shovelware can refer to any content shoveled from one communication medium to another with little regard for the appearance, ease of use, or capabilities of the second medium.
Often, when a new medium is introduced, its value is judged primarily by the way it alters access to and distribution of existing material. It is only later that people realize that the horizons of effective communication have been pushed back, and that they can now present ideas in ways that were not previously possible.
Today's new medium is the World-Wide Web. Quickly grasping its distribution possibilities, colleges and universities everywhere have rushed to move resources for courses on line. Material previously handled on paper or with slides and transparencies -- syllabi, assignments, notes, data, diagrams, references, exams -- are now presented through the computer.
(As an aside, let me note that one face of that headlong rush is the amazingly large number of community colleges, research universities, and corporations that have grand plans to be purveyors of distance education to the world. I have every confidence that Darwinism will rescue us from such silliness.)
But virtually all of the instructional efforts on the Web are simply the delivery of shovelware. Certainly, there is value in the broad distribution of information; and certainly, there is value in the on-line administrative structures for courses that have been set up, which ease the exchange of everything from assignments to conversation. But what pedagogical value is added if we merely distribute virtually the same course resources through a computer rather than, say, on paper? That sort of unimaginative computerization is, as the French would say, réchauffé; it is warmed over, insipid, pedagogically pointless.
The Web is a powerful new means of communication; its potential is vastly greater than that of merely distributing the réchauffé. Rather, it can offer students superb pedagogical resources that go far beyond anything possible with paper, a blackboard, or the overhead projector: It can deliver the recherché.
A good teacher operates on many levels, but certainly one of them is that of communicating the mental models of one's discipline. Those models usually involve insights into how some aspect of the world works. The models might show the processes by which the human immune system is believed to respond to invaders, how natural forces operate on air to build a cloud, or how the brain can extract the aesthetic from the aesthesia. Whether we teach the sciences or the humanities, we are constantly presenting our students with mental models of the behavior of the world around us. Indeed, those models include metamodels: models of how we think about models.
In the past, we relied on words, diagrams, equations, and gesticulations to build those models piece by piece in the minds of the students. We now have a new tool -- not one that replaces the older ones, but one that greatly extends them: interactive computer visualization. Today, a teacher can build a pedagogical model, and both student and teacher can interact with it to explore the behavior of the system in a way inconceivable in earlier times.
The amazing thing is that such interactive models can be readily delivered through the Web not only into the classroom, where the teacher can use them to help communicate concepts, but also into the computer laboratory, the dormitory room, and the home, where the student can interact with them to explore ideas.
That leads us to my rule for distinguishing the réchauffé from the recherché when someone moves to a new medium: The extent to which one has taken advantage of the expanded horizons for communicating ideas with a new medium is the extent to which the material cannot then be reproduced in the older medium.
Applying the idea to the teachers who move pedagogical resources to the Web, I offer a corollary: The extent to which a student gains the same pedagogical benefit from a printout of your Web resources as from the resources themselves is the extent to which you have done nothing of pedagogical value by using the Web.
You may have shifted the nature of student access by moving to the Web, but access is not insight. A printout of your Web resources should be as incapable of communicating the insights those resources offer as, say, a printout of the words of "Ode to Joy" is incapable of capturing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
The test, then, is to imagine moving back to a more constrained medium. If you are successful in moving backward, you have been unsuccessful in moving forward.
It is here that the director of distance education and I part company. His narrow vision of the Web is that all it offers academe is teaching at a distance. Unfortunately, most universities share that limited vision and are devoting their efforts to the delivery of shovelware. It is ironic that our premier centers of learning are largely confining powerful new technologies to matters of access and administration rather than pedagogy.
So, what is the future of on-line learning? The near-term future is, alas, the continued delivery of shovelware. The Web will undoubtedly continue to be used to present material conceived under the implicit constraints of the blackboard or the overhead projector. One might refer to that as the PowerPoint stage of the transition -- in which the presentation with the most bullets is deemed best.
How long will it take our pedagogical vision to move beyond the triviality of academic shovelware?
Alistair B. Fraser is a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University.
The above article appeared first in the
Chronicle of Higher Education ,
Section: Opinion & Arts
Vol. 48, Page: B8, Aug. 8, 1999
© 1999 Alistair B. Fraser