Technology for Higher Education: THE Way to Go

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Johannes Cronje
University of Pretoria

Despite the promise of educational technology it would seem that institutions of higher education have been using technology as little more than an electronic scheduling tool, and a way to regulate electronically that which they have always been doing conventionally. Traditional campus-based universitites have “digital campuses” that mirror the activities of the actual campus, while distance universities have turned to the Internet to replace the post office and the printing press.

Nevertheless a few pioneering academics, and even a few pioneering universities are beginning to explore the use of technology because of what it can do differently.

This chapter will begin with a survey of the literature on adult learning needs, needs associated with distance education, and the solutions promised by the Internet.

Then it will describe how the Internet is used to mime conventional universities, and finally consider some innovative approaches to teaching and learning with technology in higher education.


What we know about adult learners, distance learning and the Internet

This literature review explores the needs of adult learners and needs associated with distance learning. It also considers some of the problems and solutions the Internet has to offer.


Adult learning needs in a changing world

International trends

The international move from an industrial society to an information society has given rise to a shift of emphasis in various fields.

Table 1. A shift to an information age

Industrial Age

Information Age

Standardisation

Customisation

Centralised control

Autonomy with accountability

Adversarial relationships

Co-operative relationships

Autocratic decision making

Shared decision making

Compliance

Initiative

Conformity

Diversity

One-way communications

Networking

Compartmentalism

Holism

Parts-oriented

Process-oriented

Teacher as “king”

Learner (customer) as “king”



There is a clear shift from a provider-centered model to a user-centered model. In discussing these users, Ference and Vockell indicate that adult learners are active learners who bring a wide variety of prior learning and life experience. They are already experts in various fields and rely on existing experience to solve problems. They prefer hands-on experience and are task-centered, focusing on dealing with real-life problems and actively seeking out solutions. They are value driven and need to know why they should learn something before embarking on a learning task. They learn to seek out new skills and have a need to be directly involved in planning and directing their learning activities. They are often externally motivated by factors such as better salaries and increased positions internally motivated by factors as self-esteem, career satisfaction, and the overall quality of life.

Institutional Needs

Nobody wants to work through the night. Specifically not lecturers. Romizowski relates a study by Doughty, Spector, & Yonai (2003) who found that “while students spent similar or only slightly longer time when studying online versions of courses, faculty and other support staff typically spent about twice as many hours teaching online versions of courses as they did when teaching the regular campus based versions of the same courses...” (Doughty et. al, 2003, paraphrased by Romizowski, 2004). Furthermore, fewer students were enrolled in the online version, thus making the efficiencies even worse. A further complication lies in strong competition world wide for “easy options”. In 1998 there were two places where one could do an MBA in Pretoria – the University of Pretoria, and the University of South Africa. Thanks to the burgeoning of virtual universities in the following year, in 1999 there were 40 institutions offering an MBA in Pretoria. Of course it would be an MBA that is on offer. MBAs are notorious for being cash cows. You take a large group of bright, highly motivated students, you expose them to “big names” in the business world, who teach at greatly reduced fees because of the “honour” involved in teaching at your university, you get them to write term papers that are graded by graduate students, and you charge their employers vast amounts of class fees. If they complain, you argue that you are nurturing their entrepreneurial spirit, and encouraging them to become independent learners. The money you raise by the MBA is used to cross subsidise more labour intensive courses such as music and medicine. Of course those are the courses that will be attacked first by online competitors, and such “cherry picking” means that “the death of open education is here. It does not matter whether you are close by or on the other side of the world. Your competitors are cherry-picking easy-to-deliver, high-demand and lower-cost courses” (Zastrocky, 2000).

The South African Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation aims to bring higher education in line with world trends by calling for the following.

  • Open and flexible programmes, concentrating on resource-based learning, that are modular and credit-based with multiple entry and exit points, are advocated within a range of delivery methods.
  • Horizontal and vertical mobility will be facilitated by incorporating adequate routes of articulation, including flexible entry and exit points in the higher education system.
  • Intermediate qualifications within multi-year qualifications are envisaged leading to a laddered set of certificates, diplomas and degrees.
  • Integration of academic development approaches in mainstream programmes will be encouraged.
  • The focus in the curriculum should be on South Africa as a developing and modernising African country in a period of transition.
  • Increased access should lead to improvement of throughput and completion rates.

A synthesis of adult learning needs and the direction of post-secondary education as spelt out in the South African Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation shows how closely the two are related.3 Although it could be argued that the South African example is limited to one country only, these needs correspond well with needs expressed by other countries also.

Table 2. Correlation between adult learning needs and national needs

 

Active Learner

Experience Based

Expert

Hands On

Task Centred

Problem Centred

Solution Driven

Value Driven

Skill Seeking

Self Directing

Motivation External

Motivation Internal

Open access

 

X

X

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

Flexible content

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

X

Resource-based

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

X

Modular and credit-based

 

X

 

 

X

 

 

X

X

X

X

X

Multiple entry and exit points

 

X

X

 

 

 

 

X

X

X

X

X

Horizontal and vertical mobility

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

X

X

X

X

 

Range of delivery methods

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

Integration of academic development

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X


It is clear that traditional contact education cannot address all these issues. Universities are therefore turning to ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) to explore the possibilities offered by such technology in overcoming some of the barriers traditionally associated with distance education.

Needs associated with distance learning

Galusha categorises the following “Barriers to learning in distance education”. The most important needs associated with distance learning is the need to overcome the barriers involved. Any digital university would do well to design around eliminating as many as possible of the barriers listed below.

Greenagel, (2002) who asks “Why we are missing out on the promise of technology?” He puts it down to a technocratic approach with too much emphasis on “Presentation models” where lecture materials are made available in the form of Adobe .pdf files, or PowerPoint slideshows. Generally he claims that there is too much text, and much of the interactive multimedia is both granular and “puerile”.

Further to this he argues that flawed models of return of investment mean that development costs are kept low – thus leading to poor programmes and low retention rates. According to Greenagel. Keeping costs low leads to poor programmes and low retention rate. He claims that the drop-out rate of e-learning courses is around 70%, compared to a 15% rate at regular colleges.

Moreover, “standards” of e-learning development refer not to quality, but to cross-platform compatibility. The well-known SCORM system simply ensures that various systems talk to one another, thus allowing re-usability of learning objects – that is to say if the objects were used in the first place. Finally Greenagel fingers lack of individualisation. The problem is that for learning objects to be re-usable, they need to be generic – and the more generic they become, the less useful they are to any individual user.

Once again, a cursory glance of my private library of articles on e-learning considers aspects such as virtual learning communities, participation rates in online discussions, and other socio-pedagogical aspects that may lead to learner retention. Thus, although Greenagel argues for an increased focus on learning, the focus again lies on the technologies associate with learning, rather than with the pedagogy of facilitating learning while concentrating on supporting and retaining learners.


Student barriers

These include financial, family and work-related barriers, as well as lack of support both from family and friends, employers and colleagues and teachers.

Faculty barriers

The most important of these is the lack of staff training. A further barrier is the attitude of the institution to distance lecturers who are sometimes seen as less prominent as their contact-teaching peers.

Organizational barriers

The first organizational barrier is lack of funds. There are three important cost factors: initial costs, maintenance costs and upgrade costs. The second problem lies in the technology itself. Platforms could be unstable or incompatible.

Course barriers

Distance courses are often regarded as inferior. What often makes them inferior is poor design. Often the materials used for contact teaching are simply converted into electronic form. This way no value is added.


The Internet: problems and solutions

This section considers the problems and possibilities of the Internet. Aspects include recruiting of new students, administration, production, storage and presentation of coursework, interaction with students and other services. The success of using the Internet in this role, however, depends not so much on the technology as on the design. The designer, in turn, needs to consider the possibilities and constraints of the medium in order to exploit its possibilities and work around its restraints.

Attraction

In order to attract users to a new medium an air of familiarity needs to be established. This is best done through the use of visual metaphors. Metaphors draw on models to interpret the world and make related connections that may not be obvious. For this reason many digital campuses mimic their physical counterparts in various ways. Metaphors based on familiar concepts, e.g. books and desktops and even classrooms help bring familiarity to new and potentially confusing systems.

Administration

In a digital classroom the presenter often cannot “see” the learners and does not know if they are still on the course, or if they are experiencing problems. The flexibility of asynchronicity results in procrastination when students are too busy to log on regularly, which can result in falling behind with respect to deadlines. If WWW courses replace or reduce contact time, they should provide for the handling of course and learning management issues like clarification of objectives and available resources. These are usually clarified by questions or discussions in more traditional, face-to-face learning situations.

Materials

Course materials

There is a temptation for course designers simply to convert their existing notes into HTML format and to post them onto the Web. This ignores the principles of instructional design as set out by Merrill:

  • Learning is constructed from the experience of the learner. Hannafin and Peck also stress the importance of the existing knowledge of learners and believe that “learning may be more efficient when the instruction is adapted to the needs and profiles of individual learners”.
  • Interpretation is personal. There is no shared reality. Individual learners make different interpretations of the same material, based on their own previous knowledge, experience etc.
  • Learning is an active process whereby experience is converted into knowledge and skills. Learners should therefore not be “taught” but given learning tasks which they can only complete by acquiring certain knowledge and skills.
  • Learning is collaborative, which means that it is enhanced by multiple perspective.
  • Knowledge is situated in real life and that is where learning should take place.
  • Testing should be integrated with the task.

Other providers of on-line education experiment with solutions such as Java and Shockwave that allow interaction, but remains contrived and slow.

Library materials

As an information repository the Web has too much, rather than too little information. Laurillard concurs with Merrill12 that learning is more than aimless exploration or simple retrieval of information. Construction of learning is more than recombining associations between bits of information and mere quantity of references may not necessarily correlate with quality of analysis. To counteract information and sensory overload and assist users to discriminate between reliable and unreliable information on the Web, attention needs to be given to information literacy. Digital campuses therefore often contain annotated collections of links to other sites of interest.

Presentation

Web-based classrooms do not have lecturers who do stand-up training. The lecturers only “appear” as the narrator does in a novel. Not only is the “appearance” of the lecturer different, but also their function. Merrill12 argues that, “organisation during learning aids in later retrieval of information, and elaborations generated at the time of learning new information can facilitate retrieval” (my emphasis). This implies that it is not the course presenter who should be organising the information, but the learner. The role of the presenter is to guide learners in the process of organising their learning, while at the same time allowing them to elaborate. This calls for a much more open design. The learner needs to be given more control.

Use of the Web is likely to result in increased student participation in the production of course materials that improve and expand through their cumulative effort. The exposure to growing databases provided by the Web and increased interaction among learners will encourage constructivist and collaborative work with learners contributing to the pool of knowledge.

Interaction

In contrast with traditional lectures, communication via the Internet is usually asynchronous. That is to say the transmitting and receiving of the message takes place at different times. Both partners in the process need not be engaged at the same time. In essence this means that the learners can schedule their own learning time. Bill Gates indicates a general human preference for asynchronous interaction: “It is human nature to find ways to convert synchronous communication into asynchronous forms. Before the invention of writing, 5 000 years ago, the only form of communication was the spoken word and audiences had to be in the presence of the speaker or they missed his message.” This means that communication takes place mainly though pre-designed web sites and e-mail.

The following advantages and disadvantages of electronic mail need to be considered.

Table 3. Advantages and disadvantages of electronic mail

Advantages

Disadvantages

Quick delivery Possible misinterpretation
Reliable delivery Lack of non-verbal cues
Accurate (digital) transfer High initial cost
Inexpensive Maintenance, upgrade and training costs
Easy to append and forward  
Easy to store & sort  


According to Laurillard, tutorials conducted via ICT result in a higher proportion of student time to tutor time compared with contributions in traditional face-to-face tutorials.15 This is because individuals have more opportunity to contribute as the asynchronous text-based medium extends the moment to contribute. Students can return to the topic after they have given it thought.

The use of web-pages to support electronic mail brings the following advantages and disadvantages.

Table 4. Advantages and disadvantages of Web pages

Advantages

Disadvantages

Contains much useful information

Static - page turner

Multimedia capability

Slow - hungry for bandwidth

Can store large amounts of data

Searching and browsing is often overwhelming

Easy remote access

Not everyone has access

Always available

Non-interactive

Extensive search capabilities

 


Davis distinguishes the following three types of communication facilitated by ICT:

  • Impersonal, useful for task-oriented, instrumental communication,
  • Interpersonal, as used in social communication,
  • Hyperinterpersonal, which allow for individual to self-present and edit.

Other services

In addition to the disadvantages of the WWW and Email as listed above, Hiltz and Wellman suggest that ICT is useful for instrumental relationships rather than social supportive ones.10 They mention some other limitations of ICT:

  • ICT is limited by lack of visual and social cues and presence,
  • ICT is good for communication of information, opinion and suggestions but
  • ICT is less suited for communicating agreement or disagreement, and
  • ICT is worse for social-emotional tasks.

It therefore becomes necessary to create a supportive atmosphere by encouraging co-operation in a virtual environment.

In this way “Virtuality” may also develop an element of “negotiated reality”. The users of the computerized system negotiate an agreed upon reality. Thus a virtual classroom might emulate an actual classroom if it becomes an on-line learning environment to facilitate the accomplishment of learning goals as well as a community where members can exchange information, provide and receive support and develop a sense of belonging.


Educational Technology: The Digital Campus

Digital campuses mirror actual campuses even in their development. Firstly there is the organic campus that has grown over time to accommodate changing needs over the years. It has little dead-end streets and awkwardly designed buildings squeezed into the available space and modified beyond recognition as their initial purpose has become redundant and they have been put to different uses by subsequent generations. The second are the designer campuses - mass-produced and modular, with standardized structures that can easily be modified to cover a wide variety of needs.

Digital organic campuses are typically designed by ad-hoc teams of enthusiastic lecturers and computer staff and the development is stopped as soon as the functionality is bearable. “Modern” digital campuses are shells, designed by software companies and filled by lecturers working from instructional design blueprints.

When, one wants to design a learning task where the objective is the linking of knowledge and navigating through information, the Internet becomes the ideal (virtual) learning environment.

Kozma says that “to be effective, a tool for learning must closely parallel the learning process; and the computer, as an information processor, could hardly be better suited for this”.

It would seem that the various digital campuses, e.g. Lotus Learning Space, WebCT, E-Groups, etc. all try to accommodate the aspects mentioned in the literature study. Regardless of their nature, be it organic or modular, the architectural features shared by all these institutions include a main entrance, an administration block, lecture halls, a library, ancillary services and recreation areas.


The Entrance

The main entrance serves both to attract visitors (and therefore potential students) and to control access. People who arrive at the entrance are usually categorised as staff, students or visitors, and on that basis, gain different levels of access to the campus.


Administration

The two main aspects to be administered are finances and student records. A sophisticated system is required to allow these two elements to meet, so that a service is provided only to paid-up students. Other aspects that require administration, of course are the staff, the alumni and the campus itself.


Lecture halls

Virtual lecture halls contain much the same elements than do actual lecture halls. Staying with the metaphor of the actual classroom these could be grouped as boards, desks, equipment and lockers.

Boards

Classrooms have chalkboards, bulletinboards and posters. Chalkboards are for real-time interaction. Bulletin boards are for a-synchronous interaction. Posters are for stable content.

Desks

There are two types of desks: Teacher’s desk and Learners’ desks. Desks form the principal site of operation. At the desks are information processors, data resources and communication facilities. In a “real” classroom these are pencils, textbooks and the voice and ears. In a virtual classroom these are word processors, databases, spreadsheets and graphic packages; electronic data, links to websites; and e-mail.

Lockers

Lockers contain items that do not necessarily form the mainstream activities in the classroom. This includes hobbies, previous work and bits of useless, if sometimes humorous information. Also in the locker would be prizes of any sort. In an actual classroom, the equipment in the lockers would be protractors, stencils, compasses, etc. In a virtual classroom they are graphic manipulation tools and website generating tools.


Library

The library (also called the resource center) could contain actual documents, or links to other sites. The other sites could simply be information sites or they could link to on-line books or journals.


Ancillary Services

Ancillary services include aspects such as academic support services who help students with academic, social and financial aspects. These services are sometimes extended to include employment agencies, student exchange programs, etc.


Recreation areas

Recreation areas could be individual and co-operative. In a brick-and-mortar campus this could range from benches under trees to coffee shops and cinemas. In virtual campuses these could amount to “arcade games”, “chat rooms”, etc.

Innovative uses of ICT in Higher Education

Somehow, then it woud seem that universities have managed to use the Internet to solidify their status as custodians of knowledge and bastions of information – a position that they have held since medieval times. Nevertheless there is a parallel trend for universities, or at least for academics, to use the Internet to break out of the ivory tower. From the early days of the World Wide Web – and even before that, when the Internet was the domain of Gopher, Archie and Veronica, academics could be found sharing their knowledge freely across borders. University professors were some of the early pioneers who put their writings on the World Wide Web for their students to find, and who encouraged their students to do the same.

In the wake of this followed a number of early social sites such as Phinished [www.phinished.org], dedicated to people who are struggling to finish their PhDs. More recently sites such as the ResearchGATE scientific network have enabled graduate researchers to collaborate in a social software environment. More and more students form collaborative groups using free social software sites such as Ning [www.ning.com]. On a more formal note Wikiversity [en.wikiversity.org] provides free resources for students on a similar basis as the more well known Wikipedia. Similarly many universities have been posting lecture material to Youtube so that students can download material from there, while Youtube itself has started an academic channel as a repository for academic materials.

While these initiatives in the democratisation of universities are to be praised, the problem still remains that most of higher education on the Internet essentially remains a “push” technology with academic institutions pushing materials, rather than a democratic community where students willingly share.

Then contast this with the open-ness of universities such as U-tube academic

And show UCTs web-based stuff


References

Doughty, P. L., Spector, M., & Yonai, B. A. (2003). Time, efficacy, and cost considerations of e-collaboration in online university courses. Brazilian Review of Open and Distance Learning. Online journal of the Brazilian Distance Education Association (Associação Brasileira de Educação a Distância—ABED); http://abed.org.

Greenagel, F. L. (2002). The illusion of e-learning: Why we are missing out on the promise of technology. Phoenix: League for Innovation in the Community College, white papers; http://www.league.org/publication/whitepapers/ 0802.html

Zastrocky, M. (2000). Address to the UCISA 2000 Confer­ence, Glasgow, UK. Romizowski, A. (2004). How’s the E-learning Baby? Factors Leading to Success or Failure of an Educational Technology Innovation Educational Technology, 44(1) January-February 5-27

Charles M Reigeluth, “A new paradigm of ISD?,” Educational Technology 36, no. 3 (1996): 13-20.

Pamela R. Ference, and Edward L. Vockell, “Adult Learning Characteristics and effective software instruction,” Educational Technology 34, no. 6 (1994): 25-31.

Department of Education, “Green paper on higher education transformation.” 1996. Online.