A PLATO terminal (from Wikipedia)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

What was the discovery? (1982)

A pedestrian who is hit by a car doesn’t say: “This is simply a case of technology versus people.’ He wants to know who was in the driver’s seat.‘ Kling, 1983

Until the early 1980s, I had always been skeptical of computers as an effective teaching medium, especially in distance education. Up to then, I had seen them as ‘teaching machines’, attempting, ineffectively, to replace teachers. We did have a computer-assisted learning research group in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, where I was working, but they were focused mainly on building mathematics tutoring for the k-12 sector and simulations. This did not seem to me at the time to have any likely immediate implications for the Open University’s teaching (although of course simulations now are an extremely valuable form of computer-based learning).

In 1982 I was in Vancouver for a world conference on distance learning, when a Canadian colleague, David Kaufman, invited me to see what he had in the basement of his house. Not knowing David too well, I arrived with some trepidation. We went down to his basement, where he had a large computer, a screen and a black box connected to the telephone.

‘Just look at this’, he said. Up on the screen came a list of e-mail addresses. ‘We’ll try this one’, he said. It turned out to be someone in New York, and we started a rough form of asynchronous chat, in real time. It was quite late and something prompted me to say, ‘Ask him how old he is, David.’ Sure enough it was a 12 year old boy from the Bronx, logging on after midnight his time. This was my first introduction to the Internet. (David is still doing research on educational technology at Simon Fraser University – and 12 year old kids in New York are still staying up late at night on the Internet).

Also on this trip with me was a colleague from the Open University, Tony Kaye. We both went back to England convinced that online computer-mediated communication (or CMC) was the future. Indeed, we were not the only ones. Even earlier, in the late 1970s, Murray Turoff and Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology were experimenting with blended learning, where classroom teaching was combined with online discussion forums. At the University of Guelph, an off-the-shelf software system called CoSy was developed that allowed for threaded group discussion forums, a predecessor to today’s forums contained in learning management systems.  Linda Harasim was using CMC in her courses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Higher Education at the University of Toronto in the late 1980s.

Tony Kaye, who was the instructional designer, and I, as a subject matter expert, were involved in the design and launch of DT200 at the Open University in 1988. This was the OUs first course using computer-mediated conferencing, with over 1,200 students. However, it was added on to all the other components of an OU course at the time, including 32 printed units, extra readings, 16 television programs and 32 audio-cassettes. Even then, it was hard to get an institution to replace rather than add new media. (See Mason, 1989, for an excellent description and evaluation of CMC on this course. In fact, students had to evaluate CMC for one of their assessed assignments.)

Why is this significant?

It comes down to the basic question: can computers replace humans? In particular, can computers replace teachers? This is an on-going issue dating back at least to the 1970s. PLATO was a generalized computer assisted instruction system originally developed at the University of Illinois, and, by the late 1970s, comprised several thousand terminals worldwide on nearly a dozen different networked mainframe computers (Wikipedia). It was in fact a highly successful system, lasting almost 40 years, and incorporated key on-line concepts: forums, message boards, online testing, e-mail, chat rooms, picture languages, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multi-player games. The main reason the project was shut down was due to the very high cost of courseware development, although the online communities it created were strong supporters of the concept.

PLATO was by far the largest (and most successful) of a multitude of teaching machines developed in the 1970s and later. However, in a paper I wrote in 1986, I compared systems (such as PLATO) based on structured, pre-programmed learning materials where the learner communicates as if with the computer, with systems based on the communications functions of computers that facilitated communication between students and teachers (to be fair to PLATO, there were elements of both within its system). I argued that

the two approaches represented quite different educational philosophies, and for distance education the communications mode offers a more appropriate, humanistic and pragmatic route for future development.

Approaches to computer assisted learning from PLATO onwards have been fairly behaviourist, focusing on learning content rather than skills, whereas I see learning as development where meaning and understanding are constantly negotiated and constructed. Learning delivered solely by or through a computer with no human interaction still struggles to handle semantics, conversational learning, and intellectual discourse.

Joseph Weizenbaum, in his influential 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason, argued that:

while Artificial Intelligence may be possible, we should never allow computers to make important decisions because computers will always lack human qualities such as compassion and wisdom. Weizenbaum makes the crucial distinction between deciding and choosing. Deciding is a computational activity, something that can ultimately be programmed. Choice, however, is the product of judgment, not calculation. It is the capacity to choose that ultimately makes us human. Comprehensive human judgment is able to include non-mathematical factors, such as emotions (Wikipedia)

I also wrote in my 1986 paper (available online):

‘Humans are biologically highly adaptable animals, designed to learn from their environment. So the teacher’s role is not merely to teach, in the sense of of providing information, but to create an environment which encourages appropriate forms of learning. Teachers thus should be managers of appropriate learning environments, rather than merely sources of information and assessment.’ 

I believed then, and still believe today, that the communication affordances of information technology are far more beneficial than attempting to replace the teacher. The main modification to this position is that I do believe that computers or IT can help make teachers more effective, by replacing some of the more mechanical aspects of their work (such as delivering information), so that they can spend more time communicating with students (and in schools, with parents).

How this affects online learning today

The development of the World Wide Web transformed information technology-based learning (see next aha moment). Nevertheless, the role of computers and the Internet for communication and learner interaction remains as important as ever. There are really at least three key forms of interaction for a learner:

  • interaction with media, of which there are two kinds: direct and indirect. Typing in an answer to a computer-based test is direct interaction; thinking about or reflecting on the significance of a narrative in a text is indirect, but nevertheless a critical component of learning. Indeed often the most significant interaction with media is not directly observable by a third party – it’s called thinking stimulated by media
  • interaction with an instructor or tutor: this can be direct, through face-to-face contact, or indirect, through e-mail, telephone, or computer conferencing. This can provide all kinds of learning support, from direct feedback, an indication of learning priorities, counselling (academic and personal), clarification, or direct motivation
  • interaction with other learners: this can provide mutual support, collaborative learning, sharing, and critiques of each others’ work.

The beauty of the Internet is that it allows and supports all three kinds of interaction, so why would we restrict interaction to just one form, that of interaction with media, which is essentially what computer-based learning attempts to do?

In conclusion

The issue is that learners and learning are so diverse that it is difficult if not impossible to anticipate and pre-program most forms of learning effectively. Furthermore we have not yet been able to develop models of teaching and learning that can be comprehensively represented within computer programs, except for the simplest forms of behaviourism. Thus it is more than just a restriction on computing power, although that is still significant. Frankly, for the kinds of learning needed in the 21st century, such as critical thinking, creativity, analysis and seven more importantly, synthesis, and evaluation, we still need teachers to support learning.

However, the World Wide Web and above all the Internet allow us to deliver teaching much more effectively any time and anywhere, and computers can help by acting as servants to teachers in many repetitive or routine but still important activities.

At some point, computing power and our understanding of teaching and learning may reach the point where we can design and deliver computer-based learning more cheaply than training teachers. Long before we reach that nirvana though, we need to ask an even more important and difficult question: should we?

Further reading

Bates, T. (1986) Computer assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 1, No. 1

Kling, R. (1983) Value conflicts in computing developments, Telecommunications Policy, March

Mason, R. (1989) An evaluation of CoSy on an Open University course Kaye, A. and Mason, R. (1989) Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education Oxford UK: Pergamon

Weizenbaum, J. (1976) Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment To Calculation San Francisco: W. H. Freeman





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