Apple's 1984 Superbowl advert launching the Macintosh. (This will amuse only Mac users.)
Apple’s 1984 Superbowl advert launching the Macintosh. (This will amuse only Mac users.)

Bates, A.W. (ed.) (1984) The Role of Technology in Distance Education London/New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis

For some inexplicable reason, Routledge, of the publishing group Taylor and Francis, has decided to revive this book I edited in 1984. As a result a copy landed on my desk recently. It is easy to forget how much has happened in educational technology over the last 30 years, and in particular how far the technology has advanced. At the same time, how little has changed in terms of the challenges of using technology to improve the quality of post-secondary education.

How the technology has changed

In 1984, specially designed and printed texts, or ‘course units’, were still the predominant medium of communication with distance education students. However, the process of print production was cumbersome. Word-processing was possible on personal computers, but many faculty preferred to type their drafts on typewriters, and text then had to be type-set manually from paper copies before printing. Making changes after the units were published was incredibly expensive.

Although the U.K.’s Open University was also still using broadcast television and radio in 1984, its use had actually declined from when it opened in 1971, so by 1984 broadcasting was occupying less than 10 per cent of student study time. Students were flocking to audio and video cassette recordings, because they were able to be played at the student’s own pace and accessed at any time.

Computer assisted learning (CAL) was just beginning to be experimented with at the Open University, in the form of ‘tutorial’ CAL and some simulations in chemistry. However, in 1984 most students could access computers only at local study centres (less than 30 per cent had a computer at home, and none had Internet access). A typical ‘micro’-computer used MS-DOS, weighed 45 lb, and cost between £1,500 – £2,000 or $2,500 – $3,500. Indeed it was in 1984 that Apple introduced its first Macintosh computer (click on the video to see its striking Superbowl advertisement, where presumably Microsoft’s Personal Computer was Big Brother.) The Internet, although in existence, was just in its infancy in the USA and available only to research universities and the military. It would be another four years before the Internet first became available as a public service, and of course the World Wide Web didn’t come into existence for another seven years.

Nevertheless, elements of the future were present in 1984. Teaching by telephone, or telephone tutoring, was becoming widespread, in most cases supporting other media such as printed texts, but also in some cases for delivering interactive lectures. Particularly in the USA, some states had built dedicated private telephone systems for educational purposes, such as the Wisconsin Educational Telephone Network and in Canada, Memorial University in Newfoundland had built an educational telephone network that it shared with 40 other institutions. On public telephone networks, bridge technology was being introduced, enabling between three to nine people to participate at the same time, but most institutions using telephone teaching delivered them through local centres or multi-campuses. The U.K Open University, working with British Telecom, was using an early form of multimedia teleconferencing called CYCLOPS, which enabled two way communication of both voice and graphics over the public telephone network, but again using local study centres. Unfortunately the OU decided not to patent the technology, which it must be regretting today. However, long distance charges were expensive and the quality of sound was often variable, but the educational context was not dissimilar to webinars today.

Cable TV and satellites were being used quite heavily in education in 1984, with dedicated educational cable networks such as TVOntario and Knowledge Network in Canada (which are still in existence today, although they are more like specialty documentary channels than educational service providers). But it was satellite broadcasting that was going to do what has been claimed for MOOCs today – lectures from the world’s best professors being delivered for free into poor developing countries, and we know what happened to that. Video discs were also big in 1984, and had a lot of educational promise but the technology turned out to be too expensive for general educational use. Many other technologies that were discussed in the book faded away completely. Anyone remember teletext technology such as Telidon (Canada), Minitel (France), and Prestel (U.K.)?

So, yes, looking back, it is clear that the Internet – free, readily accessible, and multimedia – and low cost personal computers and social media have revolutionized educational technology in ways that were unimaginable in 1984 (except perhaps by Steve Jobs).

So why hasn’t education changed?

If the technology is so much better and cheaper today, why does post-secondary education still cost as much if not more per student as 30 years ago? Are the learning outcomes any better? It would be hard to make the case that the quality of education has improved over the last 30 years, at least on campus. Class sizes are much larger now, and teaching methods haven’t really changed that much. What has changed is that we have many more students in post-secondary education (and many more students studying online) but the unit costs haven’t dropped.

It’s the system, stupid

Both the cost of creating and delivering content has dropped dramatically and will continue to do so as open content rapidly expands through open textbooks, open research and open educational resources. But I have to admit to being conflicted over the issue as to why costs are the same or indeed somewhat higher than they were 30 years ago.

What’s keeping up the cost is the need for learner support – facilitating learning through discourse and dialogue. Technology in fact is still a relatively small cost within the overall cost of teaching. Faculty salaries constitute at least two thirds of all costs and while we still require an instructor:student ratio of roughly 1:25 in higher education, costs will not come down significantly. However, I am not convinced that we can effectively substitute that instructor:learner interaction by technology alone without losing quality.

But we could still be doing more to reduce costs, and/or improve quality, as follows:

  • implementing open textbooks more widely, saving roughly $1,000 per student per year
  • making savings of up to 10 per cent on the total cost of teaching by greater use of open educational resources and sharing content. For instance, in a large system like Ontario or Quebec, do we need 50 different introductory psychology courses? Would it not be better to develop say four or five really excellent online courses, and share that content across the system, freeing up instructors from delivering content via lectures, and enabling them to spend more time or cover more students in discussion and dialogue? Also with open content instructors could choose different approaches to fit their approach to the topic, again without extra costs. This would ensure that there were different approaches to psychology, and maybe improve the quality of the learning at the same time. For this to happen though institutions need to work together collaboratively rather than competitively (hence it’s a systemic problem that probably only government can fix)
  • get faculty to teach more. Over the last 30 years, the average teaching load for full-time university faculty members, in Canada at least, has actually dropped, so many faculty have a teaching load of roughly four to five courses a year compared with six or more 30 years ago. In other words any possible gains from the implementation of technology for teaching has been more than gobbled up by faculty spending less time teaching. (It may feel like more teaching though if you are teaching larger classes.)
  • re-organise the teaching of large classes, with a senior faculty member responsible for overall design and assessment methods, but with a team of lesser paid but still highly qualified (adjunct) faculty supported by lower cost teaching assistants to ensure that every student has adequate learner support and quality assessment.
  • this of course requires major re-design of teaching, but without changing teaching methods there will be no cost benefits from technology. Instead, technology just adds cost to doing the same things, but with more technology
  • build new institutions for the 21st century and beyond: instead of cramming even more students into existing institutions, why not create some new institutions from scratch designed around the cost-effective use of technology, as the UK government did in 1969, and the Catalan government did in 1995. Start by building the institution at 50% of the capital cost of a traditional university and 75% of the average operating cost per student, with modern course design to maintain or improve quality standards.

None of this can happen without serious systemic change. This is a major challenge for senior administrators, institutional governing boards, and above all government. The aim also has to be clear. It is not to cut costs alone, but to improve the quality of the output – better qualified students fit for a digital age. But it is no longer acceptable to continue to invest in technology without demanding at the same time better results.






Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here