|Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]
Taking care of business - online technologies changing practice at universities?Robert Fox
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
Broad questions are asked of universities. For example, how can they cope with such complexity, such uncertainty, what should they do to adapt to ongoing demands for change? As one American university president noted, today's university has become 'overextended, underfocussed; overstressed, underfunded' (Vest, 1995).
Noble (1998) points to relatively hugh university investment in IT, with no clear or convincing case to show that digital pedagogy is superior to traditional forms of teaching and learning. If, for example, social constructivist peer teaching was proven to be a better more effective form of pedagogy across many disciplines, would the kind of investment that is going into IT go into helping teachers and students work through these models? Quite clearly, there is considerable appeal to invest in new technologies, whether in higher education or in society more generally.
An obvious problem with investing in more conventional forms of education is that funding is goes into an uncertain process, with little real control of outputs. In general, it's hard to commodify face to face teaching and the learning process. But within a web environment, it seems easier. We can count the number of students who are engaged in online courses, we can more centrally monitor course content and process, we can develop standards in online environments and require adherence. But what does this mean? Does it mean we have become a more efficient and effective organisation? Does it mean we now teach better than before and that our students are learning more in less time?
the acts and artifacts used to reproduce collective understandings among specific social groups are changing profoundly: print discourses, face to face classes, paper documents are being displaced by digital discourses, online classes, electronic documents. The former will not entirely disappear, but so too can they not be counted upon to reign hegemonic (Luke, 1998, p.2).Luke, a leading theorist and political science academic, describes collective understandings that reinforce entrenched ways of operating within universities: universities have a physical environment, halls, lecture theatres, a presence that reinforces certain routinised pedagogical practices, for example, face to face classes, the lecture, the tutorial, the seminar. In this environment, print technologies have influenced and organised subjects and disciplines and have produced a culture of the 'book' based education (Green, 1997). The book has been the central medium of knowledge production and contains and constrains pedagogy in various ways, standing between the learner and the 'real world.' Books are bounded, having a certain physical shape, printed text on paper, pages with edges, borders, margins, encouraging a certain kind of interaction and rationality (Tuman, 1992; Schriver, 1997; Green, 1997). The learner experiences of the 'world out there' has been dominated by reading printed text. Books encapsulate meanings and the task of the learner is to extract this meaning. The role of the teacher as a presumed authority in the central organising primal scene of the classroom (Idhe, 1992), stands in for the author and for the (experiential) world. Students complete assignments and exams in print, the university degree itself is based on assessing students writing. Luke argues that these conventional practices, 'tied to mechanism, print and corporal embodiment' is now challenged by a newer and wired electronic, coded and hypertextual telepresence' (1998, p.2) where the digital environment is a defining technology - requiring a new social imperative and form of life (Bolter, 1995; Bigum, 1997).
Green has argued that we are seeing a profound shift from, and a decisive movement of a very complex kind: a transition between the Age of Print and the Age of Digital Electronics (1997). He argues that we are in the midst of a shift from print to digital electronics - 'from the print apparatus as the organising context and resource for educational and social practice to the digital electronic apparatus' (Green, 1997, p. 2). This shift in the 'apparatus of culture is changing ... not only in technology but in institutional practices and the ideology of the subject as well' (Ulmer, 1989, p. xii).
Dale Spender in Campus Review (March, 1999) argues that digital technology and especially online technology is changing cultures in education and placing new pressures on learning outside the control of teachers. She adds that the twenty-first century education will centre on the business of learning and questions what role universities and lecturers will play in the future. 'Unless academics acquire the mind set and the competencies to be leaders in the learning business, the prospects could be all gloom and doom.' Spender suggests a likely scenario in the future for academics is as 'learning managers' that aim not to be the best in the world but who know how and where to go in the world to access the best through online technologies (Elson-Green, 1999).
A glimpse to future possibilities for online learning in higher education can be explored, Luke (1998) suggests, by examining the consortium of seventeen western states, the Western Governors Association creation of a 'virtual university.' In February, 1996 the Western Governors University (WGU) was formed to offer degree programs to 'enhance the marketplace for demonstrated competence through certification that is widely accepted by employers and traditional institutions of higher learning' (Western Governors Association, 1997). The WGU was established as a broker of knowledge between outsourced content providers and individual learners. WGU courses are accompanied by 'an explicit statement of the competencies that should be achieved upon completion, as well as an indication of the assessment methods that will be employed to certify these competencies' (Western Governors Association, 1997). The WGU offices are small and relatively inexpensive to run, providing administrative support, which sets quality control standards, develop rules and policies and organises 'franchises' of instructional inputs.
By undercutting the average annual student costs of $9,000 at a typical state university, the WGU aims to serve non-traditional older students, traditional college students needing extra courses, employees seeking various sorts of training, and lifelong learners in the personal enrichment market. Competency assessment, and not degrees, is to be the main measure of student success, but the WGU now offers a multi-track Associate of Arts degree (Luke, 1998, p.8).WGU uses 'technologically delivered educational programming' to offer degree and nondegree awarding competency based courses which are competitive, cost effective, flexible, client centred and market oriented, in a non-traditional university form (Western Governors University, 1997). WGU breaks 'down the barriers of regulations, bureaucracies, tradition and turf' (Western Governors University) which Luke points out is the main innovation of WGU: not WGUs use of online technologies but the institutional changes embedded 'behind its operations and structures' (Luke, 1998, p.9). As Governor Leavitt points out, WGU operates as:
a kind of New York Stock Exchange of technology delivered courses. He envisions a catalogue with listings from hundreds of institutions, corporations, and publishers, giving students ready access to thousands of educational opportunities (Blumenstyk, 1998).Online technology makes the operation and structure of WGU possible, providing a very different model of higher education to the traditional universities, which Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, a founding member of WGU, describes as bastions of a 'feudal system' designed to award outmoded guild privileges (Blumenstyk, 1998). One outcome predicted is a financial shift from state university systems:
to systems of individual choice, giving students vouchers to spend where the marketplace and competency regime show the best education can be had. ...The real innovation of the WGU is this new symbolic economy of academic achievement, moral economy of personal choice, and public economy of lower costs (Luke, 1998, p.10).The new technologies is seen as bringing education to the students rather than forcing students to subsidize fancy campuses and feather bedding faculties (Gubernick and Ebeling, June 19, 1997, p.3). This image of higher education has gained a degree of favour in Australia, as exemplified in the recommendations of the West Report (1998).
The pressure on tertiary institutions from the world outside to incorporate (online) technologies will continue to grow. Society expects graduates to emerge from their university experience with appropriate digital technology skills and abilities irrespective of the level of importance of such technology within individual disciplines. Indeed, many disciplines in certain institutions may not be competitive in three to five years' time unless they have embraced online technologies, whether as an integral part of the curriculum or simply as another way to convey, retrieve and manipulate information (Holt & Thompson, 1995; Yetton, 1997; DeLong, 1997).
Online technologies have been the largest area of growth in new technology application in higher education for the last three years (Green, 1997, 1998 & 1999; Geoghegan, 1996) and it is for this reason that we need to investigate online learning environments and their use in tertiary institutions.
Bolter, J. D. (1995). Degrees of freedom. http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~bolter/degrees.html
Blumenstyk, G. (1998, February 6). Western Governors U. takes shape as new model for higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, XLIV, 22 (February 6), A21-24.
DeLong, S. E. (1997). The shroud of lecturing. First Monday, 2(5).
Elson-Green, J. (1999, March 3-9). The art of lecturing in 21st century. Campus Review, pp.5.
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Green, K. (1997, 1998 & 1999). Campus computing survey: A national study of the use of information technology in higher education. The Campus Computing Project, Encino, California.
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Gubernick, L. & Ebeling, A. (1997, June). I got my degree through email. Forbes.
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Luke, T. (1998). Digital Discourses, On-Line Classes, Electronic Documents: Developing New University Technocultures. Ultibase Archives. September Edition. http://ultibase.eu.rmit.edu.au/Articles/luke1.html
Noble, D. F. (1998). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. First Monday, 3(1).
Schriver, K. (1997). Dynamics in document design. John Wiley, New York.
Tuman, M. (1992). Word perfect: Literacy in the computer age. London: The Falmer Press.
Ulmer, G. (1989). Teletheory: Grammatology in the age of video. Routledge, London.
Vest, C.M. (1995). Research universities: Overextended, underfocussed; overstressed, underfunded. Paper presented at the Cornell Symposium on the American University, May 22, 1995. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (President's Office, unpublished paper).
Western Governors Association (1997). Smart states: Virtual university.
West, R. (Chair) (1998). Learning for life: The review of higher education financing and policy (final report). Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra.
Yetton, P. (1997). Managing the Introduction of Technology in the Delivery and Administration of Higher Education. Evaluations and Investigations Program, Higher Education Division, Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra.
|Please cite as: Fox, R. (2000). Taking care of business - online technologies changing practice at universities? In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/fox.html|