Recently, I was reading a selection from John Dvorakís Dvorak Predicts. His general predictions aside, he made one comment which I found particularly troublesome.
"Papers composed of cut and paste excerpts from online services and CD-ROMs are the future of education.
"None of this should be considered plagiarism, either. In fact, I donít see why the student canít just turn in something written by someone else so long as the other personís name is cited. Itís an aspect of research: knowledge-mining.
"Hereís how it goes. A professor assigns a topic to a student. Letís say itís the social implications of fur trading in Nova Scotia in 1850. The student explores the databases and discovers an obscure paper written at the University of Florida in 1920. It covers this topic exactly. He or she will get an A+, as far as Iím concerned. This exercise is a modern version of plowing through the library and trying to piece together a half-baked thesis with scant information. How can it not be better? The student of the future is not the same as an Oxford Scholar of 1895, true. Fact is, the Oxford student would not be able to compete with the computer-augmented student of the future. Times change and we have to change with them.î
Although Dvorak does not specifically refer to distance learning, the flaws in his argument are the same flaws in the concept of "distance learning" as it is often so lauded. The problem is, what exactly makes an education? Is an education simply the exposure to information? Is the idea of learning simply to see how much trivia one can absorb, and in Dvorakís example, pass along for the benefit of the instructor?
If the quality of an education can be judged by how much information the student has been exposed to, the digital technologies of distance learning are perfect for that cause. Nearly all information can be quantified into bits, and bits can now easily be transmitted anywhere. In reality, there is no doubt that these technologies are a significant boon for education. An education can not be had when there is no information. The point is that an education cannot be had without anything else in addition.
Dvorak thinks that the exercise of learning ends with the collection of information. No doubt, the mere exercise of digging up information is an extremely helpful learning tool. But the task of learning is not complete after that point. To write an original synthesis, regardless if someone had earlier made a similar effort, stimulates the studentís mind. It is this stimulation that is the key to education. To absorb information is not enough. The world could be run my computers if all that were needed were raw data. To be able to make sense out of information, to be able to analyze, to be able to process information and maybe come out with a new conclusion, this is the true value of education. Without educational exercises that can fuel this process, no amount of transmitted bits can truly educate.
But the question here pertains to distance learning and the technologies that purportedly deliver it. To what extent do they aid or inhibit the educational process? In their favor, distance learning technologies can conceivably bring all the data in the world to the student, a feat never before possible. In addition, it can bring the teachers and their knowledge to the student. Lecturers can be "shared" by far more students than would have been able to enjoy the benefits of their teaching had they been restricted to teaching only as many people as could be in his or her presence. But this is not enough. What about the analytical requirements?
Simply to hear a lecturer is not always appreciably better than just to read, or be exposed to raw data. Distance learning technologies can provide more visceral information through sound and video, but the crucial ingredient is still missing. What about discussion? What about writing exercises? What about being able to share the instructorís expertise on an individual basis? These elements cannot be ignored if one expects a quality distance learning education.
In the instance of our class, these elements were not overlooked. There was plenty of class discussion, one-on-one discussion with the instructor, which sometimes was aided by technology when physical proximity could not be arranged, and there were writing exercises. But still there are a few pitfalls in the endeavor of distance learning:
One is that the technology, though it helped provide opportunities that would not have been had without it, such as the inability to bridge the continental gap between the instructor and students, at times inhibited other educational aspects such as discussion. A classroom discussion as weíve become socialized to in our conventional classes could not be had due to the limitations of the technology, such as lag time. Eventually, however, this type of problem might be overcome, but there still would remain lost the peculiar ascetic of a classroom and the productive environment it fosters when the classmates are not two- dimensional.
Furthermore, and most importantly, distance learning has become a catch-phrase. People, like Dvorak, are presuming that technology can be thrown at the problem of education and will automatically provide better results. This is far from the case. Unless the nature of education is understood, and specific problems of traditional education addressed with specific technologies, technology and distance learning could cause a greater crisis in education than there already may be.