Technology and ODL: rent an
information literate luddite!
Paper given at the DEANZ Conference, Auckland,
I see myself as the local rent-a-luddite, wheeled out from time to time to trumpet a message so unpopular than no one has ears to hear it. This is why I am forced to say the same thing over and over again in different ways. I said it at the DEANZ Conference in Wellington last year. It had the same appeal as latter-day leprosy. So here goes... again.
In a different age it would be easy to imagine going from fair to fair as the village rent-a-luddite having eggs thrown at you.
Fortunately we’ve reached the age of marketplace enlightenment, and I’m an ambient academic with a deep and well-informed scepticism, and a passion for learning and information literacy that saw me abandon an early career in graphics and marketing in favour of having slops thrown at me in a country where the Ministry is condoning a view of learning which suggests that that the whole of learning is the sum of a pile of outcome parts.
Meanwhile, we dribble round our food bowls hoping for the long-promised government handout of a few technological titbits that will, we are sure, transform the quality of learning in our institutions. Give institutions computers, networks, scanners, multimedia packages, Polycoms, colour printers, Encarta and Internet access and education will be revolutionized?
Surely that is why we are gathered here together today in the name of technology-based open, flexible and distance education. Surely that is why the rhetoric of independent, flexible, self-directed learning is alive and well in our institutions even when we have decimated the few learner-support services we had in the interests of supporting more layers of top management to produce more rhetoric in the Age of Accountability and Quality Systems as a substitute for plain old learning?
Just to show that I am a member of the Club, here’s my obligatory laptop. It has Microsoft Office, Powerpoint, Endnote, NUD*IST, Xtra and a few other bitties and bobbies like a PhD on its lovely little diskey drivey, and you’ll just have to take my word for it because I don’t intend to use it. Frankly, if I have to sit through one more Powerpoint presentation where the quality of the colours so far exceeds the intellectual quality of the presentation, or one more asynchronised synchronous vacuous videoconference, I’ll have a cognitive hard drive collapse.
I’m going to do you the ultimate compliment of assuming that you can listen for an hour, derive meaning and make mental notes.
This is about cognitive technology - that thing on your shoulders, and it’s infinite capacity that distinguishes us from apes, computers (even chess-playing ones) and makes us distinctively human!
In the latest Telecom Education Foundation Bulletin you can read the findings of a Telecom study of nearly 400 teachers:
the past four years, the percentage of teachers who agree that
telecommunications technology can enhance learning and teaching
has risen from 67% to 93% for primary teachers and 62% to 88%
for secondary teachers.
am among the 7% and 12% of primary and secondary teachers who
remain unconvinced. I don’t doubt the power of technology to augment
learning, but I think that we have intuitively grasped the power
of the technology but not the power of learning, and, if this
is true of classroom-based face-to-face learning, it is all the
more so for open, distance and flexible learning.
say, with some of the world’s best thinkers and researchers and
educators to back me up, that until we learn to exploit the
most powerful technology of all, the power of hardware and software
will largely be used to enhance infotainment, not learning.
93% of primary and 88% of secondary teachers who believe that
telecommunications technology can enhance learning may
be right. But how can they prove to me that it does?
claim is that the most powerful and least understood technology
is the computer that sits on top of your occipital joint. If you
want to, please feel free to call it cranialware. This might help
you to identify its place in the scheme of things.
short, cranialware is what you use for learning, assuming of course
that you have worked out what learning is. My simple question,
is that if you don’t have a clear view of learning, how can you
be so supremely confident that technology can enhance it?
knows what learning is? OK, ask a group of teacher trainees as
I have just done. They tell me that:
should be fun, that teachers are facilitators, that good learning
is experiential or hands on, that it should be inclusive, collaborative,
relevant, and highlight social, political, institutional and gender
oppression and coercion; that lots of American teachers come here
because we’re so good at ‘whole language’; that our education
is child-centred; and that we’ve got Reading Recovery and the
best teachers in the world.
what is YOUR definition of open, distance or flexible learning?
Is it any less shaky than these half truths and cliches?
the language of the marketplace, if learning is our core business,
maybe we and our student clients should be able to define it,
articulate what we do when we learn, and how, precisely, we see
technology augmenting our ability to learn using the superb piece
of cognitive technology between the shoulders - that which is
threatening to atrophy from under-use, total ignorance of its
fascinating powers as a relational database, and sophistication
as a storage and retrieval system and search engine.
is a strange world when people can spend years in teacher training
institutions and emerge not being able to talk about what they
went there to learn to do, ie help students to learn how to learn.
am of the naive belief that children go to school to learn how
to learn, and that teachers should be expert learners, and that,
if it can be proved that technology enhances how we help
people to learn to learn, we should embrace it fervently.
then, we are in danger of using technology to do what is essentially
screen-based busy work or electronic versions of the same cut-and-paste
projects we’ve been churning out for yonks.
a world where data increases exponentially each year, a major
challenge for schools is to prepare students to access and
use information effectively. Learners frequently become lost
in a morass of data from texts and from inquiry projects.
Without higher-order thinking skills, they cannot synthesize
large volumes of information into overarching knowledge structures...
predicts the introduction over the next decade of highly realistic
virtual collaborative and interactive environments, but suggests:
learning environments risk overwhelming their users unless
they incorporate tools that help students and teachers to
master the cognitive skills essential to synthesize knowledge
from data (ibid: 54).
electronic information pastiches and knowledge construction
is an unexplored gulf.
the near future, all the representations that human beings
have invented will be instantly accessible anywhere in the
world on intimate, notebook-size computers. But will we be
able to get from the menu to the food? Instant access to the
world's information will probably have an effect opposite
to what is hoped: students will become numb instead of enlightened.
(Kay, 1991: 100).
teachers, educators, course developers have a role in helping
learners to get from the menu to the food?
does ODL give us an even better excuse to confuse the menu with
the food? What do you feel like as a distance learner when you
are confronted with the ingredients, no cooking instructions,
and deep down you hunger for a square meal?
course videoconference tutorials, audioconference tutorials, email
or online tutorials and discussion forums help, but giving even
15 minutes’ online individual learning support a week if you have
120 students represents some 30 hours’ work.
a few meetings, and a bit of marking and you’ll wonder why you
never have time for professional development!
don’t have 120 students? Hang in there! If the Australian distance
learning precedent is anything to go by, you soon will. So, yes,
the technologies are great. I would love to think that more sophisticated
technologies would solve the problem. I don’t even think it is
a question of technologies looking for problems to solve. I think
that more sophisticated technologies will disguise even more effectively
the real problem. The seductive power of technologies and technobabble
makes it all too easy to gloss over the issue of learning; to
build whole programmes and institutional investments on assumptions
about learning that are, at best, not based in recognized or researched
theory or pedagogy, and, at worst, redolent of the half baked,
simplistic, Baroque music, multiply intelligent, scarf waving,
wishful thinking myths about ‘learning styles’ and instant one-minute-noodle
learning strategies that would make Howard Gardner blush and run
can’t be any one answer to what is a complex and multi-dimensional
answers are embedded in my definition of learning. I’m not saying
it’s right or wrong - just that it is underpinned solidly by theory,
and can, in turn be translated into pedagogy - not the pedagogy
of half-truths and cliches, but solid learning strategies that
start and finish between the ears, even if there is a technological
is a PROCESS of developing understanding; it is a process of transforming
information into knowledge, into understanding, meanings and meaningfulness.
It is, at once, individual and social, integral to personal, social
and emotional growth. It is a process that is highly amenable
to mediation by skilled learners and skilled use of technologies.
is a definition which has served me well in the last ten years
when I’ve developed ODL courses for teachers which are available
throughout New Zealand, and which reach up to 1000 teachers a
year, and when I have nearly completed a thesis by distance through
the University of New England. I feel, seriously, that a lot of
talk about technology-based open, distance and flexible learning
is a huge red herring which cunningly conceals the lack of attention
we have historically, and presently, paid to the LEARNING part
of the open, distance and flexible label.
Canadian distance educator, Jane Brindley commented recently:
development of a comprehensive learner services in distance
education is a fairly recent endeavour. Most early distance
education schemes were concerned more with access and availability
of learning opportunities than with the individual experience
of the learner. Consequently, distance education has been typified
by high enrolments and high rates of attrition. Students support
services for distance learners were first developed as a defensive
response to the high percentage of "casualties" produced
by the mass education model that once characterised distance
education (1995: 103).
Costa suggests that:
beings are the only form of life that can store, organize
and retrieve data in locations other than our bodies...
of the lack of vast amounts of disparate available information
in the past, the human intellectual capacity for constructing
abstractions may have been underdeveloped. And because of
the increase in available information, the upper limitations
of this capacity will be continually tested and exceeded in
are the only form of life that actually enjoys the search
for problems to solve... Process is, in fact, the highest
form of learning and the most appropriate base for curriculum
change. Through process, we can employ knowledge, not merely
as a composite of information, but as a system for continuous
learning (1996: viii - xi).
Hyerle (1996: 3) suggests that his students could brainstorm and
link ideas but asks "could they analyse, synthesize, and
evaluate their own thinking?" and goes on to ask "And
do visual tools offer new forms, or languages, for meeting the
needs of learners working in an Information Age where constructivism
is the guiding educational paradigm and the Information Superhighway
is the new metaphor for information access?"
and the single biggest assumption that open, distance and flexible
learning proponents make is that people who enrol for open, distance
and flexible learning courses know how to learn, have a model
of learning in their minds which relates to this driving constructivist
educational paradigm (as opposed to the empty-bucket-you-fill-me
simply, what strategies do you, as a skilled learner, use to teach
your students to be what Hyerle calls an ‘infortective’? How do
you teach them to:
their existing domain knowledge?
their knowledge needs, ask questions, differentiate between
factual and inferential questions?
relevant and appropriate information sources and resources?
- use these
sources heuristically, critically and analytically to synthesise
key ideas, key concepts, key facts, key opinions, and to translate
information into knowledge?
importantly, if I asked your learners - Year 0 to tertiary - whether
they could show me the strategies you have taught them for doing
these things, what would their response be?
you thinking ‘She doesn’t understand about distance/ open/ flexible
learning. It’s not like that. Tertiary students are supposed to
be self-directed learners’. Aha, maybe that’s why our retention
rate is 98%. I clearly don’t understand that ODL is different,
except insofar as it requires more, not less, learning support
than face-to-face teaching.
is nonsense to say that these things are such complicated and
context-dependent processes that they can’t be taught or learned.
I can teach you simple pen and paper strategies for doing each
of these things. So could David Hyerle, so could David Jonassen,
and so could half a dozen other learning designers who see, and
say, that, without these strategies, letting learners loose on
the Internet and other technology-enhanced knowledge construction
environments is an expensive waste of time. I am not saying that
the Internet is a waste of time any more than books, CDs, records,
videos and any other information resource is a waste of time.
They are all a total waste of time if you don’t know how to learn
what are the problems and what are the answers? As I see it:
problem is that by focusing on the technology to the exclusion
of the process of learning which the technology potentially supports,
we distort researched reality, ie that computers and communication
technologies in and of themselves have been found to have NO impact
on learning, but significant impact on enjoyment. So:
need to re-focus on learning - what it is and how to do it - in
order to understand how the phenomenal power of technology to
store, process, retrieve and communicate information can be harnessed
with cognitive technology and cranial software.
software needs to be shaped, modelled, mediated and nourished.
It does not work automatically; you do not learn to learn
or learn to think from a screen or keyboard. In fact there’s every
evidence of the ‘use it or lose it’ syndrome, and every evidence
that the most neglected area of the curriculum at any level, primary
to tertiary, is the skills and strategies needed to learn to learn.
is a human process. It doesn’t matter whether the skills and strategies
are taught on paper, drawn with a stick in sand, or on a computer
screen, but until more skilled learners work with less skilled
learners to develop, practise and apply these learning skills
and strategies in increasingly more sophisticated technology-
and information-enhanced learning environments, learning will
remain as it is now - something that you catch if you’re exceptionally
bright or exceptionally lucky.
believe that EVERY learner needs to know how to articulate and
map knowledge, analyse and define questions and hypotheses, analyse,
collate and synthesise information and produce relational knowledge
maps, hierarchical maps, concept maps, narrative maps, cause and
effect maps, etc, and that what you need to do it is not technology,
but that stuff between your ears.
finish with another quote from Jane Brindley:
environment is increasingly competitive. Even traditional institutions
that once questioned the validity of distance education have
recognized the demand for alternative modes of study and have
begun to adopt distance delivery methods for some of their courses
and programs. Many institutions that have specialized in distance
teaching in a wide-open market suddenly find themselves in a
position of scrambling to meet enrolment targets to ensure their
distance and open learning institutions find themselves under
pressure to meet incredibly unrealistic expectations to serve
an ever-widening set of needs with scarce resources and little
infrastructure in a highly competitive environment. In this
context, where finding and responding to new markets and speed
of production have become key issues, it is sometimes difficult
to focus on promoting learner success. However, if open distance
learning is to play a key role in the training and education
of society, there is a responsibility to provide more than mere
access to mass-produced knowledge. This challenge relates back
to the issue of institutional culture, and the importance of
a well-defined and integrated approach to learner services based
on clearly articulated guiding values about learners and how
the learning process is best facilitated (1995: 108).