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2001 Gwen Gawith: Digitised Cinderellas

2001 Cathy de Moll: The Internet and September 11 disaster

2001 Mark Treadwell: Cognitive and conceptual development

2001 Gillian Eadie: ICT directions

2001 Rob Green: Integrating ICT into the secondary curriculum: PD for teachers

2001 Gwen Gawith: Garbage detection is a key component of information literacy

2000 Ron Johnston: Knowledge is abundant, but the ability to use it is scarce

2000 Stuart Hale: The last communication revolution.

1999 Pete Sommerville: Virtual field trips.

1999 Gwen Gawith: An open letter to Bill Gates.

1999 Gwen Gawith: Hype, hope or information literacy.

1998 Mark Treadwell: The emperor's new computer.

1998 Nola Campbell: A conversation about being online.

1998 Gwen Gawith: Intelligent technologies: Teaching for information literacy.

1997 Gwen Gawith: Technology and ODL: Rent an information literate luddite!

1997 Gwen Gawith: Technology and learning.

1996 Gwen Gawith: IT: charms or challenges.

1994 Gwen Gawith: new technologies: new skills for information literacy.

information literacy:
ICT & learning online

Technology and ODL: rent an information literate luddite!

Paper given at the DEANZ Conference, Auckland, 1997

Gwen Gawith

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:

In 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.

I 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.

I 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.

The 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?

My 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.

In 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?

EVERYONE knows what learning is? OK, ask a group of teacher trainees as I have just done. They tell me that:

Learning 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.

So what is YOUR definition of open, distance or flexible learning? Is it any less shaky than these half truths and cliches?

In 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.

It 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.

I 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.

Until 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.

Dede says:

In 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... (1992: 54)

He predicts the introduction over the next decade of highly realistic virtual collaborative and interactive environments, but suggests:

Such 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).

Between electronic information pastiches and knowledge construction is an unexplored gulf.

In 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).

Do teachers, educators, course developers have a role in helping learners to get from the menu to the food?

Or 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?

Of 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.

Add a few meetings, and a bit of marking and you’ll wonder why you never have time for professional development!

You 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 for cover.

There can’t be any one answer to what is a complex and multi-dimensional problem.

My 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 mediator:

Learning 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.

It 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.

A Canadian distance educator, Jane Brindley commented recently:

The 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).

Art Costa suggests that:

Human beings are the only form of life that can store, organize and retrieve data in locations other than our bodies...

Because 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 the future.

Humans 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).

David 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?"

Indeed, 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 paradigm).

So, 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:

  • articulate their existing domain knowledge?
  • determine their knowledge needs, ask questions, differentiate between factual and inferential questions?
  • determine 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?

More 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?

Are 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.

It’s 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 from them.

So what are the problems and what are the answers? As I see it:

The 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:

We 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.

Cranial 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.

Learning 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.

I 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.

I’ll finish with another quote from Jane Brindley:

The 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 funding base.

Hence, 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).