Educational Technology (I)
There are many ways of understanding technology. In this entry, technology is conceived, in a very broad manner, as any human artifact, method, or technique that is created for the purpose of making it easier for man to work, travel, or communicate or to make life more fun and enjoyable to him.
Technology, in this sense, is not new – as a matter of fact, it is almost as old as man, homo creator, himself.
Not every technology invented by man is relevant to education. Some technologies only extend his muscular physical strength. Other technologies only allow him to move through space more quickly and/or with less effort. Neither of these are greatly relevant to education. Technologies that amplify man’s sensory powers, however, no doubt are relevant to education. The same is true of technologies that extend his capacity to communicate with his fellow men. But above all, this is true of technologies, such as are available today, that augment man’s intellectual powers: his capacity to acquire, organize, store, analyze, relate, integrate, apply, and transmit information.
Technologies that greatly amplify man’s sensory powers (such as the telescope, the microscope, and all the other instruments that amplify man’s sense organs) are relatively recent and made modern experimental science possible.
Technologies that extend man’s capacity to communicate, however, have existed for centuries. The most important ones, before the nineteenth century, are the invention of typically human (conceptual) speech, of alphabetical writing, and of printing (especially the printed book). The last 200 years saw the appearance of the modern post office, the telegraph, the telephone, photography, cinema, radio, television, and video.
Technologies that augment man’s intellectual powers and that are centered on the digital computer are the most recent, since they were developed mostly after 1940. The computer is gradually absorbing the technologies of communication, to the extent that these become digital.
Technology in Education
A variety of expressions is normally employed to refer to the use of technology, in this sense, in education. The rather neutral expression “Technology in Education” seems preferable, since it allows us to refer to the general category that includes the use of every form of technology relevant to education (hard and soft, including human speech, writing, printing, curricula, programs, chalk and blackboards, and, more recently, photography, cinema, radio, television, video, and, naturally, computers and the Internet).
It is admitted that nowadays, when the expression “Technology in Education” is used, hardly anyone thinks of chalk and blackboards or even of books and magazines, much less of something abstract such as a curriculum of studies. Attention is normally concentrated on the computer, because it became the point of convergence of all the more recent technologies (and of some of the old ones also). And especially after the explosive commercial success of the Internet, computers are hardly ever thought as standalone equipment: the network became the computer.
It is sensible, however, to remind educators that human speech, writing, and, consequently, lectures, books, and magazines, not to mention curricula and programs, are technology and that, therefore, educators have been using various technologies all along. It is only their familiarity with these technologies that somehow makes them transparent (i.e., invisible) to them.
“Technology in Education” is preferable, as an expression, to “Educational Technology,” since the latter seems to imply that there is something intrinsically educational in the technologies involved, which does not seem the case. The former expression allows for the possibility that technology that was invented for purposes totally alien to education, as is the case of the computer, may, eventually, become so tied to it as to make one wonder how education was ever possible without it. Human conceptual speech, writing, and, more recently, the printed book were also invented probably for purposes less noble than education. Today, however, education is almost inconceivable without these technologies. In a few years the networked computer will almost certainly be in the same category.
Distance Education, Distance Learning, and Distance Teaching
Of these three expressions the third is probably the least used and yet, it is the only one that is technically correct.
Education and learning are processes that take place within the individual – there is no way that education and learning can occur remotely or at a distance. Education and learning occur wherever the person is – the person is, in central and very important ways, the subject of the educational and learning process, not its object. So, it is difficult to imagine how Distance Education and Distance Learning are possible, despite the popularity of these expressions.
It is perfectly possible, however, to teach remotely or at a distance. It happens all the time. Saint Paul taught, from a distance, the Christian faithful who were in Rome, Corinth, etc. – using handwritten letters. Authors, distant in space and in time, teach their readers through printed books and articles. It is possible to teach, remotely or at a distance, through motion pictures, television, and video. And, today, we can teach anyone, almost anything, any place, through the Internet.
So, the expression “Distance Teaching” will be used in this article whenever there is need to refer to the act of teaching remotely or a distance. That education and learning can happen as a result of this teaching is undeniable, but, as argued, this should not lead us into thinking that the education and the learning taking place as a result of remote or distance teaching is occurring remotely or at a distance.
Despite its popularity, distance teaching is not the best application of technology in education today. This place should be reserved to what might be called Technology-Mediated Learning.
As mentioned, there is no doubt that education and learning can occur as a result of teaching. But neither is there doubt that education can occur through self-learning, i.e., the kind of learning that is not associated with a process of teaching but that occurs through man’s interaction with nature, with other men, and with the cultural world. A large portion of human learning takes place in this form, and, according to some researchers, learning that takes place in this form is more significant, that is, happens more easily, is retained longer and is more naturally transferred to other domain and contexts, than learning that occurs as a result of formal and deliberate teaching processes (i.e., through instruction).
What is especially fascinating in the new technologies at our disposal today, particularly in the Internet, and, within it, in the Web, is not that with their help we can teach at a distance, but that they allow us to create rich learning environments in which persons who are interested and motivated can learn almost anything without having to fall victims of a process of formal and deliberate teaching. Learning, in this case, is mediated by technology alone.
There is no doubt that behind the technology there are other persons, who prepare the materials and make them available in the net. When someone uses the resources now available in the Internet in order to learn in self-motivated, exploratory fashion, he uses materials of different natures, prepared and made available in the most widely diverse contexts, not rarely without any pedagogical intent, and he does it in an order that is totally unpredictable, and that therefore cannot be planned, and in a rhythm that is totally personal and regulated only by the desire to learn and the capacity to assimilate and digest what he finds.
Because of this, it does not seem viable to call this experience Distance Teaching, as if it were the Internet that taught, or as if it were the people behind the materials that taught. What is taking place in a context such as the one described is Technology-Mediated Learning, self-learning, that is, learning that is not the result of teaching.
In support of Face-to-Face Teaching
In support of Distance Teaching
In support of Self-Learning
The Justification of Distance Teaching
Many people might feel inclined to justify Distance Teaching by simply asking: “Why not?” However, there are good reasons to discuss whether Distance Teaching is justified, what justifies it, and what its merits are relative to Face-to-Face Teaching.
On the one hand, there are those that assume that Distance Teaching does not substantially differ from Face-to-Face Teaching. If teaching is good, and it is possible to teach at a distance, then we should do it.
On the other hand, there are those who see advantages in Distance Teaching in comparison to Face-to-Face Teaching: greater reach, better cost/benefit ratio, and, mainly, greater flexibility (for both teachers and learners), since they believe Distance Teaching can become so personalized as to become individualized instruction.
Over against these two favorable positions, there are those who think that in Distance Teaching one loses the personal dimension that, even though not necessary for teaching itself, may seem essential to effective teaching.
Are Face-to-Face and Distance Teaching Equivalent in Terms of Results?
Leaving aside, for the moment, the second position, there is an obvious contradiction between the first and the third position, since defenders of the first assume that there are no substantive differences between Face-to-Face and Distance Teaching (the “virtual” character of Distance Teaching not being considered essential), while defenders of the third position believe that the “virtuality” (or remote character) of Distance Teaching removes from the teaching relation something important, or even essential to it, namely, its personal character, which, according to them, is what makes teaching effective.
Who Is in the Right in this Dispute?
A qualified agreement with the first position seems justified. Teaching involves three elements: the teacher, the learner, and that which the teacher teaches the learner (the “content”). For the teacher to teach the content to the learner, it is no longer necessary, today, that they should both be in spatial-temporal contiguity that is, that they share the same space at the same time.
Socrates insisted (against writing-based teaching) that spatial-temporal contiguity between teacher and learner is essential to teaching, but only because he did not know, and could not even imagine, contemporary telecommunications. Because of this, he claimed that distance teaching (in his case, writing-based teaching) prevented dialogue, questioning and answering, real personal communication between the agents involved (teacher and learner). His argument obviously does not apply today.
The personal character of a relationship, today, is independent of physical proximity in space and time. It is possible, nowadays, to maintain extremely personal – even rather intimate – relationships at a distance, using modern means of distance communication, involving text, sound, image (static and dynamic). On the other hand, mere spatial-temporal contiguity is not guarantee of truly personal relationships. The very large classrooms that exist in some schools often lead to a highly impersonal relationship between teacher and learners, despite their proximity in space and time. Many times, in these contexts, the teacher does not even know the name of the students and is totally ignorant of their personal characteristics, which are highly relevant to effective teaching.
This said, it must be admitted that, other things being equal, face-to-face, eye-to-eye communication allows for more effective teaching than does remote communication, even when the most modern means of distance communication are employed. In face-to-face communication one can rather easily detect the nuances of non-verbal sound expressions (the tone, pitch, and volume of the voice, the rhythm of the speech, the pauses, the subtle emphases) and of body language (especially facial expressions [in which eye contact is perhaps the most significant aspect], but also posture, hand, arm, and leg position, the possibility of touch and other forms of physical contact, etc.).
(This consideration is important for something that is going to be claimed below, namely: if a model of teaching does not work under the best conditions, why should it work when conditions are not so favorable?)
Does Distance Teaching Offer Advantages vis-à-vis Face-to-Face Teaching?
Let us consider, now, the second position described above, namely, that there are advantages to Distance Teaching in relation to Face-to-Face Teaching. If this thesis is correct, the advantages of Distance Teaching may compensate the disadvantage to which attention has just been called.
It was said, before, that the defenders of the thesis that Distance Teaching is more effective than Face-to-Face teaching point to its greater reach, its better cost/benefit ratio, its greater flexibility (both to teachers and learners), and its greater potential for personalization and even individualization.
There is no doubt that Distance Teaching has greater reach than Face-to-Face Teaching. A program of Distance Teaching such as Brazil’s TeleCurso 2000 reaches millions of people each time it is ministered (broadcast) – infinitely more than could be reached if the same course were taught face-to-face.
Here the question is not so easily decided.
The cost of developing (producing) quality Distance Teaching programs (that involve, for instance, television, or even video, or specialized software) is extremely high.
Besides this, the cost of delivery can also be reasonably high. If these programs are broadcast through commercial television networks, delivery costs can even be higher than development and production costs – with the added disadvantage that delivery costs are recurring, not one-time costs.
Because of this, these Distance Teaching programs only offer a favorable cost/benefit ratio if their reach is really great (reaching, for instance, over one million persons).
It is true that development costs can be divided by the various deliveries of the program. A quality Distance Teaching program can be delivered literally hundreds or thousands of times, while its development costs remains the same. The only overall cost component affected by the recurring delivery of the program is its delivery cost, a fact that makes its development costs/delivery costs ratio proportionally lower as the number of deliveries increases. If the number of deliveries is not high, however, this reduction in the ratio may not be significant.
Many of the institutions interested in Distance Teaching today are searching for “shortcuts” that will reduce development costs. Unfortunately, these are rarely found without reduction in quality. Instead of using costly communication means such as television and video, these institutions are using predominantly text in the development of the programs and primarily the Internet (Web and e-mail) in its delivery (so reducing both the cost of development and the cost of delivery). In addition, lest development costs are increased, the text components are adapted from texts previously published and not prepared with the Web in view. The result is that these Distance Teaching programs are little more than correspondence courses delivered through the Internet instead of through the conventional post.
It is true that these institutions try to add some value to the texts made available through the Web offering the learners opportunities of synchronous communication with the author of the texts and with each other through dedicated chats. But chats are quite ineffective for this sort of exchange when many people take part in it.
When Distance Teaching is understood basically as a process of making written texts available through the Web and following this with discussion through e-mail e chats, it is not difficult to believe that its cost/benefit ratio will be more favorable when compared to that of Face-to-Face Teaching.
It is important to register here that if the texts thus made available are prepared specifically for the Web, being therefore enriched with structures such as links (hypertext), annotations, commentaries, glossaries, navigation maps, etc., then the efficacy of Distance Teaching can be greatly increased. But this means that teaching materials will have to be rewritten, with the consequent increase in cost.
Given the fact that distance teaching can use both synchronous and asynchronous communication, there is no doubt that, especially when the latter are employed, teachers and learners have greater flexibility to define the amount of time and the schedule that they are going to use for the course. Web pages, databases, e-mail are all available 24 h per day 7 days a week, and so can be accessed according to the greatest convenience of the user.
Personalization and Individualization
Most education professionals are aware of the fact that individuals are different from one another, have different needs, objectives, cognitive styles, etc., and that, therefore, each individual uses the learning opportunities that are offered to him in ways that are most adequate to his needs, objective, learning style, etc.… Thus, it is obvious that teaching must be adapted to all these factors. We have known this for a long time. These differences have always been acknowledged. But, before, they were seen as problems to be eliminated – a difficulty for the teacher…. Now, however, we have the means to organize our teaching in full recognition of the fact that the diverse capacities of each person represent a great richness and that teaching must start from that…. The end result of this recognition is that teaching will be more and more adapted to each person in particular. (p. 185)
Is it possible to implement these desirable features in Face-to-Face Teaching as it takes place in the school? Maybe – but it seems very difficult, unless the school be somehow reinvented.
Let Us See
School, as we know it, cannot really take into account the different needs, interests and learning styles of the learners and offer each of them personalized and individualized teaching because this kind of teaching comes into collision with a basic assumption of the school: standardization and uniformity.
To expect that the school will provide personalized and individualized teaching is equivalent to expecting that a conventional automobile assembly line will produce cars that are personalized to the individual needs and desires of the customers. This will not work. The assembly line, as we know it, was invented to standardize, to allow that identical cars be made with speed and efficiency. The school, likewise, was created to do something similar in relation to its students. Its model is the assembly line. Its end was to be the production of individuals that, from an educational viewpoint, were as standardized and interchangeable as the automobiles produced in an assembly line. If the students preserve some degree of individuality at the end of their schooling, this will be in spite of the school, not because of its work.
The educational model (or paradigm) adopted by the school is centered on the transmission of information, from the teacher to the learner, through teaching.
This model is outdated – and it is not difficult to see why.
This model is centered on teaching. Teaching is a triadic activity that involves the teacher, the learner (“teachee”), and the content that the former teaches to the latter. Because of this the school gives priority to the content to be transmitted (the curriculum), and, consequently, to the transmitter (the teacher), leaving the learner in the last place – his task is merely to absorb whatever is transmitted to him. Because of this, the school is typically centered on contents and teachers, whereas the opposing tendency described above is centered on the learner (adapted to his needs, interests, cognitive style, and learning rhythm).
What is defective in this conventional model adopted by the school is not the fact that it takes place face-to-face: it is the fact that it is not flexible enough to allow for students with different needs, interests, cognitive styles, and learning rhythms.
Can personalized and individualized education be implemented through Distance Teaching?
If the model employed for Distance Teaching programs is the same used for Face-to-Face Teaching, we will end up having Distance Teaching programs that do not differ substantially from their face-to-face counterparts.
If it is known that this model no longer works, even in optimal communication conditions, where the teacher can communicate face-to-face, eye-to-eye with the learner, why should it work in contexts where teacher and learner have to communicate in suboptimal conditions, as it is the case in Distance Teaching?
It does not seem sensible to repeat, virtually or remotely, the errors of a model that no longer works in its face-to-face implementation. A different model or paradigm is needed.
Technology-Mediated Learning: A New Model
The model of education that will become prevalent in the information society will probably not be centered on teaching, face-to-face, or remote: it will be centered on learning. Consequently, it will not be Distance Teaching – it will probably be something like Technology-Mediated Learning.
This model will have to make provision for the different needs, interests, cognitive style, and learning rhythms of the learners. Whoever wants to participate in a nonlearner role in this model will have to make available, not Distance Teaching modules, but rich learning environments to which anyone can come and in which anyone can learn.
The Internet and the Web, or whatever comes after them, will have a fundamental role in this process.
The Internet is rapidly becoming, through the Web, a repository for every sort of information that is made public. Because of this, people will be coming to the Web to satisfy their information needs. The prevailing model, from now on, will not be some (the teachers) transmitting information to others (the learners) but many (students, workers, anyone who needs it) coming in search of information in places where they know they can find it (the Web). In Internet terms, it will be more “pull” than “push.”
The task of discussing, analyzing, evaluating, and applying this information to practical tasks will be, more and more, performed not through the school, but through specialized virtual discussion groups, where everyone can alternate in teaching and learning roles. What is virtual here is the group, not the learning: this will be real enough to satisfy most people’s learning needs.
If the school can reinvent itself and become a learning environment of this type, it may survive. But the Internet, the Web, e-mail, chats, text-based discussions, video conferences, etc., will have to be in the center of it and to become a regular part of its routine. What is said of the school here applies to schools of every level, including universities.
An example of a learning environment of this type is the discussion group EduTec and the site EduTecNet, set up to discuss the use of technology in education. Its URL is http://www.edutecnet.com.br.