During the past two weeks I have spent some time in reading an interesting and worthwile book (in Dutch) by dr. Marcel Mirande, the former director of the Digital University. The Digital University (DU) used to be a consortium of 9 higher education institutes in the Netherlands. The focus of DU projects was on innovation and the use of ICT. Since Jan. 2007 the DU has been incorporated into SURF.
Mirande provides us with an interesting overview on the use of technology in education. Technology is always evolving, but only few examples have shown that technology indeed leads to a new form of education. Does it depend on the technology or do we have unrealistic expectations when a new technology arrives? The author takes us on a historic tour, starting in 1925 with the first learning machine invented by a psychologist called Sidney Pressey. Pressey was working on standardisation of tests, built several machines and did a lot of attempts to achieve acceptance for his learning machines. However, in the 30's nobody was really interested. In the early 60's the learning machines became more and more accepted. The sad thing for Pressey though was that his younger rival Skinner received all the credits. I think this is a typical example of how technology may be ahead of it's time: the technical possibilities are great, but there is no immediate need for it in education, or it takes to much effort to implement it.
The 80's can be considered the years of the rise of computer assisted instruction: i.e., not on a terminal connected to a mainframe, but on a microcomputer! This brings on a very vivid memory to myself, since this is about the period I started working with computers. I created a lot of research data files and - consecutively- a lot of SPSS-analyses on the IBM mainframe at the University of Nijmegen. Colleagues were working on one of the first IBM Personal Computer. It must have been 1985 before I started working on an IBM PC. It was the first one in the department of experimental psychology with an internal harddisk of 20Mb. Wow, that was huge! As a part of my PhD research I programmed an application in Turbo Pascal for the purpose of analysis and remedial teaching of motoric aspects of handwriting. Looking back at this and other applications the 4-E model by Betty Collis provides an excellent predictor for success: Ease of use, Effectiveness, Environment, Engagement.
In the subsequent chapters of his book Mirande takes us to the early years of the internet as we know it at this moment. Starting with Mosaic in 1993 as the first graphical internet browser. In those days I worked at OTEC at the Dutch Open University and I still remember the victory we felt when one of our programmers succeeded to run Mosaic and showed that to us. However, there was hardly any interesting content to be found. It's incredibable how the penetration of internet has grown since then: from about 7% in 1997 until well over 90% at this very moment. The internet has now become a standard tool, as much as a calculator or a television. A lot of TV commercials only mention a URL if you want to contact a vendor, whereas a few years ago the commercial also mentioned a phone number. A serious concern though is that the internet has also created new gaps: between wealthy and poor, between well educated and poorly educated, and between the young and elderly.
It was in the beginning of the internet burst that the University of Twente started their work on the development of one of the first e-learning platforms: TeleTOP, which is nowadays our campus wide e-learning facility. TeleTOP was designed from an educational background, which explains it's success and acceptance. It fulfils the needs of our instructors. Blackboard achieved a remarkable success in the global e-learning market, probably because it related so closely to the existing instructional design principles: It was not necessary to implement large changes in instructional design. Bb became an additional means to publish information (announcements, learning materials).
At the end of the 90's there was a mid-size Dutch company called SPC. They developed prototypes of an e-learning environment which was based on a communication design. MSN-like features (select your own buddies en see who's online), commenting on each other by using digital postings and the use of a discussion forum were interesting new features. Two-way interaction was the key design principle. A little bit analogous to Pressey the commercial people and consultants did a lot of presentations for prospects and during fairtrades. We organised seminars with over 100 participants, but still we did not get any further than some small pilot projects, except for one large and successful project within a Dutch financial institute. The company moved away from this market, and did not survive the economical crisis that started in 2001. Looking at the current approach of e-learning in which communication and collaborative functions are key issues, the ideas we had 8 years ago were not so bad after all. Pedagogical concepts like peer-to-peer learning, communities of practice provide a framework in which this kind of e-learning technology can fit. Blackboard has trouble in following this shift towards a two-way approach of learning. Sharepoint, It's learning, Sakai (although very different) are just a few examples that explicitly address this new way of looking at education.
Moreover, E-learning is evolving towards more wireless broadband access of rich media information and by using mobile devices. Again, we must watch out not to be too far ahead of what educators need. As Mirande concludes the penetration of the learning machine is inevitable and will further increase. It also forces educators to rethink their way of organising a curriculum, subjects and the instructional design they want to apply.
For personal reasons Marcel Mirande retired a few months before the DU was incorporated into SURF. I'd like to congratulate him on the publication of this book and I wish him the very best for the future.
Mirande, M. (2006). De onstuitbare opkomst van de leermachine: Over de precaire verhouding tussen technologie en onderwijs in de periode 1925-2005. Assen: Van Gorcum.
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