Not a useful guiding light, Neil James

In Search of the Virtual Class
John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham
Routledge, $54.95,
ISBN 0415124832

Of all parts of our society education has been said to have undergone the least change over the past 100 years. A farmer from last century would have to start from scratch in learning today’s farming methods. A surgeon from last century would find most of the apparatus in a modern surgical theatre alien and the techniques unfamiliar. Quite simply a farmer or surgeon from last century would not be able to work in the modern environments of their professions.

On the other hand a teacher from last century would immediately recognise most of the equipment and techniques used in today’s classroom and would, with few exceptions, be able to function as a teacher. Classrooms have been used for at least 4000 years as a basic element of the education systems around the world. Tiffin and Rajasingham say part of the reason for the lack of change may be in the effectiveness of the classroom as a communication mechanism.

However, many people now see a need to change our education systems. This may be driven by several different forces ‑ the general level of change in our societies; the change in allied activities; and, perhaps the most important force, the growing dominance of information technology in communication. Tiffin and Rajasingham believe that there will be a change in our education systems driven by the needs of the information (technology) age and the type of education needed for the emerging information society. This change is seen as replacing the classroom with the virtual class, made possible through the technologies which have been developed over the past three decades and their emerging application in the education arena.

Thus this book sets out to give a vision of education in the future and through this vision to stimulate debate about future scenarios for education in an information society. Tiffin and Rajasingham develop a vision of education based on virtual reality, which they claim will build effective successors for the classroom environment. Their belief is based on the fact that the learning experience requires a rich environment which can simulate the idea of being together with other people and facilitate the use of group learning techniques.

The authors first examine the current environment and several initiatives in the use of information technology in education, and lead us towards a vision of the virtual class. Next they look at communication and education drawing on a wealth of educational research. Terms such as zone of proximal development (ZPD) are widely used and the concept of fractals levels in education and communication are developed. The use of the classroom in education is examined and its effectiveness described and explained. The authors then turn to looking at the problems which are emerging in our education system. The central theme of the perceived problem is summed up thus:

It is no longer sufficient for people to become literate and numerate. The growth of the knowledge industry has brought a demand for new skills and new literacies. Education systems are failing to provide the quality and quantity of workers which countries will require for sustained economic growth in the twentyfirst Century.

The authors see the solution in creating an education paradigm where learning is free from time and location constraints. Their vision is the development of the virtual class to remove those constraints. Chapter 5, titled “Roads to the virtual class”, discusses the precursors to the virtual class. Past educational technologies which have failed to live up to their promise are analysed and the defects identified: for instance, educational television experiments have been largely unsuccessful. Some perhaps counter‑intuitive findings are reported, including the discovery that the video aspects of the educational television programmes do not necessarily enhance the learning experience. The use of computer‑assisted instruction and computer‑managed instruction is briefly described and analysed and some mention is made of artificial intelligence and intelligent computer instruction.

The next chapter looks at the transmission technologies which will free education from the location constraint. Audio conferencing, video conferencing and audio graphics are explained. The concept of asynchronous interaction through electronic mail and other electronic services is introduced. Multimedia and CD‑ROM technology is briefly reviewed and the concept of networked multimedia and the phenomenon of the world wide web are covered.

Chapter 7 describes initial experiments in virtual reality using head‑mounted displays and gloves. The authors then theorise that a virtual reality suit, based on the nanotechnology space suit presented by Eric Drexler in his book, “Engines of Creation”, will be developed as a central part of the future virtual reality. The suit would provide the wearer with a completely surrounding virtual reality experience while blocking out the real world (similar to the way that a Walkman can create a virtual sound world while blocking out real world sounds).

In chapter 8 the authors develop their scenarios of the virtual class in what they describe as the fractal levels of education: the autonomous learner, learner and teacher, the small group and the large institution.

Chapter 9 looks at what factors are likely to determine the development and adoption of the virtual class as industrial societies become information societies. The problems of transport to the classroom have been managed in schools through ensuring a small pupil catchment area and managed in some tertiary institutions through on‑campus accommodation. However the challenge of providing all the skills and subjects that a learner requires will see the increased use of telecommunications and virtual reality in some form or other. The cost of telecommunications is continuing to drop and this has prompted some industry watchers to predict that bandwidth will become essentially free in the future.

When this is put into the equation it would seem that telecommunication will be used increasingly in place of physical transport. Bit by bit industries are offering alternatives to travel. We can transact much of our banking requirements from home, it is now possible to shop via the Internet and, of course, entertainment is beamed into the home via television. Teleworking is becoming more common and in some places strongly encouraged. For example, following the recent Los Angeles earthquake, there was considerable encouragement to telework in order to relieve the pressure on the Los Angeles’ damaged roading system. The education industry will also be pressured to provide travel‑free options.

The authors see education becoming a global utility and being provided on a commercial basis. Economies of scale will become more available as courses can be delivered on a global basis.

The final chapter talks about the appropriate balance between virtual reality and real reality. The authors appropriately do not attempt to sum up what has been discussed in the book and finish with the statement: “The search goes on.”

At the end of the book there are notes relating to some specific items mentioned in each chapter. A very comprehensive bibliography is provided giving testament to the wide reading and research by the authors, and a useful index is provided.

This book raises quite a number of issues, both of technology and where it is going, and of education and the education process. It gives a comprehensive background to the issues of technology in education which would be useful to anyone wishing to study in this area. Tiffin and Rajasingham say they wish to stimulate debate on these issues. In the interests of debate I offer some comments of my own from the perspective of a person employed within an educational institution and with almost 30 years of professional involvement in information technology.

In discussions about what part computers will play in education many people point to the predictions that the television would revolutionise education. Such a revolution clearly has not taken place. Why should we believe the computers will lead a revolution in education?

Technologies such as the aeroplane and television have continued to be refined and improved but their basic capabilities have not changed since their inception. Computers, by contrast, have shown a capability quite different from all previous technologies; they have continued to evolve. Computers were first used in tasks such a calculating shell trajectories or counting people in censuses. They are now also used for many new functions quite unrelated to their former tasks, such word processing, editing of video material, control of manufacturing machines and the generation of various forms of virtual reality. The adaptive and evolutionary behaviour of the computer provides a caution not to use comparison with other technologies as a guide to future developments in education using computers.

Just how completely will virtual reality and the virtual class be accepted? I have a suspicion that human nature will work against its use. There seems to be a basic need for most human beings to socialise. We are told that teleshopping will take over from the physical shopping trip ‑ I am not so sure. Shopping is often a social experience and new bigger and better shopping complexes continue to be built. The book contains a number of sketches illustrating the scenarios of education in the future employing virtual reality. I found these rather chilling pictures of the future and I wonder whether others will also.

Just how quickly can change be brought about? As any teacher knows, there is a very big effort involved in the production of a new lesson. The cost in time and effort in producing an educational video is enormous and the effort required in the production of quality multimedia presentations is now proving to be a barrier to their use. How much more of a barrier will the time and effort required to produce a virtual reality environment be?

There is currently a great concern in our universities about how a change in teaching techniques can be brought about. Very tight financial constraints and a financial situation which deteriorates each year do not constitute an environment into which it is easy to introduce expensive teaching and learning re‑engineering. However, many believe the changes must take place because without them the institutions will not survive in the global education services market.

The cost of redevelopment of lessons is high. A typical New Zealand university will present perhaps 10,000 lectures a year. The development of one hour of multimedia or material able to be delivered at a distance to replace the lecture will take perhaps 40 to 50 hours. If the cost for each hour of a lecturer’s time is put at $60 then the total cost of “re‑engineering” teaching at the university would come to between $200 and $250 million. Of course, redevelopment of courses is going on all the time so an evolutionary approach could be taken. Whenever a course is in need of rewriting it should be redeveloped with new technology in mind. Even so it is difficult to believe that it can be done in a reasonable time‑frame without considerable additional resource being applied to the problem. In addition there will need to be considerable infrastructural support available to assist teachers undertaking the redevelopment of their presentations. And this is perhaps just a small step towards Tiffin’s and Rajasingham’s world of the virtual class.

It is likely that any change must take place in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, manner. The speed of change will to some extent be driven by the market and the emerging internationalisation of education with the increasing introduction of distance‑taught courses. As courses are packaged for delivery via multimedia techniques they also become, as a byproduct, distance deliverable. In addition education suppliers are producing courses specifically for “telelearning”. My own institution, along with a growing number of universities, provides some specialised courses internationally. Institutions with no expertise in distance teaching, and no courses to offer, will find the environment of the twenty‑first century a hostile one. Institutional survival will depend on ensuring the institution can meet the market needs for access to education where and when the individual learners want it. Learners will find themselves in a buyers market in the quest for education. This is going to be a major driver of change, including a commercialisation of education.

One of the major problems with “new” technology is that it often does not deliver what visionaries predict. Notable examples of predicted technologies which have still not reached their promised performance are automatic language translation, general speech recognition, and hand writing recognition. Often visionaries have been just too ambitious about what will come about, and it is clear that there is a class of tasks to which it is difficult to effectively apply computers. While we definitely need a vision so that we may “break out of the square” and have something to aim for, a vision which is too far in the future, or is clearly not obtainable, leads to disillusionment. I have a concern that the virtual class scenario developed may be one which is too far away from being able to be made a reality for it to be a useful guiding light.

This book certainly isn’t a “cook‑book” on how to move teaching practices and learning opportunities into the twenty-first century. However it does give a picture of the current use of technology in education and it ventures a scenario which, even if one doesn’t agree with it, is thought‑provoking.

Neil James is director of the computer services centre at the University of Otago.

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Posted in Education, Non-fiction and Review
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