by Derek Reeve, June 1998

Meetings such as the IGE meeting tend to be self-selecting. Participants are likely to be already interested in, and at least partially committed to, the subject of the discussion.  Contrary views are less likely to be fully aired.

On reflection, and certainly playing Devil's advocate, perhaps the meeting subjected the IGE concept to insufficient critical scrutiny, or perhaps we simply pursued the pragmatic line that web-based teaching is going to happen anyway and so we might as well plan for it to happen as beneficially as possible?

If I were to be critical of the IGE agenda, I think I'd focus upon two lines of attack :-

1) The limits of the metaphor

Proposals for interoperable educational objects clearly take as a metaphor 'interoperability' as it is understood in a conventional computer science context The contention is that with sufficiently explicit IMS-style meta-data, teachers should be able to piece together a coherent course from diversely authored educational objects, just as application builders can piece together applications from compiled software objects.

Even the best metaphor, however, has limitations and should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. In the present case, is it really true that building software applications provides an appropriate metaphor for creating an educational course?  A major feature of software interoperability is that the internal structures of objects are hidden, only their interfaces need to be published. This clearly isn't the case with educational objects. To ensure consistency, continuity, absence of overlap, etc it is obvious that the internal contents of educational objects will need to be exposed and indeed editable. Meta-data associated with online educational objects might provide a guide as to where it is profitable to start to look for appropriate raw-materials, but once found, teachers will need set to work to fashion them into a coherent course. The notion that educational objects will simply snap together like so many leggo bricks is not sustainable.
Rather than being like constructing a software application, perhaps a better metaphor for creating an course is that of writing a novel. Imagine what would result if a novel were to be written under conditions in which each chapter is written in isolation by different authors with each author being allowed only to know the last paragraph of the preceding chapter and the first paragraph of the following one!

Viewed in this light, what will be the major differences between using raw-materials obtained from the Web to write a GIS course and using the conventional raw materials of books and journals.

2)Does it benefit the students?

"Education is not reducible to the downloading of information."

I think we spent surprisingly little time at the meeting focussing upon what should, of course, have been the central question. We considered the technologies at length. We discussed the impacts which web-based teaching might have upon ourselves and our institutions, but did we, actually, discuss in any detail whether it will be good for students?

Of course, one can readily think of a persuasive list of potential benefits to students - wide pools of expertise, educational objects written by world experts, currency of information, independent learning, independence from particular institutions etc. But one can also see a considerable down-side for students - isolation from teachers, packaged learning, incoherent materials, second-hand marking by teaching assistants. One might wonder how much institutional enthusiasms for online learning actually has to do with improving the education experiences and how much with commodifying them.

"At UCLA officials are betting that their high-tech agenda will be "student driven", as students insist that faculty make fuller use of the web site technology in their courses.

To date, however, there has been no such demand on the part of students, no serious study of it, and no evidence for it. Indeed, the few times students have been given a voice, they have rejected the initiatives hands down, especially when they were required to pay for it (the definition of effective demand, i.e. a market).

At UCLA, students recommended against the Instructional Enhancement Initiative. At the University of British Columbia, home of the WEB-CT software being used at UCLA, students voted in a referendum four-to-one against a similar initiative, despite a lengthy administration campaign promising them a more secure place in the high tech future."

"Recent surveys of the instructional use of information technology in higher education clearly indicate that there have been no significant gains in either productivity improvement or pedagogical enhancement. Kenneth C.
Green , Director of the Campus Computing Project, which conducts annual surveys of information technology use in higher education, noted that "the campus experience over the past decade reveals that the dollars can be daunting, the return on investment highly uncertain." "We have yet to hear of an instance where the total costs (including all realistically amortized capital investments and development expenses, plus reasonable estimates for faculty and support staff time) associated with teaching some unit to some group of students actually decline while maintaining the quality of learning," Green wrote. On the matter of pedagogical effectiveness, Green noted that "the research literature offers, at best, a mixed review of often inconclusive results, at least when searching for traditional measures of statistical significance in learning outcomes.""

Extracts from David F Noble (1997) Digital Diploma Mills : The Automation of Higher Education.

Personally, I believe that not only is the movement towards on-line, 'broadly' interoperable education inevitable but also it will be largely beneficial. We should, however, test our assumptions. Perhaps at some future meeting we should deliberately invite an proponent of the contrary view?

Return to Discussion page