by Leslie A. Brogan, Senior Consultant
|“Distance learning” is here. This Advisor describes how the term is being used in Michigan and the problems of evolution facing the government, education, and the private sector in keeping up and employing the technology.|
Just about every school and school district in Michigan is talking about, if not putting in place, “distance learning.” It is not per se an invention of the 1990s—some centuries ago a gadget called the printing press enabled people to learn from books at a distance, but the term and the process it now represents have become part of the technology fever of this decade.
The national administration is pushing and publicizing the advent of the technological information age and, to its credit or blame, has coined the phrase “information superhighway.” While overused and wearisome, the analogy is useful. We simultaneously are building and using this road, which is becoming a far-reaching expressway with no speed limits, very few toll booths, and randomly situated on and off ramps. The route and road signs—structure and standards—will come, but for now we don’t know how we are going to get where we are going; indeed, we aren’t certain precisely where we are going. What is most troublesome, however, is that, as Vice President Al Gore remarked before the Television Academy last January, “when it comes to telecommunications services, schools are the most impoverished institutions in society.” Such remarks have helped call the education community to action, and schools are counting on the promises of distance learning to put them on the information superhighway.
What is Distance Learning?
Defined most broadly, distance learning is the transmission of any educational material over a wire or the airwaves. This all-encompassing interpretation is being used in the Michigan debate. More precisely, distance learning is technology-delivered learning, and it is not necessarily confined to classroom-type activities transmitted from a host site to a remote site. It can be a child using a personal computer to tap into an information database, or a television monitor beaming into the classroom a national programming network, or a child or teacher sending a note via electronic mail (e-mail) to someone in another school. Distance learning is delivered through hard wire, airwaves, satellites, computers, TVs, telephones, and/or yet-to-be developed technologies. It can involve voice, video, data, or any combination thereof.
Simply put, distance learning systems usually are configured on the degree of interactivity desired.
- In one-way video and voice distance learning, the teacher cannot see or interact with the students in the remote classroom s/he is reaching; the students in the remote sites can hear and see the teacher, but they cannot interact.
- In hybrid two-way video and voice, the teacher and students can see and hear each other, but students cannot see students at sites other than their own. Students respond to the teacher using e-mail or telephone.
- In two-way interactive video and voice, the teacher and all students, in both host and remote sites, can see one another and communicate by voice and video. This system comes closest to reproducing a live classroom setting.
Distance learning goes beyond the school house to the community at large. It transcends classroom walls and can link schools with businesses, libraries, government, hospitals, and homes, resulting in information and education opportunities on a scope as narrow as one’s community or as expansive as the globe and beyond. Down the road, distance learning will be limited only by our imagination, technology, and resources.
Is Distance Learning “Educationally Correct”?
Willard Daggett, a nationally known expert on education issues, repeatedly has said that “American schools have done a great job of recreating grandma and grandpa’s curriculum,” in a world that no longer can use grandma and grandpa’s skills in the workplace.
Distance learning is profoundly different from the rote memorizing, the drills, and the recitation used in preceding generations. Distance learning is interactive, it can be learner-centered and self-directed, and some say it will result in students having thinking skills better than those they develop under traditional teaching methods. Distance learning also introduces students to the technological tools they inevitably will use in the workplace.
Some educators, however, shy away from distance learning, fearing that it is too gimmicky and strays too far from what has been the foundation of our education system: linear, sequential learning and thinking. Technology promotes thinking in a more random, nonsequential way.
The educational correctness of distance learning also is being judged by the extent to which it equalizes education opportunities, access to information and ideas, and instruction. Although schools have varied reasons and needs for a distance learning network, all recognize such a system’s ability to bring additional curriculum and opportunity to remote areas and to less-fortunate school districts. Distance learning can combine teaching resources, save time and travel, and offer low-incidence classes that ordinarily are not offered for such reasons as too few interested students, too little money, or lack of specialty teachers.
The good news is that we have choices in distance learning; the bad news is that there also is confusion. How do we choose the most appropriate system? To whom do we listen? How do we pay for the system? How does the system keep up with technological change? Who has the real answers?
Many in the education community admit that they don’t have the answers. There are few with both the educational and technological know-how about distance learning. As for the vast majority, one educator confessed that educators are good at talking to each other but not with vendors or the business community. For the most part, those most expert are the vendors: cable companies, telephone companies, computer companies, broadcasters, and so on.
Currently, distance learning network vendors are closely associated with their own particular delivery system, but in about two years, technological advances will have blurred such associations. Today the distinctions are clear: Telephone companies traditionally have offered their services through twisted copper wires and switching systems—good for voice and for voice interactivity; cable television companies have reached viewers by coaxial cable—good for video and lots of it. By tomorrow, however, such telecommunication providers will have laid their fiber optic cable, and more will be using other new transmission technologies; all this will maximize the speed, interaction, capacity, clarity, and reliability of distance learning systems.
There is a mighty battle in the marketplace among vendors, and it will intensify. While not readily apparent to the end users of a distance learning system, the delivery system is as much a part of the distance learning evolution as is the content. Big money will accrue to those who are able to lay the wire, sell the satellite, lease the broadband width, pull the switch, supply the software, provide the classroom equipment, and interconnect the independent, fragmented networks existing throughout the state.
State Government’s Role
Remarkably, all players in the distance learning game appear to agree on the proper role for Michigan state government. The state should not build, own, or operate the system; it is not equipped to keep on top of the latest technology. It also should not select the technologies to be used; it should leave that to the forces and creativity of the competitive marketplace.
Instead, the state should acknowledge the advantages of technological learning and encourage the deployment of diverse technologies to put such systems in place. It should establish objectives and set standards that are “open,” that is, standards that will ensure that all systems can be interconnected and expanded in the future. It should also be a leader in providing and raising funds to make distance learning systems possible.
The state should be the great equalizer, assuring that there are no technological gaps and that we are not creating a class system of information “haves” and “have-nots.” Because of the costs involved with infrastructure, equipment, and operation of any one of the networks, it is easy to see how less-affluent school districts could end up on the sidelines.
Michigan government has been studying, debating, planning, and implementing education technology for quite some time. In 1992 the Michigan Department of Education reported the existence of 34 telecommunications projects in school districts around the state. Most are two-way interactive systems, using cable, fiber, microwave, satellite, or a combination. The systems are not connected in a statewide network.
In addition to these separate systems, there are six statewide telecommunication networks in Michigan that link, in various configurations, state universities and community colleges with public schools, businesses, government, and residents. They are Michigan Instructional Television (MITV), Michigan Community College Telecommunications Network (MCCTN), Michigan Information Technology Network (MITN), MichNet, Michigan Collegiate Telecommunications Association (MiCTA), and Whittle Communications’ Educational Network.
Individual telecommunication providers also have developed visions of distance learning and have sponsored models of their technological ability. Ameritech launched its SuperSchools program in 1992, which equips selected schools with technology using the telephone lines. Cable companies have been wiring schools, free of charge, since the 1980s, and provide free access to such programming as “Cable in the Classroom.” Telephone long-distance carriers have created learning networks and helped fund databases that can be used as part of the classroom curriculum.
Over a year ago, the State Board of Education’s Technology and Telecommunications Planning Advisory Group (TTPAG) was formed to recommend how to implement the five-year State Technology Plan, developed by the department, and fashion a statewide Michigan Information Network. In its Concept Paper on Technology and Educational Reform, published January 28, 1994, the group says: “Technology is a fundamental element in the process of educational reform. We must insure that technology is given visibility and priority as part of our discussions and decisions regarding educational funding and reform initiatives.”
The TTPAG recommends that data connectivity be established first, followed by video interactivity. Simultaneously, Michigan educators should be trained in how to use these technologies in their classrooms.
A One-Time Pot of Money
In November 1993, following months of negotiations, the Michigan Public Service Commission approved an agreement among Michigan Bell (now Ameritech), the commission, and other telecommunications providers to use money accrued from a rate over-earnings case “to promote the development of integrated educational telecommunications networks, distance learning, video-conferencing, and related voice or data services for the public.” Schools, school districts, and consortia of technology users now are applying for these funds—totaling more than $12 million—for technology-related education initiatives in Michigan. (By order of the commission, Ameritech also will establish a separate fund of $11 million that it will deploy for educational telecommunications technology; this fund, however, is separate from the rate over-earnings monies.)
The newly formed Michigan Council on Telecommunications Services for Public Education, created by the governor, is charged with awarding the funds and anticipates making 15–20 grants, none for more than $1 million and wherever possible to consortia of applicants in order to benefit as many potential users as possible.
While this money is indeed a one-time boost to distance learning, it will not sustain a network. Indeed, there are few sources of funding for operating costs. Such costs are substantial and obviously stand in the way of many schools getting into distance learning.
In a 1993 survey commissioned by the MITN, of 261 Michigan superintendents queried, 66 percent reported being very interested in televised distance learning that would enable their district to share classes with other schools and/or districts. Other benefits cited were distance learning’s potential to expand and improve curriculum, save money, spread resources, and expand pupils access to classes and teachers. The survey data also show that 34 percent of the school districts currently use some form of distance learning and 51 percent are considering it. Of those not considering it, 51 percent said that cost was the principal reason.
How Close is the Future?
Build it and they will come! This worked in the movie, Field of Dreams, but will it hold true in real life? Cost is not the only major impediment to universal distance learning. The superintendents polled in 1993 estimated that a great majority (61 percent) of Michigan teachers are not familiar with distance learning. Anecdotal information also shows that many educators are uncomfortable about using new, unfamiliar technologies in the classroom.
For the most part, our current teachers did not grow up with computer-based learning or high tech games. Many, if not most, are from a generation that read books, memorized multiplication tables, and learned to use computers—often grudgingly—as word processors. They must be made comfortable with technology and enthusiastic about what it can do for children.
Continuous training of teachers in how to use and be a part of technological education must be part of any distance learning plan. Teachers also must be prepared for the possibility that, with widespread technological opportunities, their role could evolve into that of a facilitator or mentor, there to encourage each learner’s self-discovery.
Teachers also have to wrestle with their students being more technologically savvy than they are. The first Nintendo generation is in college. Freshman arrive with lap-top computers equipped with CD roms, as they once did with typewriters and reference books. Unlike our teachers, these youngsters are growing up in a nonlinear, interactive, electronic world. The education community, although divided on the wisdom of pandering to the 30-second, glitzy bytes on which the new generation has been electronically raised, must be able to reach and teach such students.
A future step in distance learning is virtual reality, whereby the user becomes part of a computer-created environment. And eventually, students actually may be able to feel change and interact with the computer program in a nonmaterial world called cyberspace.