To boldly go into student brains

September 29, 2000

Chris Lonsdale and Barbara Gorayska ponder an automated future

A colleague recently told us about a new project, funded by industry, to develop education technology. The aim is to have technology take over "teaching" in the university so as to free time for teaching academics to engage in other, more creative things. Nice. But what does this really mean?

Every new technology fundamentally changes social and organisational structures. Digital technology is no exception. What will these changes be like? More important, what are the "correct" changes to make? The danger is that unthinking application of technology will dictate the changes, and we may not like the results. Here we discuss two scenarios of how technology in education could develop - the status quo, and another that we believe holds the best hope for an intelligent and humane way forward.

In the status quo environment, people take traditional lecture or text-based materials and put these into web-based, online environments. In some cases, embedded multimedia elements are involved, or students contribute to content. We call this "status quo" because it is the minimum change we expect as technology expands its influence. What is unfortunate, at least for those who believe this scenario offers the best use of technology, is the idea that it is somehow safe and protects the role of the teacher - which it definitely does not.

The job of transmitting information is being automated while the job of generating content is being handed over to students. Learners can, through a personal computer, access, generate and distribute all the information they need, often from much higher quality websites located at the world's top universities. As this trend continues, most university teaching staff will be out of a job - at least as teachers - or will have to retrain as online learning facilitators (whatever that means). Of course, as skilled, professional teaching staff currently employed in colleges, we might naturally find it inconceivable that our jobs could disappear just like that. But - and here's the crunch - why not? Technology transmits information better than any lecture or tutorial. So why bother with lectures and tutorials?

The second scenario is a technology-enabled environment. This is problematic for another reason. It shows little imagination or creativity in terms of how technology can really help people learn. In a different scenario, which we prefer, technology will be used to create truly effective learning environments that enrich the multisensory experience of learners. This will accelerate learners' development along multiple dimensions by generating the potential for new insights while simultaneously supporting symbol grounding, memory and the development of meta-cognitive and emotional skills.

One of the greatest challenges we have had with high-impact learning environments is to vary them in real time, based on the needs of learners. This often involves overnight preparation of different physical props and spatial arrangements. This is where technology comes in. Rather than putting written documents on the web and having online discussion groups (a pretty inefficient way to communicate in any case), we can, and arguably should, use technology in ways that realise its true potential. Digital technology can take on the mechanics of generating props, creating things like smart rooms. Or it can interact directly with brain waves, so as to expand learner perceptions and allow learning from direct experience (maybe something like Star Trek's Holodeck).

Learning technology can be developed even further, to the point where the entire university experience can become a technology-enabled, high-impact learning environment for both students and staff. This opens the possibility of recreating learning communities - a return to real universities. It means a change in what teachers do. In a fully wired, "teacher-free" world, as technology takes over the grind of providing raw data sources, and (at the next step) of building elements of high-impact learning environments that extend human limits, people in a leading role will no longer be simply teaching or facilitating learning. They will need to become "master guides" responsible for the overall design and implementation of the integrated learning context and the integrating learning process.

A true master guide will work with every individual in a group, perceiving their need to transform at any point in time. The individual would be supported by technology-enabled, high-quality information feedback about learners' mental and emotional states, and this would help create new experiences and interventions.

Since such technology cannot be bolted on to current structures, tertiary institutions will have to change profoundly. Our experience tells us that approaches involving new technology cannot achieve full potential in the context of a traditional tertiary education setting. Learners tend to adjust themselves to a larger context. If the large university context remains as it is, this is what most learners will (re)adapt themselves to. How do we design environments that support learning, at least within the context of using technology effectively?

* We need a restructuring of course boundaries, more promotion of multidisciplinary approaches and a full review of how learners are measured

* University architectures need to change. For instance, the structure of lecture theatres actually blocks learning

* The values and mission of learning institutions need a rethink. Unfortunately, most universities do not place a high value on learning. The predominant culture is one in which people who believe they should be doing research are coerced into doing teaching. Oddly, neither research nor teaching is perceived as staff learning

* To fulfil higher expectations of skilled learners with access to a world of facts and data, already perceived as "artificial consciousness", the value of learning needs to be clearly affirmed. Staff should be rewarded for their contributions to helping all learners (including themselves) achieve their goals, as elegantly and efficiently as possible

* Viewpoints need to change. In a wired world, the focus on transmission of content will change. Master guides must fully experience the world from the point of view of learners, while also perceiving themselves as learners. Only from this learner viewpoint can they design events, activities, communications and experiences that can profoundly affect the mental models of the learners

* Another change requires thinking about teaching people, not subjects. The product of any education institution should be competent, realised individuals who can contribute to their world and their society. This requires much more than simple intellectual achievement. Master guides first need to know what the essence of a fully realised, whole person is and then design appropriate learning interventions

* Status differentials will need to be removed. Only then can we create a situation whereby everyone can learn from everyone else, thereby creating a true learning community. Whatever technology we choose, the work life of people in education institutions will change irrevocably. It has happened before. Where once skilled labourers worked in small production teams, today we have robot-driven production systems. The same will be true in education.

The challenge we face is to choose those technologies that will help us create the world we desire and also develop our skills to be masters in guiding learning, capable of expanding human horizons. We are, of course, talking here about realising what we believe to be the true mission of a university - expanding human knowledge while building a better society.

Chris Lonsdale is a director of Chris Lonsdale and Associates, an organisational development consultancy. Barbara Gorayska is a president of Cognitive Technology Society and an associate professor in the computer science department, City University of Hong Kong. They are founders of Integron Design International (www.integronlearning.com).

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