E. Wayne Ross: The Promise and Perils of E-Learning

E. Wayne Ross: The Promise and Perils of E-Learning
A critical look at the new technology
E. Wayne Ross is a professor of education at the State University of New York at Binghamton. His latest book, co-edited with David Hursh, is Democratic Social Education: Social Studies For Social Change (Routledge/ Falmer).

The digital revolution is transforming culture, communication, and commerce, but nowhere is faith in technology’s power more clearly demonstrated than in the classroom.

E-learning is about much more than just plugging in a classroom computer. Some advocates predict that computers and modems will replace pencils and books and others believe that brick-and-mortar schools (and all but elite universities) will soon be obsolete. In a recent article for Education Week, Peter J. Stokes, vice president of Eduventures.com, a market-research company in Boston, describes e-learning as, “becoming literate [in] new mechanisms for communication: computer networks, multimedia, content portals, search engines, electronic libraries, distance learning, and web-enabled classrooms. E-Learning is characterized by speed, technological transformation, and mediated human interactions.”

Like many other technology advocates, Stokes believes e-learning will revolutionize the traditional classroom by augmenting textbooks with online resources; making lectures interactive and multimedia based; and extending discussions beyond the classroom walls via new communication platforms. Education beyond the classroom is also being transformed, with web-based tutoring, parental access to real-time student evaluation systems (rather than report cards), and student access to coursework from multiple locations. Advocates argue that e-learning represents a powerful convergence of technological opportunity and economic necessity, which makes it the basis of intimate contact between schools and private, entrepreneurial businesses, such as the technology companies whose hardware and software make e-learning possible. The conventional wisdom in educational policy circles has been that children need to be introduced to computers early and that technology should be a strong presence in their school lives. In 1994, when the Clinton administration promised to connect every school to the Internet, only 1 in 3 schools and just 3 percent of classrooms were wired. By last year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 95 percent of schools and 63 percent of all classrooms had Internet access—a project that has cost $100 billion according to some estimates. Fourth-graders are now building their own web sites, a suburban Chicago school district has purchased palm pilots for all their high school students, virtual high schools have been in operation for years, and in Pennsylvania there is currently a proposal for a cyber-school that would enroll children as young as five years old. The rationale most often proffered for e-learning is that it can more effectively develop knowledge workers with high-tech skills who are necessary to sustain the growth of the “new economy.”

Recent polls indicate that most Americans believe PCs and the Internet are benign or beneficial. They certainly aren’t afraid of technology and seem to believe the conventional wisdom that early exposure to technology is a good thing. For example, Americans spent $424 million dollars last year on CD-ROMs for their children, and a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that on a typical day, 26 percent of 2- to 7-year-olds spent time on the computer, averaging 40 minutes. The public, however, is somewhat conflicted about the impact of technology as they also blame it for accelerating already-frantic lifestyles or creating more problems than it solves. This was evident at the Wired Culture Forum, held in Toronto this past spring, when over 400 high school students raised serious questions about the rate at which technology is taking over their lives—their growing dependence on machines, the isolating nature of the Internet, and how technology threatens their privacy and ability to relate to others. A growing number of technology skeptics argue that the digital revolution has produced a variety of deleterious effects, such as disconnecting people from nature, their communities, and one another. The generally laissez faire approach to technology adoption in education and other parts of our culture has produced a disturbing lack of critical thinking about technology’s impact. Critics point to the fact that warning messages of environmental and child-advocacy groups about the negative impact of the automobile and television were largely ignored for decades. Richard Scolve of the Loka Institute—an organization devoted to increasing public involvement in technology decisions—told the Christian Science Monitor that the public’s lack of questioning about technology is similar to the early euphoria over the automobile. “The benefits are personally experienced while the downside is more diffused,” says Scolve. It took decades before people started to balance the advantages of individual mobility and convenience provided by cars, with the collective impact of smog and unsustainable development patterns.

E-learning and Children: A Harmful Mix? The most remarkable fact about the rise of e-learning in K-12 and higher education, however, is the speculative nature of the effort. There is little or no evidence to support the beneficial claims of proponents of e-learning for children. A new report by the Alliance for Childhood argues that the use of computers in education have had no proven positive effects on children, and may even be physically, intellectually, and socially harmful, especially for kids under the age of 11. The report, “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood,” grew out of the founding gathering of the U.S. branch of the Alliance for Childhood—an international effort of educators, physicians, and others concerned about the plight of children today and who believe that by working together in broad-based partnerships of individuals and organizations the lives of children can be improved. The Alliance argues that the benefits of computers for preschool and elementary students are vastly overstated and the costs—in terms of money spent, loss of creative, hands-on educational opportunities, and damage to children’s emotional health—are not accurately reported.

Do Computers Motivate Children To Learn Faster And Better? The “Fool’s Gold” report claims that 30 years of research on educational technology has produced just one clear link between computers and children’s learning: “Drill-and-practice programs appear to improve test scores modestly—though not as much or as cheaply as one-on-one tutoring—on some standardized tests in narrow skill areas.” Furthermore, Larry Cuban, a Stanford University education professor and former president of the American Educational Research Association, is quoted in the report that “there is no clear, commanding body of evidence that students’ sustained use of multimedia machines, the Internet, word processing, spreadsheets, and other popular applications has any impact on academic achievement.” When it comes to intellectual growth, the Alliance for Childhood argues that what is good for adults and older students is often inappropriate for youngsters. Rather than relying on information technologies, for example, face- to-face conversation with more competent language users is the one constant in studies of how children become expert speakers, listeners, and writers.

Cuban describes the strong support of technology advocates and educational policy makers for investment in “hard” (e.g., wiring and machines) and “soft” (e.g., technical support and professional development) infrastructure for schools in the face of so little evidence as “irrational exuberance.” Moreover, while the Alliance acknowledges that for children with certain disabilities, technology offers clear benefits, but for the majority of children computers pose (or contribute to) health hazards and serious developmental problems, such as repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, obesity, and social isolation. More generally the rapid technology changes of our era have accelerated our daily lives and caused the development of what James Gleick—in his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything—calls “hurry-sickness.”

Must Five-Year-Olds Be Trained On Computers To Get The High-Paying Jobs? A major part of the argument for placing computers in classrooms has essentially been a vocational one: students need to learn computer skills needed in the modern workplace. The need for “technological literacy” has become a myth that masks the fact that it is credentials, like a college degree, not computer-related skills that one needs to get a high-paying job in today’s economy. Technology critics such as Cuban, argue the focus of education should be on developing morally responsible citizens and helping children, especially those who are labeled “at risk,” gain the necessary skills and knowledge to earn those highly important credentials. The emphasis on technology is diverting us from the urgent social and educational needs of low-income children. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and author of The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit has asked: “Are we using computer technology not because it teaches best but because we have lost the political will to fund education adequately?” There is strong evidence that major investments in areas such as expanded preschool and adult literacy education, reducing class size, and ensuring that teachers are qualified and well-paid help children to avoid academic failure and produces more high-school graduates who pursue higher education.

Do Computers Really “Connect” Children To The World? The Alliance for Childhood claims that what computers actually connect children to are trivial games, inappropriate adult content, and aggressive advertising. The “distance” education technology promotes is the opposite of what all children need—close relationships with caring adults. The Fool’s Gold report states, “Research shows that strengthening bonds between teachers, students, and families is powerful remedy for troubled students and struggling schools. Overemphasizing technology can weaken those bonds. The National Science Board reported in 1998 that prolonged exposure to computing environments may create ‘individuals incapable of dealing with the messiness of reality, the needs of community building, and the demands of personal commitments.’”

The bottom-line for the Alliance for Childhood is that rather than placing our faith in technology to solve the problems of education, we should look more deeply into the needs of children. Few would disagree with their conclusion that “the renewal of education requires personal attention to students from good teachers and active parents, strongly supported by their communities.” We have yet to see the development of K-12 educational policy that attends to the full range of children’s real world, low-tech needs.

The Academic-Industrial Complex

The impact of e-learning on higher education has been even more dramatic than in elementary and secondary schools. The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that 1.4 million students were enrolled in distance learning programs in 1997-1998, taking nearly 50,000 courses from accredited two- and four-year colleges and universities. The same report found that 44 percent of all higher education institutions offered distance learning in 1998, up from 33 percent just three years earlier. Many universities have complete undergraduate and graduate degrees online and Concord University School of Law, a division of the test prep company Kaplan, Inc., offers an all-online law degree. This spring Michael Saylor, CEO of the high-tech firm MicroStrategy, announced he is spending $100 million dollars to create a free, online university offering “Ivy League quality” courses. InterEd, an Arizona-based research company, estimates that there will be 3 million students taking online college courses this year. Richard Katz, the author of Dancing With the Devil: Information Technology and the New Competition in Higher Education, touts the importance of technological and financial collaborations between educational institutions and private, for-profit businesses. As traditional revenue sources for U.S. higher education dry up, colleges and universities are faced with a limited set of choices according to Katz: cutting costs (with or without cutting quality), raising prices, exiting existing markets, pursuing new markets, creating new products, or pursuing a combination of these strategies.

Mark Taylor, a professor of humanities at Williams College in Massachusetts, argues that the one choice higher education does not have is whether or not to collaborate with corporations in offering higher education in the 21st century. Taylor agrees with J. Paul Getty’s grandson, Mark Getty—who recently succeeded, via 14 acquisitions in 5 years, in creating the world’s largest commercial photograph library—that “intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century.” As Getty points out, the world’s richest entrepreneurs all made their money in intellectual property. This circumstance, according to Taylor, means that universities can choose to join with education entrepreneurs and win big or compete with them and lose big. In a recent article for Educause magazine Taylor says, “What the business world understands and the academic world is reluctant to admit is that education is a very valuable commodity. In network culture, profits are going to be generated not only by selling things on-line but, more important [sic], by marketing commodities that are distributable through new technologies…[E]ntrepreneurs are taking aim at education.”

In a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn sounded an alarm about what they call “the academic-industrial complex” and “the market-model university.” They argue that commercially sponsored research is putting disinterested research at risk. Traditionally universities regarded proprietary claims as fundamentally at odds with their obligation to disseminate knowledge as broadly as possible, however, today nearly every research university in the U.S. has a technology-licensing office. Press and Washburn conclude their article with a warning, made in 1952, by historian Richard Hofstadter: “It has been the fate of American higher education to develop in a pre-eminently businesslike culture.… Education is justified apologetically as a useful instrument in attaining other ends: it is good for business or professional careers…Rarely, however, does anyone presume to say that is it good for man [sic]…The best reason for supporting the college and the university lies not in the services they can perform, vital though such services may be, but in the values they represent. The ultimate criterion of the place of higher learning in America will be the extent to which it is esteemed not as a necessary instrument of external ends, but as an end in itself.”

Taylor dismisses Hofstadter’s declaration as well as other calls to protect disinterested investigation, academic freedom, and tenure from profit motivations, as so much sanctimonious self-interest. In addition to licensing products and technologies produced by university researchers, university managers have targeted distance education—the digital version of correspondence courses—as the area ripe for corporate collaboration and profit. Distance learning is coming on so fast that management guru Peter Drucker has predicted the university won’t survive. Following a well-established pattern in the history of education in North American, higher education is emulating the corporate trend toward distance education.

The U.S. has about 4,000 corporate “universities” and over 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies use remote training. HMO giant Kaiser Permanente offers postgraduate courses for nurses; Disney dispenses “ducktorate” and “mouseter” degrees that are widely respected in the leisure industry. Distance learning proponents argue that online learning is more convenient and flexible for students; that students receive speedier feedback on assignments and get more personal attention; students have more control over their learning experiences; that online learning enhances information technology skills and fosters new ways of constructing knowledge as well as that it is quicker and more efficient. As for the quality of distance education, it varies widely. In some classes students merely read lecture notes and answer questions via email. Other classes are more elaborate, with interactive CDs, downloadable videos, chat rooms, and regularly scheduled sessions.

Distance education advocates, however, point to a 1999 report compiled by Thomas Russell and published by the Office of Instructional Telecommunications at North Carolina State University as evidence that distance learning is at least the equivalent of traditional education in terms of narrowly defined outcomes. Russell’s report, “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon,” is described as a “comparative research annotated bibliography on technology for distance education” that examines the findings of 335 studies conducted between 1928 and 1996 on various forms of distance learning—correspondence courses, televised classes, and Internet-based courses. Russell concludes that based on test scores and grades that there is little difference between traditional and distance learning. Critics, on the other hand, argue that distance learning can never replace the classroom and the social experience that is a key part of university life. University of Washington historian and distance-learning critic Jim Gregory told the Boston Globe, “Students want to go to universities and they want to sit in real classes. Talk to any 19-year-old. Talk to anybody on any college campus and ask them if they’d rather be sitting at their kitchen table.”

A recent poll of State University of New York professors found that 68 percent do not believe that distance education courses offer the same quality as traditional ones, while more than 83 percent believe electronic courses should supplement—rather than replace—traditional courses. The conflict between distance education advocates and critics is at least in part based on contradictory conceptions of education. Is education merely a form of information-transfer (“banking” as Paulo Freire labeled it) or is education fundamentally about a relationship between people? Can computer mediated interaction substitute for the human interaction/experience that is at the heart of learning? David Noble, a professor at York University in Toronto and author of the 1998 article “Digital Diploma Mills,” believes online higher education is being driven by profit, not educational, motives. Noble argues the trend towards distance learning in higher education as implemented in North American universities today, “is a battle between students and professors on one side, and university administrations and companies with “educational products” to sell on the other. It is not a progressive trend towards a new era at all, but a regressive trend, towards the rather old era of mass-production, standardization and purely commercial interests.”

Noble sees online learning as an exact parallel to the correspondence courses of the 1890s, where the main challenge was how to turn a profit and there was no economic incentive to improve instruction. Elite universities like Columbia and the University of Chicago lent their names to correspondence programs promoted as a chance for the average person to get an elite education. The problem, according to Noble, was that even the better programs had to compete with cheaper fly-by-night operations and in an effort to cut costs, universities ended up paying readers—often graduate students—a piece rate to grade students’ work. “The economics of correspondence learning was to put all your money into hype and promotion,” according to Noble in a Washington Post article published last year, “You get a high rate of sign up. Students pay tuition up front, and instructors are paid a piece rate.” The result was that quality suffered, students (and then universities) got wise and abandoned correspondence learning.

Distance learning is a key element in the trend toward commercialization of education (which includes vouchers as well as charter schools and the for-profit educational management organizations running them). High-tech corporations are eager to partner with universities because they see a great undeveloped market in a $200 billion a year industry and desire the instant integrity that a university partnership can offer to their educational products. University managers fear being behind the curve in the latest fad and worry that commercial online universities will lure away a sizable portion of their student population. As a result, they are willing to follow Taylor’s logic and sell their institutions’ reputations in exchange for the resources to mount online programs.

In addition to their eagerness to harness corporate dollars, university managers also hold out hope that online programs will increase the number of students enrolled (e.g., increase revenue from tuition) and offer economies of scale that will allow them to run universities more cheaply. In an effort to reduce “Ivory Tower overhead,” managers are reconstructing the workforce in higher education by relying more heavily on part-time and contingent faculty as well as graduate students to teach. Like investors in dotcom stocks, university managers are gambling millions on unproven distance learning technology instead of hiring tenure-track faculty.

This speculative strategy has yet to yield profitable returns, educationally or financially, for universities and isn’t likely to. Indeed, Terri Hedgaard- Bishop, vice president for distance learning at the for-profit University of Phoenix—the largest private university in the U.S., with 92 campuses and over 75,000 students—says there is nothing cheap about providing online education. Funding 24/7 technical support, revamping or building registration, enrollment, and payment systems for distance learning, not to mention the costs of producing and teaching online all figure into the picture. “The truth is,” Hedgarrd-Bishop recently admitted to the Boston Globe, “technology education frequently costs more [than traditional education].” Distance learning promises (perhaps vainly) to give cash-strapped colleges the opportunity to peddle online versions of courses to new markets (and with fewer and/or less expensive faculty) and potentially even turn a profit—squeezing more surplus value from faculty, the intellectual and creative sources of courses. Online education also threatens to intensify the work of faculty and undercut academic freedom. Faculty work harder and longer for online courses than for traditional classes without increased compensation, while current tenure and promotion systems discount online teaching because faculty are generally skeptical of the value of such classes.

University managers are also using technology to deprive professors of their intellectual property rights by claiming copyright over their course material. When a professor prepares a class web page or an online course these are legally works for hire. This means that they are the property of the university and the university can modify and distribute them as it sees fit, with or without the permission of the faculty member that created the page or course. Professors are deskilled and students short-changed when online courses are constructed by faculty members for a flat fee and then administered by technicians and student work graded by graduate students. The longest faculty strike in Canada, at York University in 1997, was in part over the university’s plan to create Internet-based courses with corporate sponsors paying $10,000 to affix their logo to the web pages. York faculty won a pledge from the university that it would not implement new technology initiatives without faculty input. The sheen of distance learning is perhaps tarnishing a bit, as a number of online education ventures are in trouble, including Western Governors’ Virtual University—which was projected to have an initial enrollment of 5,000, but could only muster 75 inquiries and 10 students—and the partnership between UCLA and Onlinelearning.net, which is losing money and unable to pay promised royalties. Noble counters Drucker’s bold prediction of the demise of the university with one of his own: that distance education will go the way of old-fashion correspondence courses in the next few years.

It is more than likely that neither Drucker nor Noble is entirely right. Just as it does for culture, commerce, and communication, the digital revolution harbors great changes, both good and ill, for education. We cannot, however, expect that a laissez faire approach to technology adoption in education will necessarily produce positive educational experiences. Instead we must be aware of the potential downside of e-learning and demand wise use of technology for the collective good. Clearly the potential benefits of e-learning for learners and teachers are great, but what are the trade-offs? How do we employ technology for appropriate educational ends, as opposed to quick-fix pedagogical or budgetary ends? These are questions that should compel us to consider what role we want for technology in our lives and what might be missing in our schools and communities in a machine-dominated age. As learning technologies become more sophisticated so too must our critical assessments of their impact on our lives.