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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 1|September|2001

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The Promise of Online Education: El Dorado or Fool's Gold?

By Graeme Wilson
About the Author

Lion's Gate Bridge

Over the past few years, connectivity to the Internet has improved dramatically. In British Columbia, every public school has Internet access, and the bandwidth, or rate of data flow continues to improve. Parallel to this development, nearly every household in the province is able to connect to the Internet. This means that virtually all computers can communicate with each other and raises some interesting questions about the future of online education.

What will the landscape of online education look like in the future? Will online education become a part of every school’s curriculum, and will it be an effective way for students to learn how to become thoughtful and responsible citizens of tomorrow?

To take a meaningful role, online educational resources must become easy to use, effective, and contribute significantly to students’ learning. In addition, teachers need training and support to integrate technology into their daily routines. All too often, the technology arrives, only to gather dust and attain under-utilized obsolescence because people do not know how to use it, or it is too unreliable or complicated to be integrated effectively into daily routines.

Industry Embraces Online Training

Much of private industry has already embraced online training and many corporate education programs use online delivery systems. Corporate websites proliferate on the Internet and many contain password-protected employee training.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between corporate and public education. Large firms have very definite procedures and processes that must be learned by employees, creating a top-down educational structure. Corporations want people who are creative problem-solvers, but their education programs are mostly concerned with corporate facts and procedures. Employees can certainly solve problems using the Internet, and as bandwidth increases, online video solutions will enable corporations to provide more direct personal assistance to their clients. Client assistance should not be confused with employee training on products and services. As a result, corporate educational systems are often quite rigid, concerned primarily with the learning of specific facts and processes.

Public Schools - A Different Mandate

Public education has a far broader mandate. Schools are charged with the task of providing a complete educational package for the citizens of tomorrow. Children should learn the basics, but they should also learn to become creative problem-solvers and responsible citizens.

Computers are incredibly versatile and powerful learning tools, however they are just tools and should not be considered the primary vehicle for a child’s education. Activities such as playing an instrument, modeling and making things, carrying out a science experiment, playing sports, discussing issues, and interacting with others all have educational worth and should not be sacrificed to singular computer-based activities.

Online activities. therefore, should be integrated as a part of a student’s day rather than an entire educational package. Students should also do much more online than simply learn facts for regurgitation.

We are living in the Information Age and facts are a mouse-click away. The total amount of information in the world is increasing at an astounding rate. We need to learn how to access those facts, make critical evaluations of the integrity of what we discover, and incorporate what we have found into our learning. We do not need to learn facts for their own sake.

Since the dawn of public education, every student in Britain learned that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Other than for game shows like Jeopardy, this has little educational value, yet many continue to place Dickensian emphasis on learning facts rather than learning how to access and evaluate online research.

The arch-pragmatist, Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times said, "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!" Should we continue to espouse this dogma in the Information Age?

Companies Flex Their Muscles

The arena of commercial curriculum development for education is broadening. Many companies are flexing their muscles in the public education field. Cisco's CEO has recently called education the next "killer app".

We must ask if these companies have the background to provide effective public education. Many computer-learning systems focus simply on fact and regurgitation, with little focus on the learner. Concrete-sequential styles of learning are the legacy of private industry where training on specific applications pursues a narrow set of outcomes. Curriculum developed by corporate entities for public education should therefore be regarded with suspicion. There is no substitute for the practical experience gained in the crucible of the classroom.

"Distance Learning Yet to Hit Home"

Wired News reports that many companies with high hopes for online learning are finding the going tougher than they expected.

"The e-learning market has come into focus," said Andy Rosenfield, CEO of "People understand that it's not easy to provide quality education online. You can't build out the offerings of a great university overnight."

[SOURCE: Wired News, AUTHOR: Kendra Mayfield]

The Importance of Learning Styles

We all learn in different ways. Some people learn best by reading text and memorization, others learn by creating charts and diagrams, and others learn by discussion and interaction.

Howard Gardner, a proponent of Multiple Intelligences has identified eight different ways people learn. Gardner states, "According to Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory, all human beings possess at least eight forms of intelligence, which I call linguistic, logical-mathematical, (the two favored in school), musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal and intrapersonal."

For online education to be truly effective, all learning options should be addressed. Students should be given instructions on how to create solutions and then be able to choose how best to represent their learning. Technology has evolved to a point where all learning styles can be addressed. The linguistic learner, for example, can produce a word processed report, a logical-mathematical type may produce a database, chart or spreadsheet, a spatial learner might create electronic posters and models while the interpersonal learner may create sound files of a speech or interact through direct video connection. In addition, because we possess all these learning styles to some extent, individual learners should be encouraged to represent their learning in a variety of ways.

The Critical Questions to Consider

There are many challenges associated with the creation of multi-faceted online learning packages. The starting point is to consider the learning situation. Is the student doing a single course online at a regular school? Is the student at home? Does the student have special needs? Is the student gifted or struggling with scholastic achievement?

All of these questions indicate that online curriculum design must be versatile and flexible. Many developers disregard the situation of the client and focus entirely on the delivery side of the equation. This error is often evident in beginning teachers who focus on the lesson delivery without sufficient consideration of what their students are doing or what they are capable of doing.

The activities in a typical online curriculum package must provide many options to fulfill learning outcomes in a variety of ways. The different options must also involve a similar amount of effort on the part of the student, so an "easy out" solution is avoided.

Many current systems depend too heavily upon the question and answer or multiple-choice method of instruction. There must be a drastic departure from this approach. Curriculum must ask students to be both creative and critical thinkers when solving curricular challenges.

When a student makes an electronic representation such as a chart or a spreadsheet, far greater commitment is made to the solution than a quick one-line sentence answer (or paragraph for that matter) in an electronic workbook. The representation is an expression of the student, and ultimately an expression of their learning. When students create electronic solutions that are their own, there is ownership and pride.

The Importance of Balance

In their enthusiasm for using technology, educators often overlook non-digital activities that work just fine to convey learning and can perhaps better adapt to different learning situations.

George Brackett writes, "Only when a technology allows us to reach an existing goal more effectively, should we consider using it. It’s a mistake to put technology center-stage as we plan and execute educational reforms. Technology should hover shyly in the wings, ready to lend its power, but only as needed."

The need for a balance between virtual and real time learning must be recognized. Online learning should be perceived as a component of a day involving activities other than computer-based learning. The directions, management and recording of student achievement can all be online, but the student’s day should incorporate far more than sitting in front of a computer screen all day long, doing activities which could just as easily and perhaps more effectively be done in non-digital ways.

Best Practice?

So what should a typical online course design incorporate? A duplication of traditional paper-based courses does little to harness the potential of technology as a learning tool. Currently, the majority of online courses fall under this category and only serve to provide convenience for learning, or worse yet, a means of downloading a paper course for printing. While this has some value, it is a mere fraction of the potential which electronic learning brings to the table.

Multiple choice or fact-based online questions add very little and may even reduce the effectiveness of learning as in this context, electronic courses offer a diminished experience for students.

Lowell Monke, a leading developer of virtual education projects for over eight years has some misgivings about online learning. Monke states, "Any time we start doing telecommunication as a means of education, we enter an environment that is extremely diminished."

In many online courses, the interaction, discussion and development of solutions is lost as the learner plows through boring activities that do not encourage either imagination or creativity. What new things are students learning from courses such as these?

Curriculum developers must have a clear sense about their clients. Rather than developing server-based, canned learning experiences, educators need to focus on client-side creativity.

Curricular packages should provide resources that elegantly combine varied opportunities to represent learning. Students should be trained with skill-building technology activities which teach them how to solve curricular challenges. There should be a focus on productivity software that enables students to create their own solutions rather than responding to "framed" curriculum, where there is little opportunity to think critically.

Having a student prepare and upload a presentation, a slide show, an electronic poster, a chart, a graph, a digital photo, or interact by streaming video has more educational worth than simply downloading a word processed document or web page and then typing out the "right answer".

Blind Alleys

Critics are quick to point out that addressing technological challenges without knowledge about how to use the tools of technology can be a frustrating and disjointed learning experience. Students can follow blind alleys, losing the original curricular intent as they wander through a maze of dialog boxes.

To solve this problem, technical training should be embedded within the curriculum to ensure a smooth learning path. There should be an almost zen-like approach to the brevity and effectiveness of technical instruction.

Language should be as simple as possible, so all levels of readers can understand. The length of the instruction should be as short as possible, so the learner does not forget what they were using the tool for in the first place.

There should also be a quick escape back to the curricular challenge to make this instruction a seamless blend.

Just-in-time learning, where students see an educational challenge, and then discover ways to solve the problem, is the cornerstone of effective blending of technology and curriculum.

What is the point of learning how to perform a specific technological task if there is no context to which it can be applied?

Herein lies the challenge for online curriculum developers. Curriculum must address different learning styles, anticipate the needs of the learner, and provide seamless integration of learning opportunities for the required skills.

The Importance of Support and Adult Learning

We are in the embryonic stages of online curriculum development. A significant and ongoing problem is the ever-changing face of technology.

Educators must constantly retrain to keep current with technological change. Many have limited technological skills, and those who have dipped their toes in the digital ocean are coming to realize that new waves continually wash upon the shore of education.

Support and training in the educational field is woefully inadequate in most cases. The vehicles of workshops and training sessions have fundamental design problems. Few are designed with ongoing practice; teachers may learn a specific skill but have no context in which to apply the knowledge. What they learn is quickly lost. Computer literacy is learned by doing, not by isolated learning in a non-contextual situation.

The Prospects?

So here we are with high speed networks, improving connectivity, improving technology and untrained personnel. Ironically, in this crisis, online education itself may come to the rescue.

Websites can provide educators with skill-building tutorial activities in web browsing, word processing suites, multimedia and graphics programs. Samples of assignments and students’ work should be linked to these skill-building tutorials so teachers can see what can be done with the learned skills.

If a focus is placed on productivity software rather than "narrow band" applications that focus on one area, teachers will learn a set of transferable skills, see student solutions using these skills and be able to apply these same skills to a broad range of topics. The principles of brevity and clarity in online tutorials apply for teachers just like students. There is a definite skill in design that must be applied if this online approach is to become a successful vehicle for distributed learning.

The path to successful integration of online learning is far from clear. Many questions still exist about different approaches that are being propounded, and there is no clear answer about which is more effective.

In Failure to Connect, Jane M. Healy points out, "We still await research telling us how-or even whether-software can best be used to teach either subject matter or skills...the research on software’s effectiveness is still limited, vague, and open to questions."

The guiding principle therefore should be, "what are our students learning? Is this learning meaningful, and will it make responsible and caring citizens of tomorrow?" Online learning will require huge amounts of energy, vision and dedication to be truly effective. The validity of the technology should be evaluated as we progress as many new developments look better than they actually are in an educational setting. As Yogi Berra once said, "You’ve got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."



Brackett, George: "Technologies don’t change schools - caring, capable people do" Commentary, Cambridge MA: The Harvard Education Letter

Dickens, Charles, "Hard Times" London: 1854 (Dove Audio 1996)

Engler, Natalie: "Distance Learning in the Digital Age" Cambridge MA: The Harvard Education Letter

Gardner, Howard: "Can Technology Exploit Our Many Ways of Knowing?" Cambridge MA: The Harvard Education Letter

Healy, Jane M.: "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect our Children’s Minds-For Better and Worse" New York: Simon and Schuster 1998

Monke, L. and R.W.Burnisky: "Breaking Down the Digital Walls" Albany: State University of new York Press, in press.

Westreich, Joan: "High-Tech Kids: Trailblazers or Guinea Pigs?" Cambridge MA: The Harvard Education Letter

Yogi Berra Quote:


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