ITForum Paper #7


Is Telecommunications

an Educational Technology


Betty Collis
University of Twente


Introduction: What Motivates This Title?

The title I suggested to Lloyd for my contribution seems to be either a blatantly simple question, or one that is obviously set up as a trap, a play on words. As I look at it now, I think it is poorly framed to explain what it is that concerns me. Thus let me try to explain the concern through a series of different examples of its manifestations. Then I will set some questions for our discussion. At the end of this short essay I come to the suggestion that our initial discussion question be:

"How should we design the curriculum of faculties involved with educational/instructional technology to include applications of telecommunications for learning and instruction?"

But in the words between here and there I will try to set the context for the question and the larger set of issues that the question is meant to address. In particular, the larger question motivating my contribution and its title is:

"If telecommunications is an educational technology, then what does it mean to be a professional in this domain?"

The Context for the Discussion Question

Manifestation 1

Last week, a typical week for me, saw me involved in activities relating to expanding my own teaching through different sorts of on-line experiences, such as the use of computer conferencing and the study of Web pages as instructional instrumentation. However, I also spent time on projects relating to the use (and cost-effectiveness of) interactive television in trans-European training; in the design of user interfaces for desktop multimedia conferencing environments for telelearning; in the study of cooperative learning at a distance; in the stimulation of teacher use of networking; in the design and execution of lessons for "the remote classroom" in lower vocational education; in the modification of Lotus Notes for distributed cooperative work; in the question of how to measure, scientifically and adequately enough for a Ph.D. dissertation, the learning effects of participation in virtual communities; and in writing a summary chapter for a book I am co-editing with a colleague from the Open University in the UK about "innovating adult learning through innovative technologies," most of which involve telecommunications as part of the instructional media/method mix. Also, I am busy figuring out how to integrate the design and creation of Web pages as a learning event in our first-year introductory course in educational instrumentation as well as in a senior-level course in "on-line learning." With the latter class, I participated in a CU-SeeMe session with a comparable class in the U.S., during which we stumbled with the technology, the technique, and the human aspects of communicating about a learning task with strangers. My e-mail inbox still has 76 new and unanswered letters; we managed only this week to set up a SLIP access from home to the university network but I have been continuously frustrated by unexpected impediments in using this setup as a way to tackle my work (i.e., the system cuts me off after a certain number of minutes, without warning; the system only downloads my entire intray of mail--through my 2400 baud modem--rather than letting me make a remote selection of those messages I would like to work with, etc.). Thus I have spent time and effort trying to figure out how to make things work technically, (an aspect of my life with telecommunications that has gone on without letup for 15 years).

What does professional development mean for me? How can I keep up?

Manifestation 2

In my "conferences" pile, I have information about approximately 20 professional conferences that interest me. These include many with non-overlapping memberships--an international conference for distance education institutions, an HCI conference on groupware, a world conference on using the Internet for training, a conference on regional and national policy for support of telecommunications in schools. Each one has aspects of interest to me. Which do I go to?

Which journals should I subscribe to? The HCI literature is full of exciting ideas and work relating to interface design, to the study of group interaction, to the social and organizational impact of cooperative human activity and how these can be influenced by networking and appropriate software tools. The distance education literature is full of important insights about how to extend learning to distributed students, about how to integrate computer-based conferencing and interaction into courses and lessons at a distance; about how to develop more effective feedback and instructional techniques when the teacher and the students are not in the same room with each other; about how to sustain motivation and task-orientation for the learner studying outside the traditional institutional setting. The distance education literature also is an important source of insight as to the organizational and also the cost-related issues involved in supporting distributed learning. The literature relating to training is a good source of information about "just-in-time" learning, learning at the workplace, and tele- mentoring but also about broadscale innovations in videoconferencing and the use of broadcasting combined with various channels for interaction within the training context. The education literature includes journals which focus on the teacher and teacher education and teacher professionalism; on learning as a constructivist and socially-constructed activity; on instructional applications of the Internet in classrooms; on the design and integration of on-line learning activities for students of different categories, ages, and needs, and the measurement of the impact of these activities on affective and cognitive indicators. How can I keep up?

Manifestation 3

How should I organize the content, process and evaluation criteria for my senior-level class in On-Line Learning? The facts are that it is an elective course for students at the Masters' degree level that meets between March and June, that is supposed to be 120 hours of load for the students, that has 31 students enrolled including seven from outside The Netherlands who do not speak Dutch. The students have access to our own networks and to the Internet but we have no "distance teaching" facilities or practice in operation. Similarly, how do I organize the book I have promised to write on telecommunications as educational technology? And also similarly, how do I organize the files and piles of articles and information in my office? What are the categories in this area? How do I bring sense, system and structure to my work? How can I keep up?

Manifestation 4

How do I even describe the technology that I am interested in? Should I call it telecommunications? But isn't this just the technical infrastructure? Should I call it networking? But what about videoconferencing, audio conferencing, interactive television, the rapidly converging flow of multimedia data that is rolling up on the "information superhighway?" Shall I call it communications technology? But, is this a good name for information- organization systems like the Web? Where does the distinction between channel, media, and content come in? How do I generically describe instrumentation as diverse as Web pages, computer conferencing systems, and the software that controls two-way video conferencing and desktop document-sharing applications? How do I distinguish the technical aspects of the technology from the process aspects in terms of learning applications? How do I design and develop learning resources for this mass of possibilities? How can I keep up?


From Manifestations to Questions

These manifestations are the shape of my professional life. Who am I in the midst of all this? How do I define my specialism? When do I feel I have accomplished something? What is good research in this area?

Thus what I am trying to get at in my over-simple title to this ITForum essay is a set of questions that are both simple and serious: What does it mean in terms of professional activities and insights to be an educational technologist interested in "tele-learning"? How can I monitor my own professional development? How can I prepare our students to be professionals in this area? How can we pull together in a systematic way the different manifestations of communications technology in learning and instruction? What is the theoretical core that unifies all the manifestations? If telecommunications is an educational technology, then what does it mean to work as a professional in this domain?

These are the complex thoughts that lay behind my choice of title for this discussion: "Is telecommunications an educational technology?" Thus, as I said, the question is not meant to be either superficial or a trick. It is probably poorly formulated, but this is because my view of the problem is that of a swirling, amorphous bubbling thing, something dynamic, evolving, and undulating all around me and causing ripples in whatever I plan and do.

But is this the stuff which can be captured in a discussion title? Is this the stuff in which theory grows? Is this the stuff in which educational technologists grow? Is this the stuff in which research projects can be designed, data collected, and results reported? Is this the stuff that I can coherently encapsulate in a ten-week graduate course? My students are teaching me new things, faster than I can even follow them through. How do I keep up?


Zooming in For Our Discussion

I realize these questions are interrelated and too many to handle in a five-day on-line discussion. I presented them here as a context, to help visualize the motivation for my contribution. I know, however, that we must choose some aspect to focus our discussion: swirling, bubbling, undulating amoebae-images are not appropriate to focus an asynchronous discussion. Thus, as many of us are involved with the curriculum for specialist study in educational technology (as designers, instructors, evaluators, and students) I suggest we zoom into the swirl and take the following as an initial, concrete discussion question:

"How should we design the curriculum of faculties involved with educational/instructional technology to include applications of telecommunications for learning and instruction?"

In setting this question, I am not so much looking for examples in themselves, but examples and opinions as illuminators of my more "simple and serious" question:

"If telecommunications is an educational technology, then what does it mean to be a professional in this domain?"

How Should I Moderate?

I am not sure how often I can intervene as a moderator, because of time pressures (see Manifestation 1, above). But, more substantially, it is not clear if the goal of our discussion should be to stimulate a wide range of comment, in which we should agree on certain standards of length and cross-referencing; if the goal is to stimulate a few, reflective responses similar in range (and perhaps generality) as this essay itself; or if the goal is to really have a discussion, in which our responses must be shorter, and framed to elicit a follow-up response. The role of the moderator can be quite different in these different situations.

For example, if I wish to involve many in a group discussion face-to-face, I do not let a few persons dominate the discussion but deliberately try to bring as many as possible in and to restrain the dominate persons so that others feel able to have a voice. If the goal is to find consensus on a point, then the moderator should prevent drift and work to bring issues to a clear set of alternatives. If the goal is to stimulate thought, then the moderator should interfere as little as possible after her initial stimulus. Asynchronous discussion among a group of unknown size and membership is difficult to handle in terms of the first two of the above moderator strategies. It is much easier, and perhaps only really feasible, to take the latter stance. This would mean that I in effect lurk, or only make occasional comments, and at the end come back with a parallel reflection document similar to this. I will have to see what combination of approaches seems best as we go along.


Betty Collis
Faculty of Educational Science and Technology
University of Twente
The Netherlands

E-mail: collis@edte.utwente.nl



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