Where Do We Go From Here?

Go to Critical Reviews

In spite of the boasts and hopes from many quarters, the window of opportunity for significant instructional change made possible by new technologies appears to be closing. Certainly technologies are gaining increased acceptance and are changing at an amazing pace. And those changes certainly support innovation for instructors who are so inclined. But evidence of broad and substantial pedagogical change is being eclipsed by a focus on efforts to make the technology more marketable and easier to use. The new and challenging instructional role of faculty in helping students learn is being blurred, bundled and shrink-wrapped for cyberspace without much discussion.

We make these observations this issue by monitoring a sampling of recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education--the bellwether of the academy. Tracking technology news in The Chronicle (paper and on-line) is like monitoring the Academic Guide; one gets a sense of the topical and the trends that surface from the churning changes in education, changes stemming in large measure from the technology revolution.

For instance, in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, we note the steps institutions are taking to prepare their students for on-line learning. Jeffrey Young's (1999) report identifies Penn State's World Campus 101 course designed to prepare students for taking on-line courses. The opportunity to orient students to the demands of on-line learning is a useful strategy for helping them adjust to new technologies and to the nuances of technology-based learning.

What ought to be noted, however, is Young's observation that "the course site reads more like a computer instruction manual than a lecture. . . ." Perhaps even more interesting is the Penn State vice provost's closing note that though "the main goal of World Campus 101 is to help students feel comfortable in on-line classes. . . the course is a promotional tool as well."

Such statements certainly surface the emergence of competition in higher education. It is responsive to the change in instructional mode to on-line environments. But changes in mode, style (from lectures to computer manuals) and even purpose (comfort and promotion) are probably not what most of us identify as indicative of something we might consider to be significant pedagogical change. By change, we mean new strategies that are designed to challenge students to think more deeply, change that fosters students' engagement with faculty, their peers and their peers' diverse points of view, or with change that encourages students to consider the social and political implications of the content they learn or even to explore the application of that content in new contexts.

The emergence of market competition in higher education in particular has complex implications beyond designing promotional courses. Among them are the challenges confronting faculty who are being urged to convert their materials for on-line delivery. It is not surprising, therefore, that approaches to capture and orient students have counterparts designed to get faculty involved in the conversion process.

The University of Missouri at St. Louis, for instance, now promotes an easy to use software program that, as the title of Florence Olsen's (1999) report indicates, "Helps Professors Put Their Course Information On Line." More specifically, as the article later states, the program is designed to help faculty do their work "easily and quickly," It is "something" the developers report, that "any faculty member can pick up in a half hour and use effectively." "The U.M.S.L. template simplifies Web-site design not only for faculty members but also for students who go to course Web sites seeking information." The article concludes: "New faculty members arrive on campus wanting to put their course syllabi on line," he says, so his staff is always "getting the new ones started, while we proselytize to the people who have been here awhile."

There is nothing wrong with designing technology that is easy to use. These programs appear to be well-intentioned and even successful for their intended purposes. But it is interesting to note that there is little reported in these articles about designs that target improved pedagogy or improved learning. The proselytizing attending this effort does not mention improved student learning or improved pedagogy (except perhaps by the deliberate decision to obviate on-line testing of an issue for another time). Instead, the focus is summed up by one of the developers: "We're really looking for simplicity."

The focus on comfort and simplicity reminds us of the work of Bereiter and Scardamalia , who studied the skill development of teachers. These authors observed that most instructors arrive, relatively early in their careers, at a professional crossroads. At these crossroads, instructors opt either for the path that leads to the challenging and inherently messy business of teaching and learning and, ultimately, to expertise and quality instruction. Or they take the alternative path. They adopt strategies that are characterized by systematic problem minimization and, ultimately, less effective teaching and learning.

As we tour the on-line literature and assess the forces and the trends shaping higher education's adoption of technologies, we can't help but wonder whether the profession as a whole is facing an analogous crossroads. And if The Chronicle of Higher Education is indeed a reliable guide, it seems were traipsing down the path of problem minimization.

If the pedagogical consequences of making it easy for students and faculty to work on-line are only suggested by their absence in the preceding articles, at least one important aspect of the issue begins to take a somewhat more palpable shape in Goldie Blumenstyk's article, "The Marketing Intensifies in Distance Learning" (1999 ). Blumenstyk frames the issue in the sub-headline polemic: "Some educators value the options; others fear vendors set the agenda." Again, however, the pedagogical design implicit in the "options" and even the teaching and learning implications of the "agenda" materialize only, well, minimally.

Blumenstyk explores the influx of "marketing brochures, information kits, and CD-ROMs that distance-education companies use to promote course-design tools and other competing services." She does an exhaustive job documenting the marketing race, investigating the issue of market share leaders. She looks closely at various vendors and their quest (notable in the ubiquitous full-page color adds peppering the pages of the paper version of the Chronicle) to keep "moving vigorously to get more visibility for their products."

But still we're left to wonder. How do these products improve instruction? Where is the discussion of the marketing angle for a product that helps faculty promote deeper learning?

We almost get there. In the middle of the marketing frenzy, Blumenstyk reports the struggle of administrators and faculty who "meanwhile, are hashing out issues of cost and control over course content. . ." Yet even as Blumenstyk points to the skeptics who "question whether colleges' educational interests or companies' aggressive marketing tactics are what is fueling the frenzy," it's not clear that the teaching that might be at the heart of the debate is really being surfaced or served. At best, the debate centers on "issues of faculty control over the content of courses. . .".

Even the issue of control of content, however, without more attention to the instructional role of mediating the learning of that content, or the teaching, may render the issue of control irrelevant casualty of what a spokesman of the American Federation of Teachers identifies as the "keep up with the Joneses' mentality that's out there." As educators debate "how quickly they need to begin offering on-line options to students. . .", the simplification of course development and delivery and next to the content itself to continue to presage what Jeffrey Young (1999) identifies as "a glimpse into higher education's future."

Young (1999) introduces us to "A little-known company" that "offers a kind of Cliffs Notes for the MTV generation. . .". The company, Cerebellum, markets /"study aids with up-tempo soundtracks, flashy graphics, and undergraduate-age actors who look like they just danced out of a Gap television advertisement." Young identifies the concern of educators who worry that "students might be tempted to skip class and watch the movie version instead," and those who "wonder whether the company could one day compete with colleges" with their "lighthearted and irreverent" materials in which "complex concepts are explained with skits, jokes about dating and drinking, and the occasional song."

Ironically, the preceding is as penetrating into actual teaching strategies as any of these articles get. "Everything's focused on the content," a Cerebellum developer points out. "The content is just written in a much more approachable fashion." The "steady stream of jokes is meant to hold students' attention and make the material seem less intimidating," and, "corny, yes, but more interesting than some university lectures."

So how should educators respond to the trend? "William C. Parke, a professor of physics at George Washington University who served as a consultant for the [Cerebellum] astronomy video, isn't worried about competing with videos." He says, "By that argument, students could just read the textbook instead of coming to class, too, but they would miss the emphasis and reinforcement that only direct human interaction affords."

But just why that human needs to be a live instructor and not some "hip"actor is again glossed over and even contradicted. Parke also argues that the videos are ways to "get the students excited about the subject," so we can't help but wonder just what it is that is so special about "direct human interaction" as we ponder Parke's unspoken corollary that compared to flashy videos traditional instruction, and traditional instructors, do not "get students excited about the subject."

Parke's response is not satisfactory when he argues that a student who watched only the video wouldn't do very well in his "Introduction to Astronomy" course because "it doesn't have even one-tenth of the material that we cover." It's a poor defense, and it exposes the real danger of supplanting content, regardless of quantity or who controls it, with instruction. After all, at some point a wily entrepreneur will realize that if it is the quantity and the simple accessibility of content that matters, Mr. Parke will only remain viable in the new educational enterprise until ten more "corny" Astronomy videos appear on the market.


Blumenstyk, G. (1999). The marketing intensifies in distance learning. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, April 9, 1999. Retrieved from the World Wide Web November 15, 1999: http://chronicle.com/free/v45/i31/31a00101.htm?

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves : an inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago: Open Court.

Olson, F. (1999). A Web 'Wizard' Helps Professors Put Their Course Information On Line. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tuesday, June 22, 1999. Retrieved from the World Wide Web November 15, 1999: http://chronicle.com/free/99/06/99062201t.htm

Young, J. (1999). Penn State offers an on-line course about taking on-line courses. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, June 4, 1999. Retrieved from the World Wide Web November 15, 1999: http://chronicle.com/free/99/06/99060401t.htm

Young, J. (1999). Coming to a computer near you: Astronomy courses with attitude -- and actors. The Chronicle of Higher Education, someday, Month day, 1999: Retrieved from the World Wide Web November 15, 1999: http://chronicle.com/free/99/06/99061801t.htm

Critical Reviews

Critic RR

Other reviewers may be less inclined to endorse this article, but I am recommending that it be accepted for publication without revision.

That is not to say that I think the article is not flawed. But I think it is a nicely stated expression of a sentiment which probably has widespread currency. And it is clearly written, articulate, and to the point. I really like the writing, even though I am not so keen on the content.

The obvious criticism is that the authors take the Chronicle of Higher Education as their point of departure. My own estimation is that the Chronicle is probably not a particularly good bellweather; most of what is happening in online learning is happening outside the traditional circles typically reported by the Chronicle.

My own response to a recent article is a case in point - the critics of online learning, James Perley and Denise Marie Tanguay, in an article printed by the Chronicle, endorse the attitude that the professor - and only the professor - should be the prime determinant of content and pedagogy. See <http://www.chronicle.com/colloquy/99/online/online.htm> and http://www.atl.ualberta.ca/downes/threads/chronicle1.htm >

A similar sentiment is expressed by Mathieu Deflem (a cause celebre trumpeted by the Chronicle http://chronicle.com/free/99/10/99100601t.htm>). He even goes so far as to say of online learning that "This form of intrusion goes completely against our position as educators for which we claim sovereign rights and obligations." See <http://www.sla.purdue.edu/people/soc/mdeflem/znotes.htm>

If we look at education as viewed from the perspective of the solitary professor - a point of view the authors are taking - then not much is happening from the point of pedagogy or even content. But looked at in a wider context, where we see online learning taking the form of team-produced and taught multimedia productions, then significant changes are occurring, if only because the actors are changing.

In a similar vein, I did a search for "constructivism" on the Chronicle site (the free site, because I don't want to pay a subscription) which returned zero matches. But as evidenced by startups like UNext <http://www.unext.com/>, constructivism is emerging as the dominant paradigm of online learning. Now I am no prophet of the One True Faith (unlike, say, Alex Riegler <http://www.univie.ac.at/cognition/constructivism/index.html>) but I do consider the shift in emphasis to student-centered learning to be of pedagogical significance.

So I am pretty critical of this article. I think the basis in the Chronicle's account of the online learning phenomenon represents a certain bias. But I think that it is an argument which needs to be stated, as it clarifies an important point of view which will shape future debates.

Critic PP

This is an interesting, insightful and controversial article, bound to provoke useful debate...

The authors have tackled a very significant issue -- "keeping up with the Joneses" and "marketing survival" RE on-line learning. I think it's a world-wide problem. [Note: I am amazed when my own colleagues want a "short course -- perhaps 8 hours" to "teach them how to teach on the web" and/or suggest "I'll just scan my lecture notes..."] A lot of good things are happening, and a lot of CRAP is appearing, too.

Vendors DO drive the technology too much, but it is all that different to textbook vendors driving schools....?

I think the main deficiency in the paper is that the authors do not address another very significant issue, which is:

Online learning reaches people who otherwise would be excluded...

That is certainly the case with my Outback teachers here... they have no alternative. They study on the WWW and via CD-ROMs because there is no option. HOWEVER, having been forced into this mode of study, 90+ % PERFER the flexibility it offers.

So, perhaps a bit of revision to include this issue would be desirable. I think it should be published, and I look forward to the debate.

Critic V

"Where Do We Go from Here?" addresses a critical issue in online learning. However, it fails to clearly define the issue. As the author notes, we seem to be funneling toward commercially "canned" approaches to online instruction, and these have many shortcomings. However, this trend is but one of many, and because the technology is new and daunting, many are buying into these instant, freeze-dried, one-size-fits-all packages. Instead of doing their homework and developing "technogogy" that uses the power of the Internet to deliver courses that will make learning a dynamic and interactive experience, many are simply taking the easy way and squeezing their courses into easy-to-install but unimaginative, predictable packages that focus on delivery rather than interaction, on presentation rather than discussion. Pedagogically, the issue for traditional and online classes has always been how to maximize the learners' involvement in their own learning. The precedence for canned approaches is longstanding. When teachers are unfamiliar with a particular course, they'll teach it by the book, i.e., they'll base the entire course on a textbook that's popular in the field. Some never leave this mode. Others, however, will quickly abandon this approach and develop their own strategies to attain the kinds of interaction and involvement that make a class dynamic. This article needs to explore and present at least one approach that bucks the trend toward simplification and standardization. If the path we're on isn't "the way," then point the reader to an alternate path, one that seems to be using technology to radically alter the dynamics of learning. After all that I've said, I need to add one last thought: this article should be published, but with the revisions that I'm suggesting.

Critic O

The article, "Where Do We Go From Here," does make a good point -- too much emphasis on software and putting content online; too little on pedagogy and learning. The issue is sufficiently interesting to forgive the author for citing the Chronicle as the bellweather for our understanding of progress in online pedagogy.

Publish it.

Critic KK

I thought this was a timely and thoughtful piece.  The writer raises concerns about a very important issue -- about improving the effectiveness of instruction in higher education.   Little work is being done -- that I am aware of -- on "the design of products and services that target improved pedagogy and improving learning. And we have much to do on the research end of learning and the tools that extend and implement the results of the research.

However, I think that as written, there are two issues that may get confused even more. One issue is the pace and demands of innovation. Getting accustomed on a board scale with the use of technology in the new teaching and learning environments . . . Simplicity most definitely must be the goal here!

Much of what is happening can be traced directly back to the natural adoption curve and process of technology and innovation. Doing exactly what we have always done is a natural first step! And achieving simplicity  is important on this innovation issue.

The second issue is one that deeply concerns me and that is the need to set improved research and instructional effectiveness as a serious priority goal for higher education.  How can basic principles of all the various subjects be better learned by our students?  How can we speed up the process of learning?  Can we? Does it really "take" four years to learn/develop the skills and attitudes that are generally accounted for by a BA or BS degree? What would the "broad and substantial pedagogical change" look like if we had it?

Would definitely publish.