e-Learning and Educational Transformation: An Interview with Greg Priest

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Greg Priest has served as president and CEO of SmartForce, formerly known as CBT Systems, since December 1998. Priest has also served as president and CEO of Knowledge Well, which was acquired by SmartForce in 1998, and as chief financial officer of SmartForce in the past. Prior to joining SmartForce in 1995, Priest was an attorney with Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, a Silicon Valley-based law firm representing emerging growth technology companies, where he was elected to the partnership in 1995. Priest has also served as a law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court.

James Morrison [JM]: Greg, you are the chief executive officer of SmartForce, a company that provides "learning solutions based on e-Learning." What is e-Learning?

GP: There is a transformation going on in education. I think that the single most important driver of that transformation is the Internet. e-Learning, essentially, is using the special capabilities of the Internet as a delivery student that has the potential to re-invent the way that people learn.

The Internet has enormous power to improve the educational process. By using the Internet, education can be personalized to each user, so that each student is given a targeted set of materials based on his or her specific educational goals and previous achievements. At the same time, the Internet allows material to be updated dynamically, which creates an up-to-the minute resource for students.  

The Internet also allows for collaboration in a way that has not been possible before with technology-based learning-collaboration not only with the student at the next desk, but with a student half a world away. 

Finally, the Internet is interlinked. It is called the "Web" for a reason. The ability to connect a wide variety of different kinds of resources into a coherent whole is an opportunity to create an integrated curriculum out of an incredibly wide range of source material.

The net effect of all of this is that education is becoming increasingly targeted to the individual; it is going to be integrated more completely into our daily lives, generating a process of lifelong learning, and it is going to happen in real time.

JM: Is your belief that e-Learning will replace professors? If not, how can we assist educators in using these technology tools?

GP: Of course, there are self-styled "visionaries" who present a vision of the future that involves the elimination of all human interaction. I think that is nonsense. There is no way that e-Learning will replace faculty, but it may influcence current faculty teaching roles to place more emphasis on mentoring and facilitation.. 

Certainly, some educational goals can be achieved through the use of technology-based formats. Ever since the invention of the printing press, people have learned by books. Similarly, people can learn through technology. Books alone are not enough, nor are any of the other technologies by themselves enough.

 Technology alone is a tool—it cannot by itself teach anything. The human element is a critical component of the educational process. The key is to create a set of tools that could be used most effectively to leverage the teacher’s time and energy, so that the teacher spends the most time doing those things that add the most value to the learning process.

I think the biggest issue is to help faculty to understand the power that these tools can give them, helping them to develop the teaching and research methodologies that harness those tools.

JM: We all recognize that lifelong learning is an essential educational goal. How can e-Learning help us to achieve it?

GP: The vision that I have of lifelong learning is a process where individuals are constantly engaged in an exercise of upgrading their skills and abilities. In order to realize that vision, we have to provide an offering that gives all individuals exactly the material they want for exactly the purpose they want to achieve at exactly the time that they need it. That requires the infrastructure that is provided by e-Learning.

In order to turn that vision into a reality, the infrastructure alone is not enough. The infrastructure needs to be used by educators to offer the substance that people want and need. That work hasn’t been complete, but that is where we are moving, as a company, as an industry and as a society.

JM: One of the concerns educators have about technology-based instruction is that there is not sufficient instructor-student interaction. How will you address this concern?

GP: It is certainly true that the historical methods of technology based instruction have involved a trade-off. In order to get the convenience and cost advantages of technology, you had to give up real direct interactivity. This was true up until the very recent past.

But as I mentioned just a moment ago, one of the powers of the Internet is the degree to which we are able to transcend those limitations today. Using the Internet, a student can ask a question of a faculty member or a teaching assistant anytime or anywhere, and often get a real-time response. Individual students can have one-to-one conversations about the course. Groups of students can come together for a live, real-time discussion group relating to the course.

In fact, virtually all of the interactions that are possible in a live classroom environment are replicable in the Internet environment. In fact, in some ways, the interactivity is more powerful. Students can interact with other students via threaded interaction even if they cannot be available at precisely the same time. Students can interact with students who are geographically remote. Neither of these is possible in a traditional classroom environment.

The existing issues do not relate to whether the technology is capable of supporting a high level of interaction. The key issues are, first, that vendors must understand how critical it is to enable meaningful interactions within their systems, and second, that any teachers who are using systems learn to use them to foster interaction. These issues require vendors to think differently about what they are building and teachers to think differently about how they teach. Both of those are possible. Both of those will happen. But it is a challenge.

Just as an example of the kind of power the Internet brings, one of the fastest growing parts of SmartForce’s business is an online mentoring structure that allows 24-hours-a-day, seven-day-a-week access to subject matter experts to mentor students on our Internet based courseware.

JM: In closing, if you could make one point to professional educators about e-Learning, what would it be?

GP: e-Learning is a tool. It is a very powerful tool, but it is only a tool. Just as Internet "visionaries" who prophesy the elimination of faculty are na´ve, those who proclaim that using technology to improve the learning process is a slippery slope to disaster are missing the boat as well. [The phrase in this sentence, "...is a slippery slope to disaster...", needs clarifying.]

Technology has created a powerful set of tools for us to use in the educational world. Things like electronic storage and retrieval of text and the personal computer have been powerful forces for the betterment of education and scholarship. In fact, one of the first effective uses of the Internet was as a medium for scholars to communicate among themselves the results of their research.

The Internet and e-Learning are incredibly powerful tools, and if used effectively by educators, they can improve education and scholarship immeasurably. Educators can have a profoundly positive influence on how the Internet is leveraged to improve education, but they will have to engage themselves with the technology in order to do so.

In short, the Internet is such a powerful medium that it is going to change the face of education. Whether that change is for good or ill is a matter of the talents and motivations of the people implementing it.

Critical Reviews

Critic AAA

Thanks for the opportunity to read this. It is very interesting, and reads well as a conversation. It is quite light, but as a "vision" piece it works well. I appreciate Greg's support for distributed learning, i.e. multiple-media, rather than multi-media, and his refusal to hype a technological solution to the issues around learning.

You might like to draw attention to the fact that what companies like SmartForce are doing is demonstrating how to make money out of web based learning. At a time when everyone feels so pressed for resources, it is interesting to look at how much is being invested in web based learning opportunities. It supports the view that we need sustained investment, both public and private, in education, rather than subsidy!

Critic T

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Critic I

Publishable, needs some revision.

The article is a good point of view for the Vision section. The opinions are interesting and to the point. Some opinions and suggestions are applicable at this time while others should be part of learning and teaching in the coming years.

The following paragraphs should be modified or expanded as suggested:

The third paragraph of What is e-learning ? needs examples or explanations of technology based learning collaboration and demonstration of HOW this will change with e-learning.

In the last section - One point to professional educators, review the first paragraph for structure and word association: visionaries and prophesy as well as slippery slope to disaster … In the second to last paragraph, Educators and students are mentioned as beneficiaries of e-learning, yet the discussion is only with educators.