A Response to "Where Do We Go from Here?"
by Stephen Downes
Gary Brown’s Critical Reading article, "Where Do We Go from Here?" (2000) is a nicely stated expression of a sentiment that probably has widespread currency. It is precisely because of this fact that his argument is troubling.
Taking the Chronicle of Higher Education as his starting point, indeed, as his "bellwether of the academy," Brown examines online learning from a pedagogical perspective and asks, pointedly, "How do these products improve instruction? Where is the articulation of the critical marketing angle for a product that helps faculty promote deeper learning?" Of course, one does not find the answers to such questions in the Chronicle. But this is hardly the fault of the discipline. My own estimation is that the Chronicle is probably not a particularly good source; most of what is happening in online learning is happening outside the traditional circles typically reported by the Chronicle.
My own response (1999) in a Chronicle forum to a recent article is a case in point. Critics of online learning James Perley and Denise Marie Tanguay (1999), in an article printed by the Chronicle, have endorsed the attitude that the professorand only the professorshould be the prime determinant of content and pedagogy. I ask, "One wonders what gives a tenured professor a unique insight into teaching at all. Course packs, for all their weaknesses, have at least the steady hand of a professional educator to guide them in their content and delivery."
A sentiment similar to those of Perley and Tanguay is expressed by Mathieu Deflem (1999) (a cause celébre trumpeted by Florence Olsen’s  article in the Chronicle). In a position paper posted on his own Web site, 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."
If we look at education from the perspective of the solitary professor, a point of view these 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 team-taught multimedia productions, then significant changes are occurring, if only because the actors are changing.
For example, I did a search for "constructivism" on the Chronicle site (the free site, because I don't want to purchase a subscription) that returned zero matches. But as evidenced by startups like UNext, constructivism is emerging as the dominant paradigm of online learning. Now I am no prophet of the One True Faith (unlike, say, Alex Riegler ) but I do consider the shift in emphasis to student-centered learning to be of pedagogical significance.
I think the basis in the Chronicle's account of the online learning phenomenon represents a certain bias. While it probably represents the collective voices of tenured academia teaching as lone eagles in front of ever larger classrooms, it does not represent the many voices of people using new technology in new ways, and as such misses an important opportunity to respond to the pedagogical question at all.
Faculty of Extension
University of Alberta
Brown, G. (2000, January/February). Where do we go from here? Technology Source. Retrieved January 28 from the World Wide Web.
Deflem, M. (1999, October 2). University4Sale.com: The educational cost of free lecture notes on the Internet. Retrieved 28 January from the World Wide Web.
Downes, S. (1999, October 26). Response to James Perley and Denise Marie Tanguay. The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. Retrieved 28 January from the World Wide Web.
Olsen, F. (1999, October 6). Armed with a Web site and links, a professor takes on lecture-notes companies. The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. Retrieved 28 January from the World Wide Web.
Perley, J. and Tanguay, D.M. (1999, October 29). Accrediting on-line institutions diminishes higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. Retrieved 28 January from the World Wide Web.
Riegler, A. (2000) Radical constructivism. Retrieved 28 January from the World Wide Web.
UNext Corporation (2000). UNext. Retrieved 28 January from the World Wide Web.