Vol. 15 : No. 10
Editor's Note: Dr. Bensusan describes how successive generations of technology facilitated teacher-learner and learner-learner interaction leading to improved learning and student performance. He draws an analogy between development of his Collaborative Online Learning Algorithm and Toffler's Third Wave. He shows the crucial role of the computer and Internet to individual and peer learning and how it is accelerating effectiveness of his third generation learning algorithm.
"Toffler-izing" Teaching Online
By Guy Bensusan
Alvin Toffler's "Third Wave" appeared in 1991, my third year of teaching by interactive television across Arizona. Our system was a high quality technology contrasting greatly with older blackboard and desks in rows I had grown up in and taught with for forty years. Two-way video and audio, voice-activated microphones at every seat, three movable cameras, soundproofing, and classroom operators were at each classroom. We started with two sites and extended NAUNet to thirty-six locations across our big state, building new options for teachers, students and others. Beginning in a January, we in Flagstaff were keeping warm in the winter snows with sweaters, jackets and boots, sharing the TV screen with Yuma students in short-sleeved shirts, shorts and sandals.
The visuals were a great advertisement for Arizona tourism, but the learning tool was a gem, uncut, and about to display many facets. Pointing cameras at land- and skyscapes, juxtaposing the shots on our "tee-vee," we could show objects side-by-side and talk of comparisons and contrasts. We observed arts, buildings and artifacts in their cultural contexts, refining definitions and vistas by talking with each other. Everyone had a front-row seat; we saw faces, and did not have to turn to see who spoke. Being on the screen raised some personal issues, but we quickly learned who wanted the close-up and who preferred to be seen in the context of a three-shot --- a good example of individualizing with technology.
For maps, notes and other printed visuals, the pad camera was highly effective with its ability to zoom, and it had a special attachment (with zoom) that allowed us to show slides without dimming the lights. We could put two slides on screen, as well as show close-ups of portions of them, creating wonderful comparative discussions. I no longer had to lecture on regional contrasts because we looked at and discussed them. We were learners together --- since I was learning about the students as persons and about different ways they approached and learned these subjects. Through practice and time we all learned how to gain more students into discussion by the ways we posed questions.
We were neither a television broadcast nor a typical class session, but a little of both as teacher, technical personnel and students in all sites advanced step by step, stumbling a bit while struggling and surviving in gaining the balance that would foster effective learning. We went far beyond the immediate needs, and glimpsed some of what then was the future. Since I still taught one course in the traditional manner, the new experiences thoroughly jolted my sense of what might be accomplished. I had new thoughts and ideas about the subjects I taught, and experimented to diminish what I delivered to the students from my own knowledge and ways of thinking, and increasing what I called the lateral approach. I would ask a question and get an answer from a student, and then would ask another student to comment on that answer. It did not take long to reorganize classroom socio-metrics. The more I encouraged discussion within a framework of comprehension levels, the faster interaction began and spread, providing me with paths for designing not instruction but Learning. Toffler's Third Wave was a roadmap, hinting of changes to come.
Peer-to-peer computer conferencing changed things for us all much more drastically five years later, when Caucus arrived on campus and was implemented by the newly hired virtual conference director, Mauri Collins. As moderator for the Distance Education Online Symposium list, she was deeply interested in ways to focus on student learning, and organized web course developments for Northern Arizona University, getting me over my initial cyber-culture-shock in the process. Caucus freed us from the earlier "real-time" constraints of the classroom. Instead of fifty minutes three times per week, we communicated whenever we wanted and it stayed there. Everyone could read what everyone else had to say and think about it anytime: all day, all night, all week, all semester.
With Caucus, limitations and drawbacks of traditional classrooms became obvious. We had more time to think and write, and we did so at our convenience rather than that of the imposed lock-stepped schedule. Once again, Toffler lit the way with his Mass Customizing concept: large numbers could be accommodated in ways and times that fit easily into personal schedules. More students could enroll in one course taught online, and each might get feedback from other students as well as the professor, though that meant some redesigning of the course. Clicking into the software we could also click on the list of assignments, click on the readings, click on personal workspaces where we would post our answers, suggestions and questions, and comment on each other's work. We only had to log in, which also meant that "absences" by students and teacher became a thing of the past. Another new world.
We lived in both learning worlds from 1996 to 2000. I drove to class and conducted sessions with as many as 18 sites at a time and 150 students, and everyone wrote their responses to the assignments and posted them on Caucus. It was much easier not to have to fax things around from one site to another in order to read each other's work, to say nothing of the costs and time of duplication and distribution. A writing pattern emerged that became extensive and intensive, with students eager to build on each other's ideas, suggest information, sources and their URL locations. While I stood back and observed, students went deeper than on interactive television. They asked questions and got thoughtful responses from each other. They built ideas and contrasts with applications of our tools, extended their efforts and spent more time online. I consider the work being turned in was much higher in quality than what I had seen before: lengthy analyses, greater frequency, exploration into more levels and complexity, and much more willingness to engage and help each other. Why did the students do this? When I asked in the lengthy evaluations at the end of the courses, many said they did it the first week because it was required, but in the process, they found it was productive and fun, and it soon became a habit with valuable consequences showing in their other courses. They selected their own topics to work on, and were encouraged to use many diverse sources of information as part of the analysis and evaluation of sources assignments. They cooperated even more when I eliminated competition by awarding the top A grades to all who worked hard and showed weekly improvement. Many cooperating heads made for better results than one, and everyone improved by creating community and helping each other.
A learning stairway grew out of this quite naturally. Successful academic work requires use of a tool kit of half a dozen ground- floor BASICS. All fields of study are human creations sharing the same general qualities. Each and every discipline has
Learning is an active process that must be performed by learners. Teaching happens when teachers deliver or transfer information to student recipients. Myths confusing the two abound, and it took me a long time to see that. I clearly knew from the swimming pool swimmers learned and were not taught, and knew I had not transferred my ability to swim over to others. Yet my professors insisted that cognition was a different matter and that experts has knowledge that needed to be transferred. Okay, I was a graduate student and accepted the wisdom of my superiors and elders. But then I became the professor and found that no matter what I did in the traditional classroom, I fulfilled the prophecy of the bell curve. I debated this with colleagues, and was unable to make my case with them. It was not comfortable to be disparaged by those who controlled the peer evaluation that affected my wallet, and tried ever so hard to find some middle path that would dispel the conflict.
In the long run it is clear I was wrong, and on the one hand feel embarrassed by the waffling, while at the same time knowing that I learned valuable things about the many options, diverse strategies and alternative paths that I explored along the way. It is clear to me now that much teacher-talk about learning and about how they are teaching to learning is outright deception. Until teachers allow learners to function within personal zones of comfort to get started, their rhetoric is mere "Newspeak." Current euphemisms such as "grow the learners," "teach to learning" and "deliver learning" would be amusing if they were not so tragic. Altering emphasis does not shift paradigm. Why is it so hard to see that teaching and learning go in opposite directions?
Fostering Learning means students are encouraged to learn how to learn through engagement and practice, practice and practice. The new technology tools for enabling this appeared and become available in (1) the personalized interactive software combined with (2) the Internet as an encyclopedic information resource. In addition, innovative teachers saw new possibilities, universities began offering Web-enhanced and Web-based courses, while students enrolled and completed them. All these made the paradigm shift possible, and we are only just beginning to envision what the new methods imply and where following them may eventually lead us.
Shifting at this depth has not been easy, and we remain in the early stages. As usual, students helped make it happen. They made good suggestions, were willing to experiment, and were good humored if vocal about their anxieties and frustrations. We learned to encourage interaction and learning collaboration. We made changes each term, then during the term, concluding as we went that we did not need to meet face-to-face. They asked over time not to attend as they came a few at a time to feel the classroom was now redundant. I agreed, and finished that last fall semester of 2000 sometimes accompanied by one or two hardy stalwarts, but eventually alone, talking and debating with hand puppets and an occasional student on the phone.
My interactive television classroom courses died a natural death, may they rest in peace! They were superseded by newer technology, in the same fashion as I had abandoned the traditional classroom for interactive television. How should we assess this? Was this an appropriate end, or "just desserts," or a new Toffler pattern of selective change? Many teachers are comfortable with the older ways, while others are gaining comfort over interactive TV. I went through the cycle, or is it more a cyclic pattern? One form or structure for all is NOT necessary, but much of today's rhetoric centers around very harsh attacks and criticism being leveled by groups who favor one versus the other, but seem currently unwilling to do the research necessary to examine either what the students might prefer or whether the work and amount of time devoted to writing and learning is truly more effective that the traditions. Labels such as "techno-philiac" or "techno-utopian" miss the mark by as great a distance as the opposing luddite implication of "technophobe."
Personally, there are many fond memories from both the lecture hall and interactive multi-site television eras. In the former I was focused upon personal research and writing into subject matters, and remain proud of the publications that came out of those years. In the latter, I developed a different type of research that resulted in newer publications and lecture tours for disseminating what I had learned. Not that these were easy passages --- each had gains, each brought losses. "My storage runneth over" --- classroom models I built over years gather dust, while younger television versions have been replaced by computer graphics and essays on my website. I struggled with principles deeply embedded from doctoral training and traditional college practices and rules concerning standards for grading or how many hours of face-to-face time equaled three credits. I miss the travel to all parts of the state by car and small plane, the classroom banter and other memories of yesteryear. But I don't live in that place any more, and would not go back for much more than a visit.
I see a definite connection between Toffler's Third Wave and Dr Guy's Third Stage, and frankly wonder what lies ahead. The Collaborative Online Learning Algorithm I developed could not have existed or even been thought of by me in 1960, 70, 80, or even 1990. It is a product of the "Y2K," of many experiences along the teaching-learning road, or interactive software, of computers, nets, links, web courses, and most of all, the Internet. These fine tools, organized and implemented in ways to foster student learning can be used for extremely high-quality peer-to-peer engagement. I am convinced more top-quality REAL learning takes place with frequent writing and interpersonal interaction online than in any other way I have taught.
At least, that is how I see things as the fall semester 2001 begins. Examining student expression in their writing, evidence gathering and performance growth, several thoughts come to mind. One is that what the students do on their own, in their own time and based upon their own initiative is far superior to what they had previously done in response to my earlier assignments in the traditional manner. I recently wrote online in one of the courses that "learners will work much longer and harder when they can see their own development than they will for a grade from a teacher." That is another change, and while some students remain enslaved by grades more and more frequently I find them turned on by the ideas of personal liberation of their thinking and becoming able to become self-directed in their ability to learn for the rest of their lives.
Change seems to be the rule now. We will not ever get THERE because there is no there to get to and even if there were, it would also be in motion as we are. For those preferring stasis and finding right answers, this is a real dilemma. And as one of pals says, "You can be right or you can have the cheese, but not both." Change and acceleration are givens. I change, you change, students change, subjects change and evolve, information sources diversify, software and computers too, as well as that incredible ever-developing, seemingly-endless resource called Internet, with ever more data, contributors, sites and metasearch engines is bigger and more available to us every day.
It seems we are sailors-surfers on an ever-changing ocean. We must stay on our toes every moment, paying attention to and anticipating winds, currents, pressures, tides, shifts. Dead and gone are the days of courses being only focused on content. No longer can we acquire the skills of today's and tomorrow's world by being assigned a topic and trekking over to the library to gather whatever books might still be available, and read, formulate and write a report for a grade, and then forget it. Professors may still be teaching in that manner, with the still-dutiful and yet-obedient willing to work their way through the drill, but that approach is moribund, a relic, dead-on-the-hoof, even if still standing and seemingly healthy.
A new wave of learning opportunity has emerged in which learners select their own topic to study from a long and broad spectrum of arts and cultural elements. They then engage interactively in step-by-step exploration of that topic, together exploring the same critical thinking exercise as they see and discuss with each other the commonalities and the divergences affecting their specific topic. They may be akin to football players: all on the same team, all interested in mutual assistance, all with special duties which en masse contribute to the total accomplishment. Each one is a teacher, a learner and a critical contributor to the team, while the coach comes to appreciate the whole game ever more comprehensively from his senior vantage of learning and helping. And they learn also how to build community.
About the Author:
Guy Bensusan, Ph.D., Senior Faculty Associate for NAUNet, Online Learning and Interactive Television, and Professor, Department of Humanities, Arts & Religion, Northern Arizona University, Mohave Campus, 1971 Jagerson Ave, Kingman AZ 86401.
Phone: 928-757-0818; FAX: 928-757 0811; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cell phone: 928-606-4127