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The Learning MarketSpace, July 1, 2000

Written monthly by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg, The Learning MarketSpace provides leading-edge assessment of and future-oriented thinking about issues and developments concerning the nexus of higher education and information technology.


The Chronicle of Higher Education published a review of a new book, The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid last week. The headline reads, "Authors Argue that ‘Distance Education’ Is an Oxymoron."

According to the reviewer, Brown and Duguid believe that proponents of IT suffer from "tunnel vision" that prevents them from seeing that learning is a social experience for which distance-education technology is a poor substitute.

The book builds on the authors' 1995 paper, "Universities in a Digital Age" which makes the same argument: "The central point we want to make is that learning does not occur independent of communities. . . . Learning, at all levels, relies ultimately on personal interactions."

The idea that one cannot learn on one’s own is simply ridiculous. Has neither Brown nor Duguid ever learned anything from that low-tech item called a book? I would guess that the majority of learning that goes on in life occurs independently. Even in traditional group-based classroom environments, the majority of a student's learning time is spent independently, outside of class: the standard expectation is two hours of study outside of class for every one spent in class. As Tony Bates of Canada's Open Learning Agency says, "There is an even greater myth that students in conventional institutions are engaged for the greater part of their time in meaningful, face-to-face interaction. The fact is that for both conventional and distance education students, by far the largest part of their studying is done alone, interacting with textbooks or other learning materials."

Group-based learning is one way of learning--very effective in many circumstances and with many students in many specific situations--but it is not the only way. Many subjects can be learned independently and do not require collaboration.

Applying their community-is-essential argument to lifelong learning, Brown and Duguid assert, "As jobs transform themselves and develop in unprecedented directions, people need to reimmerse themselves in specialized communities to pick up specialized knowledge." The idea is that adult students need to return to campus in order to learn.

Contrast this view with a significant example of what is going on in the IT industry, surely a field that is growing in unprecedented directions, requiring specialized knowledge. Clifford Adelman has written an excellent article describing the exploding phenomenon of IT industry certification in the May-June issue of Change entitled "A Parallel Universe". To give you a sense of the size of this fascinating development, in 1999 third-party examiners administered an estimated 3 million assessments at 5,000 sites in 140 countries. And, as of January 2000, 1.7 million certifications have been awarded.

Adelman notes that in the IT field course work may be recommended but usually is not required because the industry knows how much can be learned by experience and self-study. A 1997 Microsoft survey of its certificate holders found that 98 percent indicated self-study as a preparation method, with 91 percent using (this is shocking!) books. A 1998 Gartner Group study found that 43 percent of 6,000 certificate candidates indicated self-study as their primary learning route.

This data appears to contradict Brown and Duguid’s concerns about learning at a distance from the traditional campus. In their view, the problem is that "students can gain credentials without ever gaining access to knowing communities . . . people can and do end up with the label but without the experience it’s meant to signify." A suggested re-wording might be: "People can and do end up with the learning but without the experience the label is meant to signify." There is no doubt that a credential suggests the residential campus experience to most. Shouldn’t we be more interested in having the label signify the learning?

As part of their critique of distance education, Brown and Duguid make the following statement: "Administrator’s eyes gleam with the thought that distance education will allow them to reach more people across greater distances more cheaply than ever before. The attractiveness of low-cost, technologically mediated teaching is pushing some in the direction of maximum distance, minimum cost, and a virtual university. We think this is the wrong goal to pursue." Please let us know if you have ever heard an educator (not a politician) advocate distance education because it’s cheap.

Continuing their assertion that distance education is an oxymoron, Brown and Duguid implore, "Universities should explore resources for bringing people together, not, as some interpretations of ‘distance education’ suggest, for reinforcing their isolation." Again, please let us know if you have ever heard anyone involved in distance education advocate reinforcing the isolation of students. Indeed, most distance educators are obsessed with overcoming the potential of student isolation and view interaction as a primary goal.

To cite one of countless examples, the University of Illinois offers an online Master of Education degree in Curriculum, Technology, and Education Reform (CTER). In an article, "CTER OnLine: Providing Highly Interactive and Effective Online Learning Environments", Sandra R. Levin and Gregory L. Waddoups discuss the ways in which they create highly interactive learning environments between and among students. In order to maximize communication in an online environment, they recommend a variety of strategies including online conferencing or conference call opportunities for student groups to communicate among themselves; simple group assignments at the beginning of the course that build upon subsequent assignments and become more challenging toward the end of the course; heavy instructor involvement in-group activities early in the semester with less involvement as time goes on; and so on.

Like many seasoned distance educators. Levin and Waddoups know that "interaction" or group communication is not a simple topic. In discussing three methods they have used to form groups (student-selected, topic-selected, and instructor-selected groups), they note that each method offers both positive and negative results. Student-selected groups allow students who know one another or work in close proximity to work together on group activities. However, students who are given the chance to self-select group members tend to pick friends or individuals they know which actually narrows their scope of learning, minimizing opportunities to share ideas with other kinds of students. Some instructors allow students to choose a topic of interest and form groups based on that topic. Depending on the course content, topic-selected groups can produce a mix of interests among the group members or narrow their scope of learning as in the self-selected group. Instructors can also assign members to groups to ensure that each group has a particular mix of interests. While this grouping method can provide a wide range of expertise among its members, it can also lead to tension or personality conflicts. Levin and Waddoups have found that using different methods for creating groups throughout the online course provides a good opportunity for students to work with different students to minimize negative group dynamics.

This example from Illinois is not particularly unique in the world of online education, but it shows in exquisite detail the deep concern for not just interaction in the abstract but for the different forms of social interaction that can contribute to a high-quality learning experience. Many in higher education, like Brown and Duguid, tend to confuse face-to-face contact with interaction. Interaction can occur while not face-to-face, and interaction can fail to occur when face-to-face. There is no necessary relationship.

It looks to us like distance learning is here to stay. Rather than trotting out all the clichés about interaction--and suggesting that one is either for or against it--shouldn’t we be asking more interesting questions like how much interaction is needed to produce what kind of learning? for what kinds of students? in what kinds of courses? or in what parts of courses? These are important questions for students and faculty both on and off campus.



Libraries, from time immemorial, have been a part of the foundation of colleges and universities. Some would say that they have been THE foundation. What will be their role in an age that will increasingly rely upon computers and network-mediated learning?

In reflecting upon that question, it might be useful to lay aside some of the mythologies of how libraries currently relate to undergraduate education. The widespread deployment of inexpensive printing technology at the beginning of the twentieth century wrote the end of the "copy book" and the beginning of a textbook industry. The typical undergraduate student in the vast majority of his or her classes strays little, if at all, from the assigned textbook. In those classes that depended upon readings from a number of sources, the anthology arose as a surrogate textbook.

With the widespread deployment of inexpensive copying technology in the latter part of the century, the textbook was frequently augmented with some small amount of instructor prepared handouts--typically to reinforce those portions of the textbook that the instructor found to be weak or altogether missing. The rapid acceptance of the World Wide Web through HTML standardization and browsers has changed this dimension again.

In the short term, we can expect to see an increasing number of faculty begin to "personalize" their courses by transferring the syllabus, the instructor's handouts, and even the instructor's "lecture notes" to the Web. This, in conjunction with a textbook, which may be online itself, will decrease even more the relevancy of the campus library to the learning strategy of the undergraduate in a typical course.

In the long term, we should expect to see the development of "immersion" learning software--particularly for high enrollment undergraduate courses. This software will be expensive to develop, require a broad array of talents for its construction and will become like the textbook in that only a few versions will dominate the market. Standards, such as IMS, should make it possible for instructors to easily integrate pieces from the market-leading learning materials into "customized" offerings that suit the pedagogical style of the instructor and the administrative processes of the institution.

Several of the application service providers in the learning marketplace already integrate linkages to the institution's back office systems. We can expect the interface between instructional and administrative components to become even more seamless and unobtrusive. As we have noted before, it seems unlikely that most institutions will relinquish control of the institutional portal to either of these parties.

Now where does the institutional library fit into this scenario? In the long run--and we are reminded of John Maynard Keynes' observation that in the long run we are all dead--the role of the institutional library as a primary source of learning information in undergraduate education will decrease even more. There is ample evidence that the typical undergraduate is likely to opt for the most convenient information in lieu of the most authoritative. Increasingly that means accessing the Internet.

Undergraduate use of library materials is likely to become more like the research needs of graduate students. All institutional libraries will take on the trappings of research libraries; secondary sources accessed occasionally in conjunction with a formal course and as the primary source for research. Research is not much of a part of most of today's undergraduate course offerings. As learning software becomes more immersive, students will assume increasing control of their learning and we can expect an increasing interest in primary research on their part.

An attractive scenario for libraries would have them become the primary portal for access to scholarly material for both students and faculty in their institutions. Whether libraries can develop the necessary resources--both financial and personal--is an open question. At the moment, access to most scholarly information in digital formats is via subscription. This places the campus library in the controlling position of being the aggregator and holder of the subscription which, in turn, bestows exclusive portal rights to these scholarly information sources.

However, the Net can be observed to have both disaggregating and disintermediating characteristics. If scholarly publishers (and re-publishers such as JSTOR) move away from the subscription model to one which charges for each individual access, the portal "monopoly" of libraries for access to scholarly material will be broken. As libraries might be viewed as dispensable mediators by publishers, their removal from the information chain might be viewed as profit-enhancing by publishers.

To avoid being marginalized as the warehouser of infrequently requested print materials, libraries will need to insure their status as campus portal to learning and research sources. This won't represent a re-direction of current library expenditures as, for the most part, the cost of maintaining the "print warehouse" will continue and, probably, increase. It will represent a new and additional thrust for library services--hence the need for additional resources.

This suggests that libraries can no longer rely simply on the cataloging of scholarly material, but will have to construct finding mechanisms in their portals that assist students in locating relevant and authoritative secondary material for their learning assignments. To some extent, libraries have always done some of this in the process of determining how to deploy their materials budget. Some material is acquired and some is not. Hopefully, that which is not acquired was less relevant and authoritative.

Like the Ancient Mariner, with water everywhere but not a drop to drink, the undergraduate of the future will be in need of someone to distill the ocean of online information into a manageable trickle of relevant and authoritative sources. This will require "smart" portals (something well beyond today's online catalogs) with new hierarchies of presentation that permit undergraduates to "drill down" an information hierarchy to only the depth required for the task at hand. In fact, this is already a problem for users of digital information, whether in an institutional setting or not.

To be most useful, the scholarly portal of the library needs tight coupling with the immersive learning materials of the student. Libraries need to make sure that new standards, such as IMS, provide an application program interface for the scholarly portal. Libraries need to find strategies to anticipate undergraduate learner needs for secondary sources and to present them in ways that require a minimum amount of additional distillation on the part of the student. The library portal must always provide value-add beyond the firehose approach of commercial portals such as Yahoo, Google and the like.

These needs are not greatly different than those of the mature researcher so it seems safe to say that all academic libraries will become research libraries in some new, online sense. These needs will be met only through the infusion of new resources and new thinking in our academic libraries. Meeting those resource requirements will likely require new relationships with both commercial and scholarly organizations that move far beyond current partnerships and collectives such as OCLC, inter-library loan and JSTOR.



July 13 - 14, 2000
The Westin St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, CA
Sponsored by Eduprise.

This invitational seminar will provide Chief Executive and Chief Academic Officers an opportunity to develop a strategy framework for e-Learning that is attuned to institutional resources and goals and open to commercial and nonprofit partnerships as a means to achieve focus and a favorable return on investment. Participants will interact with peers and nationally recognized speakers to discuss assessing organizational readiness to implement an effective e-Learning program; planning, developing, implementing, and evaluating e-instruction; linking IT investments to strategic academic goals; insourcing versus outsourcing; and finding an appropriate balance between a virtual-campus instructional program and virtual enhancements to traditional classroom-based instructional programs.

There is no registration fee to participate in this thought provoking two-day session.


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Archives of The Learning MarketSpace, written by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg and published from July 1999 – February 2003, are available here.

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Copyright 2000 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.