Online Learning and Teaching in an Information-Rich Context

Philippe Duchastel <>
Sylvie Turcotte <>
Computer Research Institute of Montreal, Canada

1. Introduction

Is it unrealistic to think that introducing Internet access to schools and universities will improve learning in those institutions? If we are to take stock of the previous information revolutions that have been seen as harbingers of a new scenario for our educational institutions (the audiovisual revolution of the '60s, the computer revolution of the '80s, or the distance-teaching revolution of the '90s), we are bound to be disappointed. Simply using the information technologies as new media in which traditional teaching is perpetuated has led to failure. Despite many excellent success stories due to these technologies, the general picture of schooling has not changed and learning is no better off than before. Will it be different this time?

Why we rest assured the answer is yes is what we present in this paper. Our rationale centers on the information-rich environment provided by Internet access, a facet of the situation that clearly marks this technology apart from its predecessors and that has far-ranging implications for learning and for teaching. The Net is a conglomerate of technologies that have different functions, which can however be grouped into 3 general communication categories: 1. Access to information available on the Net, particularly the Web; 2. Asynchronous communication through e-mail and eventually other types of mail (voice, video); and 3. Direct communication through Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and voice- or video-conferencing.

Until recently, it is mainly categories 2 and 3 that were particularly supportive of online learning (Harasim et al., 1995) and explored as technologies for distance learning in particular. Mass Web access is a more contemporary phenomenon. While all three categories can be applied within educational contexts to provide information in support of learning and teaching, it is mainly the first (Web access) that provides the information-rich context we discuss in this paper.

Net learning is not a panacea, and will come to complement other, more traditional forms of instruction. And yet, its impact is expected to be enormous, with radical consequences for education at all levels, for training in business organizations, and in society generally. Why we feel confident in this will become apparent as we discuss the issues involved.

2. Net learning: its features

Two principal features of Net learning need to be considered up front: its richness in information and its poorness in process. Other features to be examined later include its free access and economical infrastructure, as well as its chaos and appeal. These more contextual features are all factors that influence whether and how the Net will be used for learning. How these features evolve in the dynamic Internet world will also impact the situation in a major way, and it is important to consider not only the current situation, but the directions that are emerging as the technologies implicated in the Net evolve.

The Net's information richness is what makes it a valuable learning tool for those who seek information. It is of doubtful value for those who do not know what to seek (but that will change in time, as aids are developed to assist intelligent information searches, particularly in the form of specialized agents). We believe that

  1. Information is the principal ingredient of much learning (and often a sufficient one in itself);
  2. Instructional design and teaching in information-rich environments must be carried out differently than in traditional environments; and
  3. A new theory of applied learning will emerge to characterize the learning process in Net environments.

That information is central to learning does not imply that knowledge is only an accumulation of information; rather it means that it is information that generally triggers transformations of knowledge that bring growth and development of intellectual skill. These do not occur in a vacuum, but rather build on concrete information that either questions current thinking or provides supportive feedback to help elaborate a growing viewpoint. How that information is obtained is of little consequence; what is important is that it is available at the time of need; and in principle, greater accessibility leads to actual availability when needed.

Standard instructional design is a process that seeks to structure information elements and interaction with these elements to ensure mastery of a set of pre-defined learning objectives. Given the dynamic, if not somewhat chaotic, nature of the Net, it seems pretty clear that this traditional approach to design will no longer succeed as it has in the past 50 years. Exactly what will replace the current paradigm is not yet defined (Duchastel & Giardina, 1996), although some directions seem plausible and are explored later when we discuss curriculum and teaching.

As with design, the Net's creation of a new environment for learning is expected to lead to a new view of learning that is geared to a mode of information interaction different from that of the past. The fundamental assumption here is that as the conditions of learning change, so will the very process of learning change (at the applied level). One framework of applied learning that shows much promise in this regard is that of Schank and Cleary (1994). Others are likely to appear in the next few years.

All these changes in how we view learning and instructional design come about because of the growing richness of information on the Net. The core question in this is: Does access to so much information inevitably enhance learning? It seems likely that high-quality information and communication can trigger important learning processes in students. Examples of such settings are the Monterey Bay Science Research and Education Network (Brutzman, 1995) or the CoVis Geosciences Web site (Pea et al., 1995). But what role does structure, including process structure, play in facilitating that learning? That is the second part of the coin of Net learning.

The Net's current process-poorness is a limitation and is likely to remain one. We refer here to the current limited interactivity offered by the Net. Interactivity is the learning ingredient that assists skills development. Currently, the Net remains a reactive environment (Brewer et al., 1995) which responds to requests with information. A more pro-active approach is becoming possible (e.g. Hubler & Assad, 1995) with approaches based on hypertext markup language (HTML) forms or on Java-like applets and, in principle, such an approach can fully replicate all traditional teaching functions (as standard CAI attempts to do), including interactive exercises and individualized guidance.

There are, of course, various levels of interactivity, from the delayed feedback received from a human tutor to whom one may have electronically submitted some work for comment (as in the traditional distance teaching paradigm), to immediate feedback available through self-testing (as in audio-based language learning, e.g. or through the operation of an applet. With interactivity at its core, the Net could in principle replicate all teaching functions, becoming a process-rich medium rather than a process-poor one as is currently the case. For contextual reasons, however, the approach will likely not go very far in this direction, as we see below.

The Net's contextual features (its inexpensive access and economical infrastructure, its chaos and appeal) relate to practical issues that condition Net usage and hence practical Net learning. We need to examine these features and how current trends outline a possible scenario for Net learning in the coming years.

The Net's inexpensive access and economical infrastructure (to both produce Net content and share in communication space) provide widespread use of the technology. This usage is growing all the time and as the low-cost network computer comes to fruition, the vision of the Net as the computer becomes a reality. This level of access to information is the technology push that promises to radically change teaching and learning in school (see below).

Chaos is a feature of the Net that naturally flows from its economics. By comparison, the world of books is less chaotic (although still so) because they cost more to produce and distribute (and therefore, there are less of them produced each year than Web pages) and they are more stable, and accessible over time. Chaos is what contributes to a large extent to the richness of the Net and hence to its appeal.

For sure, chaos has a cost associated with it. The difficulty of separating out the excellent from the mediocre is an issue that educators and students will continue to grapple with, as they had to in assessing the validity of information provided through mass media. The gradual development of a critical stance towards information as one grows older is a continuing challenge for education. In particular, it is an issue that may contribute to continuing the cleavage between the very able and well-educated on the one hand and the less able and uneducated on the other. The sociological evolution of the Net in this respect will be an interesting feature to observe.

Directories and search engines are an initial step in providing assistance with Net chaos, but we may have to await specialized pedagogical directories or even pedagogical agents to fully tackle this issue successfully. Structure in any form, though, must be balanced against the innovative richness provided by the very chaos of the Net.

It is economics and not chaos, however, that may well keep online learning process-poor.

While the economics of making information available on the Net favor online learning from information, we may witness a different story with interactive learning applications. Just as an industry has developed around the production and sale of educational software, it is likely that a similar industry will develop around the production and sale of interactive online applications for learning. The issue is thus not that they will not be available, but rather that they will cost something; and hence, access and use will be impaired. The Net then just becomes a distribution channel for marketable educational products.

On the other hand, it remains possible that individual teachers, domain experts, and organizations might find it alluring to develop and freely distribute interactive educational applications as they do now with information. How the sociology of the Net will interact with the evolving economic pattern will largely determine how this issue develops.

3. Technology push

Why we think in terms of a revolution this time around the information technology bandwagon rests essentially on the fact that the technology is upsetting, in terms of information, the traditional balance of power between teacher and student. The adage that information is power remains true in educational settings as elsewhere.

Knowledge lies more and more outside of the classroom as the richness of the Net continues to grow. Access is also an out-of-class phenomenon and one over which the teacher has no special hold, as was the case (and still is, to an extent) in information-poor learning situations.

The fact that students may readily obtain more extensive or more authoritative information than the teacher has on a given subject, or that information is available on the Net that is more interesting and engaging than that presented by the teacher, is bound to create havoc in the classroom that remains tied to our current traditional view of teaching. This will particularly be true at the secondary school level, where independence in thought and character begin to blossom.

What the Net provides is essentially a wide open and easy communication channel for students to interact with information and other people in the realm of their budding intellectual interests and the learning challenges that their formal school program provides. How they make use of this opportunity in practice is of course the big question that we will see answered in the next few years (Kilian, 1996).

Consider what happened in the CoVis project when desktop videoconferencing was made initially available to schools: "Since teachers were worried that adolescents would use it as a medium for socializing and ignore their project work, they were leery to incorporate videoconferencing into project activities or requirements." (Pea et al., 1995, p. 381). In this case, the teachers presumed that socializing would win out over more serious academic pursuits and thus they limited access to the technology. There is definitely an issue here that needs to be investigated empirically and that needs educational engineering to resolve if there is a problem, as most likely there is. The underlying issue, one of growing importance for educational theory, is that of the stimulation of intellectual curiosity and its integration into day-to-day social interaction of youth, based on emotional payoff.

The role of the teacher is thus going to be modified in a very important way, with leading and guiding taking over from information-giving. The chaotic nature of the Net will require teachers in particular to assist students in questioning the world around them and judge the validity of the information accessed, thus sharpening critical thinking and imagination (Rose, 1995).

An important fallacy in terms of teaching is that the Net is simply a new medium for the distribution of teaching materials. There are pedagogical models (Lai, Chen & Yuan, 1995) that suggest the use of the Net in this way, but these models defeat making use of the very richness of the Net. Furthermore, it gives online teaching the character of simply using the Net as a cheaper way to publish teaching materials(Antchev et al., 1995).

Online teaching becomes very much a content matter, if not an outright curriculum matter. Selecting specific content to be read by students in a course of study loses its function when all kinds of appropriate material is accessible on the Net. Course design focuses then on the objectives to be achieved and not on the means of achieving them, a strong shift in our instructional design paradigm (Duchastel & Breuleux, 1996). A major change in schooling, this shift amounts to a move towards much greater emphasis on project-based learning that is open in its knowledge results and also challenging to students, as exemplified by the U.S. National School Network Testbed (Hunter, 1995), where students are invited to pursue interests through science learning projects.

Curriculum or program design itself is subject to reconsideration in an information-rich context. The diversity of resources available on the Net, now and even more so in the future, question the necessity for an educational system to have all its students learn the same things, an issue that Schank and Cleary (1994) raise in a wider schooling context. This issue essentially revolves around the level at which the learning goals for education are specified. Traditional design models over the past 30 years have strongly encouraged the elaboration of learning objectives at a very detailed level of specificity. This fits in well with the strongly didactic instructional model in which the student was assessed and corrective guidance provided in order to ensure progress in the mastery of the objectives.

The problem beginning to be recognized with these models is that of the validity of the curricular objectives. If the objectives are shared by the students (that is, accepted as interesting and worthy of pursuit), then learning can proceed naturally and at a good pace. If however, their validity is questioned (as is more likely the case), motivation takes a hit, sometimes fatally, in terms of schooling. One of the major problems of contemporary educational systems, namely the unacceptably high drop-out rates seen in many nations, particularly at the secondary school level, is witness to this curriculum problem.

The specification of learning objectives at a higher level of generality, one which permits different students to achieve these objectives differently (through different projects, through learning different content, etc.), is more in tune with the emerging information-rich Net context than the traditional model is. The technology here is pushing the change in models.

The issue, however, is far from settled, given the recentness of the trend and a major complicating factor (Schank and Cleary, 1994): the need for alternative assessment paradigms. Indeed, if students are to be given more leeway in precisely what is learned at a detailed level, then traditionally popular forms of testing must be abandoned in favor of modes of assessment that examine higher-order outcomes based on production of knowledge artifacts.

4. Conclusion

While Net technology provides a push in the general direction of rethinking education, it is not, however, a fix for poor teaching. Those who wish to resist the push will undoubtedly do so until new realistic models of teaching fully take center stage in our educational thinking.

The appeals arguing that what is now needed is the development of educational materials on the Net, accompanied by training for teachers in how to develop such materials, illustrate educational thinking within the traditional mold that is bound to fail. Many of us remember those very same exhortations during the heyday of the introduction of the PC in the schools. While a great deal of money and effort have gone into the production of educational software and in the training of teachers, some of it leading to excellent results, the fact of the matter is that schools and pedagogy have not changed that much from what they were before. To repeat the same mistake now with the introduction of the Net into the schools will simply lead to wasted money, energy, and hopes; it will also become yet another example of the struggle with the unfamiliar and the natural tendency to adapt the technology to the environment one is familiar with.

The temptation to fit the new technology into the traditional paradigm remains a challenge in terms of change management at a social level, as it has been in the past. Where the prospects are different with Net technology, however, is in the balance of information access. The centrality of information for learning, and the repositioning of information in the pedagogical relationship, will naturally pressure teaching to adapt to this new information-rich context. That is the promise of online learning.


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Author Information

Philippe Duchastel is a researcher active in the field of advanced learning technologies and learning theory. He has published widely on instructional design, intelligent tutoring systems, informal learning, and learning psychology.

Sylvie Turcotte is a senior research associate at the Computer Research Institute of Montreal (CRIM). She was recently in charge of a technology showcase dedicated to computer-assisted training, and was involved in the DELTA-SMILE R&D project, a multinational European initiative for distance training technology. Her research interests are in the area of human-computer interaction, in particular as it applies to training applications.