The View of the Future – Kim Holland

In the past, information (knowledge) and access to that information (knowledge), was very difficult and expensive. Libraries routinely chained the books to the shelves. Books were expensive to produce, because they had to be created one at a time. Access to books were restricted to a few locations and few could read the words scribed in them. To further compound this problem, knowledgeable people were equally restricted in number and location. Then something changed. The availability of books rapidly increased both in number of books and locations. That change was brought about by a new technology, the printing press. Imagine what those scribes thought seeing the printing press in action. A sense of wonder, bemusement, surprise, relief, fear, and loathing. ‘Oh my, I’m out of a job!’, I’m sure would have be heard. I can hear that scribe say, ‘but the printed words are so inferior to my carefully drawn words why would anyone want such a poor copy. It is just a cheap imitation of a real book. I add so much more value in the drawn letters and pictures.’

The printing press could make thousands of exact copies of a page of text or illustration very quickly. Where once a few books represented the lifetime work of a scribe, the printing press could turn out many more in the few days. This change reduced the cost and increased the access to books, and changed the education system both in its delivery and accessibility. Sometime technology can change everything.

That scribe witnessed profound change because the printing press set off not just change in the method of reproducing books but set in motion economy, political and societal change, that affected all human endeavor. It set the stage for the enlightenment of the human mind.
Today we have been a witness to another landslide of technological change only this time the rate of change is not only fast, it is indeed accelerating. As Ray Kurzweil states,

Exponential growth is seductive, starting out slowly and virtually unnoticeably, but beyond the knee of the curve it turns explosive and profoundly transformative. The future is widely misunderstood. Our forebears expected it to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty like their past. Exponential trends did exist one thousand years ago, but they were at that very early stage in which they were so flat and so slow that they looked like no trend at all As a result, observers’ expectation of an unchanged future was fulfilled. Today, we anticipate continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow. But the future will be far more surprising than most people realize, because few observers have truly internalized the implications of the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating.
Kurzweil, Ray, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking Press, 2005, pg. 10-11.

We have constantly seen change in our lives and now the computer and its digital universe have become the next transformative technology that will accelerate change of the human condition. Let me briefly examine one area that will experience this accelerating change, education.

The education enterprise is one that appears on the surface to be one of the most resistant to change. The standing joke is: a learned person standing in front of his class lecturing to his students. The students carefully recording his every word to constructs their study notes. The students reading the book that the professor has told the students that they must know to pass his course. What century did this take place? Answer 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st. And of course the answer is all of them.

I can hear you say, ‘but education has embraced many new modes of instruction, the blackboard and chalk, the overhead projector, computers and data projectors with some form of presentation software’. True, but these have not really changed the enterprise of instruction, it remains firmly rooted in the model where a limited number of people have the knowledge and are passing it to another limited number of people. I think the true revolution of the use of computers will change this paradigm. The computer and the internet cloud, has and will mean, that information and knowledge will be freed of the constraint of place and location, and thereby most of its cost.
Think for a moment what that means. Information is everywhere, at everyplace, at every moment, it is ubiquitous. How would this change affect the institution of a university? The university and its associated store of knowledge in people and books will be less valued. We find this in such places as freely available course content on ItunesU and in MIT OpenCourseWare. There are 10’s of thousands of lectures that one can listen to and trillion of pages of text, audio and video on the web. Hundreds of millions of people are read and writing material on the web every hour. As you know, there are search engines to find the information you want, encyclopedia, peer reviewed publications, quotable quotes, news and weather reports, online purchases, and online education. Just about everything one can imagine is on the web. It is this cloud of information on the web, almost for free, that will mean the end of the institution of the university and higher education, as we have known it. Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” In this case our limits are our pasts views of what an education is, and how one achieves it, and as Kurzweil said earlier the acceleration of change.

What do you think?


New tools for a old world – Kim Holland

‘Who are I?’ Yes, the plural for I’m not one person but many. I wear many hats and I’m sure you do as well. One individual, yes, but many roles I play. Let me explore me, at least a small part of me; the part of me being an academic involved with Distance Studies. First, I must come clean; I coordinate Distance Studies at Western so part of my role is to promote online course development and instruction. So you can see, I have a vested interest. There I’ve come clean. Still reading. Good.

I teach online and have developed courses online as well, and I help other to see the light of the potential of this medium. I really do mean the light, because if you allow yourself the opportunity to explore these technologies for instruction, you too will see the future and explore it with growing crowd of faculty. Now you know where I stand. Are you anywhere close by? (At least, in a mindset framework. I teach geography hence the geographic tone to my words). Perhaps, you believe that to be educated involves an instructor, and a class of live students seated in front of you. Perhaps, you belief that the best way to teach involves you talking, and the students taking careful notes of your thoughts, prognostications, or ruminations. If this is your belief, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but for most students learning that way it ineffective, if not downright nearly impossible. Please don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there and done that. You see I have been teaching since 1982.

Why do I think differently now? Evidence. Year after year, I would grade students’ works and be depressed by the small change I have made to my students’ intellectual development. It was not just they forgot content (the stuff that I had spent so much time telling them about) they also appeared to change so little in their thought processes as well. Faculty are not intractable Luddites. I know many have simply been disillusioned by earlier technologies touted as innovations that would change the students’ education experience. You would be exhibiting a healthy skepticism when resisting the call to leap on the latest educational bandwagon before assessing how these new technologies will help students.

I’m interested in what will work for my students. I have made changes as to how I teach my face-to-face, and my on-line classes as well. I have looked at, thought about how to include them, and asked why do I want to use them. I think I’ve reflected on these tools. For at the end of the day, that is what they are -tools, very powerful educational tools. Consider, think and evaluate them for your students.

WebCT in your life – Kim Holland

At Western (yes I know the full name) about one third of the undergraduate classes use Webct. This percentage varies from faculty to faculty and from department to department. To look at the most recent data (2008) check out As the data in this file shows, over time more classes are using this learning management system with the  attendant increase in students and the greater uptake of instructor use.  What I find surprising is the variability between units. Some like Brescia have 47% of their courses using Webct OWL while Richard Ivey School of Business has 3%. Why the difference? Are there cultural differences between Faculties? Yes there are. Just are individuals vary in their uptake of technological tools so do departments. Does age, of the instructor, play a role? Yes it does? Younger faculty members find it less difficult to use this technology. Does the size of the class you are teaching play a role? Yes it does. Larger classes (lower level as in first year) have greater use of WebCT OWL. There are undoubtedly other possible explanations as well. But still 3% to almost 50% is a wide gap. So my question remains, why should it be?

I personally feel, that the decision to use Webct in your class, being an individual instructor decision, is greatly affected by seeing it used effectively by others. In other words, what are your colleagues doing, and what are they saying.

What do you think?