Learning Online 1998

June 1998

Reviewed by Greg Beatty

In June of 1998 Virginia Tech hosted an ambitious conference devoted to the entire spectrum of challenges facing higher education as it moves into cyberspace. The conference attempted to bring together five of the eight major groups working to make online education a functional reality: teaching faculty, administrators, technical support personnel, hardware and software venders, and theorists. The other three players in the field--corporate sponsors, students, and legislators--were present largely as the subject of concerned discussion, though their shadow was everywhere present, most powerfully when money and autonomy were mentioned.

The conference was largely a success, but the areas where it was not a success were even more indicative of the state of online education. Virginia Tech received a great deal of financial support that made the conference possible. On one hand, the support was much needed, but on the other, it meant that the conference was held in the Hotel Roanoake, a corporate conference center, and had a registration fee three times that of a standard conference, as well as a rather pricey room rental. More importantly, it meant that rather than being able to see all of the very impressive array of online programs that Virginia Tech is offering, we experienced instead an attenuated, almost virtual host institution. The presentation rooms were not wired appropriately for online classes, so that many Web-based classes were not accessible, or loaded so slowly that they seemed far behind current state of the art. Many questions following presentations received answers that began, "If we were at Blacksburg I'd show you . . ."

The core technology was not the only thing virtually absent. Most of the venders surveyed the low projected attendance and decided that it wasn't worth their effort to attend. Only three showed up. Three displays at the end of the snack table is hardly a representative display of the wonders of cyberspace, but it is, perhaps, indicative of the corporate perspective on online education: some investments just aren't worth it. The venders weren't alone; roughly twenty percent of the scheduled presenters simply didn't show. Lest this seem unprofessional (as it clearly does), I suggest that the corporate atmosphere has permeated academia to a sufficient degree that these individuals were simply appraising their market and judging it to not offer sufficient profit. This absent cohort was wrong. Those of us who did attend were hugely stimulated by the six keynote speakers, by the fine work being done at a surprising array of institutions, and by collectively peering into the blatant wrong-headedness of many programs. The result was conference that was more about the intellectual ferment among the attendees than about the presenters. Nowhere was this more characteristic more strikingly displayed than in the conference's final Sunday morning roundtable discussion.

Taking these matters in order, the most overt draw for attendees were the six keynote speakers: Steve Gilbert, Howard Strauss, Kate Hayles, Michael Joyce, Marc Poster, and Burks Oakley. Who drew the most attention depended on which faction of the attendees were present. The technical support personnel, who were looking mostly to discuss the concrete needs of faculty and get a sense of what to expect in the future, openly said they found theorists like Hayles and Poster baffling, and didn't know what the point of critics like Joyce might be. The theoretically inclined, on the other hand, thrilled to the both the conceptual breadth and particular insights of Hayles and Poster, while those who were teachers first and scholars second seemed more drawn to Gilbert.

Kate Hayles from UCLA gave a multi-leveled presentation that reported the insider's perspective on UCLA's rocky journey from a state in which only 5% of the courses had websites for them to the administration's mandated level of 100% of the courses represented on the Web. This was the mission of the Instructional Enhancement Project, a mission that required 4000 websites to be mounted in two months. Not too surprisingly, Hayles reported that the primary use of these websites was to disseminate information (like syllabi). Only 15% used discussion and a mere 5% were linked at all.

These websites therefore largely lacked qualities that Hayles described as definitive of hypertext: a rhizomatic organization, and a reconfigured relation of conscious and the body, in which multiple subjectivities are seen to inhabit a single body. Hayles had recently explored these qualities in a graduate class in which students both critically engaged hypertexts and constructed their own theoretically informed works addressing the new subjectivity hypertext demands of both reader and author. The results of this class, including student critical projects, can be seen at http://www.english.ucla.edu/individuals/etext.

Hayles suggested that the impact of these new multi-media with the qualities she described would be parallel in social impact to the introduction of the novel. Marc Poster's presentation continued this exploration into the social changes wrought by the computer revolution. Poster focused on the changes in our concepts of the text and the author produced by the greater alterity of digital writing. Poster too argued that the nature of digital texts--texts that can be everywhere at once and linked to at will, and that lack permanance--forces a change in subjectivity. The core of this change, Poster argues, is the move away from a depth model of the self, and towards instead a split and multiple identification echoing called for by postmodern theory.

Hayles and Poster provided the most sweeping reconceptualizations of the coming brave new cyberworld, but Steve Gilbert gave was far and away the most useful advice on how to deal with it. (Howard Strauss claimed to be giving this sort advice, but his frenetic, self-absorbed presentation was more entertainment than engagement. Those interested can access the core of his presentation at http://webware.princeton.edu/howard/slides/future/ .) Gilbert, formerly Vice-President of Educom, spoke sobering words about the our current situation. Along the way, he punctured a number of myths about online education. The primary myth he disposed of is the siren call of online education: that education should be available anywhere, anytime. The reality is that some education should be available that way, while other unique aspects of traditional, face to face education are lost. One of our missions should be, Gilbert suggested, to give serious attention to figuring out which aspects of education are specific to personal contact, and therefore precious, and fighting fiercely to protect those aspects. The trouble is, no one knows what those aspects are, though many of the attendees were convinced that the existed. We are faced, Gilbert told us, with the challenge of building the future, but we lack the vision necessary to do so.

This lack of vision, and the blind, market-driven embrace of educational technology, was both present in and seriously critiqued in many of the presentations. This showed up in both amusing ways--the most fervent advocates of instructional technology tended to make basic presentational mistakes, like having misspelled words in their opening slides--and in less amusing ways. Almost all historical analogies to earlier technological revolutions seemed sophomoric, based on facile textbook summaries of past change. Save for keynote speakers Poster and Hayles, and presenter Mary Lyn Hikel, no one seemed to know history well enough to make comparisons that might guide us.

Of the papers presented, four touched on points related to this lack of vision in ways that deserve special mention. The first was by Lyle Barton of Kent State, who spoke in the first session on "Reconfiguring the Campus." Barton described the ways Kent State was moving into instructional technology, most of which were fairly standard for land-grant institutions: online classes, various media, etc. Far more interesting was Barton's description of Kent State's aggressive pursuit of corporate partnerships. Kent State thought that they could provide services in the information marketplace using faculty knowledge. This idea failed, almost absolutely. Kent has done consulting and advising regarding delivery of instructional materials and data, but found repeatedly that academics lacked the specialized knowledge necessary to provide real market services to individual businesses--knowledge the professors assumed they possessed.

In many ways, academia is also failing to maintain its traditional missions, at least according to Mary Lyn Hikel of the University of Washington. Hikel detailed the ways in which a failure to fight for reliability and standards of citation in electronic document contribute to a climate of anti-intellectualism in this country. In many cases Hikel meant reliability in a very straight-forward fashion; she detailed how the rush to transfer records to electronic media has proven a trap, as their storage capacities degrade severely over-time, literally erasing our history. This literal degradation is paralleled by social shifts that would make all authority subject and/or based on appearance, trends Hikel sees highlighted by rhetorical strategies currently at use on the web. In this Hikel's concerns align with those of Shosanna Zuboff of Harvard, who argues that computers are helping destroy literacy.

Tim Luke presented on an attempt to make history, an attempt that would radically change higher education. Luke discussed the plans for the educational brokerage institution known as the Western Governer's University (http://www.wgu.edu), a massive conglomerate recently formed by legislators and adminstrators in eighteen Western States, two territories and a commonwealth. WGU would have no campus and no faculty of their own, but would instead provide access to online courses offered at a range of western colleges, thereby cutting down on inefficiency and duplication of resources. (The result to date is underwhelming; a glance at the course catalog shows an assortment of courses that is both low-level and badly organized, resulting in greater duplication of courses, not less. Their initial enrollment is also far below their projected numbers.) Luke saw a number of dangers in this plan, not the least of which is the aggressive pitch of the idea that distance education is the appropriate education for the information age, coupled with an attack on two cornerstones of traditional education: accredidation and tenure. They would replace these with standards drawn from industry, namely competency-based education and adjunct hires.

Lawrence Flood of SUNY-Buffalo attempted to address the labor question in "Real Work in a Virtual University." However, Flood managed largely to be a voice crying in the wilderness as he cataloged the ways traditional academic professional organizations have failed to met the challenges of the electronic classroom. Though Flood accurately labeled the push to impose a free market model on education as an ideological position, he offered nothing in its place except resistance.

Steve Gilbert had suggested that those concerned about online education established advisory groups at their home institutions, interdisciplinary groups committed to guiding the organization to a state of informational literacy from a position from outside the formal hierarcy of the university, a position therefore both vulnerable and disinterested. Those of us who stayed through the close of the conference saw the exciting possibility of this type of "cyber-citizenship" in the conference's closing roundtable discussion. Ably and gently facilitated by Len Hatfield and Tim Luke, the conference's faculty co-ordinators from Virginia Tech, this roundtable was quite simply the finest example of intellectual community and production I've ever experienced at a conference. This experience depended heavily, as one of the participants pointed out, on its physical situatedness. By sharing meals and wandering around Roanoke together for several days, and simply by facing each other in a circle, visible as equals, an ethical community was formed. This time was spent voicing serious concerns, including those expressed by several astute attendees from New Zealand and Australia and by the graduate student assistants whose labor had been so necessary in mounting the conference. Steve Gilbert's clarion call was heard and answered, and serious support was given from many quarters to research and discussion that would, in fact, identify the unique elements of face to face instruction. At the same time, plans were laid for maintaining responsible control of emerging online educational environments.

Three issues predominated here: access, focus, and ethics. Online education classes to give access to all, but the reality is far, far different, and the educators here present shared a commitment to changing that, by including, perhaps even at future versions of this conference, voices from all quarters. At the same time, participants saw a clear need to focus this discussion, so that it is not simply an all for one conversation (as one might find in a poorly managed MOO) but instead produces clear answers that reach the ears of legislators, administrators, and the technically minded. In all of these areas, as well as in lesser areas, participants were actively committed to appropriate ethical action, a commitment too often lost sight of at professional conferences.

There are plans afoot for another Learning On-Line Conference. I suggest that those interested access the website for this one at http://www.conted.vt.edu/Learning/Online.htm, and make plans soon to attend the next. Consider this an invitation to the roundtable.