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October 26, 2000 Visions of the future include information overload



Education technology in Quebec has a home on the Web

Notice of this conference was listed on Profetic, the Web site recently created by the Quebec university network to collect and disseminate information about academic activities at its member institutions.

There’s a wealth of information at this site, which is in French. In general, it is divided into four sections on the subject of educational technology: documentation, teaching, training and multimedia production.

For example, the documentation section includes bibliographies, catalogues, glossaries and dictionaries, guides and manuals, images and sound, Webzines and links to related sites.

All teachers and scholars are encouraged to explore the site, at http://profetic.org/, make suggestions, and take an active part in this project. The name is from professeur and TIC, the acronym for technologies de l’information.

by Caroline Plante

Just as a panellist was about to begin his lecture on the wonders of technology in the classroom, his computer failed and a technician was called to fix the problem. The audience waited in silence. The very technological tool the panellist was about to praise was causing him to delay his presentation.

How many hours of class time are wasted every week because of faulty equipment? Do students really benefit from having to work with electronic tools? What has happened to the conventional lecture?

For three days last week, speakers from all over North America talked about these and other questions at a conference sponsored by McGraw-Hill and Ryerson publishers.

Most panellists concurred on the reasons that technology will eventually make teaching more effective. First, it transcends physical boundaries, making information and university education more accessible.

“Web-based technology is the most economical and egalitarian means of disseminating information,” said panellist Ron Owston, of York University. “Online learning will become the norm.” There will be a large increase in population, and institutions will be creating online courses instead of building new facilities. “It’s the natural way of dealing with an increase in population.”

The Web can also be a useful tool for professors who seek immediate feedback from their students. Many professors at Concordia have already developed a Web page that allows them to post important notices and class notes on a virtual billboard, and to answer students’ questions.

But technology does come with strings attached. Among other things, it can trap professors in an information glut, and force them to respond to hundreds of e-mails every day.

“I can’t keep up with all the e-mails I get from students,” complained Guy Allen, of the University of Toronto. “Technology is outpacing our capacity to deal with it.”

Undeniably, technology is carrying large pedagogical implications. Among other things, experts predict the role of professors will change, as they will be asked to act as facilitators or moderators of online discussion groups.

“Teachers will have to guide their students; otherwise they will be lost in cyberspace,” said Susanne Lajoie, of McGill University. “I think the power of technology is that we can use students’ knowledge and build on that.”

The role of students will also change, as they will be encouraged to be more pro-active in their studies and put theoretical concepts into practice.

“We need to use these new tools to promote education, to expand memory and problem-solving abilities,” Lajoie said. “It’s great that we can now simulate [hospital] environments and let the students practice in standardized and safe ways.”

Information technology such as the Internet will allow professors to bring daily updates to their research and tweak their course outline to benefit students, said Ginny Moffat, vice-president of the Higher Education Division, McGraw-Hill Ryerson publishers.

“It’s all about currency, daily updates and delivering the most current data available to students. It’s something that print cannot do,” Moffat said. “E-books will eventually be cheaper than regular books, and they will be dynamic because the authors will be adding new content all the time.”

Owston predicts that textbooks will soon disappear from higher education, and quickly make way for e-books and palm pilots.

“I can’t tell my students to go buy $80 textbooks any more,” said Owston. “I just can’t do that to them.”

But as we abandon our pens and paper and information is transferred onto the Internet, we can expect to have to deal with important copyright issues, Owston warned.

Nothing will stop people from buying online courses in bulk, packaging them and re-selling them at discount prices. Students would surely benefit from having to pay less for a university diploma, but universities could find themselves debating serious ownership issues, Owston said.

Sharing resources with institutions from all over the world is one thing, but technology also threatens to undermine the efforts of individual universities to create their own programs.

How do you feel about the growing presence of new technology in university classrooms?

“A few years ago, we created a Web site for our students, and we try to communicate with them by e-mail. We hired a team of experts to develop and increase the use of technology in classrooms. We also use WebCT a lot. As David Foot said, it’s boom time for information technology in education, but we’ve always seen technology as a supplement to classroom instruction. After all, teaching has to be face-to-face. But I’m not sure how it’s going to continue.”
— Rama Bhat, Chair, Mechanical Engineering, Concordia

“I like using technology in my class. That way, I can bring a lot of information to my students. Together, we look at the Web pages of different companies, and we’ve also created a chat room for students.”
— Joung Kim, Professor, Accounting, Concordia

“I feel that as a student, I don’t have the option of using it or not. Sometimes I just feel like talking, and when I don’t use Powerpoint for my oral presentations, I get criticized or I lose marks. I don’t like using technology just for the sake of using it. Sometimes I find it distracting. I’m an auditory person, and I’ve been brought up to value face-to-face interactions.”
— Denise Blake, student, Educational Technology, Concordia

“I’m all for it! I use WebCT, and my class has a Web page with a billboard, a chat room and my course outline. I feel it encourages students to communicate with each other. But I’m disappointed, because I think they don’t use it enough. New technology brings new perspectives to teaching; it allows for new creativity and more feedback from the class. And what’s also great about it is that students can’t get away with telling me they didn’t know about the assignment, since all assignments are posted on the Web page.”
— Pierre Duchastel, Lecturer, Management, Concordia

“I embrace technology because that’s the way young people interact among themselves. Professors have got to change because we’re still delivering [education] the way we did 1,000 years ago. The new technologies allow us to divide large classes into smaller electronic discussion groups, so that students can learn from each other. The professor is only there to guide students; they do most of the learning by themselves.”
— Pierre Vallée, Associate Director, Office of External Graduate Programs, School of
Business and Administration, Dalhousie University

“Technology has the ability to confuse and impress, and can give a false sense of legitimacy to a presentation. When there’s too much visual stimulation and emphasis on the form rather than on the content, I think the message is lost. I find that people use a lot of bells and whistles, and it’s distracting. If I have a limited period of time to do an assignment, I’d rather spend it on research than on fiddling with technology.”
— Caroline Guay, student, Teaching English Second Language, Concordia