Double Helix of Learning and Work

2.4. The Computer as Consultant and Provider

A project that pursues goals of the magnitude of the Learning and Work project could not be imagined or accomplished before the ICT revolution. Without the computer, the mapping of knowledge in the form of learning modules could not be undertaken. The computer pro­­­vides the necessary programmes for the listing, positioning, and stockpiling of the modules in a huge database. The retrieval and combinatorial techniques are already familiar to most users. But here comes the big surprise! The map of knowledge cannot be represented as a linear text. Commonly used texts and graphics cannot accommodate its complexity. Computer screens can reveal only partially the multitude of the links, and, at best, three-dimensionally. The structuring technique has to be that of hypertext, already used in the building of a homepage.

The map of knowledge has nothing to do with a geographical map one can hang on a wall. Neither is it a projection of some physical area. It is a list of links among entities represented by terms pertaining to each of those entities. The programme provides access to those entities and the possibility to select one and to establish further possible links. The entire process is subordinated to a goal that only the user can determine. The final result of the selection procedure can be represented as a linear or bi-dimensional sequence of modules connected in series or in parallel. This itinerary is the final one that resulted from a succession of numerous selections. Several possible itineraries can be provided as the menus for an ultimate choice. However, even a deliberately final choice is still, in essence, tentative. After going part of the way (one or several modules), the user may revise his or her itinerary and choose new paths.

The technique of the hypertext goes beyond the familiar techniques used in advanced libraries for the indexing of an enormous number of books or scientific periodicals that contemporary readers must consult. If one needs to know which modules refer to a particular issue or use a certain method or even connect to other issues and methods, one will receive one’s answer after performing a series of clicks.

What follows is the first sample of a computer at work in the Learning and Work scheme. It draws up a map of knowledge in its own style and then administers it. Since one of the main goals of the system is to create a personal learning itinerary (i.e., the string of modules to be covered), the computer becomes the personal consultant and the monitoring tool of the covering process. The modular path is a twisted one, with many crossroads and turnings. It is not like the disciplinary road, with no turns or side streets, which once embarked upon cannot be abandoned before the final destination is reached. For all the paths that open at the end of a module, the computer is both a guide and an adviser for decision-making.

Meanwhile, the computer demonstrates its effectiveness by searching for, and finding, the basic sources of learning. It opens unimagined possibilities to consult library catalogues and great collections, even to identify the necessary chapter or passage in a book or an article. It is now possible for a student to browse through the rare manuscripts of the Vatican, to search the Library of Congress of the United States, to visit the exhibition halls of the Louvre or the Hermitage, to wander through the Forbidden City of the Chinese emperors, or to climb the heights of Machu Picchu – all from the solitude of a campus room. A laptop is the student’s link to global science and to the infinite variety of cultures. The offer is so massive, so prompt, and so varied on the computer screen that the student has to master the art of orientation and selection.

For centuries, students and researchers alike had to work hard to gain access to the sources of learning and to pin down the current state of knowledge so that they could move on. It was common in the old days for students to walk for months before they reached a university in Bologna or Paris in order to pick the brains of a distinguished scholar. Nowadays, updated information is readily available. All one has to do is to obtain the professor’s e-mail address. The time-consuming and labour-intensive effort to search for sources has been replaced by the ability to discern the right ones – a superior intellectual quality. The measure of history is given by the progress from the ox-driven plough to the tractor, from the sweatshop to the automated production line, from the horse to the car or the airplane, from sail to steam to diesel. It is also illustrated by the monk writing on parchment versus a student reading and writing with his laptop.

When Marshall McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), he was correct in noting the watershed between a phase of civilization based on the linear and analytical writing of books and the other phase that is submerged in the synthetic and global television image. The immediate inference is that a culture that can use such devices has to be of a different kind, just as the human mind has to function differently in a changed environment. Several decades later, one observes that the written text has not gone out of use; the computer has not caused the total abandonment of paper; and books are still being published. It is only that children now can go to a médiathèque (which in France has almost replaced the bibliothèque) in the neighbourhood, where they can read onscreen, listen to recordings, and watch videotapes. We have entered the era of multimedia, a splendid mixture of text, sound, and image.

The written text seems to have won the battle after all. The computer has reduced it to a two-symbol succession. The digital revolution has made it possible to mesh sound and image in the same procedure, thus going beyond the analogue techniques. Images have become digital, and so has music reproduction: multimedia is multi- only in terms of expression, but it is uni- in terms of digital support. Digitalization has made it possible for the main general-use devices to converge: the computer, the telephone, the television set. The miniaturization of information technologies has made all of them portable. It is reasonable to assume that, when competition eventually prevails over the narrow specialization of major companies in the field, a single device will substitute for all of them. When that happens, it will introduce new elements of enhancement into the practice of computer-based learning. The reverse influence is also possible. The new market catering to the Learning and Work system might very well call for new technological and service requirements.

Orbital links via satellite and the hugely efficient optic fibers have caused the information technologies to also become communication technologies. Hence ICT. The past decades have focused on communication, and the improvement process has been subordinated to that particular function.

An immediate consequence has been the emergence of distance education, a new chapter in modem education. It questions the spatial identity of the university. Originally, it was developed to serve the needs of non-formal education that offered adults a form of distance learning using the available media (correspondence, radio, television). In time, distance education gained in efficiency and attendance due to the introduction of new technologies.

Large universities, which had opened far-off branches in the meantime, started to use distance learning as a means of making one and the same course available on several campuses. In Vancouver, Washington (USA), a complete set of distance learning equipment, donated by the Ford Foundation, allows Washington State University to provide courses for a campus in Seattle, almost 500 kilometers away. The 150-university network around the Baltic Sea broadcasts two-hour lectures by satellite, according to an established schedule, to the member universities registered at Uppsala, the headquarters of the Baltic University. In Madrid, a distance university functions according to a regular university scheme of faculties and disciplines.

However, distance education does not go beyond the “school-based teacher learning” formula in the current experimental phase. Even so, it has been welcomed with interest as a variant of the regular university, one in which physical attendance is not required. Universities that have created special distance-learning sections to replace or supplement evening, part- time, or low-attendance courses suddenly find themselves overbooked.

An attempt to define distance learning led to the following list of characteristics: (i) modular courses; (ii) courses privately funded by students or sponsored by an employer; (iii) part-time and flexible study; (iv) flexibility of entry requirements and levels of entry; (v) diversity of subject range inside degree courses (student-choice); (vi) independent but not necessarily student-centered courses; (vii) resource-based; (viii) limited face-to-face contact with the tutor.

The fact that modularization sits at the core of that list is not accidental. The inadequacy of block-courses in distance communication is avoided by means of the reduced volume and enhanced flexibility of the modules. Example: four major pharmaceutical companies initiated a modularly designed course that can be completed in one to two years on “Structure-Based Drug Design”. The complete course runs on the Internet with the aim of creating an “interac­tive learning community”. The students are all enrolled at post-graduate level and are gainfully employed. In Scotland, four universities launched a project on the reciprocal and collaborative authority of tutorial units exchanged via the Internet (MANTCHI – Metropolitan Area Network Tutoring in Computer Human Interaction). Each tutorial had a typical load of one week of work for the student, which corresponds to our definition.

How do students, who have been questioned about the use of ICT in the teaching and learning process, respond? They say they enjoy it. It enhances their responsibility for self-help. It opens new avenues to specialist subjects, to the use of experts, and to the latest scientific data. It broadens collaborative opportunities, and it provides a chance to enable others.

Once the “friendly” machine was created, its performances registered spectacular improve­ments. Consequently, it is possible to assume that, in the Twenty-First century, artificial intelligence will spread over the vital areas of reasoning, choice, analogy, and metaphor, thus becoming what it is meant to be: a thinking tool that produces reflection, creation, and knowledge. The Twenty-First Century is also expected to witness significant advances in understanding the mechanism of the human brain. What hidden operations of the “black box” lie behind learning processes? Centuries of educational theory and practice as well as long series of learning concepts have failed to greatly enrich knowledge of the mental operations that produce learning. The progress of the machines that assist human learning and a better understanding of the mental processes involved in it will reveal the specificity, potential, and limits of these processes and will facilitate man-machine and man-man interaction.

The resulting learning and work environment will be different from the one in which people operate today.

The University could also develop models which show the universities solving global issues and problems, not only models which transmit the skills and knowledge necessary to be a global citizen. For example, an interesting model would offer a true vision of what the university can contribute to globalization and the language necessary to make this vision understood and accepted even by those whose major interest is not the breakfast, but the dinner menu preferred by Francis Bacon. In the eighteenth century, an age of exploration and discovery, Buffon, in his Histoire naturelle, wrote that the human mind has no limits and that it expands as the universe unfolds before it. Today our minds and our institutions remain strong, in part because of the stimulation of the global inquiry. The Bible reminds us that without vision, the people perish (Proverbs, 29:18). The responsibility for a vision for universities in the next century belongs not only to the students, the alumni, the teachers, researchers, and administrators, but to each one of us. The future is ours to share and to improve by our combined efforts (Roseann Runte, “Globalization and the University”, 1999-2000).

Pages: 1 2 3 4