Vol. 15 : No. 8
New Lamps for Old: Business Ventures in Education
Donald G. Perrin Ph.D.,
Educators are concerned with the efficacy of distance learning systems and their impact on pedagogy; industry has embraced distance education to accelerate learning, reduce training cost, and expedite dissemination. In business, industry, government, and the military, the decision to adopt is eminently practical and is an investment in technology to achieve logistic advantages and cost benefits. There is no comparable "investment" opportunity for education.
A Brief History
The first half of the twentieth century saw the chalkboard supplemented with filmstrips, 16mm sound films, broadcast television, and audiotape recorders. In the fifties, schools experimented with cable television and large-area television broadcasts (Midwest Program for Airborne Television). Language labs and teaching machines were the first technologies for individualized instruction.
The sixties were prolific with research and implementation: programmed instruction, single concept film-loops, Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS broadcast), videotape recorders, and computer assisted instruction (CAI).
Dr. Leonard Silvern used performance aids to improve productivity with step-by-step instructions on slides-and-tape. It accelerated production, reduced errors and lowered skill requirements for electronic assembly and maintenance of complex electronic systems. Dr. Gabriel Ofeish showed that CAI could reduce training cost in business, industry and military settings. Individualized learning can occur at any time during the workday, evening or weekend. As a result, it does not disrupt workflow or require persons to go off-site for training.
By the 1970s there was a substantial research base on technology-based learning. While industry reaped the economic rewards, education did not have economic resources for the new technology.
In the eighties, two-way videoconferencing used broadband telephone lines to enable learners to participate singly and in groups at multiple sites. It facilitated discussion and enabled rapid and geographically widespread communication of ideas. It saved time and travel cost with minimal intrusion on daily schedules. Satellite teleconferences were cost-effective for large and widely dispersed audiences. They enabled simultaneous training or global roll-out of new products and processes. The teleconferences were supported with printed materials and questions by telephone provided feedback. PBS, Ti-In, and Star Schools led the way in nationwide distribution of educational programs via satellite.
In the nineties, networked computers took center stage. Graphic user interfaces popularized the Internet. Almost overnight there was access to knowledge in text and multi-media formats with a range of communication services including email, bulletin boards, chat, net-phone, and news groups. The Information Age exploded with communication that was global, interactive, and virtually instantaneous. In addition to updating their own infrastructure, government, business and industry invested heavily in computers and networks for schools and colleges to prepare them for the new millennium. As a result, any-where any-time learning is now available wherever there is an Internet connection.
Online learning integrates a broad spectrum of communication tools into an interactive network with text, images, sounds and video controlled by an easy-to-use browser interface. The same systems work on home and office computers and in schools. Communications can be open to the global community or more private than a telephone. New interactive delivery systems encompass learning management systems, testing, billing, tracking, and access to an incredible range of learning resources.
So much for the technology. It is global, ubiquitous, powerful, and inexpensive.
Adoption by Academia
Why have some academics resisted technology as a medium of communication and interaction? We live in the information age and these tools and practices are standard fare. Is it fear of failure, or fear of change? Is it economics or tradition? Resistance is fading as academic institutions adopt online learning to improve instruction, extend course offerings, serve unserved populations of students, and communicate with the academic marketplace.
The casualties of change are often those who resist it. Computers are here to stay. Courses are adopting online components and increasingly online courses are interchangeable with on campus classes and laboratories. Computers have become as essential to modern life as automobiles and telephones.
Research questions are changing from comparison of traditional vs. online courses to ways to optimize learning. Courses taught by text make minimum demands on the technology and there are many excellent examples of text-based courses that are exciting and effective. Interactive multimedia provide text, graphics, sound, and video that can be delivered online, via CD-ROM or DVD. Courses that require specialized facilities or on-site training use a hybrid format that combines online, classroom and lab.
Educational institutions can better use their available space and resources by having students learn online at home or in the workplace.
B-I-G-M - business, industry, government and military - are rarely education focused. Their requirements are practical and immediate as in JIT or Just-In-Time training. These training materials do not need to be merchandized and promoted for internal users in the same way as products for the open market. This is illustrated in Scenario 1 and 2 below.
Several years ago I accepted a major training contract from a leading Silicon Valley company. It was a highly innovative program for clients for whom absolute reliability and instant response to problems was paramount. Cost was no object. I visualized CD-ROM to provide an array of high quality audiovisual experiences that were highly interactive. This did not fit the needs assessment.
The resulting product was not highly interactive - it was based on email, downloading and printing files. It was not highly visual; it used simple diagrams. It had twenty learning modules with two levels - beginning and advanced. Initial login determined the job profile of the learner and prescribed the appropriate modules and levels. Each was downloaded to a laptop computer or printer. As each module was completed, the test was taken online. Certification was issued when criterion performance was achieved on all tests. Delivery and tracking was computer managed. Thus, training for a critical and expensive program was achieved with minimal but highly reliable and proven technology. It was completed in a few months and met the requirements of management, clients, sales, and technical personnel.
Oracle recently advertised how it saved a billion dollars in one year by standardizing software, databases, and human user interface so it was identical for company offices in 60 countries. This made it possible to have current data for worldwide operations to facilitate corporate planning and management. The changeover required online training so all employees could effectively use the system.
A review of existing local training showed redundancy of effort and a continual need for new and updated courses. Over time, only a small percentage of these courses continued to be used. Expensive course production was discontinued in favor of online prototype courses. Only those courses used by large numbers of employees were subjected to intensive instructional design and refinement. (There is an important lesson here. In a rapidly changing environment it is important for courses to be both functional and cost-effective.)
An instructional design template was established to ensure effective presentation and efficient learning. Users found this standard interface facilitated transition from one lesson to another.
Industry Enters Education
The new communication tools and success in training created a pool of expertise that business and industry now offer to solve the problems of education. There are partnerships and commercial ventures of various kinds funded by government, corporations, venture capitalists, and foundations. Finally education, a folk culture based on an agrarian calendar, is being impacted by technology and the information age. In a period of increasing demands and diminishing resources, technology promises to bridge the gap.
Most industry-education relationships are partnerships where both should gain in the long haul. The early stages of these relationships are tenuous as each learns to understand the other. There are illusions to be dispelled on both sides.
Industry sees education is the largest untapped market for technology. What is not apparent is that education is so grossly under-funded that it cannot make the transition without massive infusions of capital for computers, software, servers, networks, courseware, training, and maintenance. Furthermore, it will need continuing high levels of funding to support this technology. If the useful life of a computer is five years, it requires replacement of 20% of the inventory every year to maintain a viable infrastructure. The life of software and courseware may be less than this. There are also unresolved budget issues for buildings, teacher training and recruitment, salaries, and certification. College populations are expanding three times faster than funding for buildings and instruction. Legislators look to distance learning as a way to accomplish required growth without a proportionate increase in budget.
Education sees industry as an unlimited resource. The reality is that business has a bottom line that determines its ability to stay in business and its ability to attract investors. The collapse of the stock market shows that even large corporations have finite resources. And when companies don't make money, the tax base is reduced, and government revenues change from surplus to deficit.
In addition to unrealistic expectations, there are suspicions. Education is fearful of being taken over by government or for-profit enterprises. Industry is fearful that educators will not be able to meet their commitments and buy their products.
This Scenario introduces new problems - different business cycles, evaluation criteria developed by committees, and change in communication protocols. Selling techniques effective in other markets may not be effective in education.
I recently worked on what promises to be the most innovative instructional program of the 21st Century. It combines computers, high quality video, and web interactivity. All of the elements were demonstrated to work reliably on state-of-the-art computers and networks. It was redesigned for delivery with a low-cost appliance. The instructional design was templated to facilitate mass production.
Initially, the company requisitioned an independent needs assessment to know more about the education market. The company was enthused by potential success of its product and departed from the assessment to accelerate time-to-market. It is awaiting feedback from end users to "fine-tune" the product.
Unlike industry sponsored training, it is difficult in education to determine who are the clients. The student is the beneficiary but not the client. The product is designed for teachers in grades K-12. Will teachers buy it? Or administrators? Or school systems? Or a purchasing agency? The client in education is invariably a committee comprised of teachers, curriculum specialists, administrators, and a purchasing agent. Their recommendations must comply with priorities and regulations imposed by the school-district, and state and federal agencies. For example, media may require captioning or additional language tracks for students with special needs. What certifications or endorsements are needed to gain market acceptance? What funding sources can be used? Who determines funding priorities? And when does purchasing occur in relation to semesters and budget cycles?
In this instance, bureaucracy and market complexity may have a greater influence on success than quality, price or learning effectiveness. This drama has yet to be played out. The minimal technology of Scenario 1 does not apply here. Schools need interactive multimedia to teach the diversity of learners in today's classroom. The prototype products in Scenario 2 could not compete with glossy finished and tested products from publishers. Even if the product receives all of the right endorsements, there may be budget limitations. Expensive hardware may have depleted budget for software and courseware? Only the future can tell.
Partnerships between industry and education are growing in numbers. Industry has expertise and technology that is invaluable to education. Education is the preparation ground for the workforce of tomorrow. It offers expertise, research, and future employees. Schools and industry have very different motivations and modus operandi. Each must listen to and observe each other to be sensitive to needs and differences so they can successfully work together. Both are deeply entrenched in teaching and learning and interactive communication technologies. Their collaboration is essential to enrich the global community.