Editors Note: This is a timely and significant message for those of us immersed in Distance Learning - where ever we practice.
hank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. It's a pleasure and honor to be here and have the opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas. As people involved in and concerned about education and learning, we share many of the same values and goals.
In order to determine what education in the 21st century in China will look like, it is essential to determine what the 21st century world will look like.
We all hear that the world is getting smaller. In plain terms, "the world is getting smaller," simply refers to advances in transportation and telecommunications that allow us to alter our own perception of the world. We can relatively quickly fly to any place on earth. We can exchange knowledge, ideas, and information almost instantaneously. With advances in international transportation, people and manufactured products can travel between two points in far less time than in the past-thus, in this sense, the world has become smaller.
With advances in telecommunications, there is the potential for people to be in instant written, verbal or visual contact with one another, if they so choose, no matter where they are in the world. Many people argue that it is primarily the technological advances in communications that has made the world smaller and has allowed us to move to a truly global community or global society with a global economy.
Fortunately or unfortunately, with the major advances in transportation and communications, no longer can countries live in relative isolation from one another. No longer can individual countries thrive without appropriate interaction and exchanges with other key countries in the world. To not participate in the global community means to be isolated and left behind.
It's been said that in the 21st century, we can expect that creativity and wealth will flow from knowledge. And that knowledge will be shared through networks; we will be living in an age of networked intelligence. It will be necessary for participants in many countries to share resources and form partnerships. Knowledge and experiences will be exchanged and shared to create a mutually beneficial forward progress for all.
One of the key elements for success will be the expanded use of teams. More and more, in both commercial and educational institutions, we can expect to have multi-national work teams rather than one-person, individualized work. People from many nationalities will need to learn to work together, despite their numerous and varied backgrounds. Physical, emotional, psychological, political, and religious borders and barriers will need to be lessened or removed in order for the development of successful international teamwork.
In past decades it was an accepted practice to have institutions and organizations operate separately and in isolation of one another. Schools and universities saw themselves more as competitors rather than partners in the teaching/learning process. And never would you expect a university to join forces with a commercial business. But such attitudes and isolated islands of operation must now come to an end. For countries to remain economically and politically sound, all key organization players must end their isolation and begin a new era of cooperation and coordination.
But what will it take for countries to successfully compete in the world scene? Well, they must be able to participate in a knowledge economy. Making and using knowledge will be the key to competition and the development of national wealth and prosperity. But in such an environment, a majority of each country's members must, throughout their work-life, continually update and upgrade their knowledge and skills. They must become comfortable in participating in a state of life-long learning. Education and training at a multitude of levels will be continuously needed. And the bottom line is that there will need to be universal education-the opportunity for all who desire to pursue an education to do so.
Unfortunately, universal education cannot be achieved simply by applying traditional classroom methods with which we are all comfortable. No nation has the resources to provide universal education through the traditional method of buildings and classrooms where students must come to the faculty at a specific place and at a specific time. To achieve universal education it will be essential to apply technology appropriately to extend the reach of the educational institutions and their respective faculties. Expect technology to be used to increase the quality of learning, extend the reach of the faculty, and to greatly increase students' access to education.
With the appropriate use of technology, instead of students having to travel to education centers, such as universities, courses and opportunities to learn will go to the students, no matter where they are located. The term, "distance learning," has been used to describe the process or system of using technology to provide learning opportunities for students outside the traditional classroom. This term came about in recognition that the teacher and student were not in the same room with one another but were at a distance from one another. Unfortunately, in American English, the term "distance" has many negative connotations. Therefore, I prefer the term, "Open Learning," meaning, opening learning opportunities for students and extending the reach of competent, knowledgeable faculty beyond the standard classroom.
With open learning, or using technology to provide learning opportunities for students outside the traditional classroom, the question is often asked, "What is the best technology to use for open learning?" The answer to that is, "It depends." It depends on many different issues and factors. Most countries have found that there is no "one best technology." To provide universal education, they rely on a continuum of technologies or many technologies from which they can pick, choose, and blend depending on their specific needs and preferences. Mature open-learning institutions will use satellite, television broadcasts, cable transmissions, video tape, CD ROM, DVD, telephone, fax, newspapers, textbooks, the Internet, etc., to provide the greatest access to the greatest number of students. As new technologies are developed and existing ones combined for greater effectiveness, expect them all to be added to the collection of available open-learning technologies.
Historically, developing and building the systems of technology (hardware) for open learning have always been the easy part. Developing the human resources to guarantee wise and efficient use of the technology has been the hard part. Locating one-time capital costs to build a system is usually easier than locating ongoing operational and training costs. In other words, it's the human element, not the technology element, that needs the most attention and concern in developing open-learning systems. Using technology for open learning involves both people and social systems. The way we approach education, the processes and rules we develop, and how we organize our instructional system are essential elements of open learning programs.
When using technology to provide universal education, it is essential to have centralized coordination and direction. National parameters and standards within which everyone works need to be established. To not have central coordination allows for a tremendous waste of time, needless duplication of effort, lack of sharing of resources, and a guarantee of incompatibility-individuals, groups, and organizations unable to communicate with one another and share their resources.
In addition to central coordination, it will be necessary to overcome resistance to change. It is human nature to resist change. And when talking about technology and universal education, all people in the decision-making and instructional chain will need to become aware of, understand, accept, and buy into the appropriate use of technology to achieve the essential goal of universal education. This is easy to say but often difficult to achieve because many people will be outside of their comfort zone-the way of operating/working that they know and with which they are comfortable. Both political and academic leadership will be essential-they will be the foundation of universal education.
Other countries have found that open learning and universal education need to become part of an integrated pattern or system with the rest of society. Universal education needs to be woven into the fabric of society, to become an integral part of the society-not tacked on externally. Open learning and universal education help allow everyone to more meaningfully contribute to the health and well being of their society.
Perhaps the major stumbling block to achieving universal education through the appropriate use of technology is the shift in thinking from allowing students to learn only through the traditional process of group teaching, to one of individual learning. In comparing the two, some describe the tradition classroom as teacher-centered, group/synchronous teaching, as opposed to student-centered, individual/asynchronous learning. The emotional/psychological hurdle that needs to be overcome is the change from having the faculty member and teaching being the center of attention, to having the student and her/his learning be the primary focus. Successful universal education will require the development of systems that encourage and support individual, independent learning. Students participating in open learning systems learn to work independently without needing daily direction from the faculty. Around the world, students who are most successful in open-learning systems are almost always, older, more mature, self-starting, goal-directed, and serious about their education.
Using technology to reach out to students, wherever they are, does not mean existing educational institutions and structures will be replaced. It will be just the opposite; they will be strengthened. Open learning systems are simply blended into and become an integral part of the total educational structure of the country. Open learning changes the role of the university from a gatekeeper withholding access to higher education to the majority of the populous, to one of supporter and provider of educational opportunities for all who are interested. The challenge for faculty is how to integrate their personal qualities exhibited in outstanding classroom teaching, with the appropriate use of technology in opening opportunities for all students. No matter whether students are in the same room or not with the faculty, education will always be a social process. And the faculty will always be the foundation for guiding, directing, and encouraging student learning.
If we look to the 21st century, we will find that Degrees will remain important, but more and more an individual's knowledge, skills, ability to work with others, and capabilities in problem solving will take precedence. Traditionally, in many educational systems around the world, just the opposite approach is true. Students are often judged on individual accomplishments and the ability to absorb large amounts of information that can be repeated back on tests. What students are able to place on a test usually fades from the memory quite quickly after the test is over. So in the future, competency in using information, rather than seat time and feeding back memorized information in a classroom, will become a preferred mode of evaluation.
In the traditional lecture classroom, students seldom talk. If so, only about 20% dominate the interaction. Sometimes students are afraid to discuss studies with their peers because they are afraid they might give something away that will allow their competitor-student to get a higher grade. Learning takes place out of fear, fear of not making it to the next level in the education continuum, fear of not getting the hoped-for major, fear of not getting into the best college or university, etc.
In a well-designed and coordinated open-learning system, just the opposite can occur. Appropriate use of technology, such as the Internet, can allow students to interact with instructors and teaching assistants, as opposed to passive observation in traditional classrooms. In fact, well-designed open-learning instruction requires the active participation of students. Students are interactive learners rather than passive spectators. Likewise, many students would rather take a course over the Internet because they get more individual attention, more interactively, and more time to compose their thoughts using email or chat sessions. The problem for faculty often becomes one of too much interaction with all students. Rules and guidelines must be established to keep students from monopolizing the faculty member's time.
Well-constructed open-learning systems often times are more mentally engaging for the student than many classroom lectures. As an example, when students are sitting at a computer with an Internet course or interacting with media, such as CD ROM or DVD, they are usually more disposed to use and interaction. Whereas in the traditional classroom with an instructor at the front of the room talking, it is not uncommon for the students' minds to wander or to be mentally asleep.
In well-thought-out open-learning systems, students learn how to participate successfully in teams. When students interact in teams they learn to listen attentively with an open mind and treat each other's ideas with respect. They also develop the capability of critical thinking and gain the strength and lack of fear to express their own opinions forcefully and succinctly.
In the past, education in many countries was seen only as preparing young people for entry into adult life and work. That philosophy has now been expanded to include all segments and age-levels of society as life-long learning becomes imperative. For a nation to remain competitive, many of its people will need to continually update their knowledge and skills. The educational system of the 21st century should help the student acquire a desire for learning and to be comfortable with the concept of life-long learning. This is especially essential for key decision-makers, engineers, technicians, medical personnel, etc. In other words, all professions.
In the broadest sense, universal education helps people raise their level of contribution to their society. It is achieved in large part through the appropriate use of open-learning technology. With universal education comes greater individual participation in the global economy and in international teams.
As a side note, connecting international team members through technology helps countries to be able to retain their best human resources. In the past, it was quite common for countries to lose their best minds and technical people to the U.S. and other Western countries where salaries were higher and opportunities for advancement were seen to be greater. With the formation of international teams and being connected by technology, experts from a variety of countries can work together without leaving their home. Thus, through the appropriate use of technology, countries have a greater opportunity to keep their human resources at home, and not be lost to other cultures and countries.
Using technology to connect to the world allows a country to become a fully participating and contributing world partner. It allows the exchange of knowledge, expertise, and wisdom. It helps prevent needless replication and duplication brought about by isolation and lack of awareness of what others are doing. But interaction and team building with other members of a global community is not always an easy task. With little difficulty, misunderstandings can occur and inefficiencies can develop.
In a global economy it is important for individual citizens to remain loyal to their own culture and country. They must have an understanding of the history and values of their own society and at the same time be able to recognize, understand, tolerate, and not fear the differences in other countries and their respective cultures. Citizens must be able to have as a foundation their own culture, but be able to understand and interact with the other cultures represented on the international team. All team members must be treated as, and hopefully feel to be, equal partners.
What it all boils down to is in order to develop a true global community, we must champion and identify the similarities among people, nations, and societies-and not the differences. Understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of human and societal differences must be increased along with a reduction in fear of that which is different.
In summation, the advances in transportation and technology have greatly reduced the size of our world. No longer are we a world of isolated countries; rather we are a closely aligned group of countries with an interlocking economic network that closely ties our destinies to one another. In the 21st century we can expect growing numbers of partnerships crossing economic, political, and national borders. For countries to successfully compete in this global economy, they will be required to provide universal education to their citizens in order to optimize each individual's contribution to society. Universal educational can only happen through the wise and appropriate use of technology in the development of open-learning systems. Instead of all students being required to come to the institutions of education, opportunities to learn will be taken to the students through a variety of open-learning systems. It will be relatively easy to design and construct the learning systems; it will be relatively difficulty to change existing educational structures, beliefs, and attitudes to allow everyone access to learning.
The development of universal education needs to be a centralized activity. Standards and parameters must be established within which everyone will be expected to work. Learning will not be just for the young, but will be for everyone as we enter into the era of life-long learning. No longer will learning only take place in group settings but individuals will be provided the opportunity to learn no matter where they are, at work, at education centers, at home, etc.
And the key to success in both universal education and competition in the global economy will not be just the use of technology. It will be the human element-the ability of people to understand and accept change, to work together in teams for betterment of all participants, and to identify and strengthen our common goals, ideals, and beliefs.
Thank you for allowing me to participate in your conference.
About the Author: Dr. Jay Thompson is Executive Director of the Consortium for Distance Learning, 3841 North Freeway Blvd., Suite 200, Sacramento, California 95834-1948. He can be contacted at Phone: (916) 565-0188, Fax: (916) 565-0189, email@example.com, and www.distlearn.com