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E-Learning Up Close And Personal

by Michael Maloney, M.A.

The Promises of Technology
For the past three decades, computers have been lionized as the next major paradigm shift for learning. They have proliferated in North American schools and homes in record-breaking numbers. The only thing that exceeds their rate of growth is the height of the expectations that they have raised. The inherent promise is that computers will teach children at least as well as most teachers do. To this point, that promise has not been made good. North American homes and schools are among the most computer-saturated of developed countries, yet by all measures North American students still trail most of the developed world in academic skill development as measured by international tests. These test results might actually under-represent the deficiencies. For example, some areas of math and science curricula are deleted from the international tests because they are not yet part of the North American syllabus -- as they are in the curricula of some other countries. In that sense, the tests are dumbed-down for the benefit of North American students, who still manage to finish in the bottom third of the field. So much for the promises of high technology.

False Starts
Computer Labs, Computer-Based Instruction, Distance Learning, Distributed Learning, and the Internet have failed to deliver consistent results in basic skills for North American students. Parents were first enticed to buy a home computer and add bushels of computer software to feed the new learning machine in the den. Most of that software was more sizzle than substance and soon became shelfware. 
Parents were then enticed onto the Internet as the next leap of learning. Everything was on the Internet. All you needed was a telephone line and a modem. They soon discovered that there are many things on the Internet, many of which they would prefer to protect their children from rather than expose their children to. Multitudes disconnected from the Internet or allowed their children to surf only while supervised. 
The third wave, “distance learning” or “distributed learning,” is now telling parents that the curricula can now be available directly to their computer so that students can learn at home. Does this next phase hold any real promise for children, especially children being schooled at home?

The Problem
All technology is limited by its own particular problems. Computers are limited by the amount of information they can send or receive at any given moment. The bottleneck is the width of the band delivering the signals, the size of the pipeline. Until recently this limitation was a significant restraint on what could be easily transmitted.

Boring Curricula
Such limits meant that much of early distance learning was a simple reproduction on-screen of textbooks or lectures with questions, answers, tests and reports going to and from the same source by electronic means. Pictures took too long to send. Diagrams took too long to download. As a result, many of the early distance learning programs were about as exciting as an accountant’s convention. It may have been “high tech” but it was “no touch”. The student-teacher interaction, the community of thought, discussion and feedback disappeared. Many students felt more isolated than instructed. Early distance learning also had the singular disadvantage of tying the student to the keyboard. Many students had poor or non-existent keyboarding skills which simply presented another barrier to success on-line.

Next Steps
As bandwidth expanded, the quantity, quality, speed and reliability of sending and receiving information increased dramatically. Hi-speed Internet has once again changed the parameters of what is now possible. For the first time, there is the potential for both “high tech” and “high touch”. Digital quality sound is readily available. Images as clear as TV arrive in real time without the jerky, distorted flow. Students could now see all kinds of new information; video clips, full-length movies, live and simulated demonstrations, experiments, etc. More importantly, they can also see and interact with the teacher right here, right now, without a keyboard.

Web Cameras and Whiteboards
With the advent of “high speed” and such programs as MSN Messenger, students can use a webcam and a whiteboard as new tools to lighten their backpacks. Within MSN Messenger is a program, Net Meeting, which allows a student to connect directly to his or her teacher. Add a web camera at each end and you can see the person with whom you are meeting. Add a set of headphones with a boom microphone and you now also have digital quality speech without delays. Now we have both “high tech” and restored “high touch”. We can once again discuss, tutor, provide immediate feedback, correct and direct students in real time in the comfort, safety and convenience of their own homes.

Will it work?
Like all additions to the information technology revolution, the promise might be far greater than the reality. Is this just the next wave of high tech hype or can it result in real gains for students without a second mortgage on the family home?
Some testing of the new tools is already underway. A pilot reading program has been instituted at QLC Educational Services in Belleville, Ontario, Canada to determine whether or not children can be effectively taught to read using this new combination of technologies. The program utilizes a popular phonics-based reading program “Teach Your Children to Read Well”, a tutor, and beginning or problem readers to test the limits of webcam technology. There are serious questions to be answered. Is the reception sufficiently clear to allow a tutor to hear the difference between sounds like “b” and “d” which sometimes are hard to distinguish even when the student is sitting right next to you? Will the video be sufficiently clear to allow you to see how the student is forming the sounds with different lip and tongue placement? Will the praise and encouragement and the points earned as rewards for working hard have the same effect if the student is 2000 miles and 3 times zones removed from his reading teacher? Will the student actually sit in front of a computer screen without major behavior problems to learn how to read, write, spell or do math?
The project compares results from webcam students with those of students who physically attend the QLC center for remedial tutorials. Preliminary data suggest that there are no significant differences in the students’ learning. Both groups are learning to read. Each child is asked to read lists of sounds from the lessons taught. There are no differences in the rate at which they master the sounds. A one-minute measure of reading word lists from the lessons indicates no differences between the groups. Story reading samples are also very similar when a one-minute reading sample is recorded. Errors disappear. Both groups respond equally well to the directives of their tutors. Both groups respond equally well to praise and points given for good effort and are well motivated to learn. 

Parent Feedback
Parents are always pleased when a teacher or tutor solves a learning difficulty for one of their children. Parents of webcam students are also pleased by the convenience. They appreciate not having juggle time to drive to an appointment, fight rush hour traffic, pay more parking fees, sit in a waiting room for a couple of hours a week and give up time that they could dedicate to the many other items on the to-do list. Parents also like the idea of being able to chat with the tutor for a couple of minutes at the end of a session, to get an e-mail report on progress, to see the collected data charted each session, or to schedule a meeting with the tutor to discuss problems and progress without leaving home.

The Future
As computer technology continues to advance more and more possibilities will emerge. The technology will provide the means. It will not provide the most critical component - the effectively designed curriculum that will teach the child. Parents will still need to be aware that the program will only be as effective as the power of its instructional design. It still needs to demonstrate with real research results that it actually teaches children. Like a lot of “educational” software in the past, the glitz and glamour of many of these offerings will substitute for empirical field test data that the producer never intended to collect. Parents still need to ask the hard question, “How do I know that this will work for my children?” “Where is the data?” If the offering cannot provide empirical proof that it will assist your child, you should be immediately skeptical. The “Caveat Emptor rule” – “Let the buyer beware.” - still applies.

Copyright 2004 by Michael Maloney, Teach Your Children Well
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Michael Maloney, M.A. is a teacher, principal, founder of 20 learning centers across North America and the senior author of the acclaimed Teach Your Children to Read Well series. He is the co-creator of the award-winning Teach Your Children Math Well software series. Michael’s latest creation is WebCam Tutoring to teach reading, math and spelling skills to children and adults using the Internet. Michael can be reached at www.teachyourchildrenwell.ca. (Please see add on this page)