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Editor's Note

E-Learning: Chalk It Up To Progress

University Business, Nov 2004

I read an article on, entitled, "Some professors won't give up chalk for technology's sake." The article centered on Professor Tom Walsh, a University of Minnesota physics professor, who uses a giant piece of chalk to teach on a traditional blackboard. The problem is that the chalk dust gets sucked into the various electronics equipment in classrooms, causing them to go ka-put.

Walsh's quote on the matter was what you would expect from a physics professor, if he were discussing, say, gravity: "Chalkboards were a simple, brilliant invention, " he said. "Whiteboards are not an advance."

The university argues that both the classrooms and electronic equipment have to be cleaned twice as often because of the chalk dust--costing additional cleaning time and money.

The article said that about 60 percent of the school's 300 classrooms still have blackboards, but they will be replaced as buildings are renovated.

I mention this snippet of tradition versus technology because it underscores a feature article this issue, based on a critical report on e-learning innovation. The report, "Thwarted Innovation: What Happened to e-Learning and Why," was authored by Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania and William F, Massy, professor emeritus at Stanford University.

The authors don't dismiss e-learning technology, but they question the promise (hype) of e-learning technology versus their point that it has not delivered on substance. And the authors certainly have a wait-and-see tack on e-learning, citing the "dynamics of innovation" model of a radical technology's introduction through its early acceptance stages, through mass acceptance, or not.

As you will see, the authors took some shots from e-learning proponents over their report. However, I am less critical because, like Zemsky and Massy, I have criticized or challenged new, "paradigm-shifting" technology intros over the years. As a high-tech editor for various magazines, I have sat through hundreds upon hundreds of snappy PowerPoint presentations--from start-up to seasoned companies--that rolled out bug-infested, half-finished lame products (especially software) that were more marketing hype to drive stock prices than actual technological wonders--especially during the high-flying dot-com daze in the late '90s.

So call me a skeptic.

But when it comes to e-learning tools and distance education, I see the technologies as a means to educate the masses. Call me an idealist, but one only has to examine tuition costs, graduation rates, and the fact that fewer minorities are seeking higher education than ever before, to see that e-learning can help to address some of these issues. To me, it's about access and cost. And if e-learning can help grant more access to higher education by more people--globally--at a lesser cost, than who can argue the point?

The debate isn't whether Professor Walsh uses a blackboard or whiteboard to instruct, His students will learn the same material from the messenger, albeit, with less wheezing with the whiteboard. The question is: Are IHEs willing to utilize technology to educate the masses at a reasonable cost? The cost for a basic PC today is a couple of hundred dollars. Add in a year's worth of high-speed internet, printer, software, etc., and the cost of entry for a student to e-learning is about $2,500.

What I don't understand is why some professors resist utilizing multimedia classroom technology and e-learning tools that can allow more students to learn their subject matter? To share their knowledge and expertise to more people? To reach more students at an affordable cost? To educate people in countries that have no access to higher education?

All one has to do is look at the internet to see the potential for e-learning. No other technology in the history of civilization has caught on faster--globally--and changed the way the world communicates and researches, than the internet. And the internet is still in its teens as a technology and business/commercial enterprise.

Sure, e-learning has not lived up to its hype in many practical instances, but I believe the hype was embraced by so many people and visionaries because of e-learning's potential to become a world-changing technology.

There is no doubt that e-learning will continue to grow at a steady clip and be embraced by more and more IHEs. Chalk that up to progress.

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