9.170 learning and IT

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Tue, 19 Sep 1995 18:19:50 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 170.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: "S.A.Rae (Simon Rae)" <S.A.Rae@open.ac.uk> (45)
Subject: RE: 9.166 learning and IT

[2] From: Geoffrey Rockwell <grockwel@mcmaster.ca> (55)
Subject: Re: 9.162 learning and IT

Date: 19 Sep 1995 10:26:05 +0000
From: "S.A.Rae (Simon Rae)" <S.A.Rae@open.ac.uk>
Subject: RE: 9.166 learning and IT

A comment or two about the recent exchanges on learning and IT,

Judith Edwards <ucyljae@ucl.ac.uk>, in response to the original query:

>> I am interested to see which major university will be the first to set up a
>> full-fledged virtual campus.
>> Andrew Armour
>> Keio & Oxford


> What about the Open University in the UK? Its first students started in
> 1971, and its courses have always been "virtual", if not, until recently,
> delivered in electronic format. Although it's the UK's largest university
> (in terms of student numbers), we seem to hear less about it than we used
> to; I guess it and its students are just too busy getting on with it!
> Judith

As a graduate of the OU (in 1984) and, since '89, a member of staff in the
computing services dept at the OU, (just to define where my comments are
'coming from') - OU students do have considerable opportunity to make actual
face-to-face contact with real people.

All students have a course specific tutor in the region they live in who they
relate to for written academic work (tutor marked assignments) and real
get-together group tutorials. Students also have a personal tutor who 'stays
with them' throughout their OU career. Many OU courses include a Summer School
element, a residential week - usually on a (normal) University campus during
the summer vacation - when the students attend seminars, lectures, labs,
tutorials etc with other students doing the same course (there's a lot of
bar-room socializing as well).

Tying up with Ted Underwood's comments <wu10@cornell.edu> - OU students tend to
be older than students at normal universities - they're not straight from
school following that particular 'rite of passage'. Most of them are holding
down a day job and studying at night/on the bus/in the train etc. The majority
of the study material is text - OU produced course units or books. Audio tape,
video and TV programs (co-produced with and shown on BBC TV) and now, beginning
to filter in, CD-ROMs and CMC (Computer Mediated Conferencing) back up the text

Finally a note for Hugh Nicoll re: req. citation for _Alt-J, the

ALT (Association of Learning Technology) Administration
University of Oxford
13 Banbury Road
United Kingdom

can also be contacted via the Email address:


Simon Rae
The Open University

Date: Tue, 19 Sep 1995 11:38:34 -0500
From: Geoffrey Rockwell <grockwel@mcmaster.ca>
Subject: Re: 9.162 learning and IT

Dear Humanists

>Two brief responses in the ongoing discussion about information technology
>and learning: (1) of course IT provides no substitute for face-to-face
>teaching, i.e. face-to-face contact between someone whose job is to teach
>and others who have elected to learn, when real teaching and not just
>information-transfer takes place; (2) some in positions of power are
>thinking that it does. That they are wrong, dreadfully wrong, may be beside
>the point in the short-term. Much damage can be done in the short-term. So
>discussions like this one are very important, because some of us are in
>positions of power and others have influence with those who are. We must be
>clear about what we are doing, yes?

Willard McCarty has drawn our attention to the issue of what happens when
administrators make decisions regarding IT (Instructional Technology.)
Having some administrative responsibilities I would like to suggest what I
think a responsible administrator should ask of any use of IT that
redirects substantial resources:

1. That the project be evaluated.

2. That there be an accurate accounting of the costs and benefits.

Evaluation of IT projects seems to rarely involve more than a questionnaire
at the end where students are asked if they like the system (and they all
dutifully answer yes.) There are a number of reasons why projects are
rarely evaluated in the humanities:

1.1 We have little training in evaluation.

1.2 We get no credit for the work it takes to evaluate a project.

1.3 Nobody wants to know the answers.

1.4 There is little respect in the humanities for the methods of evaluation
that we have inherited from the social sciences and our cousins in
faculties of education.

1.5 IT innovations in the humanities are difficult to evaluate because they
involve changes to what is being taught not just how it is being taught.

If we are to take evaluation seriously we need to develop methods that are
home in the humanities - methods that stem from our common tradition of
inquiry and criticism. We also need to accept research into IT as a
legitimate branch of humanities research (and welcome negative results.)

One aspect of evaluation is the careful accounting of costs. (Thus 2. above
is really a subset of 1.) As I suggested in my first post, IT projects can
move costs, downloading them to other units rather than saving money. I
have yet to see a project proposal that is completely honest about all the
costs of IT. Some of the things that are left out are:

2.1 The fact that courseware and hardware has to be renewed to be viable.
If you save money on TAs by replacing them with courseware, have you
accounted for the ongoing costs of renovating the materials and labs?

2.2 The costs to other units to support the project. If you move a course
into labs, who is paying for the staff and equipment? Unit A (the Faculty
of Humanities) can save money at the expense (and with the complicity) of
Unit B (the computing center or library.) Who is watching the shuffling of
costs? If it turns out to be cheaper for Unit A, but more expensive for the
university to run a project, who is responsible?

Having said this, I think there are cost effective projects that can be
shown to be pedagogically effective. I am confident the community will
expect more in terms of research into both the costs and pedagogical value
of IT projects. We have had 20 years of promise (any day now this will
work) and now the time has come for honest assessment. What better place


Geoffrey Rockwell