Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Distance Education and Technology: The Cyber City

Not long ago I read a story about the "Cyber City", a concept where students would learn completely within an online environment, with learning centers that were wired to the hilt as the central hubs. As a result of that story, I wrote the following opinion paper. I hope you enjoy it. ^_^

The Cyber City paper is an interesting take on the future of education within an ideal, almost utopian, environment. One can almost hear the “Star Trek” theme in the background. The basic concepts of these envisioned goals are not particularly new, as all educators throughout the ages have likewise seen a similar goal of global access to learning. So what makes this view unique? Mostly, it’s the technology that is integrated with a motivated willingness to learn that changes this vision from all others.

And Old Concept
I say that all educators have so envisioned such an environment because you can see evidence of it back to Socrates’ Academy, and the teachings of many of the ancient Greek philosophers (Plato translation, 1993). Even then, the idea of universal education and learning was thought of, though learning material was restricted to the local personal libraries of Homer and other ancient writings.

This concept continued to evolve through the development of the Great Library in Alexandria, and it’s rival in Pergamon. This developed the first globally declared monopoly on intellectual material by Alexandria and their policy not to export pyprus, the only writing material then known, and the first backlash with the development of parchment from lambskin in Pergamon (Nagle, 1999).

These ancient citations merely point out that the ideal educational environment is not new, and schools had originally began as learning groups guided by a knowledgeable
instructor, and a learning group motivated to learn. Much the same idea is presented in the Cyber City article, but with different technology, and more cross-generational motivation for learning.

Old or New?
So, if this idea isn’t so radical, why does it require such a radical change? Well, as we look back at the gradual institutionalization of the learning process, we see it was developed to keep students motivated when they were more likely to be preoccupied with other endeavors, be it adult or child. Hence, the success or failure of the Cyber City scenario doesn’t depend on the methods of delivering the learning material, or the care in which the learning environment is developed, it relies on the fundamental motivation of the learner and their desire to be educated.

The success of the distance education program relies heavily on the motivation of the student, and not on the actual program itself. While new technologies and educational material can better prepare the student for that motivation, it still comes down to the student’s personal commitment to the learning process.

This makes the Learning Centers of Cyber City (Gooler, 1994) little better than what the Great Library was to the ancient Greeks. There, students can find all the known information in a single location, with access to it’s many secrets. The only difference would be the technology that these materials can be viewed and interacted with. Should students in ancient times decline to visit the library, they miss out in their educational endeavors. The same would be for those students that chose not to go to the Learning Centers, whether in the Central Dome, or in the local neighborhood.

Couldn’t we just make them learn?
Now, granted, local governments can require students of a given age to participate in a given learning environment, but that makes each learning environment instantly a “school”, where students are required to study a given amount of time on a subject, or a specific subject for any amount of time. That is the main problem I see with this Utopian form of education, it will eventually become institutionalized just as the ancient forms of education has for centuries before. This would all be done in order to install a form of motivation, whether intrinsic, or extrinsic.

So, while a utopian view of technology, business, and society looks great in an academic world, we can see that these same ideas have been previously tried, and

continually fall back into a structured, institutionalized form of education that will again become the source of scrutiny by the educational community, over and over again.

Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Penguin Classics, Translated by Tredennick, Hugh, 1993

Nagle, D. Brendan, The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History, Prentice Hall, 1999
Gooler, Dennis and Stegman, Charles, A Scenario of Education in Cyber City, Japan-United States Teacher Education Consortium, July 12, 1994

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