Published in _EDUCOM REVIEW_ March/April 1992
Teaching in the Information Age
Norman Coombs, Ph.D.
Rochester Institute of Technology
Information has always been a major ingredient in education. Using high speed
networks over fiber optic or satellite connections to access rapidly
expanding, large electronic libraries and databases provides the basis for a
potential learning revolution. Combining these resources with a personal
computer gives students access to vast amounts of information and will move
the locus of power from the teacher to the learner. Computer communications,
e.g., connecting personal computers to mainframe servers via data networks,
can create highly interactive educational settings.
A LEARNING REVOLUTION
Personal computers put unimagined power in the hands of individual learners.
It can empower learners to work in their own ways at varying speeds.
Education has long given lip service to meeting the unique needs of
individuals and to teaching them how to learn. The information age coupled
with the personal computer makes this goal both more significant and more
Traditional classrooms typically have rows of students, sitting side by side,
gazing straight ahead at a teacher who is the purveyor of knowledge. Any
differences between students are explained as measures of individual
intelligence. This structure mirrors the assembly line systems of the
manufacturing society and reflects the industrial revolution mind-set that
once led the way in our society. The information age of today needs a new
model for education, hence the potential exists for a learning revolution.
A SHIFT IN INSTRUCTIONAL FOCUS
In 1985 we set for ourselves the instructional goal of using
computer-mediated communication to provide the same high-quality educational
experiences to off- campus learners that were available to on-campus
students. Using electronic mail (email) and computer conferencing systems, I
began working toward this goal within the framework of a traditional
telecourse in American History.
Prior to this methodological change, the course utilized traditional mail
service and telephones which provided unsatisfactory interactivity.
Electronic mail served to successfully replace the role of the telephone
while computer conferencing provided group interactions similar to that of a
Group discussions had been missing from the telecourse prior to the inclusion
of computer conferencing. Not only did computer conferencing provide a
framework for questions and answers, but it served as a platform to share
opinions and differing perceptions about the course content. Students learned
from one another and were able to measure their progress based on classmates'
Further, as expected, it created a true "flex learning" environment by
enabling students to connect from home or work at their convenience using
microcomputers and modems. Students indicated that they appreciated being
able to tailor the course to their individual needs. By recording video
broadcasts and using computer conferencing for discussion, learners could set
their own schedules and progress at an optimum pace. Such results have
subsequently been reported by many educators and are no longer innovations.
(See _Mindweave_ by Kaye and Mason, Pergamon Press 1989 or _Online education_
by Harisim, Praeger 1990.)
A SHIFT IN CLASSROOM FOCUS
Gradually, I became aware that using this technology was altering my thinking
about teaching. I observed that closer relationships among participants were
formed and the course content became 'real' for the students.
The vast bulk of computer-mediated group interaction was accomplished using
VAX Notes as a replacement for classroom discussions. By periodically
inserting comments into the discussion, I encouraged and directed its flow,
and provided a sense of continuous involvement as the discussion's moderator.
I also sent personal email messages weekly to each student which was more
one-on-one contact than I had in a classroom. Messages were usually short,
but they allowed meaningful contact without having a student sit and chat in
my office for an hour! Eventually I realized that I knew the individual
telecourse students better than I did those students enrolled in regular
courses. They, in turn, said they found me more accessible than classroom
Not only were students involving an affective component in learning, but they
discussed topics with an openness that was not typical of other classroom
experience. Students were connecting what we studied about history with
personal experiences or stories learned from families. Instead of merely
teaching them about the great depression or the horrors of racial lynching, I
became aware of how historical events touched them personally. Each student
was learning the material within his or her own context.
For example, after viewing a video on welfare, students responded via the
computer conference to the questions I posed regarding its needs and
problems. After a couple of replies along traditional content lines, one
student's responses opened a very frank discussion among class members. This
level of frankness probably would not have occurred in a classroom. (See
sidebar for an excerpt from the actual discussion.)
A SAMPLE COMPUTER CONFERENCE DISCUSSION
Student One: "I think welfare sucks and should be completely eliminated from
our system. It was a boon to our nation when it was brought about due to the
Depression, but now it's being taken advantage of by lazy people who, rather
than find a job, suck off our money. It's because of these people, and most
of them good for nothings as far as I'm concerned, that the system of welfare
is out of control, especially in NYS. I don't like my money supporting
Student Two: "Welfare is a much needed thing in any society. Your attitude
would go a long way in feeding a child whose father lost his job and cannot
find a new one. There are people who cannot afford to work. They could go to
work at Burger King (for example) and earn $4.00 per hour and take home a pay
check of $160 ($4 x 40 hours) per week gross, about $130 net. Okay,
Miss...let's see how you would pay rent, doctor's bills, electric bills,
clothing, food, and other necessities for, let's say, one adult and three
children, but don't forget the 40 hours she has to pay for childcare. Or
should we just stick them in a closet, because, according to you, they're no
As moderator and instructor I thought about deleting some of this discussion
to prevent "flaming" but decided to try to use it as a teaching mechanism.
Meanwhile Student One responded calmly. However, the tone soon changed as yet
another student shared her welfare experiences. I'm certain this would not
have happened face-to-face in a classroom.
Student Three: "I would really like to comment on welfare because I am 'on
welfare'. I grew up in a middle class family, but because I had gotten
married and had two kids and then divorced, I had nowhere to turn...I feel
that welfare should be used to lean on when times are tough, but there are
many who do abuse the system....I, for one, will be glad when I can get 'off
Students recognized they were interacting differently via the computer
conference than they might in a classroom. "People have the ability to write
their feelings in a somewhat anonymous way," one student observed, "leaving
them with the ability to say how they really feel." The message continued, "I
do not think people would respond in the same way if this was a face-to-face,
Another participant commented, "I'm not a great speaker, so the conference
helps me put my thoughts together and allows me to express them better
without having my tongue twisted."
Several students reported sharing more in this telecourse than they had in
standard classes. Others said that sometimes they hesitated to speak openly
in classrooms. These students felt freer to speak their minds because the
environment was less threatening.
Several class members specifically thanked me for using this technology, and
they also expressed their appreciation to their peers for using it so freely.
"I also agree with everyone else about what a good idea using this conference
is," still another class member commented. He went on to point out that "the
everyday communication barriers are avoided. Whether this barrier is being
hearing impaired, being Black, White, or Green, being shy or not a good
speaker, or what have you, these communication gaps and many others are
As the teacher, I found myself developing a dual awareness in following our
discussions; being both an observer/teacher and a participant/learner.
On one hand, I was able to observe a conference full of participants as I
read through discussions. On the other hand, when a particular comment caught
my attention, I could respond via email to that individual for some period of
time without impacting other students.
As the observer/teacher I knew all of the students were studying the same
content material. As a participant/learner I was aware that each student, as
an individual, brought his or her unique needs and insights to the
Through these interactions I developed a deeper understanding of the
learner's uniqueness. Different students learn the same material in
different ways, and each brings varying amounts of previous information to
the subject and therefore has different information needs.
ACCOMMODATING LEARNER'S NEEDS
As a result of these insights, I now think of myself less as a conduit for
well-packaged information and more as a facilitator to guide each unique
learner. There may still be a standard body of material to be mastered but,
because the learner is not standard, the educational goals may be best
pursued along individual paths.
Unique individual characteristics which can be accommodated using technigues
such as those incorporated in this telecourse not only include those of
mainstreamed populations, but, using specially equipped computers, can also
encompass persons thought of as handicapped.
I am totally blind and during Fall 1991 I taught an on-line course that
accommodated a variety of learning needs. Half the class were hearing
impaired students at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., another quarter
of the class were deaf students from the National Technical Institute of the
Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and the remainder was
mainstream RIT students. This course could have easily included participants
with many other physical disabilities.
THE LEARNING REVOLUTION DEFINED
The learning revolution is not yet here. Its tools are being assembled; it
requires creative minds to master and apply them. As the wealth of electronic
information expands, teachers should convey less and less information.
Rather, teachers should function as a guide for learners searching for
Teaching in the future should focus more on helping students know what
questions to ask, where to find the information and how to structure the
information once they have found it. The hard part of teaching will be in
knowing how to motivate and challenge students and in encouraging them to
develop the requisite self discipline for learning. After using computer
conferencing to teach courses in American and African- American history, I am
more consciously trying to motivate students to become active learners.
My role in the learning revolution is presently limited partly by the lack of
on-line material that fills my particular needs, and further constrained by
my lack of creative ideas about using what is already available. I am
exploring more creative ways to use existing tools to empower the individual
learner and dreaming of tools yet to come.
A conference system modified so that it has hypertext capabilities is one
such dream. An on-line, interactive hypertext conferencing system would allow
the teacher to structure course materials, yet enable individual students to
choose his or her own path for digesting it. This seems like an obvious next
step since microcomputers are already used as multimedia presentation tools.
Hopefully, these features will soon be available over networks and become
readily accessible in educational settings.
If such a learning revolution occurs, it will, as observed earlier, move the
center of control from the teacher to the learner. People ferociously resist
relinquishing power and teachers are notoriously conservative about
In the Middle Ages, professors read from their manuscripts to their classes.
The printing press threatened that educational model. However, it was
subsequently discovered that if students had the text available, teachers
could expand on their texts and provide further explanations that enhanced
learning. In a similar vein, many educators now fear that the computer will
give students such powerful search and research engines that faculty will
become redundant. Just as the printing press freed teaching to move to a
higher level of conceptualization, so too will education in the information
age transcend what has been common in our time. Good teachers will not be
replaced by teaching assistants and teachers' aids, but they will be freed to
define education in more exciting and creative terms.