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Telepresence to Omnipresence


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Telepresence to Omnipresence

  1. 1. Telepresence to Omnipresence Greg O’Grady Manager, Web Conferencing Services e-Learning Branch, Department of Education, Training and the Arts Abstract: The Learning Place is one of Education Queensland’s most influential tools in developing and evolving on-line learning practices across the State. Not only does it provide opportunities for students to work both synchronously and asynchronously with students and teachers anywhere in the State, it provides that ease of access from any of the thousands of computers connected to the network. What was once an attempt to create a sense of telepresence is now becoming omnipresence. What will be the long term impact of this ability to engage at anytime, from anywhere at whatever level of engagement the learner chooses? This session will explore both the intended and unintended outcomes of these phenomena as well as the implications for theories of learning, notions of intellectual property and the changing social and moral dimensions impacting on students and the teaching process. In the beginning… When I started on this learning road to what is now being referred to as telepresence, the landscape was markedly different. Back in 1989 in a small library annex at a metropolitan high school, a small group of students attempted to connect to their teacher a few suburbs away using a telephone and Microsoft’s NetMeeting product. Those early connections didn’t advance the teaching of the German and Japanese language in any world shattering way but I vividly remember thinking that this was the start of something really big and unique in my educational experience. For the first time students were actually engaging with their teacher in real time meaningful learning but from very different locations. I remember thinking that this could have major ramifications not only for distance education students but for traditional classroom students. One day there might be dozens of pockets of students communicating successfully with their teachers using this technology. While it was expensive and ‘clunky’ in terms of connections, there were some basic tools like a whiteboard and application sharing that meant students could engage in meaningful exchanges. The most important thing was – students really liked it, even with all the technological problems that kept arising. They didn’t just like it because they were able to use computers. As they told me (a number of times), it was the ability to work with a really good teacher on a regular basis instead of ending up in some annex trying to work through correspondence papers. Over the next ten years the scepticism of the traditional educational community slowly began to disappear as the technology improved and the capacities of systems improved. As the systems began to provide more reliable interfaces with many of the same tools used in a classroom, and with the emergence of video, educators and trainers began to say that it was ‘just like teaching in a classroom’. The sad irony of this statement is that often times because many who adopted these new technologies never really changed their pedagogy, we ended up with a situation where students who were bored with classroom pedagogy could now be bored with the same pedagogy at ten different locations simultaneously! Ironically I’m often amused in reflection, by my own lack of perception at a time. I remember thinking I was engaged in a visionary pursuit (known as Education Queensland’s TeleLearning Project) that would change the way ‘some’ students would engage in learning. I never imagine the scope and complexity of the kinds of tools that would be developed and the extent to which they would be used. At the time Education Queensland was, for the most part, engaged in a late twentieth century model that was based on a ‘learn – test – then move on’ model. The curriculum experience for most students was highly stratified and content based. Of course there were many valiant and sometimes successful attempts at change. However, we lived in a world where the political and social fabric of society was still dedicated to the belief that students go to school to learn what is ‘important’ for their future careers Page 1
  2. 2. and once they reach a level of achievement they enter the workforce in careers commensurate with their achievements. But time and technology was slowly creating a new model that saw the intersection of some key components that comprise our education process. This merging was creating a new space that was hitherto not explored beyond the simple efforts of correspondence courses offered by Distance Education groups. A space began to emerge where students could begin to engage in learning at any time of the day or night, from any location they chose and at a pace that met their requirements. The key word here is emerge – it was far from what we would call a telepresence. There was limited computer availability and even more limited networking capabilities – there was no cyberspace. The interfaces were fairly primitive by today’s standards and most importantly, it was not seen as a ‘real’ educational space just a strategy for coping with the deficiencies of geography and teacher numbers. The timeless ossification of curriculum structures always demanded very tight timetabling of classes, physical attendance between the prescribed hours of 9am to 3pm and a minimum student quota before some courses could even be offered – all worked against any growth in this new space that technology was creating. But there it was – and was beginning to grow. What happened next… While the Internet was alive and well in the early 90s, it was the growth and development of graphic user interfaces, standardised protocols and network interconnectivity that really started making the emerging telelpresence space grow larger year after year. The Internet was born – and year after year it became more accessible. We saw growth in the use of asynchronous communications among whole communities. First came the information sites, then the community spaces until today we have a massive array of learning communities composed of curriculum management systems (like Blackboard) through to Bloggs, Wikis, Utube-type sites, and the emerging data conferencing platforms utilising both voice over IP and video conferencing windows. Not only are there a vast array of tools emerging for use over the Internet but access to that network is becoming ubiquitous. Some people now even have the Internet imbedded in their refrigerators! We are experiencing an implosion of technologies all based around the use of the Internet Protocol – IP based neural networking is becoming a reality. Telepresence is now a reality. There are very few places we can’t reach with these kinds of technologies. For students in Education Queensland this is becoming a reality. Consider the range of services that are now available to the more than 470 000 students and 70 000 teachers and corporate employees across the State by sitting down one of 140 000 available computers that are networked across more than 1200 schools across the State. This system is creating an omnipresent neural network of help and support as well as the capacity to interact not only in school hours but 24 hours a day, seven days a week with anyone who is a member. Currently we have around 600 000 user names and password in the EQ network. This is more a telepresence – it is an omnipresence for anyone in a school. I can literally communicate with any member of my state-wide school community by simply accessing a networked computer. The twentieth century notion of learning as a learn – test – move on model, is being replaced by technologies that encourage individuals to first organise with others what it is they want to achieve and then immerse themselves in the process and determine their own progress through multiple attempts. It is a Plan – Execute – Evaluate model. It is the very act of being emersed in the technology that influences what we learn and how we will manage future learning as a result of our experiences. In our old models we planned a curriculum with a view to imparting a certain body of information to achieve a pre-determined outcome. Today the learning process is more about planning the best way to immerse ourselves and our students in the learning process to Page 2
  3. 3. achieve the desired outcomes. Then we evaluate our success and start planning once again in a continual process of refinement. The aviation industry provides a good example of this emersion process. When I first began to learn to fly many years ago, the process was fairly standard. A student learned a great deal about theory, then they gained practical experience flying very small and relatively simple aircraft and then you did a licence test. For those wanting a career in aviation it meant a gradual progression to larger and more complex aircraft and even more complex theory exams until you passed your commercial pilot exams with the prescribed number of hours of experience. Then, if you wanted to be an airline pilot, you would have to fly thousands more hours with special attention being given to those with a wealth of experience in areas like crop dusting and flying in difficult terrain like New Guinea. Eventually, if you were lucky you would get a tap on the shoulder and be invited to try out for an airline. The process relied on the old model of learn-test-move onward (and hopefully upward!). Today, the process has changed dramatically. The complexity of modern aircraft and the world-wide shortage in trained pilots means the traditional model is obsolete. There is not enough time to train people using traditional methods, and the complexity of modern aircraft requires a totally different set of skills to those of the traditional pilot. In recent times, student pilots are being recruited from high school and they are being placed in large complex simulators almost from day one. It is likely that many of the highly- trained airline pilots navigating our skies in the next twenty years may never have flown a light aircraft in their whole career. While this is difficult to comprehend for many (especially older pilots), it is in fact the nature of the industry. These ‘pilots’ of the future are actually being taught to manage a highly complex computer driven appliance. They don’t need to know how to fly a plane in the traditional sense. The facts are the planes fly themselves better than the pilot ever could or ever will again. Where to from here… The implosion of new IP-based technologies, coupled with the awesome power of the Internet, is creating a neural network of activity that extends learning far beyond the bounds of time and geography. Telepresence is not only a reality, but there is a growing feeling of an omnipresence of learning activities. Within Education Queensland, both staff and students are not only being exposed to an increasing array of services but also a growing set of expectations that services and support will be offered at any place and at any time that is mutually convenient. Furthermore, the level of sophistication demanded by clients accessing these sites is increasing. Reports from Help Desk personnel are indicating that the skill set required for supporting people keeps growing because the client no longer requires simple advice, they are looking for solutions to complex activities they want to undertake with their students and they are now pushing software applications to their limits. . These technologies are generating our own version of a time machine. For those familiar with the famous BBC series Dr Who, we have created our own kind of TARDIS. Unlike this science fiction icon we have created a Temporally Adjustable Research, Development and Information Space in which to communicate and work. Unlike the Doctor, we can be transported to this space without physically having to leave our normal living and learning environment. This capacity is having a major impact on the way people choose to learn and more significantly – on the way we theorise and construct learning environments. When it comes to learning theories, I believe there is a continuum that roughly manages to encapsulate the wide range of beliefs and theories held by educators. At one end of the continuum we have the belief in the psychometric dimension of learning as a process that involves filling people with knowledge and we can easily measure progress through assessment of how full the bucket is at the end of a Page 3
  4. 4. course of study. At the other end of the continuum there is the phenomenological dimension that sees students as a candle to be lit. With continual exposure to experiences and the personal construction and linking of information, the individual develops a deep appreciation and understanding through exposure to conceptual schema that results in a more holistic linking of the parts. Our beliefs about learning all lie somewhere along this continuum and although we may alter our position from time to time, based on the nature of our students, and the content being explored, essentially we see the educational process oscillating somewhere along this continuum of extremes. I believe the growth of telepresence in the learning environments of many is moving us further and further towards the phenomenological end of the continuum. What were once seen as simple educational games and simulations is now beginning to merge with the capacity for live interactions among people located anywhere in the world. We no longer simply ‘learn’ things we ‘experience’ them first hand – much as the modern day trainee pilot does in a simulator. Education is moving to a process of immersing oneself in complex experiences that involve computer generated simulations coupled with live interactions with other individuals. The future will be about generating learning tools that can immerse the learner in an experience and engage them in a personal journey of discovery. It’s bit like Aesop’s Fables only we won’t be reading them, we will be experiencing them, that is experiencing a learning opportunity. Want to know how difficult it is to run a medieval kingdom? Then become the king for a day! The Paradox – issues for future planners How are we coping with this change? In this paper we have looked at how new technology is creating an ever growing intersection of time, space and place in which learning can take place. The paradox is that these same dimensions of time, space and place that worked so well in a twentieth century factory model of education are now working against us as we move towards telepresence as a natural learning environment. Time: We live in a technology age but we are still restricted by highly regimented systems of time management that permeate the very fabric of our working lives. Schools like factories still work set hours. School hours from 9am to 3pm still work well for farmers and factory workers alike in managing and preserving children’s safety and attendance while there is no direct parental supervision available. Place: Schools like factories represent places where mass production can take place efficiently. Places where there are economies of scale and concentration of resources and personnel. Ironically, in an age of technology, the concentration of so many students in one place puts a major strain on the provision of telecommunications’ infrastructure. Broadband access is easy from a student’s home but in a school we have many hundreds of computers trying to access those services through the one location. Pace: While the use of on-line course materials and content (as opposed to text books and correspondence papers) has done much to improve the variety or resources available to students, this is only a single dimension of learning. As many Page 4
  5. 5. institutions have found (to their detriment), student get equally tired of simply looking at reams and reams of reading material whether it is print based or on-line. Telepresence provides the opportunity for individual help and assistance in real time but our current model of production relies on economies of scale – we have classes of up to 20 or 30 students per one salaried teacher. We have the ability to work with very small groups covering an infinite variety of learning activities but we face the challenge of moving from a mass production-based economic model in our delivery. The most significant challenge facing the growth of telepresence-based models of delivery will be the legacy of our twentieth century systems. The technology will continue to improve and expand but we have one hundred years of highly successful tradition in the way we organise learning and learners to overcome before we can significantly alter the paradigm on a wider scale. Fifteen years ago, I remember creating a similar diagram to the one shown here, to illustrate the challenges facing the introduction of TeleLearning into Queensland schools. I think these issues will continue to be here for some time and this is the real future challenge for educators – the technology will take care of itself. References Conboy, I. (1992). The Victorian experience: Five years on with telematics. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 559563.Perth, Western Australia, 2731January. Promaco Conventions. D'Cruz, J. V. (1990). Technology in Education: A Study of Policy and Practice in Rural Schools. Ministry of Education, Victoria, Australia. Deemings, W. Edward (2000) Out of Crisis MIT Press. 2000. Elliott, Neil (1991). Victorian Telematics Manual (Revised Edition). Ministry of Education, Victoria. Crellin, I.R. (1993). The Australian experience; the Australian Government's Telecentre Program. In Proceedings of the Telecottage '93 symposium on 'Telecottages, teleworking, telelearning: road to rural revival'. Gold Coast, Queensland, 29 November to 1 Page 5
  6. 6. December 1993, p115122. Taylor, J.C. (1996). Perspectives on the Educational Uses of Technology. Report for the International Council for Distance Education Standing Conference of Presidents. Lillehammer, Norway: Task Force on Educational Technologies Tiffin, John (1996). The Virtual Classroom. IFIP World Conference on IT Tools. pp4147.Tiffin, John (2002) The HyperClass: Education in a Broadband Internet Environment. ICCE. pp. 2329 Page 6