From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 30, 2002*: What's a nice constructivist like you doing in a site like this?

The internet is full, perhaps even bloated, with what are called online courses. Pretty much from the outset, the web became a preferred medium for educators who were convinced that it was a logical method for getting across educational materials. Thus it happened that "courses" on just about any subject sprang up on the web. In a school setting, a course is something offered by an educational institution that is "taught" by a teacher. It has a particular subject matter, and perhaps almost invariably, it also gives a certificate or credit to whoever successfully completes the studies. On the web, until the necessary technologies were developed, a course basically meant a collection of reading materials focused around a particular subject, sometimes, though not always, organized in a particular order.

Teaching and learning are often seen as two sides of the same coin. The teacher teaches, the learner (supposedly) learns. This rather simplistic approach was actually very fitting for the early World Wide Web because the web, lip-service to interactivity and communication not withstanding, was on the whole a one-way street. Making materials available on the web was easy, but getting feedback was quite a bit more difficult. But the web has advanced considerably since those early days, and the possibilities for full-fledged courses on the web have greatly increased, though of course simply making those possibilities availabe doesn't make them happen.

All this by way of introduction to the fact that over the past few months I've had the dubious task of trying to build a couple of courses with what are considered state of the art internet-based educational tools. And as with site-building tools discussed about a year ago, the bottom line is that it's a case of the pedagogy having to toe the line set by the technology rather than the technology serving the pedagogy.

I won't name names, but I suppose that I can hint that one of these tools is the most popular (or at least most widely available) "courseware" available with Hebrew support. The other is one of the best known in the States. Its Israeli distributors claim that they've converted it to support Hebrew, but it seems to be the Hebrew of olim - a limited vocabulary, poor syntax, almost stuttering. The names aren't really important, anyway.

What does courseware of this sort do? On the positive side, it provides teachers, who possess only very limited or even non-existent knowledge of how to build a web site, with the tools to generate an online course by themselves. It gives them a relatively easily navigable framework into which they can enter their materials, and lo and behold, there they are on the web, waiting for students to come read them. Is this a good thing? Well, if you don't have unlimited financial resources and can't pay a professional to build a site for you, doing it yourself can definitely be a good solution. And if that's the case, why am I complaining?

There is, of course, a negative side as well. Courseware such as this sets very clear guidelines for what a web course should look like, and makes deviating from those guidelines extremely difficult. Essentially, a course generated in this fashion is a collection of reading materials, organized in a series of units. Whatever knowledge resides within that collection has been pre-constructed, built-in. The student is now expected, as we've become accustomed in traditional student-teacher interaction, to extract that knowledge and "learn" it. In other words, when we remove all the technological innovations, we discover that the built-in learning experience hasn't changed since well before pencil and paper became our main educational technology. Students aren't encouraged to construct their own knowledge, but instead simply to be on the receiving side of that knowledge. And receive they will. They'll click away, but the magic of the click, the possibilities that the click brings with it to discover new paths to a different take on old knowledge, will be lost.Teachers will proudly think that they've integrated the internet into their teaching. But ultimately what they'll have done is simply decorate traditional teaching in high-tech garb. And I'll probably revert to good, old-fashioned, traditional HTML to try and build the interactions I seek.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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