Ralph E. Gomory
President, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
It is a great pleasure for me to be here and to be a part of this meeting.
This meeting is, I believe, one step in a significant transformation of education. A transformation that will add to the long standing and traditional methods of education, new capabilities made possible by the imaginative use of new technologies that you are all familiar with.
In the late eighteen eighties, at a time when the electric light was still in its infancy, Thomas Alva Edison, whose inventions have changed the world as much as anyone's ever did, said, in commenting on the electric, not the electronic revolution: "we will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles". And he was right. We have in fact moved into a world where cheap electricity has made it possible for almost everyone to have light anytime and anywhere, with a degree of brightness and of ease that could never come from burning any amount of kerosene and candles.
I think that we are facing that kind of a change today, I think we are entering an era where education and training will, like light, be available cheaply and easily, and to anyone, anytime and anywhere.
To date education, even higher education, which is the part of education we are discussing today, has not been friendly to technology. Edison's electric light fortunately has been accepted along with central heating, the ball point pen and whiteboards. All these are firmly established in our classrooms, but until very recently the electronic revolution, that has so significantly affected other industries, has mainly meant better typed essays in academia.
Nevertheless it is a fact that we are in possession today, not tomorrow but today, of technologies that properly used, do enable learning to leap over the limitations that have always bound the professor and his or her class to be in the same place at the same time. The technical possibility exists to cut free of both the synchrony of time and of place that has characterized learning to date.
The realization of this technical potential will strongly affect both the activities and the structure of the higher education industry as it has others.
Today's cheap, fast, and convenient technology of computing, storing, and transmitting will only get cheaper faster and easier to use, but it is good enough today that we do not have to be content with visions of future education scenarios based on home video and broadband interaction. We do not even need to confine ourselves any longer to small scale experiment. We can and should do something significant in education and in training today.
Today the most important barriers to progress to a new level of availability of education and training are no longer technical. They are the barriers of habit, both individual and institutional.
Every college professor knows how to prepare a course to be taught in a classroom. Even those who don't do it well know the mechanics of what is to be done. When they are doing it they can look at the students and get some feel for whether or not they are learning. They know how to prepare quizzes that will tell them more. And better yet, for much of this lecturing and examining, they can use the material they used last year.
In contrast, when it comes to an ALN course, it is not clear the first time even what is needed to be done. Some idea of what is to be done has to be formed before the work of actual doing can even be taken up, and, of course, the actual doing is new and bears the extra burden of unfamiliarity. And for all but the few who have done this before, they can't use what they did last year.
There is equivalent unfamiliarity at the learner end. Everyone knows what it means to go to class to learn. They may not actually learn in class, but the process they go through is familiar. Some students take notes, and even in the worst of lectures the discipline of attending produces something. And the expectation of attending and of reserving time for it reminds the student that he or she is taking a course, that quizzes are approaching and there is homework to be done. And as a student you are not alone. There are others with you, your classmates, visibly learning or out of it as the case may be. And sometimes, but not always, these classmates are available for discussing the common experience, and this provides emotional support as well as learning support.
The most direct way to dispel this burden of unfamiliarity is very simple. It is to create more and more people, both teachers and learners, who have done all these things before. To do this we need to move from small scale experiment to much larger scale usage.
In doing this it helps to have confidence that this whole approach works. That people exposed to this new environment, interacting with learning material, professors and classmates in a new way, can surmount the obstacles of unfamiliarity, produce the discipline, make the effort and learn.
Many of you in this room have been pioneers in showing that this can and does happen, and I congratulate you on what you have done. You have provided the basis for everything that is to come. Based on what you have done we can proceed with confidence to much larger scale activity. Because of what you have learned we can start taking the steps that will make this way of learning, of illuminating the human mind, enormously widespread and effective.
What do we know and what do we not know today? While the list of what we do know is short, it is also significant.
We do know that people can learn through ALN, and that roughly speaking, the results are equivalent to classroom learning. This is not to say that it is always that way, but rather enough work has been done in enough areas to see that level of potential is there and that level of attainment is not the exception but rather the rule to which there are exceptions.
This means that If your ALN class does not do as well as a conventional class would, you should find out how to do better, not blame the medium. The potential is there.
We know, in distinction to a few years ago, that ALN can be taught using standard underlying support software. Only a few years ago the only way to have something you could call a virtual classroom was to build your own (and I salute those pioneers who did). Today the question is which piece of commercial software should you use, or should you use the Internet. Today in our program we have courses delivered on Lotus Notes, First Class, AOL, and Internet, to name only a few. And they all work.
We know today that, with the availability of widely used commercial networks, you can usually substitute a local for a long distance telephone call.
We know there are pitfalls and advantages to this new approach that are not mere redoes of the older world. We have learned that homework is constructed to be instantly electronically corrected and returned can be an important learning tool; we have learned that inadequate training on the fundamentals of the underlying software can lead to the disappearance of a portion of the class, before learning about the course material itself has even begun. And we have learned that institutions of higher learning can adapt to these new students, register them at a distance, and deliver instruction sometimes from their traditional extension units, and sometimes from their main and regular faculty.
This leads us to what we don't know.
The list of what we don't know, but would like to know, is very long. Heading that list is a long set of questions about how people learn in these new environments and a corresponding list of questions about how they should be taught.
What emphasis should there be on interaction with other students, and what with the professor or with other support, (for example, a graduate student available to respond to questions). How important is it to have a well defined cohort moving through the material together. How important is graphical material. What is it about subject matter that lends itself, or doesn't lend itself, to this mode of teaching? What is the right class size? If the class is in fact 120 people, should they all interact with each other electronically, or should there be four cohorts of 30 each. How important is an occasional or initial live class get-together, or put another way, how different are courses given to a nearby region from courses given nationally.
Then there is a whole set of vital questions about economics. Is the inherent cheapness that this method of learning suggests real? Certainly ALN reduces the need for buildings at the institution and the need for travel by the learner, but what is its effect on all the rest of the cost of supporting individual students. How much can they learn from each other and how much must still be Professor to Student? How much of that support can be made available through common questions and answers that are electronically available and improve each year? How large are the inherent costs of getting a course online the first time?
There are still other categories of questions. Does the gender of the user and his/her degree of computer familiarity play an important role? What can be said about grade variance as well as grade average, etc. We have seen enough variability in the answers to these questions to believe that there is a wide range of answers and that these things will simply be determined experimentally. This means that, given the wide range of factors that matter, they will be determined by experience.
I believe we have already, to a considerable extent, gone past the range of simple across the board rules, and that what we need now, if we are to learn, is to have a much greater variety of experience. And to have the variety of experience that will answer these more particular questions we need to transition from small scale to much larger scale of usage.
So this need to learn in a more detailed way gives us yet another reason to make a transition to larger scale usage.
As we start to move more widely into large scale usage, what can we expect to see? What will the effects be as we start to make a transition from the occasional virtual classroom to virtual degree, virtual college, and virtual university?
The Higher Education Industry
One effect will certainly we more competition. To some extent there has always been national competition among some schools. Harvard and Stanford, from their different coasts, compete for a certain class of students. But for many students the choice of locality for their education has always been and still is restricted. The demands of family, or of work, do not allow them to make an educational choice uninfluenced by nearness.
This second group is growing. The typical undergraduate today is older, is more likely to be working, more likely to be married or even have a family, than ever before. ALN will allow this group to choose from a much wider range of alternatives, and will make education in general more available and more competitive.
With a more national market it will also become economically possible to provide more specialized courses. To some extent the courses that are taught today are those that can command an adequate attendance from the resident student body or those nearby. But with national markets far mote specialized courses can fill a virtual classroom based on a national, or in some cases international, student body. A good example of this is the Program provided by Penn State in its specialty area of acoustics. This ability to provide specialized material may be especially important in the areas of training. Training can be very special indeed, and those who are trained are even more likely than others to be those restrained in their choice by work and family.
This ability to specialize may in turn lead to more specialized providers. One institution providing specialized courses to a national market may simply be able to provide greater depth and range of courses than any other, so there may be competition leading to provider specialization by subject matter in addition to the more traditional specialization by geography.
The major providers may also change. Entry of a new technology into an industry often brings about these changes. Names like ConEd. PEPCO, and General Electric do not designate firms that once were leading candle-makers. Or to take a less extreme and more analogous case, the computer firms Microsoft, Compaq, and Packard-Bell, were never heard of before the introduction of the PC but their names today are as familiar as the older names such as DEC and IBM.
We may also see a shift between subsidized and non-subsidized providers. Higher education today is almost always subsidized in the sense that it does not cover its expenses through its revenues. The subsidy may come from alumni and endowment or from the state, but there generally is a subsidy. Non-subsidized schools do exist, but they generally don't compete directly with high quality subsidized institutions. They may be specialized, they may offer vocational skills that the subsidized ones don't offer, they may prepare you for critical exams, or they may offer, as they do today, the only feasibly path to a degree given the constraints of time and place.
There is a real possibility that the economics of ALN will enable unsubsidized and profit making providers to compete in a much broader way with the subsidized schools. This will be especially likely if the new providers master the ins and outs of the this new approach while the older schools struggle with the question of whether they really want this new stuff at all, or if they do want it, how it will fit into their existing structures.
There is also, for the first time, the possibility of comparable quality. The unsubsidized schools to date have not been the high quality schools. But that too may change, because the new method of instruction allows comparable quality, and the instructor need not be an employee, but could be a world leading specialist in the area to be taught.
These changes which have ups and downs in them for today's providers are good for people who want to learn and for the country as a whole.
The ability to learn specialized skills at any time in one's life will certainly be enhanced, and this will strengthen the productivity of our entire country. From the individual's point of view it will never be too late to learn. If you didn't go to college after high school, you can go now. There will no longer be just the time of growing up when learning can take place, it can be anywhere and anytime.
ALN can and will give real meaning to the concept of lifelong learning by making it possible for people to learn without the need to return to the campus. And also give a new meaning to the phrase lifelong learning by learning outside the classroom a wide range of things that were never taught there.
Those of us who have had some exposure to engineering often hear that what an engineer knows goes out of date in 5 years, or 3 years if you prefer. But what does this mean? If it means anything it means that there has been so much progress in some areas that the new knowledge has become essential. But where is that progress made and where can it be acquired. Often this is not in academia. There are industries where academia leads and industries follow, but there are others where industry knowledge of what they are doing is far deeper, and what is taught in academia is a faint shadow. These new modes of learning open up the possibility of access to new knowledge whatever its source.
When we at Sloan started our program more than four years ago, our goal was to make learning available for anyone who wants to learn. That is still our goal. Can it be accomplished? I think it can.
In some very limited sense learning has always been available to those who want to learn, and who will make the often heroic effort required. History likes to dwell on people who were self educated, they learned on their own from a few books, struggled through snowstorms to the public library, or in a later epoch and on a larger scale, struggled through daytime jobs and then went year after year to night school. We don't hear about those who wanted to learn but couldn't because they chose not to take the time from caring from their families, or because there simply were no night schools where they were.
People did make do with kerosene and candles, but we can do much better with electric light. We can change the availability of learning. By making learning compatible rather than in conflict with work, can make learning something that is available to everyone, not just to the heroic few who will do it at any cost to themselves or to others. We can make it available at any stage of life, not just when you are growing up.
We can make learning something that can be done at a time and place of your own choosing, it can be done at home, but without the isolation of solitary learning. We can make available the possibility of learning specialized skills that can enhance people's roles in the workplace, or at another stage in life, learn things that are simply life enriching. It will never be too late to learn. We can bring the support of classmates and of an instructor to you wherever you are. By making learning outside of the classroom less heroic, we can make it, like electric light, a part of ordinary life.
Ladies and gentlemen. We know enough to take the next step. We should take that next step and move from small scale experiment to actual practice and start to bring these benefits to the people of our country.
Thank you very much.
ALN (Asynchronous Learning Network or Anytime-Anywhere Learning Networks) refers to a method of learning anytime anywhere over computer networks. In ALN the learners receive text, graphics, or audio that represent lectures, and correspond with their professor and classmates by the equivalent of e-mail. There are many ways to create ALNs, including the use of the Internet or commercial on line systems.