18th International Council for Distance Education World Conference

("The New Learning Environment: A Global Perspective"), June 2-6, 1997, Pennsylvania, USA

Reviewer: Jennifer Gove, Faculty of Social Science, The Open University, UK


This was the 18th International Council for Distance Education Conference; but my own personal first. My previous conference circuit had mainly been with conferences in the UK, so I had much curiosity for the mix of perspectives from the so called developing and the developed worlds. The use of technology in education was one of a small number of major themes at this years ICDE, pursued within an overall theme of a global perspective on the New Learning Environment.

Contributors to the conference were asked to participate in two main ways. Firstly, in place of the conventional paper presentation we held poster sessions. A confusing title, as this actually meant running a mini tutorial about your work (rather than standing for a few hours besides a big sheet of cardboard). Despite the general dissatisfaction resulting from issues such as the vast number of parallel sessions, and locations of sessions being at large distances from one another, (factors contributing to a fair amount of organisational chaos); the organisers should be congratulated on 'biting the bullet' for doing away with the conventional form of one-way presentations. Although there was much organisational confusion, there were many comments to the merits of dispensing with the conventional style of conference format. Indeed, when it worked, it worked wonderfully, providing a far better learning environment than traditional presentations of papers tend to. Presenters were also requested to participate in panel discussions on a specified agenda. Again it certainly seemed worth requesting that bit more from contributors, and despite the fact most people claimed to be the "wrong" person to have been asked to speak on their given issue, the challenge spurred most to participate and perhaps even surprise themselves on how their perspective could originally inform an issue, and, how involved they could get in speaking about it! In addition, orientation sessions were provided for those new to distance education, and key note speeches ran as standard.

The representation of institutions was apparently a great deal more diverse than at previous ICDE conferences. The wide-spread adoption of the mixed-mode route is becoming increasingly important for many institutions, and many are using technology to deliver. Increasing competitiveness and opportunities for new modes of teaching meant that representatives from new and older institutions, transformed institutions, and small and large institutions, as well as from government and business were among the delegates.

The conference certainly had a technological bent in its promotional features. Nicholas Negroponte (author of Being Digital) appeared as a key note speaker discussing The Changing Technological Environment. Negroponte gave a thought provoking, and (I'm sure he'd be pleased to hear) emotive speech. He spoke about the new Electronic Book concept which has been developed to prototype at MIT. Imagine (he asked of us) a single bound book, without any content; but with pages that appear like paper (perhaps best considered to be something rather like electronic carbon paper). Such a book can be linked to the internet, and content (such as a chapter, book, or journal article, or specific instructional material) can be down-loaded into the book. Once used, the contents can be deleted, and the book re-loaded anew. This was all quite intriguing, and certainly would be a benefit to distance learners, who study part time, and often spend much travelling time working. Conventional computing, even lap-tops, have not really excelled as the distance learners aide - we don't respond well to being required to read large amounts from the screen, although this in addition is a software design problem, often a problem with not matching media and material well. However, minds were soon wondering - how would such an electronic book cope with interactive learning elements? I guess we'll have to wait for the product... Of interest to psychologists and others, Negroponte also spent some time strongly emphasising the importance of emotion in communication. He noted that electronic communication had not really taken this on board, and indicated that this was a key area of research at MIT.

Another key note speaker of much interest was Dr. Barry Munitz, Chancellor of the California State University. He emphasised the rapid development, world-wide, in part-time adult education. However, he described how the real competition for education is not from other educational institutions; but rather from large corporations. At present there are many fruitful consortiums; however, the possibility of ultimate consortiums was quite realistically characterised. These could comprise of leading software corporations, railways companies (whose tracks are used in the US for laying fibre-optic cable), and telecom companies. Dr. Munitz asked whether they will buy out conventional institutions because they can deliver the same quality of education to more students more quickly? Whatever the future looks like, Dr. Muntz, emphasised the importance of ensuring the provision of high quality learning environments which are student-centred and integrated.

Of course one of the best aspects of a conference is meeting and discussing with other delegates. This was a little more difficult at this conference than others, due to the lack of communal meeting places, and particularly because the residences were situated all around Penn State town. However, when I did meet up with others I found that the range of uses to which new technology is being applied was quite staggering, for example...

Soldad Esteban, from the Universidad Nacional de EducaciÛn a Distancia (UNED), spoke of her personal experiences in using video-conferencing for teaching general chemistry to university students working at study-centres at a distance. She described the high demands in planning that this type of media requires.

Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont described the careful design of short courses for mature students of social, health and educational services. The Department of Psychology at the UniversitÈ de Neuch'tel constructed the courses very much with the needs of these new students in mind; for example, consideration was given to the extra support that was needed for students who may have been away from education for a considerable number of years. Technology, in the form of distance communication media had been carefully incorporated to assist in such support.

I spoke at some length with Lyn Henderson, from James Cook University, who described an interesting project involving the use of telephone audioconferencing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student teachers. Lyn Henderson and her colleague Ian Putt, note in their paper the need for professional skill development not only to enable various types of audioconferencing to be used; but also to ensure that the appropriate type of conference can be matched to requirements.

Phyllis Olmstead from Nova Southeastern University in Florida discussed a project which has a global reach in itself. The SAXophone project (Students All over the world eXchanging Over the Phone), uses compressed video for linking up school sites. Activity sessions have included interviews with NASA astronauts, musical presentations, presentations of cultural festivals and holidays, and discussions about the effects of world terrorism and environmental concerns.

The panel discussion that I was involved in was entitled "Is it possible to develop a complete virtual university?", which of course necessitated a large discussion on what a 'complete virtual university' actually meant. We can perhaps simply consider it as large scale learning at a distance, such as the provision of the open universities of various countries. However, for those of us who work within primarily distance teaching establishments, further implications were considered; What of the University without a central campus at all? Would large population courses ever be entirely electronically administered? The discussion included consideration of the virtual universities that are evolving on the web and what facilities these offer. Examples of such projects include: The Canadian Virtual-U, VirtUE (Virtual University for Europe), University of Colorado ( CU - Colorado University On-line), and The University of the Highlands and Islands Project.

The importance of certain new developments emerged as key themes throughout the conference. The provision of distance education for professional fields of practice is one such growth area. Undoubtedly some of the most innovative uses of technology will enable interactive high-quality education to be accessible to those working as practitioners in the health services, social services, education, industry and commerce. Several issues of concern were prominent. What will the quality of courses be in the future? What will be the means of accreditation? Is a business approach to education a healthy one? are educators recognising the need for good instructional design when using new technology, or are too many people still viewing placing lectures on the web as justifiable?

The wealth of issues brought to the fore regarding education and technology certainly seemed to open up a new era of discussion, and provided new directions for ICDE activities. The conference also afforded an environment in which a wealth of ed-tech themes of interest were created, some of which will undoubtedly be re-visited in different forms at future ICDE events.

Conference proceedings are available on CD-ROM for Macintosh® and Windows®. Progress is currently being made on a new ICDE web site, and there are plans for the ICDE papers to be accessible from this site due to numerous requests for a broader distribution of the papers.