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nettime: Another Brick in the Wall? - John Horvath

>Date: Mon, 23 Sep 1996 21:59:19 +0200 (METDST)
>From: John Horvath <jgy@caesar.elte.hu>

Another Brick in the Wall?
by John Horvath


The purpose of the new media in education -- in the form of Computer
Assisted Instruction (CAI) -- is based on the perceived amalgamation of
telematics within society. The best-case scenario sees education
departing from the traditional method of indoctrination toward a
realization of the capabilities and limitations of the new media, along
with the knowledge of how to master it for a variety of personal,
professional, and academic needs.

This paper will examine how this paradigmatic shift affects the
countries of Central and Eastern Europe as they gradually emerge from
their ordeal brought about by the socio-political transition of the
90's, using Hungary as an example. Reference is made to the barriers
that exist and some of the underlying causes for them. The paper
concludes with a sample model for development that can be utilized as a
starting point of sorts for Central and Eastern Europe's
post-transitional future.

Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles

There are many barriers related to the notion of Computer Assisted
Instruction (CAI). While all countries experience difficulty with the
implementation of CAI, there are some problems which appear to be unique
to Hungary as well as other countries within the Central-Eastern
European region.

First and foremost, tradition is the main obstacle to CAI. In the case
of Hungary, the influence of tradition has not had an overly negative
influence. Indeed, primary and secondary education is at a very high
level; yet it is at the upper stages of knowledge acquisition (analysis,
synthesis, evaluation) where the system begins to fail miserably.

While tradition is important to a certain extent, it should not be
relied upon as the only framework possible. In a world undergoing major
changes, education and training systems must keep abreast of the latest
developments, for in an increasingly global society young people are in
need of an initial and continuing education that is able to meet the
needs and limitations of the modern world. Accordingly, whether we like
it or not, information and communication technologies now play an
important part in our daily lives.

The grip that tradition has on the educational systems in Central and
Eastern Europe is in part due to an underlying fear and mistrust of
technology. Many teachers feel that computers will replace them in the
same way that workers in other sectors of the economy have been
replaced. In conjunction with this, they are unable to appreciate the
new roles that CAI will create for them, and have little time or no
incentive to keep up with the latest developments; most are opposed to
the disruptions that it would cause to their normal, age-old routines.
Moreover, its dehumanizing effects are often pointed out, as educators
fear that it will create a feeling of insularity among students, not to
mention widen the dissociation between teachers and students.

Some of these fears are not entirely groundless. However, it is not the
technology itself that would lead to such consequences, but its
inappropriate use. At the same time, many counter-arguments can be made
in favor of CAI. For instance, education would appear to be more active
and individual-oriented. In addition to this, students are less
susceptible to threatening prejudices or attitudes that can be a block
to effective learning, for a computer has infinite patience and enables
students to work at their own speed. Furthermore, a student is not
afraid to make mistakes in front of a computer as opposed to the teacher
or in front of the class. What is more, since young people have come to
rely heavily on visual media, thanks to TV, many find it easier to cull
information from a screen rather than a book.

Meanwhile, for the minority of educators who do see a potential in the
new media for educational purposes, there are another set of problems.
Most of these problems have to do with the fact that CAI is plagued by
unrealistic objectives. Many educators fail to realize that computer
technology is no different than any other form of technology, in that it
all depends on how it is utilized; the new media is limited by the
information that you put on it or transmit through it. Consequently, a
lot of effort in the area of CAI is misspent by not exploiting the
technology available.

Thus, in areas where CAI is attempted, computers and telematic systems
are relied upon as a substitute for a book rather than as an additional
tool available to the teacher. In other words, it is not used as a means
to an end but treated as an end in itself. As a result, the process of
education has become nothing more than an empty shell into which content
is simply poured in to give it substance, with the quality of education
being directly proportional to the quality of the content it holds.

Consequently, "edutainment" has become a looming threat to CAI in
Hungary. A hybrid of education and entertainment, it is already fast
becoming an alternative educational method in the US and Europe. The
threat edutainment poses is that it tends to undermine the educational
value of the media in which it is contained. "English Discoveries", one
of the prime multimedia computer assisted language learning (CALL)
systems used in Hungary, is an example of how slick graphics and audio
has given the illusion that content equals learning effectiveness.
Considering the cost and resources required to run the program, it has
become a very expensive substitute for a book.

Ironically, it's the notion of cost that adds to the unrealisitc
objectives that CAI is laden with. There is a common myth in Hungary
that what is "modern" and costs more must be better. For this reason,
the implementation of CAI has been stifled by a feeling that the country
is "not ready yet" technically. While it is true that the country
suffers from an insufficient quantity of hardware, far more than in
Europe or North America, what hardware is available in most schools is
usually regarded as technically obsolete, either because it is not the
"latest" in computer technology or is not connected to telecommunication
networks. Software, too, must "keep up with the Cyber Joneses",
otherwise it is also seen as inadequate, despite the fact that it is
suitable (and probably more appropriate) for the intended purpose.

Networking suffers from similar woes, regardless of the fact that in
Hungary the National Information Infrastrcture Development Prorgam has
developed a system in which all post-secondary and higher educational
institutions, as well as many secondary schools, are connected to a
national e-mail network, called ELLA. Although limited direct Internet
access is still a stumbling block for implementing a policy for distance
and flexible education, the fact that most students have access to
simple e-mail (though many don't know about it or are prevented from
having access to it) and are not using it for educational purposes (such
as letter writing to a counterpart in another country as an exercise for
ELT/ESL courses) clearly shows that existing potential is not being
exploited -- even by proponents of CAI. Again, in the case of
networking, it is regarded as not sophisticated enough since it's not
interactive, "interactivity" being now the buzz word in the world of

Only by breaching the edifice of tradition and carefully sifting through
all the hype related to the new media can the merits of CAI be realized:
firstly, as an integrated tool within the classroom alongside other
media (blackboards, OHP, videos, etc) and, secondly, as a tool for
communication. In areas such as Hungary, where the telecommunication
infrastructure is still under development and there is a large rural
population, new media can make a big difference.

A Model for Development

In addition to exploiting the technology that is at hand, one way in
which the new media can make a difference is in establishing a mobile
resource center (MRC). Since schools have limited financial resources,
these can be pooled so that students still have access to the latest in
educational resources and technology, albeit on a time-shared basis.
More importantly, however, the practical aspects of telematics would be
demonstrated, for not only would it be an integral part of the MRC, but
it would have a coordinating role as well.

Along with providing students access to resources, the retraining of
teachers can be undertaken. This is an important aspect as a means to
modernize and standardize education, bringing it into line with European
norms. Multimedia computer-assisted learning technologies, coupled with
distance and flexible education strategies, provide the opportunity for
addressing issues related not only to the retraining of teachers, but
the successful implementation of a policy for CAI as well.

Yet, in order for such a model to work, an extensive study of the
learners role in processing information -- their characteristics, needs,
and varying abilities -- must be undertaken first. Also, the potential
of linking institutions using alternative means (such as HAM radio
communications, which is a convenient and cost-effective alternative for
many isolated, rural areas within Europe) has to be taken into
consideration. Subsequently, the results of these studies can be used as
the basis for future interstate curriculum development, not to mention
the possibility of determining the validity and reliability of virtual
learning environments.

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) can open the doors to new
possibilities in education, not to mention other fields. The generations
now growing up and attending school never knew of a world without TV or
video; likewise, the coming generations would not be able imagine one
without computers. Conversely, the problem of TV violence and virtual
drugs (e.g. video games) is a nagging social issue. Nonetheless, VLEs
have the potential of harnessing the power of virtual environments to
combat some of its negative effects while also "winning back" those
considered "virtual junkies". Therefore, VLEs can teach a lot to
children if set up properly.

Like with any new technology, it must be kept in mind that a VLE is not
a replacement for traditional classrooms; instead, they are
complementary to the field of education. Indeed, VLEs can be viewed as
bridge in introducing new teaching methodology, for example between the
student-centered approach and the concept of life-long learning.


The aforementioned model is just one example of how content with an
educational value can slowly evolve within the new media, thereby adding
a new dimension to existing technology. However, success can only come
about if educational systems are receptive to innovation.

In Central and Eastern Europe a strong teacher-centered tradition has
been holding these countries back in a certain sense. In order to "catch
up", Hungary has to jump two levels: first to student-centered
approaches and then to the concept of life-long learning, which
ultimately plays down the importance of schools as being the only place
in which you can get an education.

So far, in countries like Hungary, educational systems have barely gone
beyond the confines of tradition; new approaches such as the
student-centered approach have thus far received a lukewarm reception by
educators and, where implemented, is mostly pursued in a half-heartened
way either because it's fashionable or in order to please World Bank/IMF
officials. Meanwhile, newer ideas (such as the concept of life-long
learning) remain, for the most part, unknown.

For this reason, present efforts should concentrate on using the new
media and existing technology to "back-track" in order to bring
educational systems up to a more receptive level before CAI can even be
considered by policymakers. This can only happen at the grassroots
level; thus, it is up to individual teachers and students -- rather than
ministries and administrators -- to bring about this much needed and
fundamental shift in education.

[for ZKP3 @ MetaforumIII Budapest]

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