THEIR VIEW: A place for new, old technologies to coexist

Reprinted from an op-ed piece published in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News:

By Gary Brown, Nils Peterson and Theron Desrosier

Monday, September 17, 2007 – Page Updated at 12:00:00 AM

It is great news that Craig Staszkow can say with confidence that there are now “traditional online offerings.” (Daily News, Aug. 27).

In less progressive quarters much concern persists about the quality of this new “tradition.” Still, we’re not so sure about his characterizations of those online courses when he describes them as “stuffed into one dimension and driven by chat rooms, threaded conversation and question-and answer sessions with an unseen teacher assistant.”

Even as we come to understand there is a new tradition, it is still fair to say that the range of designs in those “traditional online courses” varies dramatically. In fact, many thoughtfully organized and well-facilitated courses are very rich and multidimensional. Examples of this success exist in Washington State University’s Center for Distance and Professional Education courses in operations management, where students have solved real business problems saving people’s real jobs as well as saving companies millions of real dollars. And there are great examples, for instance, from WSU’s Human Development Department where, in one course, students conceptualized and wrote new state laws to empower very real citizens.

We’re also excited as are Staszkow and Dave Cillay, the director of instructional development for WSU’s Center for Distance and Professional Education, about the potential of virtual worlds. The reality of the virtual is amazing. Research continues to confirm the viability of virtual reality, culminating in a recent study published in the journal Science. The findings challenge the “axiom that everything you are is anchored in your body,” says Vilayanur Ramachandran, the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. He adds, “What you regard as you is really a transient construct created by the brain from multiple sensory sources.”

Information processing research has been pointing to this phenomenon for some time, finding again and again that our perceptions of simulations conjure up the same physiological responses – heart rate, skin conductivity, brain waves – as do “real experiences.”

So the question gains urgency, why use new technologies to create pseudonymous avatars and virtual worlds when the real world is rich with challenges?

There are good answers, of course, and Staszkow mentions virtual travel to Minnesota to inspect the bridge and build new virtual bridges as one example. Great, but why stop there? How do we decide when to use virtual technologies to create new virtual worlds versus using virtual technologies to augment the world where we sit and ponder this question? Rather than make believe, why not use technologies that allow us to inspect the pictures and microscopic details of the collapsed bridge site and engage the reports and even the engineers who really have inspected the site? For examples of this use of the Internet to engage professionals, check out Brett Atwood’s WSU School of Communication’s students’ blogs and you will “see” where real professionals engaged WSU students and enriched their discussions about a real and complex copyright case.

Recently in the news, George Hotz hacked the Apple iPhone, unlocking it from the restriction that it only be used on the AT&T cellular service. While not condoning hacking, we note his blog provides a view into his collaborative learning process. Hotz understood the power of the real-world Internet, and elected to work the problem in public where he solicited and got feedback critical to his success. He collaborated with people from around the globe as each worked on different aspects of the problem.

John Gardner, the new WSU vice president for extension and economic development, also is blogging. He is exploring this global competency and establishing a vehicle to support his professional learning, inviting feedback on his ideas and directions for WSU. His blog is beginning to gather comments from a global community, a vast, multidimensional resource available to him now. Even as we wait for similar sorts of communities to gather in Second Life, they are flourishing in ways that augment the “traditional” Internet that is shaping and reshaping where we live, work, and learn.

New technologies don’t supplant old ones – note the pad and pencil by your phone. The trick is bringing them together in proper measure.

Gary Brown is director of WSU’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology. Nils Peterson is the center’s assistant director, and Theron Desrosier is a design consultant for the center.

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