Chapter 1:

Introduction to the Electronic Classroom

This book is an introduction to the electronic classroom. It explores the many exciting possibilities in the electronic classroom and beyond and attempts to define the many ways in which we will be educating our students in the future. We are at the crest of radical changes and a total reshaping of the process that we call education. More and more programs and educational materials are becoming available in electronic form; more and more teachers are preparing materials in electronic form; and more and more students are generating papers, assignments, and projects in electronic form. All of these come together in the electronic classroom. Consequently, it is important for teachers, current and future, and schools systems from K-12 to university to fathom the implications of the electronic classroom and to prepare themselves for the inevitable arrival of electronic education.

Innovations and Traditions

The Switched-On Classroom will incorporate both conventional educational processes and innovative new facilities only possible in an electronic environment. The classroom of the near future will be very different from the classroom today. Stone age tools such as the blackboard using one stone, chalk, to write upon another stone, slate, will be replaced with high resolution video projectors. Hardcopy books will be supplemented with and even replaced by electronic storage devices such as servers and CD-ROMs and read on video monitors and LCD panels. Libraries with shelves of books will be on-line as digital libraries. The test tubes, chemicals, specimens, and measuring devices used in laboratory exercises will be replaced with simulations that can be run over and over with no cost of materials or time or risk of hazards. Notebooks will be replaced with laptops. Exams and grades will be on-line. Even the walls of the classrooms may vanish as video conferencing and distance education break down the time and distance barriers.

But many things will not change. The human mind will remain wired in the same way. The human brain, still Version 1.0 Beta, will not be upgraded in the foreseeable future. The same needs and aspirations will be experienced by the students and teachers as in the past. The same interpersonal needs and skills must be understood and supported in the emerging electronic environment. Students will continue to learn and teachers will continue to teach. Some things cannot be replaced by technology; nor would one want to. As educators, we cherish the face-to-face interaction, the sense of group collaboration, and the presence of a caring teacher as role model, subject matter authority, and group facilitator. Instead educational technology will be used in the classroom to enhance and facilitate the same age old process of learning.

Even the educational materials may be very similar in the electronic classroom. The content will be the same but form will be electronic. The electronic classroom will not change the content of education but it will change the medium and in doing so it will enhance and enrich the learning and communication process. In Chapter 3 we will explore the technological innovations that make this possible.

Beyond the glitz of technology, it is the hope of educators that what will be truly different in the electronic classroom will be the solution to a number of age old problems in education: lack of motivation on the part of the students, lack of resources and materials on the part of the schools, lack of specialized abilities and expertise on the part of the teachers, lack of individualized instruction, and over worked teachers burdened by record keeping. The electronic environment has the potential to enrich educational materials by turning dry text into salient animation, vague concepts into visualizations, and rigid curriculum and bound books into dynamically accessible resources. With the increased power of computers and networks and at the same time falling prices, the electronic media will make available vast educational resources that will be cost competitive with printed materials. The human limitations of teachers and constraints on their time may be alleviated through the extensive use of individualized instruction using intelligent tutors, computer-assisted instruction, and classroom management software.

Goals of the Electronic Classroom

There are a number of pedagogical methods and models of instruction. These will not be belabored here. Rather the goals of the electronic classroom focus on the support of a wide range of instructional and classroom activities. The high level goals of the electronic classroom are as follows:

1. To provide a more interactive learning experience than is generally possible in the traditional classroom.

2. To provide interactive and hypermedia technologies during classroom interaction .

3. To increase student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction and collaboration.

4. To provide students with an integrated learning environment with access to hypermedia databases, telecommunications, and simulations.

One primary theme running through these objectives is interactivity, to involve the student actively in the learning process. The other primary theme is to enrich the educational environment. Hypermedia provides a way to bring text, graphics, audio, and video together; telecommunications opens up a window to the world; and simulations provide dynamic, graphic models of abstract systems and theories.

These technological objectives, however, should in no way obscure or take precedence over higher educational objectives. A good lecture devoid of technology may be necessary to engage students in a theme. Face-to-face, unmediated interaction may be necessary to drive a point home. Only when it proves beneficial should the instruction turn to the electronic media.

What is the Electronic Classroom?

The narrow view of the electronic classroom is that it is a room with computers and multimedia displays. The broader view is that it is an electronic environment that supports the many processes of classroom education. But to provide such an environment the classroom must have some combination of the following elements:

1. A computer workstation for the instructor.

2. A multimedia system capable of presenting a variety of types of information (e.g., text, graphics, animation, audio, and video).

3. A database of educational materials within the classroom.

4. A computer workstation for each student

5. A local area network that allows communication among all of the workstations, and the viewing and sharing of screen images.

6. A systems that provides storage, sharing, and transfer of documents.

7. A telecommunications system to link the classroom to external educational resources.

Figure 1 shows one possible schematic of electronic classroom. The actual hardware and software that delivers the environment may vary, but the key features are workstations for each person, networking among the workstations, classroom displays, and electronic databases.

Figure 1.1. A schematic of the AT&T Teaching Theater, showing the displays at the front of the classroom, the instructor's console, the local area network (LAN) and two students at each of the 20 workstations.

The fully integrated electronic classroom will have all of these elements and perhaps more. There will be many transitional and semi-integrated classrooms that will only be able to support some elements. For example, there will be (a) classrooms that allow the instructor to project multimedia displays and simulations during lectures but not allow the students to have hands on experience with the materials; (b) classrooms that provide workstations for all of the students but do not provide an ability to share results and display them to the class as a whole; and (c) classrooms that are integrated within themselves but are not networked to the outside world. In each case educators need to understand the enhanced instructional capabilities available through the technology and use them effectively in combination with traditional approaches.

The Electronic Classroom in Relation to Other Forms of Switched-On Education

The electronic classroom is one of several forms of the educational environment. Figure 1.2 shows the possibilities. The electronic classroom is "same time, same place" in the same way that the traditional classroom is. We schedule a room and a time, and we all meet for class. One may argue that it is the most effective environment for education and communication because we have all mentally and physically committed ourselves to a common window in time and space. We maximize the number and richness of the channels of communication and devote the maximum mental and attentional resources that we bring to bear. The electronic classroom builds on the traditional same time, same place model. Rather than replacing face-to-face contact, it supplements it by empowering the students and instructors with the additional resources of the computer media.

Figure 1.2. The range of possibilities for the electronic environment of education generated by varying displacement in time and place and the dimension of group versus individualized instruction.

Distance learning is not new. Instructional television, and its predecessor instructional radio, broadcasts a lecture to many students at different locations. It is "same time, different place" because although students can be distributed across the country or around the world, they must all tune in to the class at the same time. The richness of distance learning has increased dramatically over time to include two-way voice so that students can ask questions of the instructor and even to include two-way and multi-way video so that instructors can see the students and so that students at one location can see the students at another. Distance learning is also being supplemented with computer graphics and network exchange of files and information. Most, if not all of the electronic classroom that we explore in this book can be used to enrich the distance learning environment as well as the traditional classroom.

Distance education courses fill a very significant need for those that are in remote locations or whose schedules do not conform to set times for class meetings. Traditionally interaction has been limited to hardcopy media. Few would argue that correspondence courses are the ideal form of education. Nevertheless, they fill a very significant need for those that are in remote locations or whose schedules do not conform to set times for class meetings. Interaction is severely limited in the hardcopy environment and interaction is painfully slow with mail. Recently the time delay has been eliminated with electronic communication and the richness increased with computer multimedia. Materials can be transmitted to the students over computer networks; students can complete assignments and exams and transmit them to the instructor over the network; students can send questions to the instructor who can respond at a different time and send back the answer to the student; and students can participate in discussions and dialogues with their "classmates" by sending written electronic mail, voice mail, or even video mail messages to one another. The term "virtual classroom" has been used to refer to this electronic environment for education.

The "different time, different place" model also includes individualized instruction in which each student works at their own pace and according to their own interests and abilities. Computer assisted instruction using programmed learning or intelligent tutoring systems can be administered on demand at any location. Such systems are useful in the lower grades where students may need drill and practice or where the interactivity provided by the system helps to engage them in the material. At the other end of the continuum, "desktop" learning may be used in the workplace for training and advancement. An employee may connect his or her office or home workstation to an educational package at any time to work through materials and lessons.

Finally, the last cell in the space-time matrix, "different time, same place," reveals an undesirable situation that occurs due to lack of resources. It is the situation where there is only one resource that can be used by only student at a time. For example, the school that has only one microscope in the biology lab, one copy of a reference book in the library, or one computer in the language lab, but many students. It will be pointed out that many educational uses of computers in the classroom are stuck in this cell and consequently doomed to frustration and failure. One must schedule limited resources around the needs of the students. Hopefully, this cell will disappear as computer facilities and resources increase. Interestingly, when each student has unlimited access to a workstation, the limitations of other resources may disappear as well. Library resources that are on-line can be accessed simultaneously by many students. Laboratory equipment such as electron microscopes and spectrometers can be simulated by the computer and made available to all of the students any time, anywhere.

This book focuses on the electronic classroom of cell one. It is the most ideal and the most challenging from an educational standpoint. Distance learning, the virtual classroom, desktop learning, and other variations are all important and will be discussed at various points. Many of the developments in the electronic classroom will transfer to distance learning, and many of the exciting features of the virtual classroom and desktop learning will be used to supplement the learning process during nonclass time.

Educational Horizons

While this book may be aimed beyond the horizon for many instructors and many institutions today, much of its contents will relate to and guide the transition from the hardcopy classroom to the totally switched on classroom of the future.

In the course of this presentation we will look at creating and presenting multimedia lectures, engaging students through on-line activities and discussion, and providing collaborative tools for student projects. We will also consider many of the issues regarding (a) the design of the classroom, the computer hardware, software, and the instructional process; (b) the object of education whether we are teaching facts or comprehension, creating followers or leaders, or we are using exposition or construction; (c) the skills and abilities of the instructors and students in the switched on classroom; and (d) finally evaluations of the input, process, and outcome of education.


Ultimately, it is not a question whether to switch on the classroom. It will happen as surely and as inevitably as the electrification of every urban and rural community in the world. It is a question of being prepared and doing it right.

This book will consider many aspects of the electronic classroom, from the educational objectives to the design of hardware and software. It will present a prototype educational environment that will serve to meet these objectives while being easy to use.

It is generally assumed that learning will be facilitated using the powers of electronic environments. Empirical confirmation of this hypothesis is being published daily. However, it is recognized that it is with great cost in time and effort on the part of teachers and the producers of educational materials that this environment is created. It is the hope of this author and the goal of the electronic classroom of the future to make it easier to prepare materials, lectures, and to conduct class in the switched on classroom than in the traditional classroom. When this happens we will have arrived.

Exercises and Projects

1. Write a one page (200-300 word) scenario that illustrates your vision of education in the future. Compare yours with others in the class. In what ways do they differ? In what ways do they capture similar ideas?

2. Write a one page (200-300 word) scenario that illustrates your view of traditional educational processes. Compare yours with others in the class. In what ways do they differ? In what ways do they focus on common problems and/or common benefits?

Suggested Readings

Hiltz, S. R., (1994). The virtual classroom: Learning without limits via computer networks. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex.

Lepper, M. R., (1985). Microcomputers in education: Motivational and social issues. American Psychologist, 40, 1-18.

Merrill, P. F., Hammons, K., Tolman, M. N., Christensen, L., Vincent, B. R, & Reynolds, P. L. (1991). Computers in education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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