Change Has Already Arrived but We Don’t Know It, Yet

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

The problem with innovation is that we don’t see it unless it suddenly stops or disappears. You might say that its importance in our lives is indirectly proportional to its visibility. The more important it is, the less visible it is. It simply becomes a part of our lives, like the air we breathe and the earth we walk on, and we take it for granted. But remove it, and we’re suddenly painfully aware of our dependence on it.

A few examples will do: electricity, indoor plumbing, freeways, cars, the toilet, cable TV, broadband, wi-fi, passenger and cargo jets, container ships, oil tankers, cell phones, GPS, the internet, computers, super markets, malls, Starbucks, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

These are truly dramatic innovations, and they changed the world and our lives, but they pale in comparison to the greatest, the one that trumps them all by a margin so wide that it, too, is invisible — our triumph over time and space. It’s crept so softly and slowly into our lives that we didn’t notice it. It just happened, like the rising tide or the turning from spring to summer.

With this innovation, we can communicate with anyone in the world from any place in the world at any time, even while they’re asleep or busy doing other things. We can access nearly all the information in the world from wherever we are on this planet. And perhaps most importantly, we can publish and share our thoughts with everyone everywhere anytime.

We can point to a vast array of devices that help us to overcome time and space, and we can label these “the latest and the baddest” innovations, but we’re missing the forest for the trees. It’s really not the many but the one, not the gadgets but the idea that’s so amazing.

But ideas are abstract so they don’t get as much attention as the things they spawn. Maybe they’re just too vast for our myopia.

So we drool and swoon over things that we can see, gadgets, tools, and widgets such as interactive white boards and clickers that turn one-way lectures into engaged learning. And we ooh and aah over live chats, live video and audio feeds, and real-time simulations in animated virtual worlds. And we exclaim, “Why, it’s almost like the real thing!”

Experts who have turned brick ‘n’ mortar classrooms into interactive multimedia theaters with windows to the web are the new stars, the magicians, the heroes of innovation.

But are they?

Herein lies the problem. If we focus on the gadgets, yes, they are. But if we focus on the idea, they fall short. Way short.

In trying to squeeze the idea into the classroom, they’ve had to let some of it go so that “any time” becomes Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10-11AM and “any place” becomes the classroom. The rest of the idea simply doesn’t fit so they conveniently leave it out. And yes, the classroom includes windows into the virtual world, but both students and instructors view them from the time- and space-bound classroom.

Ironically, the stars, in their articles, presentations, and interviews, look with heartfelt sympathy at colleagues who are teaching completely online classes with asynchronous tools and text as their primary media. They see little or no innovation going on there, in the virtual world, that is. What a pity.

Some even admit to teaching one or two online classes, but they mournfully concede,  like Chico State professor Scott Brady, “I can’t bring everything to an online course that I can with a traditional course. One day I may be able to say, ‘Yeah, this is a seamless thing. [My online courses] are the same thing.’ But not yet.” And folks like Stacey Kennelly will nod their head in agreement and say, with a sigh, “Online education is here to stay. But re-creating the experience of a traditional classroom in a virtual environment is a tricky feat” (Kennelly, “The Good and Bad of Online Education,”, 19 Aug. 2010).

So the quest for more innovative tools must continue until there’s absolutely no difference between A and B: online is so similar to the traditional F2F classroom that you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. For innovation, this is the holy grail, the end all, the ultimate, the cigar!

Marc Parry, referring to the results of a survey (that I haven’t been able to find) re online instruction, says, “When it came to technology, the Eduventures survey found that the widely used tools are e-mail, text discussions that don’t happen in real time, physical textbooks, and word and PDF documents” (“Online Programs: Profits Are There, Technological Innovation Is Not,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 Oct. 2009). Keep in mind that this is a direct criticism of online instruction and its failure to be innovative. The image is meant to be dismal, sad even.

Parry, in a more recent interview with George Veletsianos, editor of Emerging Technologies in Distance Education* (July 2010), asks, “Do you really see much technology innovation in online courses? A recent report from Eduventures found that despite the buzz about Web 2.0, online programs are still dominated by rudimentary, text-based technology” (“The Open, Social, Participatory Future of Online Learning,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 Aug. 2010). Again, the implication is that online instruction is stagnant, suffering from a bad case of lack of imagination.

But is it?

OK, this is a rhetorical question. The answer is no, it’s not stagnant. To the contrary, online instruction, despite its “rudimentary” asynchronous, text-based communications is light years ahead of classroom-based, same-place, same-time, tech-enhanced instruction. The point is that when you’re already immersed in the medium of the internet, you really don’t need tools to peek into it. Talk of integrating the web or tapping into it is pointless when you’re already there.

Even with text-only communication media, online participants can communicate 24-7, whenever, from wherever. And this is the radically new innovation, this freedom from the constraints of time and space.

In the virtual asynchronous learning environment, students can log in at a time and from a place of their own choosing. They can read posts at their own pace, take as much time as they need to compose comments and replies. All the learning resources, including schedules, readings, guidelines, syllabi, and links to other sources such as videos are online. They can communicate with classmates and the instructor via email and class discussion forums. These are text-only, but this is the medium that online students prefer.

Online classes could easily include live synchronous text or video chats, videos, etc., but these don’t have the priority that they do in F2F classrooms. The reason is a simple one, that is, if you’re already immersed in the virtual world. They’re a bother. An anachronism. A carryover from on-the-ground learning environments. The benefits of anytime-anyplace far outweigh the benefits of communicating in realtime, in actually seeing the others.

The belief that F2F and synchronous is somehow superior to virtual and asynchronous is an assumption, based on conceptions of time and space that are now obsolete.

A week ago, Bert Kimura, who’s home from Japan for a couple of months, and I had a chance to talk F2F over coffee. It had been two or three years since we last met like this, but we’ve been in continual communication via the internet forever. At one point in our conversation, which he characterizes as a dialogue between two grown-ups with ADD, we touched on the possibility that the virtual world is no longer an option but a reality. That is, we no longer have the choice of whether or not we want to jump in. We’re already immersed in it, like it or not.

Since then, I’ve decided that, at some point, we, human beings, have passed through an invisible torii that separates the real from the virtual and are now completely immersed in the latter. But we haven’t realized it yet. The world has changed, and we’ve changed, and we can now reach out and be anywhere at any time, communicate with anyone whenever we want regardless of where we or they actually are on this globe. But this freedom from the restrictions of time and space is an innovation that we haven’t fully grasped. We will, though, in time, and when we do, we’ll never see the world in the same way again.

Update 8.22.10: It looks as though parents are at home in the cyberworld. Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto sociologist who is coauthoring a book on the impact of technology on families, says, “What we’re finding is that the Internet is just being incorporated into everyday life. There is no separate world in cyberspace. It’s just part of the everyday reality we deal with” (John Keilman, “Despite Some Blips, Most See Technology As Boon for Family Life,” Chicago Tribune, 22 Aug. 2010).

* See Claude Almansi‘s article, “‘Emerging Technologies in Distance Education’ ed. by George Veletsianos.”

17 Responses

  1. An important aspect, one of many, of this new world is the ability of students to learn at their own pace. It’s almost the definition of asynchronous. No longer locked into this lesson at that time and place, they can really learn. Some can speed ahead. Others take their time so that they truly understand what they’re learning.

    A corollary of this fact comes to mind. Learning to mastery becomes another great possibility. There’s no reason for anyone to get other than an A grade except that they simply choose not to. If effect, the students chose their own grades.

    Teachers find these possibilities nearly impossible to achieve in a traditional classroom. Yet, too many continue to seek to mimic their F2F classrooms online. They give lots of excuses for not changing over: loss of social involvement, inability to “read” students’ expressions, and so on.

    Yet, students today are used to online social interactions and have learned to avoid the worst parts of F2F social interaction, the sort that causes Columbines. And, isn’t it better to judge a student by work produced rather than by facial expression?

    The new world of education is better. Just as the printing press transformed education by making textbooks possible and the blackboard transformed it by allowing larger classes, this new electronic advance will also create great change.

    We’re only missing a few more tools or perhaps better tuning of those tools for educational purposes — and the retirement or conversion of the remaining holdouts in classrooms.

    Schools may not vanish in this new world, but they’ll look more like libraries, really big libraries that focus on providing learning resources, not necessarily books, to students. In wealthy communities, they’ll be superfluous, but in poorer urban areas, they can be zones of calm and of reaching for all that you can be. And, everything will operate through our new world of instant communication.

  2. “Schools may not vanish in this new world, but they’ll look more like libraries, really big libraries that focus on providing learning resources, not necessarily books, to students.” – Harry Keller

    Harry, this is one of the most intriguing comments I’ve read in a very long time. It resonates with me. It makes sense. I think you’re right. The best libraries already are moving toward this role. One of the tech specialists at my college may be writing an ETCJ article on the radical transformation of our library into a dynamic, connected learning resource center, and the move is evident in the way shelves and file cabinets of hardcopy material have given way to computer and networking resources.

    Students flock to the library, filling desks and tables with their laptops. There are convenient electrical outlets everywhere for them to recharge their batteries. The entire building is a hot zone for wi-fi. The place is abuzz with learning. This is in stark contrast to the buildings in the rest of the campus, which appear to be dead zones, especially when classes are out.

    As learning increasingly moves to the virtual, I really believe that the library will play an increasingly vital role, fulfilling its primary function as a center for 21st century learning resources. Unlike other support services, it will probably grow rather than shrink, and, as you predict, it will more than likely become the heart of the college as a learning enterprise as buildings and classrooms dedicated to F2F sessions are gradually decommissioned.

    Our library is beautiful. It’s spacious, carpeted throughout, well-lit, air-conditioned, and wired. And the staff has proactively anticipated the role of technology in learning and has transformed the library to meet that challenge.

    Here’s just one of many examples: I recently received an email announcement from a member of the library staff, offering online assistance to my online students writing research papers. This is an example of a learning service provider whose feet are firmly planted in the virtual world. S/he isn’t sitting at her desk, waiting for students and teachers to come to her, F2F, seeking assistance. She’s offering her services where the students are actually learning — online. -JS

  3. Jim, the students clearly value the electrical outlets in the library and the opportunity to recharge their batteries.

    And they value the “online assistance” the librarians are willing to provide.

    Is there much else–anything else–in that spacious and carpeted space that the students need and value?

    Might that “spacious, carpeted…well-lit, air-conditioned” and expensive space be another intellectual technology whose time has gone?

    Or: since the students have computers, might replacing that expensive space with a digital library be the next stage of academic evolution?

    You mention carpet and air-conditioning, Jim.

    But not books.

    Does the library still have a book budget, Jim? And are the students reading them?

    My hunch is that your description is accurate: the students come to the library to plug in their computers.

    And the students aren’t actually learning from the stuff on the shelves, but —online.


  4. Steve, as usual, you’ve caught me where my logic stopped.

    I love libraries. Big and small. In the early ’50s when TV was still rare, the library was the entertainment for school kids. The number of books we could borrow was determined by grade level. I still remember the stress in trying to decide which 2 I would borrow when there were so many good ones. When I graduated to 3 and 4, I thought I was in heaven.

    We were also restricted to the children’s or young adults’ sections. When I became an adolescent, this limit was excruciating. There were so many more tantalizing books over on the adult side!

    As a college student, I lived in libraries. If I wasn’t in class or out partying, I was in the library. Not just to study but to read the journals and newspapers and to explore the stacks for other subjects that were outside my area.

    For most of the courses that I took, I went to the library and read parallel texts or just followed up on interesting ideas that came up in class. I did all of my writing in libraries. Back then, we wrote on those long yellow tablets. When typed papers became the requirement, I still wrote by hand, first, then typed up the final drafts. The typing had to be done in my dorm room.

    I think libraries still have that allure for students today. It’s a magical place where people speak softly, walk quietly, and seem to be in communion with learning on a very personal level. And this is true even when there are few if any stacks filled with books.

    And librarians have that look that only they have — a sincere willingness to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. I’ve never met a librarian that I didn’t like. Maybe it’s because they’re all softspoken and excellent listeners — you never have to repeat the information they request.

    I think there will always be a need for libraries, especially on campuses that serve students who live close by or within short driving distance. They will, as you and Harry point out, provide learning support services rather than strictly book or journal services. Students will congregate there, too, to add a social dimension to their studies. And my guess is that libraries will devote a section of their floor space to a Starbucks type coffee and snack service that will add still another dimension to their value.

    Our library has a year-round cycle of exhibits in the lobby, featuring art, collections, etc. I can imagine students eventually exhibiting their art work and writings throughout the library.

    A nice feature at our library is small meeting rooms that are available to students working on group projects.

    But, Steve, you’re right that the little notebook computer or iPad-like device will increasingly become the Swiss army knife for learning, and the world and not the library will be its knowledge base. In this scenario, the librarians’ role will be that of guide, of experts who can help students find their way around the virtual global library of info. And they’ll provide this assistance both F2F and online in the same respectful, intelligent, and quiet way that we’ve come to expect. -js

  5. The little notebook, phone, ipad, tablet or whatever, is already everyone’s connection to the world knowledge base. Instruction is quickly being reduced to the pure assistance in mental imagery first proposed by John Dewey in 1897. In fact many of Dewey’s suggestions from his work “My Pedagogic Creed” are starting to materialize. It is now more understanding that is being conveyed by professors and not as much information. Declarative knowledge is the easiest to deliver on-line and procedural knowledge is closing in fast with animations and on-line simulations. F2F is simply a new kind of face as “facebook” itself so apply illustrates. Even on-line learning systems today are starting to realize they can actually help teachers to recognize the on-line equivalent of a blank stare, a passionate reply or a student who is virtually looking out the window. Innovations like real time interactive on-line white boards help attach new imagery to existing imagery and do it differently for every student if needed. Student to student classrooms are 24/7 and professors are there to incent, engage and align understanding where needed. As grades are traditionally only relevant to teacher’s expectations, I like to think on-line learning to mastery is more about real knowledge measurement, and on-line learning systems have taken great strides in putting the measurement into the hands of students where they have always belonged. Thanks Jim for setting the bar once again for those of us in the profession of providing on-line learning solutions. Your insight may be one of the greater innovations of our time.

  6. Hi, William.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments and kind words. In this one brief post, you’ve opened so many windows of thought that are fresh and new for me. I’ll be gradually exploring them in the days and weeks to come.

    I’m especially intrigued by your views on the potential of expanded roles for students in a VLE (virtual learning environment) that’s based on mastery rather than semesters, credit hours, and grades. Increasingly dynamic, self-directed, self-monitoring roles are not only possible but plausible in the VLE.

    We tend to think of technology when we discuss innovation, but you’re making me realize that, perhaps, the greatest innovations will be in roles rather than tools, and many of these role innovations simply aren’t possible in the traditional learning environment.

    On another note, I’d like to invite you to submit your thoughts to our journal, ETCJ. I see many possible article ideas in this one comment. As you can see, our style is informal and conversational, and aimed at making writing as easy as sitting and chatting with colleagues over coffee.


  7. Jim, you quote Stacey Kennelly:

    “But re-creating the experience of a traditional classroom in a virtual environment is a tricky feat”

    And that re-creation seems to be what Scott Brady is about.

    Is this notion of re-creation, of duplicating the lecture hall and the classroom online a commonplace: what many/most instructors are trying to do with the new technologies?

    If this is indeed so, ETC might take the lead in bringing back into the discussion the thought of Marshall McLuhan, who characterized this tendency as driving into the future looking into the rear view mirror.

    He taught us–or some of us–that each new technology begins by duplicating as best it can the older technology it is leaving behind: movies began by taking pictures of stage plays: actors emoting within the static frame of the proscenium arch.

    The movies, then, did not realize their potential until they abandoned the predecessor medium.

    Or: the new instructional technologies need to find their own genius, and that search begins by looking for new ways to teach and learn that grow out of the dynamics and energies of the new media.

    That means abandoning the notion that we use the new technologies to duplicate the forms of the old.


    • Great comments Steve. And how many silent movie stars actually made the transition from proscenium arch to wide screen action?

      Maybe technology is more like a language than a fact. Learning new languages is easy growing up and much harder as adults who already know a different language.

      I agree we are still producing mostly “cramming” style solutions that hopefully will allow invention to eventually drill through to a new, as yet unseen or unheard of application of a highly evolved technology. Movies outside of the theater did not really happen until cameras and lighting learned to move as well.

      Some day soon, I too hope we can abandon the notion that we only use technology only to build robots of the present rather than bridges to the future. We should probably start with a new lexicon. Why must we keep dialing phone numbers without a dial?

      Should classrooms become learning groups? Grades, knowledge measurement? Grade levels, progress trends? Could it be our words have staked both our thoughts and our actions to the past?

      Maybe new words could help to bridge the transition by making sense in both the old and new paradigms.


      • William, you ask “Should classrooms become learning groups?”

        Might it be that the “classroom” is a powerful technology–the technology that has shaped the form of education today, with its present use of time and space and organization of knowledge and its shaping of the roles of teachers and students?

        That is: the classroom is the proscenium arch of education, and it may be as difficult to marry the classroom and the new technologies as it was to bring together the movies and the theatre.

        The British Open University by all accounts does splendid work with 200,000 students around the world.

        It has no classrooms.


  8. Steve, McLuhan rocked me in the ’60s and continues to guide me today. (The fact that he was interviewed in Playboy didn’t hurt, either.) Here are some quotes that you’re alluding to. Yes, so much becomes clear when viewed through his “explorations”:

    “We impose the form of the old on the content of the new” (86; McLuhan, M., and Fiore, Q. with Agel, J. [1967]. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Random House).

    “The instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection. The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph” (23-24; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, Routledge, London, 1964).

    “When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future” (74-75; McLuhan, M., and Fiore, Q. with Agel, J. [1967]. The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Random House).

  9. Jim, I notice with mixed feelings how many apostles of the new technologies talk about bringing them into the old classrooms.

    Perhaps “blended learning” is the fond hope of marrying the movie camera and the proscenium arch.

    Or perhaps it’s a way of being “innovative” while resisting fundamental change.


    • Dr. Eskow. When I look at the work the classroom has done through the years and see world knowledge now doubling every 18 months, it is hard to believe such a small stream has created such a grand canyon. Yet, the great work of the British Open University has seen no classrooms. What do you think is the new name for the same energy? Do students come to class to hear a lecture or collaborate with peers? Do they come to collect new information or achieve understanding and purpose? Innovation implies successful change. Can one be innovative while resisting change?

  10. Steve,

    Your example and insight would be funny if it didn’t hurt so much. So much of our extremely limited funds are being poured into moonwalking plans — plans that appear to move us forward while keeping us in one place.

    Re new tech in old classrooms — the disconnect is in the new medium serving as content for the old — sorta like trying to log on to the internet through the radio.

    Other signs of disconnect are tech experts on campus relying solely on F2F workshops to teach staff how to work online.

    Or hugely popular conferences claiming to present the latest in education technology — in F2F venues.

    And electronic journals that continue traditions forged in the era of printing presses and snailmail — or online conferences that try to mimic F2F conferences right down to the smallest details.

    Why the moonwalk? Why appear to be moving forward while standing still or even moving backward?

    I think the problem is that incentive points backward. The challenge seems to be, Show us how we can stay where we are and still appear to be advancing technologically? And the reason for the moonwalk is, dare I say it, power — hard won in the old medium and, perhaps, obsolete in the new. -js

    • Railroad tracks are the width of two horses. Roman chariots made ruts that wagons had to ride in. Wagon builders made the first trains. For a while, automobiles were basically the same width for the same reason. The first cell phones had hand sets. The first computers had a “return” key in place of Enter. The list continues…

      Typically we just invent new with the parts we have laying around from the old. Cell phones first lost the wire and then the look. It took only a few generations to realize we could actually engineer the phone into the handset.

      Often however, our tracks get stuck in ruts we don’t know how to physically or economically engineer out of. Ruts of understanding and belief, but mostly ruts of fear. Ruts worn into the hardest rock of human acceptance over many many years. The tracks we have work so why change them.

      If we held an on-line conference that did not at least at first try to look like a physical conference, who would attend? Only when we realize people are attending, but not for the reasons we (and they) first thought, will we lose our fear of different and embrace new.

      I am not sure the moonwalk is as much about discovering moon geology, or political power, as it is about creating false necessity, or an innovation catalyst. Our challenge is to leverage the opportunity of the necessity and illustrate that to succeed, innovation must be accepted despite our fears. We have the chance to show how somethings must now be performed differently outside of our existing ruts.

      Necessity is the mother of invention, but it is also the mother of acceptance. Without acceptance, innovation fails despite good invention.


  11. William,

    You ask some very good questions. For example, “What do you think is the new name for the same energy?”

    I don’t think the name has ever changed. The stream that seeks the sea and the hand that reaches for innovation are following a natural course. For one it’s gravity, and for the other, it’s freedom.

    You ask, “Do students come to class to hear a lecture or collaborate with peers? Do they come to collect new information or achieve understanding and purpose? Innovation implies successful change. Can one be innovative while resisting change?”

    And my answer is freedom favors pull over push. The internet represents unprecedented personal power to exercise free will, to choose when, where, how, what, and why.

    We can try to contain that energy, that flow, try to stop it or force it into unnatural paths, but in the end it will flow around us and continue on its way. -js

  12. Jim, William:

    Perhaps the answer to the question,”Why do students come to class?” is that they have to: they cannot choose not to attend.

    “Blended learning” may be the explanation for the failure to date of the new technologies to improve education.

    Not faculty “resistance to change”, but the innovator’s resistance to change: the hope that we can somehow successfully “blend” the proscenium arch and the movie camera.

    Or the lecture hall and the computer.

    Like many others, I fall back on a few foundational ideas in my thinking and my work.

    One is McLuhan’s image of trying to drive forward while looking at the rearview mirror.

    The other is Winston Churchill’s summary: “We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.”

    If I was still teaching, and my basic situation was the lecture hall and the 20′ by 30′ classroom, I would make that building technology my focus, and bring in only a modest dose of the newer technologies, those that clearly supported and extended those of the building.

    And probably the apostles of the new technologies would accuse me of resisting change.

    And they would be right.


  13. I think you are correct. No choice yet. Plus we are in a transitional place where a f2f classroom at it’s best is often better than the online alternative at it’s worst. Students with a choice know this and choose accordingly.


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