Uncharted Territory: Exploring the Classrooms of Now

My elementary schooling occurred behind the confines of archaic brown bricks – erected by pioneers – within the countryside of southwestern Ontario. The classrooms, to accommodate for the transformation of rural communities into vast sprawling suburbs, were filled with students from differing grade levels. By the time the farmer’s acreage, where we played endless games of hide and seek, was paved over and filled with houses, my grade 3/4 classroom was introduced to a new classmate: a single, grey Macintosh Apple.

Ah, the days of standing in line at recess, pushing and shoving my way to the front of a flickering screen to play “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago,” or some spelling challenge centred at improving typing speed. These were days coated in a foggy naivety. It was an era before anyone was aware of the all-encompassing potential of telelearning – the incorporation of technology into the academic environment.

In the primary stages of the new century it has become evident that telelearning’s ever-expanding presence will serve to restructure the very classrooms that employ new technologies. Furthermore, classrooms themselves may be heading the way of the Commodore 64.

Imagine the possibility of receiving a credited university degree while never attending a single lecture, standing in excessively long registration line-ups, or getting embarrassingly intoxicated during frosh week. Throughout Canada, a multiplying number of students are making reality out of concepts that could have served science fiction writers fifteen years ago.

Students at the Canadian Virtual University – composed through a partnership of 13 separate Canadian universities – achieve degrees in over 250 programs via the Internet and distance education packages.

Prospective students of computer science and information technology can work their way through a degree from the comfort of their own bedroom should they choose to study at the Technical University of British Columbia (TechBC). A hangover of the British Columbian government’s “Access for All” initiative (a late 1980’s plan to alter curriculum to meet the needs of technological advancements), TechBC is, in their own words, “a career driven institute” that nurtures “enterprise learning,” and “also has programs for professional development, which is targeted at working professionals interested in enhancing their own career, or improving their marketability.”

While the myriad of telelearning initiatives pave new connections between students and a plateau of limitless knowledge, recent developments serve to orchestrate questions regarding the motives of the companies who father educational technology.

In his book “Stupid White Men,” Michael Moore notes that 8 million students in 12 000 classrooms watch the infamous Channel One news broadcasts. However, Moore writes that “out of the daily twelve minute Channel One broadcasts, only twenty percent of airtime is devoted to stories about politics, the economy, and cultural and social issues” while the remainder covers sports, national weather, and advertisements.

Moore is equally as sceptical of corporate educational initiatives such as that of ZapMe!, a corporation that provides free computer laboratories to schools in exchange for equipping each computer with “the ZapMe! Web browser [that] has constantly scrolling advertisements – and the company gets to collect information on students’ browsing habits – information they can sell to other companies.”

Telelearning is a multi-billion dollar industry unto itself – complete with profit margins and free-market competition – where the battle to get into the classroom can cost big bucks.

In the spring of 1999, Larry Ellison (CEO of Oracle) and his brother donated 500 million dollars to the creation of Knowledge Universe: an organization devoted to purchasing and inventing telelearning advancements. Oracle is such a mogul figure within the telelearning industry that it, like Microsoft, operates its own online scholastic programs.

At the MCSE Oracle Network and MOUS Certification Training Website, students can become certified in the countless applications that companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco Systems, and Novell currently offer.

Oracle’s online training exists through a partnership with several American Colleges including Northwest Technical Institute (Sacramento), Clark University (Boston), and Lincoln Tech (Allentown). Weaving the tapestry of schools, software applications, and high-tech companies is Oracle’s belief that “new software applications, the growth of networks, and the explosion of the internet and intranets make companies search out people who have acquired the skills necessary to compete in an increasingly global economy.”

Surprisingly, few governing guidelines dictate the amount of influence that independent telelearning companies are granted within Canadian Universities. In the 1999 Simon Fraser University study “Government Policy, Higher Education, and Telelearning Technology in Canada,” communication studies professors Brian Lewis, Richard Smith, and Christine Massey write that “policies driven by business and industrial interests have led to a general policy focus [that] has shifted away from cultural protection and the protection of public sector services towards Canada’s ‘competitiveness’ in a free market economy.”

With a loosely knit federal policy and fragmented, differing provincial laws, telelearning facets remain relatively ungovernable, leaving companies with the capacity to train future employees within the walls of Canadian Universities.

Now, add in the additional 30 000, hi-tech savvy students who are fighting for a fall space throughout Ontario’s Universities.

The phrase “double cohort” has violently manifested itself into the vernacular of Ontario. No one likes to utter the words and yet their significance constantly expands within the minds of every high school student, parent, and educator.

Dr. Hugh Munro, Director of the MBA program at the Wilfrid Laurier University School of Business (and father of a son who will graduate within the double cohort) envisions next fall’s freshmen as a technologically conscious demographic that will provide new challenges to outdated classrooms.

“We are not progressive enough. We haven’t gotten out of the classroom paradigm,” Munro explains as he stresses the importance of university faculties. “look at the way [new students] have been conditioned to learn … if companies are trying to transform themselves then why are we not responding in the same way?”

While universities must adapt to meet the needs of changing technology, Munro still sees unequivocal value within the traditional classroom setting. “Students learn a lot from an opportunity to engage with others, including faculty.” Dr. Munro pauses for a second and leans back in his chair. I glance at the pictures that line the walls of his office.

”Every parent with kids in the double cohort has felt some pressure for their children. This group, where they’ve experimented with the curriculum – with very little support – has been caught … but they are incredibly resilient.”

As I exit Dr. Munro’s office, I reach a grave realization: I have no understanding of the burdens that are bestowed onto today’s students. Our educational experiences share no common thread, no universal finality existing through acquired knowledge. I’m far from home, Toto.