Information & Communication Technologies Impact on Academic Curricula
Head of SE Department
Institute of Computer & Communication Systems
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
"acad. G. Bonchev" str. BL. 2, 1113 Sofia - Bulgaria
Although it has been a hot topic of debate for some time, the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in education is still far from a commonly shared point of view. The variety of opinions shows how sophisticated the issues are and that more efforts are needed to develop a common understanding. This paper attempts to identify, from a rather technological position, the key factors underlying the incorporation of ICT in education and to highlight what might be realistic expectations.
Today we are at a starting point, realizing how important it is to develop a global understanding on an international level among all of the key actors involved in ICT – learners, teachers, learning environment developers, information content providers, educational bodies – and agree on an approach to utilize ICT in education on a large scale. It is a well known fact that education is costly, and it is expected the ICT will not only add innovation, but will also propose cost-effective solutions. On the other hand, we cannot forget the lessons we have learned from previous attempts to use computing technology in learning, when we have failed to meet our expectations.
Are there sound indications that these technologies will now be coupled in a more flexible way with the needs and preferences of learners and educators? The answer seems to be positive, and comes from observations about the first steps of creating an information society. If we could look for a moment into the near future, we might see each of us working with an information Personal WorkSpace (PWs). Even now, many of us can identify our own PWs. It is your e-mail box and address, your ID and passwords to log in to different networked resources, your list of operational bookmarks to surf your favorite Web sites, your hard disk space - accessible remotely by FTP, - your personal Web pages, and so on. PWs is an abstraction of our day-by-day information needs. For learners, their studying and other activities will be nested within this model. They will work with PWs oriented towards their study needs, which is why we claim that learning can happen in any place, at any time. There are many examples where students already benefit from similar workplaces as users of universities’ networked environments.
The model presented here does not answer the question of how ICT should be incorporated and why it should be part of the education process it only talks about the facilitation of ICT. A deeper analysis is needed to identify the scope of ICT support for the educational process and what ICT possibilities currently exist. The power of ICT to support the educational process should be assessed from a variety of perspectives.
ICT System Perspective
The education process, together with its participants, has to be viewed as a complex distributed system contrasting previous attempts to model it as a software program or as computer-based teaching. After the invention of Web technology, the educational process started to be considered solely as Web-based teaching, but this is only a small part of the whole picture. It is the ICT options for communication and collaborative work, as well as multimedia-supported interactivity, which form the impetus for applying a system approach.
In recent developments, the education process is now considered as operating within a learning environment (LE) [1,2]. The LE is a sophisticated, socio-technical, highly distributed system. It is built on the top of ICT software and hardware platforms, and embedded in the surrounding socio-organizational medium. It is important to identify what causes the distributed nature of the LE. On one side are traditional technological sources, such as distributing computing power, using distributed client/server model, organizational distribution among distinct operational points, distribution of the software (in the sense it is being executed at a point different from its resident one, i.e., applet technology). On the other side, the LE is a node of a learning infrastructure which enables deployment and scaling [4,5]. The LEs are collaborating via the learning infrastructure and are part of the information society. The PWs is the personal interface of each learner to the information society. From the technological point of view the system approach to LE modeling allows us to incorporate recent object-oriented design technologies like CORBA  and DCOM . The design of complex distributed software systems is an open issue, and this is particularly true for LE. In the Instructional Management System Project (IMS) proposes a mapping of the system functional specifications on a design level where interchanges (data and control flows, communication, interactivity) are placed. In , an approach to mapping the functional specs on a set of system's layers operational over a layers' bus is explored. This research raises the question of what are the major advantages of the system approach to LE? Answers include:
A higher degree of separation within the design process than what can be reached with current technological solutions and tools;
A teaching methodology which builds a neutral system which allows enough room for a variety of teaching/learning styles;
A generic LE model with easy options for deployment and scaling, leading to a reduction in development, maintenance and other costs categories;
Strong support for establishing a trans-national learning infrastructure and fostering easier dissemination of the best practice experience.
Teaching Methodologies Perspective
This is the most highly debated of the various perspectives of ICT, as it is the juncture of the visions of all groups involved in the educational process. Very often the face-to-face (f2f) teaching in traditional classrooms is contrasted with distance education. A working approach could be based on the following points: i). ICT do not limit the use of a diverse set of teaching methods, and these methods are not dependent on technology. In other words, this point of view follows the understanding that technology does not generate learning by itself; ii). ICT could foster and accelerate learning so that this technology is viewed as a complimentary component of f2f teaching; iii). Following the incremental development of the information society, ICT will play an increased role in facilitating administration and management of learning/teaching; iv). The teachers' potential, when combined with the facilitating options of ICT, could reach new dimensions.
As a first approximation, the teaching model could seen in this flow diagram: the teacher transforms the collected information into knowledge and then transmits it to the learners (a feedback is also set up). This is a teacher-centered model that has now shifted to a student-centered model. ICT are certainly able to support such a model, assuming the educational process is personalized, and can even relate a unique curriculum to each student, taking into account his/her learning preferences and dynamically assessing the level of his/her knowledge and background. This idea is not new, but ICT are the way to provide a level of individualized teaching on a large scale and in an affordable manner. From the teacher's position, this means his/her knowledge-delivering activities are narrowed, and there is more room for concentrating on instructing and assisting.
The ICT implementation is subject-dependent and it should be very carefully determined if they could be implemented in a specific area. For example, ICT are quite suitable for teaching computer science disciplines. The PWs concept is an invariantly applicable abstraction. It does not depend on subject taught and could improve the organization and effectiveness of the learning as a process.
Learning Infrastructure Developments
For the sake of brevity, a set of factors are compounded in this section, although there is value in analyzing them separately in another forum.
There are no data concerning the number of on-line courses in the world presently. Some organizations predict that they will collect more then 10,000 courses, yet this number is snowballing. This stresses the importance of issues for hosting, cataloguing and manipulating the learning resources.
Learning Resources Repositories. A new, open information and interoperable model for the development of repositories which will house these learning resources is needed. A repository of such type will offer: i). A collection of ready-to-study materials (such as courses, case-studies, etc.) that could be incorporated in LEs; ii). Study components for building study systems that are individual units which can be incorporated into LEs to assist the teaching of a subject. These study components allow the implementation of different teaching methods and use different technological solutions in the learning materials; iii). A number of sets with multimedia objects to assist the design and implementation of the learning materials;
Classification schemes for structuring the learning resources stored in the repository should be developed and implemented using metadata mechanisms. A Subject gateways approach could be used for interoperability between repositories.
Copyrights and Certification. In a learning infrastructure where the learning resources will be highly mobile, a procedure for protecting a course author's copyrights is needed. These issues should be settled in the frame of the global Internet Content Regulation [10,11]. The certification of learning resources is targeted at working with validated materials as well as with operating with trusted ones. A technical solution for digital signing of the learning resources could be expected to rise from W3 Consortium Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) Recommendations .
Standardization. It is the right time to transform the understanding and preliminary expertise in this area into some guidelines and/or standards. Several important initiatives have been undertaken towards this goal: The Memorandum of Understanding from the European Commission Educational Multimedia Task Force (EMTF) , Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative of USA Department of Defense , National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII) of EDUCAUSE Association  as well as a number of others [1,3,6,9 13,14]. Standardization helps us to cut the future costs of learning resources development and to introduce a structure over the rather chaotic distance education domain. The education communities major concern with this standardization is that the teachers' capabilities for inspiring students, cultivating and fostering a learning climate, and inducing learning by perceptions could be lost in high-technology LE. It is true that standardization is a process with a dual nature. It could reduce costs by unifying approaches, stimulate the spread of the best practices for teaching on a large and international scale, and improve the quality of teaching (by giving more options to more learners). At the same time, standardization introduces a limiting framework so it is important to identify the right level for preserving the flexibility and diversity of teaching methods and styles.
Curricula, Credit System, Accreditation. A program or a course offered via a LE has to meet the same quality criteria as a similar one taught in a traditional f2f environment. There needs to be a new assessment of the set of activities that qualifies an on-line course as eligible for academic credit. There is no direct correlation with the set of qualifying activities like examinations, labs, etc., for a traditional course. In regards to the curricula, it is important to demonstrate that the curriculum's integrity could be reached within the LE. Another problem is to ensure that the curricula are recognizable within the particular LE learning infrastructure and to show that there are possibilities for this to be done at international level as well. Expertise gained in the development of students' mobility schemes within a universities' network, as well as this one on credit transfer schemes, will be extremely useful. New schemes and procedures for accreditation of institutions delivering on-line learning resources should also be developed.
Learning Resources Production. The educators are expecting that they will have at their disposal high quality learning resources which can be customized and which are interoperable over the set of LEs. The process of creating learning resources could be carried out only by common efforts of the educators, publishers and technologists. The key role will be played by publishers who should develop new capabilities not only to produce on-line learning resources, but also to distribute and manage them in a networked-based manner. A conflict of interests can be foreseen here. The publishers will be interested in closely following the dynamic changes of the technologies and pursuing a policy for quickly updating and rebuilding LEs. The educators' community and the education system as a whole are more conservative. As a consequence, more attention should be paid to training teachers.
Distance Learning Management and Technical Support. A new management model should be developed and implemented . Due to the enlarged number of learning options, the organizational structure will become more complex. The learners will need assistance which begins with pre-enrollment activities and ends with options for gathering their opinions on on-line teaching. The LE needs administration and co-ordination with the other activities of the educational institution, and as a technical system it should also have technical support. The situation in education is similar to that found in other public sectors influenced by ICT and their solutions could be adapted.
Streaming audio and video technologies also add new capabilities to ICT services over the LE [18,19]. A multimedia server could be use for: i). On-line illustrations of the material taught. The multimedia stream is delivering synchronously (live multimedia) or asynchronously; ii). The streaming multimedia delivery is combined with more traditional slides presentations of the topics being taught. A lecture supported by a set of slides is converted to a multimedia stream distributed over the LE; iii). The multimedia stream is embedded in the HTML delivering platform which allows new types of interactivity through the commands nested in the stream.
The technological options outlined above are very new (some of them are still a beta solution) but they are a solid indication that ICT could ensure quality support of LE.
Key Actors Perspective
For the purposes of the system perspective, the groups participating in the educational process are identified by their goals and the relationships between them. The goals are not fully coherent and could be conflicting, but at a higher level they tend to represent the main line of thought. For example, a LE has to be concerned with cheating.
The learners' expectations are related with: i). A mode of self-learning done at preferred time and place; ii). Easy access to more resources; iii). Following a personalized curriculum correlated with individual's background, goals and possibilities. Distance education is opening more options for rural regions and ones in countries with less well-developed education systems. The crucial points are how to have inspire the student comparably with f2f teaching and engendering sufficient and stable student motivation in the on-line learning process.
The teachers have the challenge of experimenting with new methods of teaching. They are realizing their role is changing and the accent is now shifted towards collaborative work and the interpretive role instructors play in discussion forums. The training of trainers is the critical point for this group, and the changeover to LE based teaching could take more effort and time than what is predicted.
The educational bodies will benefit from LEs capabilities to facilitate the management of the educational process. Information content providers and publishers may need to develop a new business. On the one hand, they need strong co-operation with teachers to set up the learning resources, design and develop new formats for electronic courses. On the other hand, they will rely on close relations with ICT tools developers.
Several initiatives have been undertaken at the national and international levels to highlight the ways distance education should progress [4,5,7]. The first goal is to develop a common understanding which results in a determination of users requirements and specifications for a reference LE. Specifications of this type LEs [1,2,6] are under development and implementation. The prototypes built will be used as test-beds for demonstration and verification of the underlying concepts. After a positive assessment the best LE practices should be disseminated and the creation of Groups of Interest should be encouraged. At the same time the guidelines, specifications and best practice results could initiate a process of standardization at an international level and aid the development of a trans-national learning infrastructure.