Technology Wars:

Winners & Losers

By Thomas L. Russell

Sequence: Volume 32, Number 2
Release Date: March/April 1997

Technology is not neutral, despite the fact that study after study has concluded that using it in the classroom neither improves nor diminishes instruction for the masses. The truth lies in the fact, often acknowledged but ignored, that students are not alike. Individual differences in learning styles dictate that technology will facilitate learning for some, but will probably inhibit learning for others, while the remainder experience no significant difference. Therefore, when lumping all the students together into a fictional "mass," those who benefit from the technology are balanced by a like number who suffer; when combined with the no-significant-difference majority, the conglomerate yields the widely reported "no significant difference" results.

A Multi-Technology Approach

We should, therefore, be looking at ways to isolate those who benefit from particular technologies and serve them accordingly. What is needed is a multi-technology as opposed to a uni-technology system. Ideally, once the appropriate technology or methodology for a specific group has been identified, the delivery of instruction would make maximum use of that technology.

To achieve a multi-technology approach to teaching, we must (after identifying the groups of individuals and their particular methodological needs) revisit many of the older technologies such as radio, television and videotapes to ascertain their viability for specific student populations. Rather than abandoning these tried-and-true instructional tools, educators must take the time to evaluate students' learning types, and match the technology used in their instruction accordingly. In the rush to embrace the new and admittedly often more exciting technologies, there has been a tendency to ignore the techniques pioneered by the earliest distance learning practitioners. In fact, there will likely always be a substantial number who can benefit from the earlier tools. Each of these tools has unique characteristics that can be used to tailor the lesson to the needs of the individual learner.

The value of interactivity - especially synchronous interactivity - according to comparative research is, at best, suspect. When one adds to the "no significant difference" results of such studies the cost and time/place inflexibilities, one must question many of the claims made for interactivity, especially with regard to adult education. The best thing many of the newer technologies have going for them is the public's favorable perception, based on media-driven hype, and the fact that the proponents enjoy a clear majority over the doubters. This is one situation where the perception has, in a sense, become the reality.

Challenging the Status Quo

An historical and research-based perspective would dictate that the new technologies take their place - not necessarily replace - alongside the older ones with equivalent effectiveness for certain students. Therefore the real challenge facing educators today is identifying the student characteristics and matching them with the appropriate technologies. This endeavor will require more research, but for now, suffice it to say that the truly objective observer would find it difficult to argue against almost any existing technology, based on effectiveness. Conversely, this same observer should recognize that newer technologies are virtually assured of achieving similar successes. Until any of the old or new technologies can prove their superiority through comparative research, it is best to look at other factors - student preferences, access, cost - as the principal criteria. The ideal distance educational world would then offer each course through a variety of equally effective modalities.

Last April, a letter was received from a recipient of the third edition of the No Significant Difference listing. He told of a posting on one of the principal listservs, which informed its subscribers that a key administrator at a major university had told doctoral candidates in the Adult and Continuing Education Program that they would no longer be allowed to pursue further dissertations on the subject of comparative educational outcomes between distance education and other teaching formats. The department chair added that he had ". . . long felt that such studies amounted to beating a dead horse." This is true. There no longer is any doubt that the technology used to deliver instruction will not impact the learning for better or for worse. Comparative studies, such as those listed in the No Significant Difference document, are destined to provide the same "no significant difference" results. So why do they continue to be produced?

Could it be that the inevitable results are not acceptable? When this listing was first compiled and published in 1992, it was stated that it was and continues to be folly to disagree with those who say that it is time to stop asking the question: Does the technology used to deliver instruction improve it? Clearly, it does not; however, it does not diminish it either. As far as learning is concerned, there is just no significant difference.

Questions for Educators

In the 1992 article announcing the availability of this listing, a number of issues were raised for further deliberation. The following questions are illustrative of the kinds of issues that must still be resolved among the distance education community:

1. Why are empirical research results ignored to the detriment of constituencies?

2. Why do professional educators embrace high-cost technologies when low-cost technologies work as well?

3. Why do administration and faculty - despite research results - perceive that distance education technologies, especially those without interaction, are inferior?

4. Why does interactivity achieve no better results in learning, when individual students and teachers believe that it does?

5. How can technology-based distance student dropout rates be improved?

In the 1996 edition it was asked if the latest computer-based technologies break the "no significant difference" pattern. If one doubts the validity of the "no significant difference" phenomenon, one need only look at some of the computer-mediated learning comparison studies listed in the January 1997 edition - Garson 1996, McClure 1996, Phelps 1991, Wilson 1996. These studies are only now beginning to surface.

The No Significant Difference Phenomenon listing will no longer be compiled when the futility of conducting such studies is recognized and their production ceases. Until that time, we must continue to push for acknowledgment of diversity in student learning styles, and the need to accommodate learners with a variety of technologies, rather than mindlessly hailing each new distance education technology as a boon to improving instruction. At that point, we should be able to focus on what uniqueness each technology brings with it and accept the fact that some students will learn equally well from each and every one, while at the same time looking at those unique qualities to resolve problems such as cost, access, individual differences, productivity and faculty resistance.

Many thanks to those of you who forwarded information on proposed studies for inclusion in future editions. Please keep them coming, along with any comparative studies which contradict the studies listed. For copies of the current (fourth edition) No Significant Difference Phenomenon as reported in 248 Research Reports, Summaries, and Papers, write to [email protected], or see <http:/-/>.

Tom Russell is director of instructional telecommunications at North Carolina State University. [email protected]

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