Making a difference

This is Part 4 - a continuation in my series on the history and impact of distance education. Yesterday in Part 3, we saw how the correspondence course could be adapted to deliver a full degree. In Part 4 we start to examine the technology behind distance education.

Considering its relatively small size and population, (and this is my personal view) the United Kingdom has contributed disproportionately to the rise of technology supported distance education over the last two centuries (Wheeler, 2005). But I would say that wouldn't I? I'm a Brit after all. The computer, one of the most vital distance education tools of the last 30 years, is generally agreed to have been most influenced by British mathematician Charles Babbage in 1821. Yes, I know that other Europeans such as Blaise Pascal and Konrad Zuse pioneered their own versions of calculating machines, but Babbage's method of calculation through the Difference Engine - which later became a programmable machine - was the innovation that provided the template on which modern computing is based.

Charles Babbage was raised in a well-to-do English family, and was a child prodigy. Historical accounts suggest that he taught himself algebra when very young, and developed a great passion for all things numerical. So, before he could be numbered with the greats, he had to be great with numbers (Stop it - Ed.). We even have a building named in his honour here at the University of Plymouth, which of course houses our school of computing and the open access computing suites.

It was inevitable that he would eventually follow a career in mathematics and in 1811 he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge. He became a greatly respected scientist and was honoured for his work when he was invited to become a member of the Royal Society. The story goes that one day Babbage was sitting in his study, holding his head in his hands, as he pored over reams of statistics. A colleague came in, saw him and enquired, ‘What are you dreaming of Babbage?’ ‘I was thinking’ replied Babbage, ‘that many of these calculations could be performed mechanically!’ They must have thought him a nut job, but Babbage was serious. Soon he began to take an interest in the notion of building a 'calculating machine'.

He eventually succeeded in building a prototype of his Difference Engine but his work was stalled due to lack of interest and limited funding from the British government and little support from his peers. Sadly, he died a bitter and disappointed man, having invested much of his life and personal fortune into an ambitious and ground breaking engineering project that showed little positive results during his own lifetime. His legacy and influence on modern life however, is profound and Charles Babbage is today acknowledged as the 'Father of Computing'.

The computer has extended its influence exponentially in the past few decades, and has advanced unrecognisably beyond the original notion of being a mere ‘calculating machine.’ It is now a very sophisticated tool for the development, storage, retrieval, delivery and transformation of data - it has the potential to enrich and extend educational experiences, and can provide students with a truly time and space independent portal to education. We must remember though that good pedagogy does not just happen because technology is being used. Good pedagogy takes place when teachers use technology appropriately and creatively. That is what can make the difference. We also need to know this: Such sophisticated and far reaching functions would never have been possible without the ability to issue instructions, or ‘program’ the computer. In Part 5 we will begin to explore this.

Reference: Wheeler, S. (2005) British Distance Education: A Proud Tradition. In Y. Visser, L. Visser and M. Simonson (Eds.) Trends and Issues in Distance Education: An International Perspective. Greenwich, Connecticut, USA: Information Age Publishers.

On Monday: Part 5: Catching a code

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David Hopkins said…
"We must remember though that good pedagogy does not just happen because technology is being used. Good pedagogy takes place when teachers use technology appropriately and creatively. That is what can make the difference."

This comes back to what I have always said; don't use technology because you can, use it because it is appropriate to what you want to do. This is what I call my "considered approach" to designing learning materials, assessments, collaboration, etc.
Steve Wheeler said…
My sentiments entirely. There is probably too much use of technology for technology's sake. The appropriateness of a technology should be premised on curricular and individual needs.

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